(openDemocracy, 16 June 2014)
The haggard European Left could be revitalized by adopting some of the policies of their successful South American counterparts.
Could the European Left learn from Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa?
(Flickr/Presidencia. Some rights reserved.)
Singing dirges for the European left seemed to be the sport of choice for many following the European Parliament elections, which saw far-right parties triumph in many countries. UKIP, the National Front, the Danish People’s Party, the Austrian Freedom Party and the Alternative for Germany – were the big winners in the polls, all running on extreme right wing platforms that promised a myriad of nationalist policies, from clamping down on immigration to doubling back on European integration, to quitting NATO or calling for total autarky as cures for the European itch.
The rise in extremist feeling had almost no echoes on the left end of the political spectrum (with the notable exception of SYRIZA in Greece), as major European parties either lost ground or barely managed to hold on to their scores. As for mainstream parties, their fate was even more unfortunate.
Even if established parties as a whole fared dismally, the European left was the one that suffered the most serious setback. Why has this happened? Why did the working class, the left’s usual stronghold, flock to the extreme right and not to the left? The bottom line is that the left has failed to put fresh ideas on the table and lacks political will to implement the policies it had argued for in the past.
In England for example we are witnessing an even more interesting phenomenon, as Mick Hume noted in Spiked not too long ago. A well-known leftist, he argues that UKIP has been steadily stealing the rhetoric of the left, as the policies implemented by Labour in its 30 years in power since 1945 bear a striking resemblance to Farage’s ‘reactionary’ speeches.
Indeed, it was under Labour governments that Romanians and Bulgarians were banned in 2007 from entering the UK and it was the supposedly ‘nice and progressive’ Tony Blair that was responsible for starting ‘reactionary wars’ abroad in Afghanistan and Iraq. It comes as no surprise then that UKIP, with this familiar rhetoric, managed to seduce Labour’s traditional voting base, the blue-collar working class. Marine Le Pen’s crushing victory in France followed the same patterns.
As such, it is high time for the European Left to look elsewhere for inspiration. The solution lies neither in establishing new parties nor in rehashing old ideas. The Left should not succumb to the populist temptation as a way to counter the far right’s xenophobic rhetoric. Breathing new life into an old idea requires out-of-the-box thinking, not reverting to emotion-driven pub-politics, which is the populist’s favourite playground.
Correa’s Ecuador does it better
Halfway across the world, in Ecuador, there is a silent revolution going on, which should have captured the attention of leftists everywhere. Unfortunately, the man overseeing it, Rafael Correa, is a bloke best known in European circles for aiding and abetting Julian Assange or for rubbing shoulders with Hugo Chavez. Were we to look past prejudices, we would find him to be a vibrant ideologist that may hold the key to the Left’s revival.
An economist by trade, with a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, Correa gained international prominence after defeating Ecuador’s richest man – a banana magnate in the 2006 presidential elections. Since, he has sought to blend what he calls his ‘left-wing’ -– not from the Marxist left, but rather a Christian left’ ideas with Ecuador’s social realities.
His first jab at reforming the country was to revamp the Constitution. Ecuador was the first country in the world to integrate the ‘Rights of Nature’ into the new document, recognizing that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles – eco warriors rejoice.
Adapting to the oft-nefarious effects of globalization required some creative thinking for Ecuador. The solution found was the ‘Good Living’ model, which despite sharing common goals with neo-liberal countries, proposes a pathway that aims at pursuing first and foremost social harmony in the form of reducing inequalities and promoting equality. Essentially, the capitalist model is respected, as long as the invisible hand is kept in check so as to redistribute as much as possible to the lower strata. A strong state is therefore needed to drive modernization forward.
During the financial crisis that hit Ecuador in 2008, the country launched a massive 5% stimulus meant to increase public spending on construction works, education and healthcare. Then it took the step that made liberals cry anathema – the government renegotiated contracts with foreign oil companies, forced the central bank to repatriate $2 billion of assets held abroad and required banks to keep 60% of their assets inside the country. As a result, by 2010 the economy started growing again.
In foreign policy, echoing the Eurosceptic feeling running rampant across Europe, Correa has championed his country’s sovereignty in his struggle with the Organization of American States (OAS), perceived as Washington’s playground and an illegitimate tool used to meddle in the internal affairs of others. The primary suspect is the OAS’s Washington-based judicial arm, The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), charged to monitor the status of human rights in the 23 participating countries.
The IACHR has come under fire from many states in the region for the activities carried out by its Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (SRFE), a position created and financed by Washington, and accused of using its position to promote political dissent in countries that are on the U.S. blacklist – Ecuador included.
In a far cry from Europe’s populists, Correa did not argue to dissolve the position nor did he threaten to leave the OAS. Instead, he proposed a reform of the system, which has been under discussion for the past four years. In its current form, the SRFE receives five times more funding than other rapporteurs, leading to a system where the institution’s mandate of upholding all human rights is not fulfilled.
Ecuador’s proposal would create a single fund to collect donations for the IACHR, without allowing donors to allocate specific resources to each rapporteur. It would also ensure that the IACHR headquarters are moved out of Washington, since the U.S. has not ratified the American Convention on Human Rights.
If anything, Ecuador proves that opposing tendencies can be reconciled. One can be a firebrand leftist without giving in to petty populism. Maybe Europe’s left could learn a thing or two from Correa’s brand of left wing neoliberalism.