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2 Jun, 2019 14:20

Zizek: Only a pan-European left can defeat ‘populism’

Zizek: Only a pan-European left can defeat ‘populism’

After last week’s European Parliament elections has everything changed or has absolutely nothing changed?

There were some spectacular details, such as the crushing defeat of both main parties in the United Kingdom. However, these should not blind us to the basic fact that nothing really big and surprising happened. Yes, the populist new right did make progress, but it remains far from a prevailing trend.

We hear the phrase, repeated like a mantra, that people demanded change. But perhaps it’s deeply deceptive – because it doesn’t specify what kind of change?

Instead, it was basically a variation of the old motto “some things have to change so that all remains the same.”

The self-perception of Europeans in toto is that they have too much to lose to risk a revolution (a radical upheaval), and this is why the majority tend to vote for parties which promise them peace and a calm life (against financial elites, against the “immigrant threat”…).

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Thus, one of the losers of the 2019 European elections was the populist left, especially in France and Germany. Because the majority don’t want political mobilization. Rightist populists understand this message much better. So, what they really offer is not active democracy but a strong authoritarian power which would work for (what they present as) the people’s interests.

Nothing as it seems

Therein resides also the fatal limitation of Yanis Varoufakis’s Greek DIEM: the core of its ideology is the hope to mobilize the bulk of ordinary people, to give them a voice by way of breaking the hegemony of the ruling elites.

Even the success of green parties in the 2019 European elections fits this formula: it is not to be taken as the sign of an authentic ecological awakening; it was more an ersatz vote, the preferred franchise of all those who clearly perceive the insufficiency of the hegemonic politics of the European establishment and reject the nationalist-populist reaction to it, but are not ready to vote for the more radical left.

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In this regard, it was a vote of those who want to keep their conscience clean without really acting. That is to say, what immediately becomes apparent in today’s European green parties is the predominant tone of moderation: they largely remain embedded in the “politics as usual” approach and their aim is simply capitalism with a green face. We are still far from the much needed radicalization which can only emerge through a coalition of the greens and the radical left.

The lesson for the left from all this is: abandon the dream of big popular mobilization and focus on changes in daily life. The real success of a “revolution” can only be measured the day after things return to normal: by virtue of how the change is perceived in the daily lives of ordinary people.

Cautionary tale

Hence, the sad fate of Syriza is emblematic of the new situation of the European left. Set to lose power in the next Greek elections, it will paradoxically be allowed to play the role usually reserved for rightwing dictatorships.

In that it took power at a time of upheaval and economic crisis, and de facto destroyed grass-root popular mobilization (the original base of its power) while imposing tough measures of austerity.

Now that the job is done, it will in all probability lose power and the “normal” conservative party (New Democracy) will take over. This is our world today, a world in which rightist populists enact welfare-state measures and the radical left does the authoritarian job of imposing austerity.

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Circling back to the UK, its Brexit mess is not an exception but just the aggravated explosion of tensions which spread out across all of Europe. What the situation in the UK demonstrates is how, as Mao would have put it, secondary contradictions matter.

Corbyn’s mistake was to act as if the choice of “Brexit or not” is not really important, so (although his heart was with Brexit) he opportunistically navigated between the two sides; trying not to lose votes from either side. As a result, he lost them from both sides.

But secondary contradictions do matter: it was crucial to take a clear stance. This is, more generally, the tough question the European left is carefully avoiding: how, instead of succumbing to the nationalist-populist temptation, to elaborate a new leftist vision of Europe.

The threat does not come from populism: populism is merely a reaction to the failure of Europe’s liberal establishment to remain faithful to Europe’s emancipatory potentials, by offering a false way out of ordinary people’s troubles.

So the only way to really defeat populism is to submit the liberal establishment itself, its actual politics, to ruthless critique. The radical leftist new beginning is thus the only way to save Europe – but which left? Not the emerging populist left of strong nation-states but a truly pan-European left.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.