As the results of May’s elections to the European Parliament became clear, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said it was “more than a warning. It is a shock, an earthquake.” The ‘seismic’ outcome was that about a quarter of the seats would be taken up by parties that are ‘malcontents’ when it comes to the European dream.
From the Right there were massive gains by the Front National in France, the UK Independence Party in the UK, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece and other ‘extremist’ parties in Hungary, Austria and Denmark. From the Left there was Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain. In Italy the Five Star Movement, difficult to categorise in left/right terms, also had an impact, coming second overall in the poll.
As has happened before, with only a 43% turnout across Europe, the majority of people didn’t vote at all. And of those who did, how many had any real concern with the European Parliament, how it functions and whatever it is it does? British Foreign Minister William Hague said “I think that people do know that in the European elections they can have a free vote, a free hit”. The Euro vote is seen as a focus for frustrations, an impotent means of expressing anger or unhappiness. This also applies to those who are elected. UKIP leader Nigel Farage said in a speech in February: “We can’t change a thing in Europe” and that while Eurosceptics could “have some fun” in the European Parliament trying to block legislation, it would “not last very long” (Guardian 27/2/14).
But if more than 200 million (out of 380 million) people didn’t bother to vote, what can be said of the illusions of those who did? Elections channel discontent into support for different factions of the bourgeoisie, but it is significant when new or revived forces come to the fore and support for long-established parties declines. In Greece, for example, there is a widespread conviction that European institutions are dominated by Germany and many parties, not just Syriza, see the re-structuring of the EU as essential if national economies are going to improve. But across Europe, nationalists of all hues blame the EU for economic and social problems: in short, the EU is a visible scapegoat for capitalism’s economic crisis, in a way not dissimilar to blaming the bankers for the crash of 2008.
More sinister is the growing tendency of the ‘new’ political forces to focus the blame on immigrants and ethnic or religious minorities. Racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric are the common currency of bourgeois parties, but groups like Golden Dawn are not just anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant in words, they terrorise their victims, using physical violence without hesitation. The spirit of the pogrom lurks in the anti-immigrant nationalism of many parties.
In the propaganda of all the populists, left and right, there are simple answers. Everything’s the fault of the EU. It’s all because of German domination. It’s immigrants. It’s the Jews. Where once middle class voters would have confidence in their conservative or liberal choices, and workers would routinely support the parties of the left, there is now increasingly disorientation throughout society, because while the ruling class is increasingly incoherent and fragmented, the working class is not putting itself forward as a social force which can change society at its roots. In such a situation, discontent with the way things are does not easily lead to a questioning of the capitalist system that is at the root of material deprivation and cultural impoverishment; disillusionment with the ‘respectable’ parties that manage the various capitalist states can soon be replaced with illusions in ‘new’ parties that promise ‘radical’ alternatives or identify easily defined scapegoats.
The real power of the ruling class, the bourgeoisie, does not lie in its parliaments, European or national, but in its position as the class which appropriates the surplus value created by the working class. Elections give an outlet for dissatisfaction, and, when traditional parties begin to become discredited, there are other forces waiting in the wings. But these forces are there solely to make sure that ‘the more it changes, the more it stays the same’.