“Nothing happens for decades — and then decades happen in weeks.”

It’s a measure of the times that the quote from Lenin, once obscure, is now in danger of being overused. With the accession of Donald Trump to candidacy for president of the US, the vote of the UK to leave the EU, and the crises these have caused in the Republican and Labour parties respectively, we have been subject to that most unusual of sensations: that of history actually happening.

Trump’s victory marks the end of the right-wing formula on which the United States, as an empire, has been based for decades: free-market economics (in theory) held in tension with “traditional” values, enforced ideologically at home and abroad by a military reaching into all corners of the world. The UK’s exit from the EU — or vote to do so — marks not only the end of a centre-right liberal consensus within the UK, but, more importantly, the halting and reverse of the EU project in general.

“Brexit” might prompt a renewed push by Scotland to leave the union and hence break up the UK altogether; of equal or greater significance it might prompt the further break-up of the EU, with other nations peeling away. The ultimate occurrence would be “Frexit”, the departure of France. That would simply mark the end of the EU, the path to which had commenced with the German-French coal and steel community of 1957.

Trump’s foreign policy is incoherent, offers none of the usual Republican nostrums about extending American exceptionalism to the peoples of the Earth, offers no confidence that power will be projected in a consistent way. “Brexit” weakens a union of small parliamentary democracies, a long-distant effect of the fracturing of the Roman empire, which broke apart in ways that China, India and Russia have not. In the aftermath of the Cold War, it was assumed that most countries would follow a path to liberal democracy.

[Rundle: Brexit would spell the end of the British Empire]

Instead, many have become what Hungarian leader Viktor Orban called “illiberal democracies” — those in which majority rule, often arranged through corruption and thuggery, enforce an ideal of nationalist unity, stripped of individual and minority rights. The regimes of Putin, Erdogan, Iran and others compare themselves favourably against the West, which they represent as decadent and lacking in will.

Within the countries of the West, the effect is no less dramatic. The “Brexit” victory marked a decisive shift for every political party in the UK; everyone knows that the vote was about immigration, and the EU-guaranteed right of movement, which had 330,000 people come in last year, and 3 million over the past decade. Nothing could be clearer as to what people were voting for.

Yet, as John Gray noted in an essay in the New Statesman last week, the political elite largely dismissed this when the result came in, arguing (in the same manner as many in the left do) that immigration was a shadow issue: people had voted for the independence of their proud island nation, etc, etc.

The “Elite Right” formula — whereby the affirmation of traditional values and patriotism covers the devastation of communities and classes through unrestrained capitalism — won’t work anymore, whether imposed by conservatives or by Labour. Scotland’s turn to the nationalist party – essentially subordinating left-right divisions to a shared nationalist value – was extraordinary in 2015, when a once-marginal party took 50 seats from Labour. In retrospect, it has the air of inevitability about it.

On continental Europe, it’s the same story. What was once a left-right struggle between socialists and Christian Democrats within reasonably monocultural societies has become a four-cornered contest between liberal-left parties, centrist right-liberals, nativist hard-right groups, and a new player: parties such as the Danish People’s Party, or Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, which are anti-immigrant, anti-multicultural, but also committed to a strong social democratic system.

[Rundle: it’s not our country that’s unstable, it’s our political system]

Indeed, they argue that it is only by rejecting the free market and free movement that social democracy — the “people’s home” as it was once described — can be preserved. Country by country they are eating into the support base of mainstream labour and social democratic parties, which strike many people as arrogant, elitist, out-of-touch, and fatally bound up with globalisation.

For mainstream parties, these changes are potentially catastrophic. Both centre-right and centre-left major parties have, for the past few decades, presented hybrid programs, which mix class and parochial values — a job-creating state, a patriotic program — with a commitment to globalisation and free-market economics, including high immigration. They’ve sold the latter, as it becomes increasingly unpopular, as something to be compensated for — with extra services or a renewed focus on inculcating “national values”. Those hybrid programs are dead or dying. The free-market globalisation beloved of the elite, which sees whole industry sectors demolished at the same time as new workers are drafted in to fatten the labour market — nothing could now be more repellent to a section of the population.

This is particularly stark in the UK, which has long had a role as a political incubator of new formations. For several years, it looked as if the Conservative Party would be the victim of this, as its “Eurosceptic” wing became more and more militant, and UKIP rose as a competitor to it. A split looked entirely possible — and would not have been staved off by a referendum, which resulted in a “remain” vote. Bizarrely, what looks most like a destructive event — from the point of view of steady modernisation — has saved the Tory party’s homegrown bacon.

