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The way forward: a Popular Front

Paul Mason
Writer and broadcaster

Paul Mason argues that the Left needs to draw inspiration from the 1930s ‘popular front’ idea and increase their prospects of gaining power by forming red-red-green alliances.


To fight the resurgent right effectively, we need to understand what is driving it. For me it is not about economic performance but the narrative incoherence of the economic model.

Before 2008 the neoliberal doctrine said: there is no alternative to the market; things will be like this forever only slightly better year on year. After 2008 it said: “things will be like this forever, only slightly worse”. The central banks have kept the global economy on life support for more than ten years. But you cannot keep an ideology on life support. The human brain demands coherence – and a free market that works only for banks, property speculators and tech monopolies lacks narrative coherence.

In my upcoming book, Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being, I argue that the locus of this crisis is neither politics, nor economics, but the self.

Neoliberalism is, for me and my co-thinkers, not a doctrine but an objective system: its key feature was the introduction of market norms of behaviour into all aspects of human life. Since the mid-2000s it has had to become more and more coercive – overriding the democratically expressed wishes of people in mature democracies to reverse austerity, privatisation and the growth of inequality.

The Lisbon treaty embodied a vision of Europe as an open market, not just for Europe but for the world.

The strategic mistake of European Social Democracy was not just – as with Tony Blair – to accept the permanence of neoliberalism’s effects. It was our decision to enshrine neoliberal economics into the Lisbon Treaty.

Since 2008, as the geopolitical order has begun to fragment, we are seeing rival economic superpowers pursue their sovereign interest: China with its currency manipulation and projection of soft power via the Belt & Road; Russia via annexations and hybrid warfare to undermine democracies; the USA with its isolationist turn during the Syrian civil war, and its turn to trade warfare under Donald Trump.

Europe, a gigantic economic bloc with 500 million highly educated citizens, cannot respond to the emergence of Great Power politics – and not just because its institutions exist alongside strong, traditional national institutions.

The Lisbon treaty embodied a vision of Europe as an open market not just for Europe but for the world. It has become the playground of state-backed economic forces, from the Huawei tech monopoly to Google and Facebook, to the pervasive hot money generated by Russian-aligned organised crime.

When people ask, “how did Jeremy Corbyn buck the trend?”, building a party of half a million people and triggering an electoral surge from 25% to 40% in a single month in 2017, my answer is: because in his brain he does not have a copy of the Lisbon Treaty.

Whatever you think of Brexit, and I have opposed it, Britain’s semi-detached relationship to the project of ever closer union turned out to be an advantage for our Social Democracy.

So if the left is to outline a common agenda, it needs to be radical. To put it bluntly, we need to scrap the Lisbon Treaty that sits inside our heads, and in the case of German social democracy, to scrap the Bad Godesberg principle of “market where possible, state where necessary”. We live in a global economy, but every other major force has adopted a “beggar thy neighbour” strategy: each major player is gaming the system to dump the stresses within it onto the weakest player.

Unfortunately, the weakest player is Europe because its fundamental Treaties forbid us to protect our industries, promote state-aid and ownership, and exercise technological sovereignty. Instead, elites of powerful European countries play the same game of stress dumping, using the mechanism of the Eurozone and the Maastricht criteria. How else do you explain 4% unemployment in Germany and 25% unemployment in Greece (other than by gross national stereotypes)?

In April 1934 the French working class famously overcame “from below” the sectarianism of their Social-Democratic and Communist party leaders and insisted on a united fight against fascism. The Comintern’s Popular Front strategy was the outcome. Today we have no Comintern, and neither the Socialist International nor the PES have leadership functions that can act strategically.

So the unity, as in the early 1930s, will have to be built from below.

If you look at the British Labour party it is, in truth, something of a “Popular Front”, between an old syndicalist left, a new networked left influenced by environmentalism and autonomism, and a strong but disoriented centre left. When I sit in my local branch, I see people from every wing of Labour making practical compromises to keep this unsteady vehicle moving.

What persuades them to do it is evidence that such unity works. Unity around a prudent and prioritised programme that, if enacted, would end the neoliberal era in Britain, attack inequality and reverse climate change.

That should be the platform around which the European Social Democracy, the radical left and the left of the Greens unite. State-led growth, technological sovereignty, the creation of a massive non-profit sector and the eradication of carbon use.

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