Elections for the European Parliament begin Thursday and predictions of doom and gloom are the order of the day. And why not?
This is, we are repeatedly told by the news media, the era of right-wing populism when the demons that were so long assumed to have been vanquished in 1945 come back in a sort of down-market version.
The European Union already has a significant democratic deficit, even in the opinions of its most passionate defenders (German philosopher Jürgen Habermas to take the most obvious example).
Now, with scepticism toward politics at the supranational level seeming to be the central grassroots issue, it is hard to imagine any result other than that of hard-nosed nationalists with a brief to bring the Union back in line with some version of national sovereignty.
There are lots of reasons to concede this point, not the least of which is the propensity of today’s voters to become hypnotised by things that are loud and shiny.
How else to explain the readiness of Britons to choose to leave the Union on the basis of risible claims about funding for the NHS touted on the side of a bus.
At a broader level, politics has gone to the endpoint of the warnings first voiced by Habermas in his now-legendary 1962 book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, about the decline of parliamentary politics in favour of authoritarian figures, like Matteo Salvini.
Party politics, in the German philosopher’s post-Hitler anxieties, get superseded by something akin to the direct democracy of today’s populists: an immediate relationship with political leadership, but one that’s more about self-aggrandisement and spectacle. Sound familiar?
The EU has problems, many of which are of its own making. It never fulfilled the promise of more democratic structures of earlier decades and, as a result, tends to appear as if it is being strangled by a sclerotic bureaucracy run by soulless technocrats even when this isn’t the case.
The Union’s performance during the financial crisis that began in 2008 provided more grist for the eurosceptic mill.
The European Commission’s dithering in the face of the imminent collapse of the banking systems in Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland, and Portugal, gave the impression that the Union was institutionally responsible only to finance capital and the Bundesbank.
But neither did its actions convince creditor nations that it was anything more than a medium for transfers to physically irresponsible states.
Yes, the prognoses of disaster are not far to search for. Imagine what might happen if the European electorate voted on behalf of its economic interests rather than accepted the promises of populist politicians that a return to greatness can be achieved if only the oppressive yoke of Brussels can be thrown off.
Germany is the obvious first point at which to begin. The rightward shift in German politics is one of the most alarming features of modern European politics.
One might have hoped that perpetrating some of the most spectacularly horrific crimes of the preceding century might have inoculated Germany against the blandishments of populism of the right.
However, the rise of Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) and its more troglodytic cousin, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (PEGIDA), illustrate the degree to which such hopes have foundered.
At the level of domestic politics, the central concern of German politics is whether the governing Christian Democratic Union (CDU) can maintain its base of support, or will hysteria about refugees and multiculturalism cause it to keep bleeding votes to the far right.
Perhaps even more alarming than the difficulties of the CDU is the fact that Aufstehen, the new movement on the left of the German political spectrum, founded by Die Linke’s Sahra Wagenknecht, embraces a lot of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the parties of the right.
This reflects a truly remarkable degree of superficiality in terms of political analysis, assuming that the more populist (i.e. anti-elitist) sentiments of the German electorate can be accessed via a downpayment made by flinging vulnerable refugees under the bus.
Yet, there is no reason to think that German voters might not choose to embrace a more civilised approach, plumping instead for groupings like Bündnis 90/Die Grünen or Die Linke.
The former has a well-deserved reputation for eclecticism but also for a somewhat crotchety scepticism that might have salutary effects at the level of European politics.
Die Linke has a number of built-in handicaps, not the least of which is the direct line of descent from East German communism, a political disaster which only a small number of former hardliners have even the slightest interest in rehashing.
Yet, even with their problems, Die Linke is still the most authentic bearers of the traditions of the German left, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) long ago having abandoned this ground in favour of becoming the executors of neoliberalism with a human face.
To take a southern European example, the rise of the Vox party in Spain has led many to predict that the flagship of transition in the post-fascist world would be sending representatives of what can only be described as a fascist party to serve in the EU parliament.
This may be true, but here again, we might speculate at what an outcome might be if the Spanish electorate chose to embrace a politics more in line with its saner traditions.
Although the story of the most recent Spanish elections was, not without justice, the performance of Vox and, concomitantly, the loss of support for Podemos, one might well question exactly what sort of shift is in prospect here.
The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), often assailed for its embrace of neoliberalism, did well in the most recent elections.
This, one suspects, had a lot to do with moderate Podemos voters (and not only them) jumping ship at the prospect of the rise of Vox and moving to what looked in the moment like safer electoral ground.
But Spain, having been on the receiving end of some very rough treatment by the Troika in the wake of the bursting of its real estate bubble, still very much has the capacity to move in a direction more commensurate with the longterm traditions of the anti-fascist left.
Voting for Podemos in the European elections has the benefit of sending people to Brussels interesting in making the government there function more responsively, rather than simply burning the whole thing down.
It is in the United Kingdom that such a return to the political traditions of the past could potentially do the most good.
As the questions of the Brexit deal (or no deal) continue to roil British politics, Nigel Farage has returned like a bad penny to blight the political world.
One might have thought that his political capital might have been completely expended in his hawking of Brexit, since it has turned out to have few if any of the advertised benefits.
Yet now, having taken part in reducing the governing bodies of the country to a gelatinous mass, the ever lugubrious mister Farage is running for a seat in Europe. Again.
One might legitimately ask why it is that he would want such a position.
It is, of course, because there are few better places from which to gnaw out the entrails of an institution for which he must feel intense loathing.
This is rather ironic given Nigel Farage’s intense conservatism, but anti-or non-democratic approaches to politics are, seemingly, fine when undertaken on domestic premises. But the idea that they might be imposed from the outside is too much for a staunch patriot to bear.
Now, of course, Labour under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn is tacking in the opposite direction.
It is unclear whether Corbyn is really interested in a new referendum, or if his dawdling on this point is an expression of his hope that the decision will be taken out of his hands.
In any case, although Labour has not spent much of the post-Blair era on the front foot, it is still fair to say that Corbyn is taking the party back in the direction of democratic socialism as it existed in the era of the Webbs.
It would not take much of a surge of progressive Labour voters to stock the European parliament with democratic socialists ready to make the system function better rather than obstructing or damaging it, as the candidates of UKIP and the Brexit Party seem so intent on doing.
This small set of, admittedly, somewhat disparate examples is only meant to make the point that another world is still possible.
One of the greatest problems facing progressives in the era of populism is demoralisation.
There is a considerable segment of the electorate alive to the populist elements of leftist projects. If only they could be convinced to return to the left. There is no reason why they could not.
The rise of right-wing populism is not inscribed in politics. Rather it is a matter of the populist right having colonised symbolic territory long occupied by the left, particularly in the wake of the decline in the power and culture of socialist parties.
We are, in fact, not prohibited from forcing a return to a more civilised politics. It is, at this point, a matter of reclaiming ground which we have held in the past.
And, most significantly, of convincing voters that the better lives they seek can be achieved by daring more democracy at the European level.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.