The “leave” vote has left UKIP without a cause, and the Eurosceptic right without anything to rally around. With new PM Theresa May committing to the referendum result, the party can now wrap itself around Brexit. The only condition that they must observe is that they reduce immigration numbers, and are seen to do so. If, in order to preserve labour market flexibility, they try to maintain high immigration levels by other means — replace Poles with a greater quota of Arabs or Africans — they will be doubly rejected.

That may mean defections of a few people towards the liberal centre — although the liberal democrats are a particularly sad and unappealing party at the moment — but the Tories have always been supremely pragmatic. Their greatest challenge will be the demands of many of their business donors, for higher immigration levels, to force wages down, and undermine industrial action.

For Labour, which might have hoped to gain from the Conservative turmoil, the past weeks have proved a disaster beyond imagining. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, by the membership, exposed the vast gap between the political elite who constitute the parliamentary party, and the rank and file, and trade unions. Though it’s true that the particular structure of the voting system served to create an anomaly — a leader who did not have the confidence of his MPs — it’s worth remembering that Corbyn was nominated onto the leadership ballot after the 2015 loss by MPs who did not support him, but who wanted to give the appearance of democracy within the party. They got it.

Now, they are desperate to rescind it. The fact that they blithely put a genuine leftist in a position in which the members could vote for him shows how disconnected they have been from their membership and how cynical and contemptuous they are about them. They are correct in saying that a Corbyn-led Labour party is unelectable; but they are wrong in thinking that a party with Corbyn deposed by slick executive moves can even be held together as a single unit.

Yet for all that, that is not the greatest of Labour’s problems. The greatest of its problems is that even its new-found left leadership is out of sync with many of its potential voters on the question of … immigration. Corbyn wants to restrict the movement of capital, but he, and his team, are far more sympathetic to mass immigration and multiculturalism than much of the rank and file who are supporting them. That would inevitably come out in an election and the lead-up to it.

Labour, driven out of the south (save for London and a few big cities) would then also be besieged in the north by UKIP, refashioned as an alternative to Labour, not the Conservatives. With a centrist economic and social program, and a low immigration emphasis, UKIP could take a number of northern seats from a pro-immigration Labour party. Were that to occur in 2020, there is every prospect that Labour could have already split, with a new centrist party coming off it (perhaps fusing with the Liberal-Democrats), lose seats to UKIP in the north, and be locked out of Scotland, London, parts of Wales and a share of the north would be all that is left to the remnant Labour party, which would, more or less, have ceased to exist.

This is the danger that all mainstream centre parties face — the ensemble they put together decades ago is now under threat. And not just any threat — it is a threat that party will not merely start to decline, but might suddenly disappear altogether.

How is this occurring? The long answer is a book. The short answer is that both right and left major parties have, for the past half-century, relied on class coalitions founded on the basis of industrial capitalism. In the West, moving to a service/knowledge capitalism, these class coalitions are breaking up, and shifting the ground of the parties beneath them.

Thus, for half a century, the right has won by capturing a vital section of the working class — often on cultural/nationalist grounds. That deprived left parties of part of their base, and puffed up their own majority. Left parties by contrast were a class coalition, between workers and the small subclass of knowledge and culture workers. The “Nixon Democrats” were the first example of such a class section shift; in Australia, the Whitlam coalition was an example of grouping on the other side.

Those formations and alliances have now collapsed absolutely. Over a half-century, the knowledge/culture workers have become a dominant class (not numerically, but culturally); the industrial working class has been shrunk, defeated and demoralised. In the US, having been “invited” over to the right, it has, in reaction to being used, taken it over, imposing — via Trump — protectionist policies, industrialist policies and closed-border policies. The solid party centre, one for free trade within an American empire, now has no capacity to impose its will over proceedings.

On the left, the grand Whitlam-style coalition has broken down. Whatever confluence exists for economic interests between the service/industrial working class and the knowledge class, there is little common ground culturally. In Australia, thanks to the electoral system, the knowledge class has hived off its own political party — the Greens — leaving Labor’s governing elites dangerously exposed, their distance from their rank and file (still less their actual voters) immense. In Australia, Labor has simply not understood the problem it is about to face.

Representing a class that is cosmopolitan, globalist, but also statist in its beliefs about social and economic management, the Greens can present a totally integrated, liberal, social democratic program, which will find favour with its base. Labor is run by cosmopolitan globalisers, presiding over a party whose support base is frequently protectionist, anti-high immigration, and more than a little nativist in their sentiments. The elite/base separation is very wide. Once, it was mediated by the knowledge class that had been invited in with the accession of Whitlam in 1967. Now they are mostly gone, the gap will become obvious. The only thing that has kept it together is the absence of pressure, thanks to a quarter century of steady growth. The moment a 2008-style crisis hits us, Labor will see itself plunged into this sort of crisis — with beneficiaries everywhere around it.

