However, working people’s historic parties and unions, with some honourable exceptions, have mostly failed to mobilise this discontent.
Major trade unions in capitalist countries had historically chosen class collaboration with capitalist multinationals and supranational institutions under the demobilising influence of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Under the neoliberal assault, such trade unions generally shrank, leaving a growing precariat the world over unorganised. However, multiple radical grassroots trade unions are proliferating and the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), heir to anti-fascist and anti-colonial struggles, remains socialist and anti-imperialist, uniting 120 million workers in 135 countries across the imperial divide.
Working people’s historic parties fared worse. When right-wing parties moved rightward towards neoliberalism in the 1970s, many of these parties followed them, loosening their links with working people, though often only after bitter struggles.
Clearest in the West and in Eastern Europe, such changes are also visible in some Third World countries.
Educated or intellectual elements of these parties led the way. They classically combined large working classes with small intellectual groups. However, in recent decades, the latter, led by politicians like Tony Blair and the Clintons, have grown numerically to dominate the parties they once served and steered them towards neoliberalism, often under the rubric of ‘globalisation.’
Expanding post-war public and corporate bureaucracies needed credentialed personnel and expanded the professional managerial stratum. Under neoliberalism, production offshoring centralised management, engineering, design, legal, marketing, advertising, finance and other such functions in Western countries, swelling these groups further. This professional managerial layer, elevated high above the mass of working people, enjoys many privileges, including access to private or public resources. The neoliberal political establishment – elected politicians and bureaucrats in governments, trade unions and NGOs – hails from this stratum. With professional and family links crossing party lines, a cross-party political establishment reflecting the neoliberal policy consensus emerged to give us the disorienting spectacles of the Ford Foundation financing the World Social Forum, Tony Blair drafting EU political party financing statutes, and political parties and foundations relying on European Union and state funding, inevitably with neoliberal strings.
Party differences are now increasingly merely about how parties mobilise their voters. While right parties naturally appeal to petty-bourgeois social conservatism, historic working-class parties, now dominated by professionals, combine the neoliberalism that supports their incomes and lifestyles with social liberalism. Even at its best, social liberalism focuses on the struggles of individual, usually privileged members of marginalised social groups – women, ‘visible’ minorities, sexual minorities, ethnic minorities. While social liberalism prompts the ‘culture wars’ that grab headlines, it neglects the vast bulk of the working-class members of these groups, who are disproportionately impoverished, unemployed and precariously employed, whose situation does not improve and, combined with neoliberalism, even worsens. This is chiefly why the traditional European social democratic parties have lost support so precipitously.
This professional stratum prefers meetings, conferences, forums, media debates and electoral campaigns to the tough work of mass political organisation in working class neighbourhoods and factories. Meanwhile working people suffering low pay, low prices for their products, unemployment, alienation and precarity still seek a socialism of their collective rights. They are, however, divided along income, skill, gender, race and other social lines and politically bewildered by manipulative ‘culture wars’ between the right and left wings of the objectively reactionary and counter-revolutionary neoliberal political establishment and their common witch-hunts against genuinely radical leaders and movements.
This establishment has taken to portraying as ‘populist’ both right and left efforts to mobilise the mass of the discontents of neoliberalism. Both Trump’s or Bolsonaro’s or Modi’s far right politics and Corbyn’s or Maduro’s left politics are accused of focusing on social division. However, the former manipulates the social divisions neoliberalism created to get to power and the latter seeks to heal them by reversing neoliberalism. Worse, the political establishments’ even-handedness is illusory: they can tolerate Trump holding office, but genuinely progressive politicians are to be stopped before they come anywhere near it or continuously hounded in office.
The common problems of the people are not even discussed, let alone addressed. Although majorities in capitalist countries – in the Third World, post-Communist countries or the deindustrialised West – remain opposed to neoliberalism, as political establishments reject even the mildest concessions, this opposition can find little or no political expression.
As economic decline reduces middle class career paths, the precariat comes to include educated young people and older managers. Ominously, as in inter-war Germany, many formerly centrist ‘middle classes’ are now tempted by extreme right ideas. Many in spontaneous rebellions against neoliberalism expressing the tenacity of working people, such as the French ‘yellow vests’, fall foul of reaction. The political and moral crisis of international communism after 1991 and the betrayal of Communist leaders, who preferred professional ascent through party bureaucracies to serving working people, compounds the problem. Fictitious ‘solidarities’– ethnicisms, racisms, communalisms – demagogically turn them against other victims of the same system to prevent them from identifying those really responsible for their misfortune.
Today, therefore, class struggle rages within the left when it should be waged by the left.
However, as the economic crisis deepens, neoliberal political establishments lose control over politics, particularly as, on the international plane, the successes of socialist societies highlight the decay of capitalism and its costs.