If you’re a dedicated neoliberal, it might feel lately as though attempts to discredit western anti-austerity politicians is a bit like playing whack-a-mole: No sooner is one progressive dealt with, when another one pops up.
This, at any rate, is one way to read the unexpected rise of incongruous progressive left political candidates, on both sides of the Atlantic.
On the US side, we have Bernie Sanders, the septuagenarian Vermont senator, who seems to be giving Hillary Clinton a run for her (extremely well-connected and deep-pocketed) money in the Democratic leadership race.
The self-proclaimed democratic socialist (yes, he said that word, in the US) has been pulling giant crowds: 11,000 in Phoenix last week; his largest to date. Popular with younger voters, Sanders is all about tackling wealth inequality, abolishing tuition fees, and loosening big money’s chokehold on US politics.
His campaigners speak of being taken aback by the tidal response to this candidate – which echoes the words of those working with the UK’s Labour party candidate, Jeremy Corbyn.
Six weeks ago, few in the UK would have known his name, but now, the 60-something north London MP has garnered a swell of support on the ground, and is leading the polls to become party leader.
Corbyn’s talk of wealth redistribution also seems to resonate with young people – whose hopes for a decent future have been resolutely crushed by neoliberalism’s relentless race to the bottom.
It seems that if you give previously disengaged people something to believe in, the connection with politics is instant, committed, and inspiring – who knew?
But despite that, in the UK, young people have been cast as either naive or just stupid about politics by commentators struggling to comprehend the enthusiasm for Corbyn, in preference to the anodyne, managerial, austerity-lite espousing candidates also vying for Labour party leadership.
Because it is truly baffling that under-30s, locked out of the economy, straitjacketed into debt, starvation wages, extortionate rents, and zero-hour employment contracts, would connect with anti-austerity politics that seem genuinely and credibly to offer an alternative.
And so, since there is nothing profound or complex about this basic yearning for security and dignity, maybe all the baffled derision is just masking a rising panic at the idea of having to put up with politicians who want to tackle rampant wealth inequality.
After all, who are the people protesting the progressive surge so loudly if not the global elite, billionaire-owned media and big-business-facing politicians – the very people into whose hands a concentrated majority of wealth has flowed?
It seems that one reason progressive politics are currently getting such a receptive hearing is that the austerity jig is up. In countries of abundance – the wealthiest in the world – the most basic levels of social provision have been hacked back, with disastrous consequences.
Marina Prentoulis, a senior lecturer in media and politics at the University of East Anglia and spokesperson for Greece’s Syriza in the UK, says: “We are talking about the west, in Europe and the US, where people are saying, ‘Hang on a minute, how come there are more and more cuts?’ And it becomes clearer with time that this is not about economics – it is about politics.”
Added to which, the experience of Greece’s anti-austerity, Syriza-led government being financially blackmailed by the European Union, was a shocking revelation of just how far proponents of this doctrine are prepared to go: trampling democracy; knowingly decimating national economies, effectively razing to the ground anything that stands in the way of enforced, ideologically driven cuts.
But what is clear is that, as austerity punishes and pauperises more people, the counter-arguments to it are becoming more mainstream. The swath of non-loony-left economists urging an abandonment of ravaging, ineffective austerity – Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, even that bastion of Marxist-Socialism, the IMF – is testimony to that.
And it is reflected in widespread public support – as polls keep showing – for policies such as nationalised transport systems and utilities companies, proper investment in the material (as opposed to the financial) economy, and a focus on infrastructure and planning.
Cristina Flesher Fominaya, senior Marie Curie fellow at the National University Ireland, and the author of Social Movements and Globalization: How Protests, Occupations and Uprisings are Changing the World, says that this is one of the changes brought about – however gradually – by progressive movements, globally: “They generate alternative narratives about social realities and how they can change,” she says. “In the best cases, they fill people with hope, and the belief that things can change.”
And it is no coincidence that both Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK give constant credit to grassroots movements – urging people to rise up and reclaim politics.
As Sanders said last week in Washington DC: “The only way we can transform the government, the only way we can have a government that begins to work for working people rather than the wealthiest people in this country, is by putting together an unprecedentedly strong grassroots movement – what I call a political revolution.”
It’s exactly this sort of people-propelled politics, after all, that brought Greece’s Syriza to power and is seemingly taking Spain’s anti-austerity party, Podemos, in the same direction in elections due at the end of this year.
Meanwhile, on a municipal level, Barcelona and Madrid are now both run by women who rose from the Indignados movement of city squares to claim town halls and tear up ravaging austerity policies. Of course, each movement has a different genesis, history and, currently, relationship with political players.
But if we can link all these movements – from the public squares of Greece and Spain, to Occupy in the US and the anti-austerity stance that gave the Scottish National Party a swell of seats in the UK’s recent election – they all come from the recognition that current economic hardships are a political choice; that there are alternatives.
Those alternatives may take time to evolve, they might involve years of political parties realigning or forming anew to demand different, people-focused policies, but the groundswell of support for this shift is palpable. It is growing. And it isn’t going to disappear.