by Chris Maisano
Democratic Left - Summer 2012
In the last issue of Democratic Left, Norman Birnbaum, the distinguished academic with a keen eye for European affairs, looked into the future and saw what he called an “asocial Europe” staring back at him. The tone of the article is deeply pessimistic. He concluded, “the socialist and social democratic compromise with capitalism no longer works: the new capitalism renounces welfare.”
The last few years have given us all the evidence we need to recognize the veracity of Birnbaum’s claim. Since the financial collapse of 2007-2008 and the grinding recession it left in its wake, European political and financial elites have taken advantage of the turmoil to impose a savage austerity program on the peoples of the most financially distressed countries in the European Union – Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and above all, Greece, where a book of “starvation recipes” reminiscent of those popular during the Nazi occupation has become a publishing sensation. Of course, this program has not solved the crisis. It has only deepened it and allowed it to spread, threatening the project of European integration itself.
The spirit of revolt that was born last year in the Arab Spring and caught by the throngs who occupied the state capitol in Wisconsin, the public squares of Spanish and Israeli cities, and the citadel of Capital itself in a tiny park in lower Manhattan, has finally made itself felt at the ballot boxes. After a campaign in which he declared war on austerity and the world of finance, François Hollande defeated Nicolas Sarkozy and captured France’s presidency for the Socialist Party for the first time in 17 years (and only the second time in the history of the Fifth Republic).
At the other end of the Continent, Greek voters put an end to not only a particular government, but an entire political regime. The center of Greek politics collapsed under the weight of social crisis as voters flocked to anti-austerity parties on the Left – particularly Syriza, the coalition of the radical Left that emerged as the clear winner of the election – and the Right. The Greek situation was incredibly fluid and ambiguous as we went to press, with the inability of the leading parties to form a stable coalition government pointing toward new elections in the very near future. But if Syriza can broaden its base and marginalize a growing threat from the far Right, the Greeks might strengthen the hand of anti-austerity forces everywhere and show the world that the exit from the crisis is on the Left.
On this side of the Atlantic, the contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney offers no prospect for a similar radical breakthrough in the electoral arena. But as DSA Vice-Chair Joseph Schwartz argues in his comment on the election, an Obama victory would likely result in a more favorable political terrain for the further growth and development of the social movements we need to change American politics.
In recent weeks, two issues have emerged as focal points in the campaign: student debt and women’s reproductive freedoms.
Student debt is on the agenda in no small part because of the rising tide of protest among students and young workers on campuses and in the Occupy movement. Young Democratic Socialists (YDS) activists have been on the front lines of the struggle, and YDS National Organizer Andrew Porter reports on their activities in this issue.
Since the Republicans swept the 2010 midterm elections, they’ve launched an all-out offensive on women’s rights that have restricted reproductive freedoms and cowed women’s ostensible representatives in the institutionalized feminist movement. New York-based YDS activist Amber Frost takes them on and makes the case for a bold and unapologetic socialist-feminism. “From resistance to counter-offensive, however, is a leap not yet taken.” That’s how Birnbaum concluded his assessment of our political fortunes. I agreed with him at the time, but I don’t think I’m still with him now. We’re poised at the edge of resistance, knees bent, getting ready to finally make that leap. Whether we land on our feet, however, is another question.