Greece and Europe Beyond Left vs. Right

Syriza, the Greek left party, won the election last Sunday and is now setting up a government in alliance with a rightwing, nationalist party, Anel. From a traditional perspective this left-right wing coalition sounds surprising, weird, and perhaps even worrying. However, this is not the first time this kind of trans-ideological coalition is formed within the European Union political system. Italy has had the last 3 governments (Monti, Letta, and now Renzi) with center-left and center-right party sharing power. In Greece, the previous government included both the socialist party (Pasok) and the conservative party (New Democracy). In Germany Merkel’s party CDU is now in government with the socialist party, SPD. At the EU level, the current European Commission is the byproduct of a grand coalition between the European People’s Party and the European Socialist Party. What is going on in Europe? Is the left vs. right cleavage still useful to understand politics?

The recent financial crisis has indeed brought a political epiphany. As a matter of fact, as a consequence of the economic crisis a number of national political systems have dramatically undergone significant changes. Popular support to traditional political parties, both of centre-right and centre-left, has declined consistently. New populist movements have emerged with vehemence. The main economic policies have been «externally decided» alongside with European and international institutions. Trans-ideological governing-coalitions have ultimately seen the light, with conservative and progressive parties governing together as pragmatic alliances in the name of the EU orthodoxy.

If we stick to the traditional paradigm Left vs. Right we will not be able to understand such dramatic transformations. Specific circumstances, contingent and tactical decisions or the constantly present «there is no other alternative» only offer partial explanations for such events. Events which might seem, at a first look, indeed contingent, spurred by a state of financial emergency, and therefore in the last analysis almost insignificant.

Reality is instead that in the age of globalization and regional integration we find ourselves facing a phenomenon that is difficult to be explained. The financial crisis is unveiling a new political constellation that can be hardly understood by drawing upon the old political categories of Left and Right. The concepts on which we have relied to make sense of the political reality of much of the 20th Century are now emptied of their heuristic force.

A better perspective to capture these political transformations relies on adopting a new fundamental cleavage. While in the past the political competition was about Left and Right claims, nowadays the fundamental cleavage pivots on the tensions between supranational integration vs. national preservation of economic, social and in last analysis political dynamics. It is in fact by referring to the political positioning on policy issues that are central to the concept of globalization, such as markets’ integrations, sovereignty limitations, participation in regional organizations, acceptance of supranational orthodox policies and to the adoption of universal standards, that we can best understand the present-day political dichotomy.

It is precisely in a moment of crisis as the one we are experiencing in Europe that the debate on these fundamental issues re-opens. And it is in this moment that it is easier for us to realize the fundamental dichotomy characterizing our political system. During the current financial crisis, the political debate has in effect moved from secondary issues to macro-economic and macro-political issues that have much to do with the positioning of the country vis-à-vis global and regional integration. In such a way, the politico-ideological frame has indeed dramatically changed.

From this perspective what was unclear becomes crystal-clear. The political parties that have supported the grand coalition governments in many countries in Europe, regardless their ideological affiliation, are parties that share a pro-globalization attitude. With minor differences, they agree with complying with European and international standards on good governance, even in case this means giving up a part of their national sovereignty and paying high social costs. Political and economic integration is considered the default position that promises widespread gains in the mid-long term.

By contrast, the parties at the opposition of these governments are all localist. Notwithstanding the substantial differences of their ideological positioning, they share the principle according to which the local context should have the priority. They share the suspicion and the hostility towards any process which, in the name of supra-nationalism, dismantles the context of rooted participation. Political and economic integration is here seen as a project guided by technocratic elites which in last analysis benefits the centers of transnational power weakening and depleting the local contexts. From such a perspective, the more we delegate power supranationally, the less we will be able to democratically control it.

The fact that centrist globalist governments are more popular tells us something about the political hegemony of globalism over localism. Such a distribution of forces is not however something that we have to assume in a static way. This situation can easily evolve: the recent elections for the European Parliament in last May and the ones in Greece suggest perhaps a change of direction. Politics may change as much as it was different in the past: Think for instance about the much different role and weight that localism and nationalism had in Germany and Italy during the 1930s.

Politics is revealing the deep meaning of its political cleavage. In normal times, not times of crisis, such fundamental cleavage is perhaps more difficult to be detected because it taken for granted and therefore not discussed: politics usually plays on a simpler game field. However it is in moments of crisis that such fundamental cleavage emerges. In those moments we can better understand the contours of the political frame of numerous political systems and thus understand what politics is truly about in the age of globalization.

Raffaele Marchetti

università guido carli

This article was published on 22nd March 2015, for the World Water Day, in Global Education Magazine.

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