This all points to a crucial fact, perhaps the most crucial fact of the last year or so. After many false announcements, it is possible that now, in this moment, we have finally seen the end of the left and the right as “top domain” political organising principles. That is to say, the left-right divide — over the control of the means of production — no longer, even vestigially, organises other political aspects. Thus, once, the local/global, or parochial/cosmopolitan split would be subordinated to left and right, and there would be nationalist and internationalist socialists, and free market and protectionist capitalists.

[Rundle: even Pauline Hanson might be good for the Senate]

Now that the state socialist project has been comprehensively defeated, and after a couple of decades transition, the polarities have reversed. The great split is between localists and globalists, nationalists and cosmopolitans, and each side of that divide has its left and right. Thus, in Australia, NXT and the Greens, and the Labor left would represent the localist/nationalist side in its left version, while One Nation, Bob Katter Lambie etc represent it in its right version. On the globalist side, the rest of Labor, a section of the Liberal Party and left-libertarian groups like the Sex Party represent the left, while the conservative wing of the Libs, the National Party and the LDP represent the right.

How did we get into a situation in which these forces and tendencies are so spread across different parties? For much of the 20th century, the bulk of politics was unquestioningly nationalist and localist, with only Communists and classical liberals (the latter having no real party or social base) as internationalists. The national/local nature of left social democratic parties is particularly significant because it has been so buried by history. In particular, it is the social revolutions of the 1960s and the “liberalisation” of such parties that started a process of tension. The alliance they became — between workers and an initially small intellectual class — worked well when the latter’s demands for social liberal changes (anti-censorship, higher education, various social liberties) were subordinated to the broader demands of the larger class: for social democracy or even socialism.

As that demand waned, as those classes were fragmented, some becoming prosperous, others losing out, the cultural element became dominant. That began to define what the left is/was, in many people’s eyes, a wholly cosmopolitan, globalised outfit, with little space for local/nationalist values. The right’s turn to the free market — i.e. cosmopolitan, globalist ideas — as core policy came a decade or so later; its turn to social liberal ideas (i.e. marriage equality) later still. For that reason, it was able to take the most advantage of the last years in which left and right were the first definition of your politics, local/national v global/cosmopolitan a clarifier of which camp you were in, within those two large formations.

Now it would be very difficult for the major parties to wholly choose one side or the other, and essentially “re-share” the national v global divide. Labor’s elite are all cultural (and economic) globalists, many of its members nationalists; ditto for the Coalition, with the economic v cultural order reversed. The social democratic parties in Europe could not do it; and they were the first to suffer a deep undermining and a sudden “swap” of their members to the nativist “right”. Now it is the turn of the mainstream right to suffer it. It’s a measure of how threatened the Conservative Party was by this that an EU referendum had to be called in the first place. It’s a measure of how great the cost was — to the elite — that the referendum was lost. The price of Tory unity was to inherit an island nation that had suddenly re-isolated itself, after a half-century of extending greater links to a supranational project — one that many see as simply necessary in a world of great power blocs.

It’s a (small) measure of how cosmopolitanised the “left” has become that some friends and comrades in Australia were shocked when this author (wielding his UK passport) said that he was leaning towards voting “leave” in the referendum. The genuinely left argument for “Brexit” — that workers, the poor, the economically marginalised, can only gain political and industrial power if they control immigration and capital flows and have a shot at capturing Parliament — went unrecognised.

How epochal is this fracturing across the given political left-right spectrum? I do not see how it cannot continue to widen and deepen, until there is no alternative but a substantial re-arrangement of politics. Even if a renewed “socialist project” arose — i.e. a movement towards social control and operation of key resources and industries (which would look nothing like the old state socialism) — its supporters would tend to shake down into those two formations, and the “neo-socialists” would form a tenancy within each (and be concentrated on the local/national side of the re-oriented spectrum). It will surely become the key political question and organisational system of our era, because it is by these systems that every other major issue — climate change, wars of intervention, global trade — is constructed. Many people are going to have decide which side they’re on, of a changed political order, and find a way of dealing with people they hitherto saw as enemies, or even odious.

It is an extraordinary moment — all the more so because it occurs almost to a century from the time when the current, waning left-right spectrum came into being. World War I had destroyed the liberal ideal of free trade and peace between empires, but it had also split the left between nationalists and internationalists, the former succumbing to patriotic causes, the latter for the first time styling themselves as Communists. A year and a half later, the latter were in power in Russia, and expecting revolution everywhere — Lenin’s quote (a simplified, semi-apocryphal form of a more complex remark he made on “our current tasks”) came from that extraordinary moment. When revolution failed in the West, left parties took up nationalist themes and created modern social democracy. That entire political system is over, and its conclusion made visible by recent events. Now a slower process of disengagement begins. Decades happen in weeks, for sure. But after that decades happen in decade, and reach beyond us into the future.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey