Neither quick recovery nor crash: is prolonged "mild recession" good for the left?

14 posts / 0 new
Last post
Jacob Richter
Neither quick recovery nor crash: is prolonged "mild recession" good for the left?

I bring into focus two mainstream articles:

[url=]Against the Rise of Unrest and Extremism, the Center Holds[/url]

It's easy to read the last few months as one vast refutation of self-regulating capitalism and the elites who nurtured it. Many observers have thus warned that Europe's voters will flock to far-left parties now loudly crowing "told you so." Or, in the opposite direction, to the populist right, whose xenophobic rants have taken aim at globalizing capitalists and immigrants.

Instead, Europe's center has held steady, and possibly even gained in strength. In Germany, where the economy is fast declining due to an export implosion, polls show a steady slide in support for the left-populist Linkspartei, down from 15 percent in August to 11 percent last week. The Allensbach Polling Institute also has found that, for the first time since the 2005 election, a majority of voters now favor a center-right coalition between Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats in the upcoming September election. In France, a new Trotskyist party has drawn much attention but has yet to translate it into electoral success. In Britain, extremists are nowhere to be seen. And in Eastern Europe, where countries like Latvia and Ukraine have seen violent street fights erupt amid rising layoffs and collapsing currencies, centrist parties have kept power even as governments fall. Across the region, communism still remains discredited and the far-right marginalized or invisible.

Why has the crisis failed to translate into a boost for the extremes? One reason may be because economic crises—like other threats to national security—tend to rally voters around their existing leadership, says Antwerp University populism expert Cas Mudde. Unpopular leaders may even win back some support, as have Britain's Gordon Brown and the Netherlands' Jan Balkenende. Rightly or wrongly, voters have greater confidence in the mainstream parties to keep the economy stable. Left-wing utopia is good for a protest vote, says Allensbach analyst Thomas Petersen, but few citizens want to be led by the untested (and often bickering) leadership of the populist fringe. Also, centrist parties like Germany's CDU have gone a long way to quiet potential protesters by issuing bailouts and stimulus programs, a signal that they're still working within Europe's social-democratic mainstream. Lastly, political extremism is as much a question of demand as of supply; at present, no charismatic populist has emerged with attractive answers to the crisis.

Of course, these are early days, and the bottom could still be a long way off. "If the crisis lasts a couple of years," says Mudde, "and none of the mainstream parties can solve it, then voters will give extremists a try." Yet another reason to hope that the center can help foster a quick recovery.

[url= King: As capitalism stares into the abyss, was Marx right all along?[/url]

"Modern bourgeois society ... a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells."

Those of you with revolutionary zeal will immediately recognise these words. Penned by Karl Marx in 1848, they form part of the Communist Manifesto. Marx, like Adam Smith before him, had a historical view of society's development. Capitalism, with its bourgeoisie, had replaced feudalism, but capitalism, according to Marx, would be replaced by communism. Capitalism was inherently unstable, as Marx noted later in the same paragraph:

".....the commercial crises... by their periodical return, put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of over-production."

Whatever else one thinks of Marx, he certainly knew a thing or two about the business cycle. Were he alive now, he would surely claim his theories were being vindicated. We are, after all, witnessing the most remarkable collapse in economic activity around the world.


The cost of avoiding depression is a heightened level of state intervention on a scale unimaginable for those who believe in the virtues of free markets. While such intervention may help prevent the worst ravages of economic collapse, it will ultimately do little to foster the entrepreneurial spirit and risk-taking behaviour which have, in the past, contributed so much to rising living standards. We may avoid a 1930s Depression but, increasingly, we may find the best we can hope for is a 1990s Japan. Not quite a Marxist revolution, then, but certainly a lasting sea-change in economic performance.

Given the remarks above, is a prolonged "mild recession," as opposed to an outright economic crash or a quick recovery, a good thing for rebuilding the left?


It is not a "mild recession" by anyone's estimation.

Too late to change the title, but just so people don't go galloping off on that, I think a more accurate phrasing of your question would be to call it something like a "prolonged and more serious than usual recession from which it is expected we will recover without a complete and outright economic collapse."

 And I would make the point that the jury is still out whether it is "only" prolonged and more serious or an outright collapse. What we have seen so far is consistent with both possibilities.

Would it be accurate to take the spirit of your question like this: assuming that this bottoms out as being a 'bad recession'- with the current free fall at least ending and everyone aware it could easily have been worse- is this a good thing for rebuilding the left?

M. Spector M. Spector's picture

I think it would be more accurate to call it the Great Depression II.


Hey, I feel ripped off.

 I thought that was THE Stephen King, not some bleeping economist !



I'd still like to follow the spirit of the question and not just repeat debates of whether it is a [bad] recession or a free fall depression.

M. Spector M. Spector's picture

Jacob Richter wrote:

Given the remarks above, is a prolonged "mild recession," as opposed to an outright economic crash or a quick recovery, a good thing for rebuilding the left?

Isn't this just idle speculation? What's the practical difference?

Regardless of the answer to this question, is there any reason why the rebuilding of the left (whatever that means) should be put on hold?

Go out and "rebuild the left". Then come back and I'll tell you whether it was made any easier or harder by the economic conditions.


While I don't think Jacob Richter was saying we should put rebuilding on hold, I generally agree with Spector's point.


Jacob Richter

I know this isn't a "mild recession."  I used that phrase to describe something in between complete economic crash like the Great Depression and the run-of-the-mill recession.  In fact, the current crisis is more similar to the Long Depression of 1873 than the Great Depression of 1929.  I considered using the term "mild depression," but thought it to be too much of an oxymoron.

As for the left, indeed I meant no delays whatsoever.  An independent worker-class movement "distinct from and opposed to" all forms of "social democracy" and cheap "populism" must be built now, not later.

M. Spector M. Spector's picture

Okay, so why the need for navel-gazing as to how hard it's going to be?


It has been 40 years since the Left has had something that looked like success- and one could debate if even 40 years ago qualified.

Nothing we have ever talked about that might make it easier has come to anything.

I can see the point in what specifically the conditions of the moment might imply should be done.

While it may be unecessarily harsh to call 'navel gazing' consideration of whether said conditions might make things harder or easier... I have to agree it has never got us anywhere and has probably only been a distraction.

For the record, "socialism or barbarism" formulations belong in the same basket.

With that criticism in mind, do you want to argue the point, or maybe reformulate the question? Or a bit of both. Or....


But I don't know why I bother since "distinct from and opposed to" all forms of "social democracy" and cheap "populism" obviously is not going to include my ilk.



Margaret Thatcher said there is no economic alternative to the new liberal capitalism. I think what we've had throughout the cold war were a handful of English speaking countries trying to force an extreme free market ideology on to every other country. And the "new" liberal capitalism has now failed in every country where tried, from: Chile, Nicaragua and Argentina to South Africa, Russia, and Thailand. Those countries that adopted more neoliberal reforms most rapidly failed fastest.

However, as various economists from Jim Stanford to Jeffrey Sachs have stated, there really is a valid alternative to flexible labour markets and reliance on "leave it to the market" ideology. The Nordic countries have emerged as the most democratic countries in the world. Those countries are demonstrating that social democracy is conducive to competitive and greener economies. There is a valid alternative to deregulated free for all capitalism.

Jacob Richter

I know, but we on your left have to start somewhere, hence why I deliberately quoted Marx ("distinct from and opposed to..."). Wink

Jacob Richter

Why are you idolizing "social-democratic" models that are unsustainable (unsustainable in the sense of combining welfarism with private ownership and control of ground rent, monopoly rent, and other forms of economic rent)?