Friday, December 4, 2009

The crisis of the left, Part 13,267: Where's the patient?

The funniest thing dropped into my inbox today. I think it might contain the answer to a puzzle I've been pondering for a while: why the left is in decline at the very moment that right-wing ideas about the beneficial effects of liberalization have been challenged, shall we say, by indisputable facts.

The email in question announces to interested parties something called The Amsterdam Process. The Amsterdam Process has the ambition of bringing about nothing less than 'The ideological renewal of European Social Democracy – A new revisionism for the 21st century'. It correctly diagnoses that 'European social democracy is in desperate need of a period of ideological renewal' and proposes 'a new and ambitious process of reflection and strategic thinking'. So, what's wrong with that?

Well, what's wrong with it is the participants. Nothing personal of course, there are plenty of clever people with sound progressive values involved. The problem is that 'ideological renewal' is to come about through an entirely elitist process. The document reports that the Amsterdam process was 'launched and conceptualised at a high-level brainstorming session (...) which brought together distinguished academics, policymakers, political leaders and thinkers from across the European centre-left'. It will proceed by 'bring(ing) together an “avant-garde group” of individuals and organisations', 'seek the direct involvement of senior experts and policymakers from countries outside Europe' and 'publish a series of research papers and edited volumes which aim to inform the debate among key stakeholders on the centre-left'.

Surely there is something missing from this project? Let me think.... Ah, yes. The people. The people - the electorate and potential electorate of the left, are simply not included, or even mentioned, in this proposal. There is a recognition that 'the root of the problem is the ideological vacuum the crisis has exposed in European social democracy, alongside the low levels of trust in centre-left parties and in their governing ideas', and the document states that 'this vacuum cannot be filled by any tactical re-positioning, questioning of leadership or any other short-term fixes'. But the network proposes to address this without any engagement with what in the previous century we might have called 'the masses'.

I think this tells us a lot about what has happened to the left in Europe. 'Stakeholders' - presumably trade union leaders, policy wonks and political professionals - are supposed to sort out the debacle created by... (you can fill in the rest). Very reminiscent of the way in which bankers are being handsomely paid to clear up the mess they made.

Socialism emerged in Europe through mass movements. Sure, there were intellectuals and there is no political movement without ideas. But now, the producers and consumers of ideas appear to be entirely removed from the everyday lives of voters, and in no mood to engage with them. Social democracy has become an elitist project. And elitist projects can't generate mass support - at least, not with progressive ideas.