What has the Corbyn project meant – as a model, an inspiration, or otherwise – to you and people in the milieu(x) in which you organise?
In the Central and Eastern European region, Romania stands out as one of the countries that has adopted some of the most radical neo-liberal reforms in the past three decades of post-socialist transformation. Starting with the shock therapies, economic restructurings and privatizations of the mid-90’s and ending with the structural reforms and austerity policies adopted after the 2008 financial crisis, Romania has become deeply entrenched in neo-liberal reforms. In the past decade we have witnessed the gradual dissolution of unions due to the adoption of a restrictive Social Dialogue Law which limited dramatically their capacity to initiate and resolve workplace conflicts. The explicit aim was to de-regulate the labour market and enable a more flexible industrial-relations environment that could attract foreign direct investment and re-launch the economy.
The main problem of the last decade is not just the fact that the Romanian working class was severely weakened in relation to capital, but that we have come to gradually internalize, as a society, the narrative of the necessity of merciless capitalist reforms in order to catch up with the other western economies. This is the case not only of how neo-liberal structural reforms have come to be legitimized, but also how a social imaginary based on competition, meritocracy and class entitlement has started to take shape and contributed to the justification of social inequalities. In this context, supporting any social-democratic policies, such as progressive taxation (Romania has one of the lowest flat-rate corporate taxes in the EU) or a bigger budget allocation for welfare policies (also one of the worst in EU), will easily earn you the label of a ‘communist’ nostalgic or an economic illiterate driven by utopian social demands.
Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are popular figures among the small new-left circles and organizations in Romania. Their political programs and manifestos, but most of all their public campaigns, have brought encouragement and hope to local political activists. If in the central capitalist economies we can see the formation of anti-systemic movements and a progressive agenda, why should a political discourse like this not be possible as well at the periphery of capitalism, where labour-capital relations are more dramatically tilted in favour of the latter? For leftist groups from Romania, the Corbyn project has meant first of all the courage to address class inequalities more boldly and to be more outspoken in favour of social-democratic policies.
The Romanian new left is still far from being convinced of the necessity of advocating more radical reforms, such as bringing public utilities infrastructure back into the hands of public ownership, free broadband, rent control, etc. as Labour admirably did under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Also, in terms of political praxis the Romanian new left scene is far from mobilizing such strong and committed networks of activism as Momentum has, and due to this, it has not had any real impact on political debates at the national level. Nevertheless, some minor encouraging signs can be seen in the local leftist scene. Demos is a new Romanian leftist political party which is trying to institutionalize a political platform and run for local and national elections. Demos was one of the few Romanian parties that has openly supported Labour and Corbyn’s policies of building stronger public services, halting privatizations and protecting workers’ rights. Similarly, smaller leftist platforms are openly addressing climate change and advocating the adoption of policies aiming to decarbonize the economy, augment public housing and invest in public transport infrastructure. These initiatives don’t necessary originate in Corbyn’s project, but find in it inspiration for bolder political actions.
What is your perspective on the recent electoral defeat in the UK? What critical lessons should your milieu, and the left in general, learn from this defeat?
It is very hard to give an assessment of Corbyn’s agenda and its future, due to the strong influence of major uncertainties around Brexit and the strong polarization around the resulting economic and social instability on the campaign. Nevertheless, Labour, on its most radical political platform in decades has overwhelmingly won the vote of the younger generation: 56% of the 18-24 age segment voted for Labour (while only 21 % voted for the Tories), 54% of the 25-29 age segment (23% for the Tories) and 46% of the 30-39 age segment (30% for the Tories). The problem is that Labour failed to gain the support of skilled and unskilled manual laborers and of those with less education. Genuine leftist politics has to address all age categories and cannot break class solidarity through generational-based policies, but what is very hopeful about this vote is that an openly socialist agenda has become popular with a new generation of voters.
In my opinion, the biggest mistake Labour could do right now is give in to Blairism and allow the party to shift back to the centre of the political spectrum. That would be a major setback not only for UK politics, but for all European leftist parties that want something more than an atrophied caricature of social democracy. Most of us hope that Labour’s new leadership will continue Corbyn’s policies, further collaborate with Momentum and act as a parliamentary platform for its progressive social agenda.
One major disappointment for the Romanian new-leftist scene is Corbyn’s ambivalence over Brexit. Yes, the European Union is a neo-liberal project built around the idea of a Single European Market, convergence criteria and competition enhancement which enable the trans-national capital to extract large profits from new member countries. Deeply embedded in the administrative and legislative mechanisms of EU is a great asymmetry between liberalization of markets on one side and social cohesion on the other side. Faced with this powerful European regulatory mechanism, its monetary union and fiscal policies, left parties can easily develop a pessimistic politics of resentment and fall into the nationalist trap of “Lexit”. But this would be a tactical error: the Left needs to be international because capitalism is. European Union can still provide a future framework where global capitalism can be regulated and controlled and where more regional and trans-national policies aiming at protection of workers, of public commons and of the welfare-state can be advanced. A battle won by the working class in one member-state can become the blueprint for EU recommendations and policies for all member-states. At this moment in time this seems very far away, but battles like this are fought and won over decades, not years. One of the saddest results of Labour’s defeat in the UK is that the EU political scene is now bereft of an important party that could have tilted the EU project a bit more to the left.
Sorin Gog is a Lecturer at the Sociology Department from Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, teaching courses on contemporary sociological theories, sociology of religion and paradigms of secularization. He has been a research fellow at University of Fribourg (Switzerland), Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (Germany), Institut für Wissenschaft der Menschen (Austria), New Europe College (Romania), CEU-IAS (Hungary) and Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (Finland). His current research project focuses on the field of personal and spiritual development programs and the way they are related to the current economic and political transformations of labor markets in Central and Eastern Europe. Currently he is a member of the Institute for Social Solidarity.