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Geopolitics

Tsipras, Corbyn, Sanders: Rise Of The Pull-No-Punches Left

And watch out for Pablo Iglesias, leader of Spain's leftist Podemos party.

Tsipras, Corbyn, Sanders: Rise Of The Pull-No-Punches Left
Alain Frachon

-OpEd-


PARIS — Self-proclaimed "Vermont socialist" Bernie Sanders was the first to hail the victory of ideological confederate Jeremy Corbyn across the ocean in London. But others soon followed suit after Corbyn, who's been described as "hard left," won the Labour Party's leadership vote hands down. Speaking from Madrid, Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Spain's radical-left party Podemos, said he was pleased by this "step forward in Europe." In Athens, the Syriza party led by Alexis Tsipras welcomed the news as a "message of hope."

The British lawmaker's rise is part of a new wave of political success for populist, liberal parties, not just in Europe but also in the United States. Call it the Western march to the left.

But each situation has its own specificities. Senator Sanders, 74, refuses any donations above $40 and suggests forcing Wall Street to its knees with strong fiscal pressure. Crowds flock to see him, and his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination is proving to be a real thorn in the side of presumed frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

At 66, meanwhile, Corbyn is resolutely defending the Labour program of the 1970s: He calls for nuclear disarmament, renationalizing part of the British economy, taking one step back from NATO and the EU, and is ever ready to unleash harsh criticism of U.S. foreign policy.

The surprising rise of Corbyn and like-minded lefties are a threat for center-left "government parties," the same ones that at various times were called upon to lead their countries after the 2008 financial crisis. They include the New Labour party in Westminster, the Pasok party in Athens, Spain's Socialist Workers' Party and the French Socialist Party.

Not one of these mainstream center-left formations has emerged unscathed. They tried to keep their massive debts in check in a context of chronically weak economies. And now they're being beaten by unapologetic progressives who mean to wring austerity's neck (debt isn't a priority) and who want to make major financial institutions accountable for the 2008 crisis, for which not one of Wall Street's big names has been punished.

Challenging free trade

The profile of this new left varies from country to country, given unique characteristics of each political situation. But all offer well-argued criticisms of free trade and opposition to major trade liberalization treaties put forward by President Barack Obama (the Trans-Pacific Parntership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). These movements strongly believe in governmental capacity to manage the economy, regardless of the economic revolution and globalization of trade.

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Tsipras listens in. Photo: Matthew Tsimitak

The new left also sees current migration flows as something positive, and have found an unlikely economic brother-in-arms in Pope Francis, capitalism's sworn enemy.

What's attracting voters, however, may be less about ideology itself and more the people promoting it. Despite the differences in ages and careers, Sanders, Corbyn, Iglesias and Tsipras all share a bonafide dose of sincerity and authenticity. None is dependent on any economic lobbies or pushed to compromise their beliefs. They've had the same political views all their lives, and they don't betray their creed, unlike the more traditional politicians who are used to being in power and to abandoning certain principles and campaign promises once they take over the reigns of government.

But why is this movement only gaining traction now, rather than in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crisis? Alexis de Tocqueville would note that it's precisely because the economy is starting to turn the corner. "It is then that a bitter sense of unequal distribution of rewards becomes potentially incendiary," historian Simon Schama recently wrote in the Financial Times.

The left of the left believes in the mute but very real anger provoked by globalized capitalism, where more than 30 years of growth have only multiplied inequality. Societies in which 10% of the population owns 50% of the national wealth just aren't going to feel effectively represented by center-right or center-left parties. They will instead vote for radical change.

But once it holds power, the radical left must grapple with an economic reality that reveals its true complexity and, often, its autonomy from the state. Promises and muscular demonstrations of political will have their limits.

Tsipras, whose own contradictions are more to blame than a Berlin-based conspiracy, was the first one to be tested. And though Syriza's victory this week in Greek elections have put him back in command, Spain's Pablo Iglesias wants to learn from the challenges leftists have faced in Greece once in power.

It's no use "creating a parliamentary group that just repeats how abject a system capitalism is," the Podemos leader recently told French magazine Politis. "To govern is to face the reality, and that's more difficult."

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