Michael Kazin: The ‘Indignants’: Can They Save the European Left?

Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University. He is the author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, which will be published in August.

For pragmatic and institutional European leftists, this is the worst of times. Their parties govern just two nations – Spain and Greece, both of which are crippled by huge deficits and double-digit unemployment. They grumble, cringe, and eventually acquiesce while pensions, health benefits, and jobless pay are slashed. They seem impotent to stop the rise of charismatic xenophobes on the right—like Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front—whose working-class base used to vote for Socialists or Communists. Not since the fascist triumphs in the 1930s have the architects of the secular welfare state been so downcast and beleaguered.

Moreover, the left parties tend to be led by politicians who believe that managing the current crisis is all they can or should be doing. In Spain, Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero responded to the economic shock of 2008 by ignoring Keynesian theory and cutting back collective bargaining, reducing the pay of civil servants, freezing pensions, and increasing the retirement age from 65 to 67. “Let those who caused the crisis pay the bill,” protestors demanded. But Zapatero rejected advice that he raise taxes on the rich. Unfortunately for him, Keynes proved to be right. Since the crisis began, the unemployment rate has doubled, and faith in the left’s ability to govern has plummeted. In late May, the Socialists were drubbed in regional elections and will undoubtedly be back in the opposition after national elections take place next spring....

But the anarchists that Orwell fought alongside were working-class men and women, poor people struggling, he wrote, “to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine." The indignados, in contrast, have grown up in a prosperous, consumer society that suddenly has no need for their labor. Youth unemployment in Spain is close to 50 percent. And although the occupiers hope they have touched off a radical insurgency, they are most likely engaged in what, back in the 1960s, would have been called a political “happening.” They need mainstream support, which, so far, is nowhere to be found....

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