Pundits rightly mock Theresa May’s promise to deliver “strong and stable” leadership amid the Brexit chaos. Yet she’s not the only European ruler facing a crisis. Germany and France are far from “strong and stable”.
Germany’s Tory chancellor (prime minister) Angela Merkel effectively stepped down at the beginning of December. And French president Emmanuel Macron is running to make concession after concession to the Yellow Vest movement.
While the crises facing May, Macron and Merkel all have their specific triggers, they are not discrete.
The European ruling classes’ response to the global capitalist crash of 2007-8 was austerity. Conservative and Labour-type leaders all accepted the neoliberal prescriptions—slash public spending, open up services to more privatisation and hold down workers’ wages.
By squeezing workers, they hoped to restore profitability and make us pay for the bank bailouts. But despite widespread pain for workers, austerity has failed to solve the crisis—global growth remaining sluggish ten years after the crash.
And the liberal “centre” ground is facing a serious challenge. In many parts of the world people are in revolt against those at the top of society.
This sort of anger at the 1 percent can cohere around socialist politics as we’ve seen with the advance of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in Britain.
Often, it’s much more contradictory.
So the Brexit vote was partly a vote by poor people to kick the establishment, not simply characterised by racism towards migrants.
Yet both the official Remain and Leave campaigns scapegoated EU migrants, which encouraged a right wing atmosphere in society. And the left—including the once Eurosceptic Corbyn—lined up behind the neoliberal EU as the only alternative to the right.
It is still unclear where the anger and bitterness that led to Brexit will go—so how the left responds is crucial.
The majority response from liberals is to rewind to before 2016—when David Cameron and George Osborne were in charge. And unfortunately some left wingers have fallen for the fallacy that the only way to stop the far right is to prop up the liberal “centre”.
This was characterised by a Guardian newspaper article in defence of its former poster boy Macron. John Henley wrote that the Yellow Vest revolt “represents a formidable challenge to the authority of the centrist president”.
Then he declared that “not just France but Europe should hope” that Macron’s concessions “will prove sufficient to quell the destabilising anti-government protests”.
The Yellow Vest movement in France—which could spell the end for Macron—involves people with a mix of contradictory ideas.
The far right understands that politics is in crisis and that they can gain from this.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s racist interior minister, tweeted, “The left behind, the thousands of honest people massacred by the French government, are now on the street.”
Far right fanatic Steve Bannon—who is trying to coordinate Europe’s far right—also saw the potential in Macron’s crisis.
“The Yellow Vests are exactly the sort of people who elected Donald Trump and voted for Brexit,” he said.
Henley’s prescriptions would boost the growth of the far right and racists.
There was massive pressure on the French far left to uncritically line up behind Macron in the presidential run-off against fascist Marine Le Pen.
That would have put it in a much weaker position to try and shape the Yellow Vest movement, which Le Pen has tried to champion.
Similarly, Corbyn lining up behind the big business-led campaign to remain in the EU would be a gift to the far right.
The liberal centre is not a bulwark against the far right—it is the enemy of the left and working class people.
The left should put the case for socialist transformation. That means fighting the liberal centre, not lining up behind it.