The New Political Divide

VIENNA: Despite traditional party labels, today’s most important political division is between two de-facto coalitions: call them the party of globalization and the party of territoriality. One seeks to overcome geographical boundaries, the other to restore them. To borrow from computer language, these are "virtual" parties, cutting across today’s organized political parties, and which include adherents of both new "parties."

These two new "parties" emerged from the exhaustion of class politics. Postwar western politics -- confrontations between social democratic parties supporting the welfare state and Christian Democratic or business oriented parties emphasizing the role of private capital -- effectively ended in the early 1980s. The old historic Left had lost its ideological purpose by the 1980s-- not because it failed, but because it succeeded.

Success meant the institutional anchoring of welfare states and policies designed to maintain high employment. Success implied expansion of such public goods as widespread university education. It did not mean the attainment of radical equality, but acceptance of Keynesian economics, the pursuit of full employment, the expansion of public education and pensions. But all the achievements of the postwar era came into question with the inflation, labor militancy, unemployment, and budget deficits of the 1970s. Dissatisfaction led to repudiation of social-democratic governments, as electorates turned to Thatcher, Reagan, and Helmut Kohl. Where Socialists did gain power -- in Spain and France -- they conformed to the new anti-inflationary realities.

Reorienting macroeconomic policy represented only part of the sea change of the 1970s. Equally profound was the weakening of Marxism. The collapse of Communism, I believe, was part of the overall exhaustion of socialist politics in both systems. Communist parties and Marxist intellectuals saw their legitimacy vanish at the same time as social democratic faith waned. The intellectual critique of Marxism inside and outside the Soviet Bloc, whether by Charter 77 or Solidarity or the New Philosophers in France, accompanied the economic difficulties of state socialism and the Soviet Union's failure to secure military or strategic victories (Angola, Afghanistan, the placement of middle-range rockets in Western Europe despite the protests of the Peace Movement). These pressures brought to power a Soviet leader willing to adopt reforms whose full extent he hardly envisaged and which eventually led to the downfall of the Communist Party.