Brexit and the Failure of the Third Way

I recently picked up a handful of second hand New Left Review journals in a local bookshop, varying in date from 1977 to 2000. They include a number of interesting articles, but following the referendum campaign in the UK and the impact of the populist right “Brexit” campaigners I found this short piece by Slavoj Zizek from 2000 on Jorg Haider especially relevant.

Jorg Haider was an Austrian politician who died in a car accident in 2008 – eight years after Zizek’s article – having lead the far right Freedom Party to significant success in Austrian elections, reaching 27% of the vote and joining the governing coalition in 1999.

Zizek uses Haider as a starting point to critique “third way” politics prevalent in 2000 and exemplified by Jeffrey Isaac in another article in the same edition of New Left Review where he argues that it is no longer possible to reject capitalism. The best that can be hoped for is an accommodation. That “coming to terms with capitalism” is both inevitable and desirable, and that left politics should focus on pragmatic problem solving.

Zizek argues forcefully that this approach in fact represents:

“social democracy purged of its minimal subversive sting, extinguishing even the faintest memory of anti-capitalism and class struggle”.

Zizek theorises that politicians of the centre need a radical right in opposition – something to build a coalition of democratic forces against, something to unite the rest of politics against. It is this that allows them to monopolise government. A strategy that is specifically designed to neuter the radical left, to prevent any attempt to challenge the system in the interests of the masses.

“The result is what one would expect. The populist Right moves to occupy the terrain evacuated by the Left, as the only ‘serious’ political force that still employs an anti-capitalist rhetoric”

Sixteen years after Zizek wrote this article, the Labour vote in Scotland collapsed, the Brexit campaign succeeded in attracting disaffected working class voters across wide swathes of traditionally Labour voting areas, and the Labour Party itself is on the verge of falling apart. All the while with a growing right wing insurgency, culminating in the openly racist referendum campaign.

As Zizek predicted then, the third way has turned out to be a dead end for left wing politics. It has developed a political class which has more in common with each other than with many of the people they are supposed to represent. As Rafael Behr points out in his dissection of the failure of the Remain campaign, Labour and Conservatives worked together in the push to stay in the European Union and felt far more in common with each other than might be expected of those supposedly on opposite sides of a class struggle:

“over the course of the campaign, the most senior remainers found collegiate sympathy in a shared world view. As one put it: “We were the pluralist, liberal, centrist force in British politics.” Pro-Europeanism became a proxy for the fusion of economic and social liberalism that had been a dominant philosophy of the political mainstream for a generation, although its proponents were scattered across partisan boundaries.”

But this world view simply is not shared by a large portion of the electorate that have seen their standards of living held static or decline in the name of maintaining global capitalism. Worse, this political class has driven a narrowing of the “Overton Window” of political discourse which has essentially made only one choice available, no matter who you vote for. As Zizek points out in his article:

“The consensual form of politics in our time is a bi-polar system that offers the appearance of a choice where essentially there is none, since today poles converge on a single economic stance”

It seems clear that the vote for Brexit is a revolt against this political class and the consensus form of politics that has been created. It is a revolt however that raises questions about how it can be expressed when the parties on the left have abandoned the field. The victory of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump suggest that the radical right are successfully exploiting this discontent.

The shift to the right will only be addressed when the modern left finds a way to express this discontent, providing a real alternative to the single economic vision offered by the mainstream political parties. Until then government remains in the grip of an increasingly discredited centre which both pushes dissent to the right and uses it to create the illusion that “there is no alternative“.

This edition of New Left Review is number 2 of the second series from January-March 2000 and was therefore written at the height of the ‘Third Way‘ debate.

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