Failure and frustration on today's Left
In each of its three facets —reformist, as in France; populist, as in Greece, Spain and Venezuela; and dictatorial, as in Havana— the Left is seeing its lustre and credibility dwindle before the onslaughts of reality. In most cases, when it has been able to govern, whether by force or by the verdict of the polls, the Left has ended up breaking its promises, abandoning its banners, betraying its ideals, and disappointing those who initially gave it their support and commitment.
Let us begin with the reformist or Social Democrat variant, which is facing an uphill battle in France, under the leadership of President François Hollande.
Elected in 2012 after running as the enemy of the financial capital, Hollande realized, halfway through his term, that in order to combat economic stagnation he had to change course and introduce the kinds of free market reform (incentives for business and more flexible labor legislation order to encourage hiring and private investment) that he and his party had previously branded as reactionary.
This shift unleashed such fierce opposition on the Left that the French president was forced to water down his reform of the country's labor laws to such an extent that he reduced it into an inconsequential initiative. Even so, the concessions failed to satisfy organisations on the Left or the radical wing of his own party.
Free market adjustments were introduced in Germany in 2000 by former Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, with his "Agenda 2010". Unlike what happened in France, Schroeder did not back down. His reform measures produced the expected results and helped to restore the country's economic vitality and international competitiveness.
However, as the reform initiatives were contrary to the expectations of the electoral base of his party, the SPD, they eroded the electoral clout of Social Democracy in Germany, with support falling from 40.9% in 1998 down to 19.5% today.
The deterioration of Social Democracy's popularity has paved the way for the expansion of populist movements on the Left in Europe, particularly in Greece (Syriza) and in Spain (Podemos). But there is also disappointment in the former, as evidenced by the case of Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras.
Having won the elections with a promise not to implement the reform measures (reduced public spending, labor reform, and privatization) demanded by Greece's institutional creditors (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) in exchange for keeping its financial aid, and after organising a referendum on the reform in which Greeks voted overwhelmingly against it, Tsipras came to understand that the cost of violating the agreements reached with creditors would be economically devastating and politically explosive. So he backpedaled, accepting the demands of the creditors and adopting a package of measures even more severe than those rejected in the prior referendum.
But when it comes to disappointment on the Left today, Latin America takes the cake, with the factions that initially backed Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (Brazil) and the Kirchners (Argentina).
That Left, which had vowed to put an end to corruption and respect human rights, is now embroiled in political/financial scandals and tramplings of the opposition and the independent press, cases of a magnitude rivalling anything the Left had denounced before rising to power.
Latin American countries governed by the the populist Left exhibit, moreover, feeble results in terms of their economic performance. They grew thanks to booms in commodities, but their decline revealed the limits and shortcomings entailed by stifling private initiative and market forces.
The poor economic performance of the Latin American populist Left stands in contrast to that achieved by countries in the region that have promoted free enterprise and the opening up of their economies to international competition. Such is the case, in particular, in Colombia, Chile and Peru.
The best illustration of how disastrous the populist Left model has been is Venezuela, a country that, despite having benefited from the highest oil prices in history, now has a poverty rate higher than when Hugo Chávez rose to power. No less serious is its inflation, the highest in the world, moving towards an annual rate of 700%. As the lines for essential items grow longer and longer, the looting of shops and trucks transporting goods is spreading.
The collapse of the Left's rhetoric is also evident in the last bastion of Soviet socialism: Castro's Cuba.
The fiasco of Castroism is nothing new. Unable to get the machinery of the economy to function properly, the Cuban regime has not been able to stand without aid from some external benefactor: first, the Soviet Union, followed by Venezuela under Chaves.
Now, in the face of the inevitable cessation of Venezuelan aid, Castro's geriatric regime, clawing for for its survival, has agreed to allow the self-employed some freedoms, and to accept diplomatic and commercial rapprochement with the "Empire," despite not having obtained, as it had previously demanded, a previous lifting of the embargo.
In reality, the Left has suffered a long list of defeats. It suffices to recall the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the ravages of the "Cultural Revolution" under Mao Tse-tung, and the victims of the Third World tyrannies of Mugabe, Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. As for Social Democracy, the setbacks suffered by Labour in the UK, Pasok in Greece, and the PSOE in Spain, evidence the difficulties the Left experiences when struggling to reconcile its promises with economic imperatives.
Of course, these three types of Left are not the same. In terms of respect for civil liberties and commitment to democracy, Social Democracy, to its credit, is diametrically opposed to the dictatorial methods of Castroism.
Moreover, there have been many social advances —work hour reductions, paid holidays and social security benefits— brought about by the reformist Left (progress sometimes torpedoed—as shown by the French essayist and historian Jean-François Revel in his book La Grande Parade— by the Communists, who viewed these developments as a way of reconciling the proletariat with the bourgeoisie, thereby perpetuating capitalism).
It should be added that the Right cannot boast of having achieved satisfactory results at all times and in every place. There have been numerous ruthless dictatorships on that side that have spawned desolation, mourning and disappointment. And right-wing governments have suffered economic failures and been racked by corruption cases.
But this does not mean that the Left, which has portrayed itself as the solution to corruption, economic backwardness and social inequality, has done better. And, in those cases where it has achieved satisfactory economic results, it has done so largely by leaving intact the neoliberal macroeconomic orthodoxy they found when they assumed power (Michelle Bachelet, in Chile; or Lula's first term in Brazil), or by having introduced this neoliberal orthodoxy, as did the Minister of Economy under Evo Morales, Luis Alberto Arce, who in 2014 garnered praise from The Wall Street Journal.
It is an inescapable imperative that the Left exhibit a degree of intellectual humility, stop believing that it holds the keys to society's future, and seriously question its quasi-religious faith in the superiority of the State over free enterprise, market forces, and free expression.