II. The great political imagination deficit
Denouncing the pincer movement of the financial oligarchy (and its collusion with the far-right) without investigating what made it possible is a foolish exercise in political fury. It can appease bitter hearts over successive defeats, but it does not create the necessary conditions to overcome these setbacks. The 2008 crisis also produced another global political phenomenon: the great political imagination deficit on the left, even though the people showed their indignation time and time again. Between 2010 – when the Arab Spring broke out, followed by the the Indignados Movement in Spain and Occupy Wall Street in the US – and 2019, popular revolts against inequality multiplied. They were almost always gigantic and chaotic, as evidenced in Brazil in 2013. However, the parties that claim to be progressive did not know how to give answers – neither to them nor, more broadly, to the crisis. Faced with this paralysis, the billionaire class swam in strokes.
They won two crucial victories in the political disputes of the past twelve years. The first was to promote, through the mass increase of money supply, a monumental – yet silent – concentration of wealth. Between 2008 and the outset of the pandemic, the central banks of the core players (mainly the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Japan) issued, out of nowhere, a volume of money that, according to some estimates, is equivalent to US$ 40 trillion, or twice the GDP of North America. This immense mass of resources was obviously not distributed equally. First, states saved the biggest banks and corporations – buying mountains of “bad debts”, those that would never be recovered otherwise. Then, when the economy failed to recover, governments increased the money supply (“quantitative easing”) to at least prevent the ship from sinking, following the “trickle-down” theory. The trillions were created for the holders of public bonds, that is, mostly for the 0.1%.
It all happened without fanfare. Central bank issues don’t require authorizations and the long and exhausting debates in parliaments. But the political effect was dramatic. The banks, whose recklessness had sparked the crisis, were getting away with it. The States that saved them saw their debt explode. They subsequently adopted “austerity” programs that devastated public services. Thanks to its boldness, the financial oligarchy won the first battle. The issuing of money out of thin air on this scale was something entirely new. However, none of the many left-wing governments dared to do the same in favor, for example, of health, of renewing infrastructure, of fighting global warming or of creating universal basic income programs.
The second battle that the right won without effort was the construction of narratives. Inequalities and poverty increased since the neoliberal turn of the late 1970s. The 2008 crisis accelerated this process. But the leaders on the left – from Barack Obama in 2008 to Dilma Rousseff in 2015 – neither confronted it nor denounced it. They swallowed it.
Someone was bound to claim this political capital that was up for grabs. The movement with the political conditions to do so was proto-fascism. When analyzing the speeches of its exponents – Trump, Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Orban, Italy’s Salvini, France’s Le Pen, Philippine’s Duterte – one can see the repetition of a set of simple formulas, created and improved in right-wing think tanks and then reproduced, with only minor modifications, around the world. Attack “the establishment” to capitalize on the majority’s just resentment. Confuse them, taking advantage of the low political consciousness of the majorities. Paint the parliamentarian or the qualified public official (whose privileges are exposed in the newspapers) as “the elite”; but save bankers, corporate shareholders, their executives and aggregates (all protected by the silence of the media). Identify the right-wing leader as the saving hero, able to free the crowds from the tyranny of the “system”. Label dissenting opinions (whether they come from politicians or scientists) as conspiracy theories.
Despite their low sophistication, these narratives were remarkably effective until the outset of the pandemic. The opposition to them was scarce – although successful when it existed, as in the case of Chile. Trump’s defeat marks the possible beginning of a global turnaround. Therefore, it is worth examining it better.
III. How the pandemic reshuffles the cards
Recorded by Bernie Sanders last Friday, the video below shows the sign of enormous tactical wisdom – and of the great change of scenery that has become possible in the West in recent months. In alliance with a vast network of social movements, Sanders competed for – and came close to obtaining – the Democratic Party’s nomination for the White House, both in 2016 and in 2020. He was defeated by Biden in April, following a series of backstage articulations of the party machine, which found his ideas too radical. He lost the battle, but he continued to plumb. Thanks to him and people like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, most of the movements that took to the streets of his country in June and July, in the protests of the Black Lives Matter, played a key role in the campaign to defeat Trump. Their actions, especially among the younger and more critical generation of voters, were tireless and extremely effective. Without them, the Democratic Party’s victory in the presidential elections would have been impossible.