“It’s Okay to be Angry About Capitalism” – How Fighting Economic Inequality Could Revitalize the European Left

As the upcoming U.S. presidential elections draw near, history seems to repeat itself as the dilemma is once again between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. While both candidates represent opposing ideologies, there seems to be a common denominator in their reliance on substantial corporate and billionaire backers who fund their campaigns, creating dependencies on these influential contributors. At a time when global economic inequalities are deepening the divide between the rich and the poor, this reliance poses a significant threat to democracy.

However, many may have overlooked the 2020 elections’ potential for lasting change and a shift toward a different economic and social paradigm. Bernie Sanders, the U.S. Senator for Vermont and a two-time presidential candidate, managed to rally 43.1% in 2016 and 26.6% in 2020 of U.S. Democrats around revolutionary left-wing and progressive ideas through a grassroots campaign without Wall Street corporates and CEOs’ backing. In his recent book, “It’s Okay to Be Angry About Capitalism,” Sanders reflects on this journey and urges a radical reevaluation of the U.S. economic, social, and political systems. He challenges us to address the economic injustices fueled by ‘uber-capitalism,’ a system that enriches Wall Street corporates and CEOs at the expense of the majority in the U.S. Sanders’ political platform in 2020 saw relative success advocating for policies traditionally opposed by American ideology, such as universal healthcare, job guarantees, wealth taxes and free education. While Sanders often looks to Europe, where welfare states serve as models for managing social services, Europe itself is witnessing a worrying shift away from leftist accomplishments towards a resurgence of right-wing politics, mirroring the trends associated with Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The economic and political divide between the rich and the poor is widening in Europe as well. Although the current U.S. situation may not serve as a model for Europeans envisioning their future, Sanders’ grassroots movement and mobilization of millions of Americans for left-wing and progressive ideas offer hope for revitalizing the European left.

In total, social democratic parties in western European countries dropped, on average, from a voter turnout of 40% to below 20% in the last elections of the 21st century. Historically, the European left—rooted in the socialist and social democratic movements—was meant to represent a counterbalance of unmitigated capitalism, attracting blue-collar workers with workers’ rights and social welfare such as reduced working hours and healthcare programs. The latter part of the 20th century, however, witnessed a significant shift. The neoliberal ideal of an economic system with less state intervention gained traction, deepened by the narrative “there is no alternative [to economic liberalism]” popularized by figures such as Margaret Thatcher. This neoliberal wave, characterized by the privatization of parts of the public sector, the dismantling of the welfare state and deregulation of the financial sectors, eroded the traditional base of the left. As the lines between center-left and moderate right parties blurred, traditional left voters missed policy programs meant to advocate for their interests: A stable economy with fundamental workers’ rights and fair wages. The 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath represent a peak of this identity crisis, as the left struggled to articulate an alternative to the prevailing economic paradigm. As a result, the new right with its anti-pluralist alignment was born, making use of the opportunity of a weakened left. By focusing on identity politics rather than on economic or class appeals, parties such as Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) in Germany, Rassemblement National (RN) in France, Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) in Italy and Sverigedemokraterna (SD) in Sweden attracted traditionally left voters. This electorate was fed up with years of austerity politics leading to diminishing purchasing power.

In recent years, this identity crisis was characterized by the inability of the left to present an alternative to the European People’s Party (EPP) policy programs in the European Parliament. The tendency to align with center parties rather than constructing a distinct leftist agenda further diluted the left’s message, making it difficult to differentiate it from its political adversaries. This strategic miscalculation has been manifested for years in the European Parliament, where a fragmented left has often found itself on the defensive, struggling to present a coherent and appealing alternative to the electorate. When EPP’s leader Manfred Weber tested an alliance with the far right by contesting progressive achievements, such as LGBTQIA+ rights or environmental protection laws, Socialists and Democrats’ (S&D) group’s chair García Pérez remained passive. It seems that the center-left see themselves as the junior partner to the conservatives instead of shaping the EU’s agenda with their own political approaches. 

The current challenges the European left is facing are not insurmountable, but they require a radical revision of its strategy and priorities. One way to overcome these challenges is to address the root causes of the problem, which are unsatisfactory responses to social and economic injustices and the focus on identity politics in the current political environment. On the one hand, voters who are usually in favor of rather left economic policy programs disagree on social policy, such as immigration or laws that promote social and cultural equality. On the other hand, voters leaning to the right rather agree on social policy, but disagree on economic policy. Conversely, when placing cultural issues at the center of political debates, as currently the case with immigration and inner security, left parties struggle to find common ground, fueling the success of right-wing parties. Instead, there needs to be a joint effort to recenter the political debate on economic issues – such as taxation, healthcare, education, and the green transformation. These are the issues that bear the potential to unite a majority of the electorate across national and cultural lines: Addressing the growing discontent with neoliberal policies and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. This could also mean the necessity to open up for coalitions between moderate left and far left parties. The left’s president in the European Parliament Manon Aubry recognizes the need for a strategic realignment: “We spent too much time trying to protect ourselves from the reactionary agenda. We should also be offensive”. According to Aubry, one of this offensive agenda could be to “tax the rich” and end economic inequality which has enabled the right to become so strong in the first place. 

Photo by Parker Johnson on Unsplash.

Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the United States offers some lessons to learn for the European left. His ability to articulate the inequalities inherent in the current economic system, together with his commitment to policies that directly address these issues, attracted many Americans. Importantly, Sanders’ campaign has been driven by grassroots support rather than billionaire backers, adding credibility to his message and demonstrating that it is possible to challenge the establishment from the bottom. Regarding the future of the European left, Sanders’ approach – by focusing on economic justice, building a broad-based coalition, and maintaining independence from corporate interests – provides a roadmap for revitalizing itself. The decline of the left in Europe is not an irreversible trend. By learning from past mistakes and adapting to the current political and economic landscape, the left can reposition itself as a credible and relevant political player. Bernie Sanders can be an example for this journey, be it in the form of a mass mobilizer or a distinct political agenda. The European left can address the important issues of our time and unite the electorate around a shared vision of economic fairness, social justice, and environmental sustainability.

Julian Kurz