The so-called ‘Chinese curse’ notoriously condemns its victims to ‘live in interesting times’. The curse’s provenance is, in reality, fittingly Western, as politics in the West enters into its own, euphemistically labelled, ‘interesting times’.
Our two-party system is in crisis, with popular opinion polarising to the extremes of the political spectrum. The problem is not coalitions or a diversity of outlooks, which could enhance the democratic process, but that these growing voices, especially on the left, are being suppressed by the powerful, rather than accommodated.
If the left fail in this challenge, we shall see a rise in the far-right. The popular far-right, in turn, will only be stopped by adopting policies against populism, a Chinese-styled solution, which would be the real curse.
By April 2016, Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, was on a winning streak in the US primaries, leaving the pundits shaken.
In response, next primary, in New York, was held with officially admitted ‘irregularities’ that restrained thousands of voters by limiting the availability of polling stations and disenfranchising people who had not declared their party-allegiance the year before. These strict rules reflect the DNC’s disdain for Sanders, as can now be seen in recent WikiLeaks revelations. Sanders’ campaign relied on crowdfunding, pooling money, but also discontent; he opened a Pandora’s Box of dissatisfaction and, for a moment, it looked like it could have fuelled him to power.
We would be lucky if, following the nomination of Hillary Clinton, these people return to their apathy and frustration; however, the reality can be seen when Sanders tries to endorse Clinton in this recent video. The crowd boos, then chants, ‘we want Bernie’. The senator raises a pleading hand like a modern Canute, seeking to control a rising tide of anger. Such supporters would rather elect the shame of Republicans, Donald Trump, than Clinton, whom they now justifiably distrust.
Meanwhile back across the pond, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his spotless socialist credentials have been lampooned from all sides. Insults are hurled by high-flying Tories and right-wing rags against his bicycle, suit, or dislike of nuclear weapons designed to kill millions.
However, attacks came arguably strongest from his own party from even before his election. As soon as he made the ballot, former failed leaders and spin doctors came hissing out of the woodwork, unwilling to accept his exceptional mandate to lead. Some refused to work with him, while others tried to smear him as a security risk. Many criticise him for poor communication and lack of experience, as well as not appealing to the electorate; these criticisms are not, as some of his disciples claim, propaganda from red Tory Blairite elitists, but to think that polls or expert opinions shape popular movements is simply wrong. Some anti-Corbyn Labour MPs say they have faced intimidation and bullying, while others talk deselection from an organised leftist CLP base. Some of this is just exaggeration and scaremongering, but it would be worth bearing in mind that the righteous anger among his supporters will not disappear, even if he loses the leadership in September.
Meanwhile UKIP creep steadily further into Labour heartlands and Welsh regionalism threatens to follow the Scottish path. Former PM David Cameron was willing to appeal to the Tory’s swivel-eyed loons in the form of an EU referendum, while Labour has sought to exclude its grassroots members, most recently by preventing new members from voting in the leadership election and carrying out a suspect ‘purge’ of Bolsheviks, Trotskyists and militant fans of the Foo Fighters. Such heavy infighting will hand power to a united right.
In Spain, the drawn out general election showed left-wing Unidos Podemos, finish third after splitting the vote with the centre-left PSOE and handing the conservative PP first place. In Greece, once regarded as a new hope for European socialism, it was not the fascists of Golden Dawn, but the moderate, centre-ground EU Troika that managed to override their elected government and enforce a punishing agenda.
Philosopher Walter Benjamin is said to have claimed that behind every fascism lies a failed revolution. It seems clear that the established left will not go down without a fight against these internal revolutions in the US, UK, Spain or Greece, but in doing so, it opens up a threat from the right.
Populism is not the unstoppable force as it is sometimes portrayed, but in order to control anti-establishment protests from left or right, the price would of course be the very things we wish to preserve: human rights, democracy, justice, and so on. This is the Chinese solution, a nightmare often alluded to by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. In the past, he claims, capitalism always came with the guarantee of democracy, a sort of Enlightenment flatpack to be assembled the world over, with varied results.
Today’s capitalism, however, is more threatening. Countries like China practise state-capitalism, made efficient by turning a blind eye towards workers’ rights. The same could be said of Russia or even modern Turkey; these countries have seen a rise in protests over the past five years, and the solution has been harsher sentencing, increased censorship and further curtailment of civil liberties.
If popular radicals are denied power, the methods of suppressing them will have to become ever blunter, ever more authoritarian. The looming free-trade agreements, if passed, could hand over power to big business, while the government exists to man the water cannon or fire the tear gas.
There is a simple warning to be learned. If the moderate centre-left cannot accept and use the popular support given to socialists, if they refuse to shift the agenda, even if they defeat the socialists in elections, these will be but Pyrrhic victories. These scuffles will end under far-right ideologues or capitalist tyrants. They will be condemned to live in interesting times.
By Osian Evans-Sharma, 18