Kevin Rudd has his $42 billion stimulus package. Barack Obama has his TANF. Gordon Brown is dithering about a global “depression”. But in the last month, beneath the bluster, the fiscal is beginning to give way to the visceral. Away from federal parliaments, the huddled masses are rebelling against the failed neoliberal experiment in a manner completely foreign to ‘small l’ liberals wedded to the Washminster tradition.

This week in Britain, a wildcat strike at the Lindsey oil refinery split the Left as workers walked off the job to protest the presence of Italian contractors brought in by a labour hire company. But the strikers, ignoring their union leadership, wickedly appropriated Brown’s racist ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ slogan, prompting a media storm as BNP operatives (and possibly Ken Loach) scrambled up the M1 to co-opt the dissent.

The negotiated settlement won’t last long with the unrest already spreading to other worksites, including the Sellafield nuclear power plant. Unions are hoping the white hot anger might be channeled into something like this classic peaceful protest scene from The Simpsons but this seems unlikely.

When an economic depression last hit Europe in 1929, rival authoritarianisms emerged that set the tone for the rest of the century. But now, with a truly global crisis on the cards, it’s increasingly social democracy that’s being rejected — not by organised fascism, but by tear-away nationalists and xenophobes on the one hand and a rag tag bunch of anarchists on the other.

Indeed, the recent spate of activism elsewhere in Europe seems to be shorn of 20th century orthodoxy, with a substantial unhinged presence emerging to fill the void. In Italy, the organised Left is paralysed, with odious groups like the Blac Bloc increasingly flexing their muscle. Greece and Latvia are in turmoil and Iceland is on the verge of revolution. In the US, the most buoyant radicals are aligned either with the puerile but compelling (think the “Anonymous” campaign against Scientology) or the 9/11 Truthers who given half a chance would happily take up arms against the Pentagon.

This week, as Julia Gillard descended on Davos, the global Left got together at the World Social Forum in Brazil to plot its response to the crisis. As always, the delegation was hopelessly divided, with populists like Lula of Brazil and Morales of Bolivia bashing heads with Zapatista-influenced nomads and unreconstructed Stalinists. The central split was again between rigid ideologues loyal to outdated doctrines (communism) and new social movements trying to track an ethical path to autonomy and democracy. But surprisingly, despite the bickering, there was a sliver of unity that may point to a future orientated around a Green New Deal with a Tobin Tax as its centerpiece.

Back home, some of Rudd’s Monthly rhetoric about “extreme capitalism” dovetails nicely with arguments progressive elements of the WSF have been making for years. But even with the mainstream media transfixed by Ken Henry and Barnaby Joyce’s droning exchanges, a coherent response from the local labour movement to the crisis has been almost entirely absent.

Perhaps this week’s most unedifying spectacle was that of trade union leaders marching hand-in-glove with the business lobby over the merits of Rudd’s package. But both missed the point — as the unlikely duo of Laura Tingle and Alan Kohler argued, the government already achieved its objective by simply announcing the policy. The illusion of action has lasted all week, leaving Peter Costello and Malcolm Turnbull to carp pointlessly from the sidelines.

The local Left haven’t stayed totally silent, with the usual relics using the meltdown to push offensive agendas. One such group are the Trotskyists of Socialist Alternative who’ve spent the last decade colonising valuable political space on Australian university campuses. As always, SA has been busy affixing posters to bollards wondering what Marx would do, were he not turning in his grave at the group’s antics. Crikey wholeheartedly backs their recent infiltration by ASIO in the interests of political diversity.

The Trots have one thing going for them in that they often are the only group motivated to organise and attend protests. But that’s because the vast majority of those to the left of the Greens are brainwashed dupes, transfixed by fantasies of state confrontation and completely detached from political and economic reality.

In 1968, in the wake of the Paris uprisings, French theorist Alain Touraine pegged the student movement as the successor to the working class as the main agent of social change. This may still be true. But groups like SA, who attempt to use sweaty undergraduates as vanguards to a general strike, have perverted that legacy and destroyed any chance of truly progressive movement emerging any time soon.

As this week’s events in Europe demonstrate, the angry response by those bearing the brunt of the global depression is only beginning to emerge. When the local crunch comes and the stimulus package inevitably follows the Reserve Bank into impotence, there will be no shortage of demagogues promising salvation. But for the moment there’s no chance of the local Left abandoning either its cynicism, or its hunger for out-of-the-box media stunts spruiked by an unaccountable political elite.