Editorial from the December 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
Most political pundits predicted that Donald Trump would face defeat in the Presidential Elections. Likewise with the European Referendum in June, they were confident that the Remain side would win. On both counts, they were wrong.
In next year's French Presidential elections the Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, is expected to make major gains. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland, a far right populist group, may be in a position to challenge the ruling Christian Democrats. The Freedom Party of Austria gained most votes in the first round of the Austrian Presidential elections in April 2016.
Clearly, there is a surge in support for populist parties and politicians across Europe and in the USA who peddle nationalism, xenophobia and racism and pose as champions of the people against the establishment. Widespread disaffection with and mistrust of the mainstream political parties have emerged. It is not too difficult to see why this discontent has come about.
Over the years, due to the deregulation by governments of financial markets, capital has been able to flow more freely around the globe. Thus many relatively well-paid jobs in manufacturing and in industry have moved from richer to poorer countries where the labour costs are lower. At the same time, we have witnessed the erosion of trade union power. There has been increased impoverishment in former industrial areas, such as the 'rustbelts' in the USA. Impersonal market forces have penetrated into the everyday lives of working class people resulting in a feeling of powerlessness. Governments of whatever persuasion appear at best set against these forces or at worst conniving with them. Supranational institutions, that embody these impersonal market forces, like the European Union, have become increasingly unpopular.
Concomitant with this process of 'globalisation' has been the rise of immigration of workers to the richer countries. This has fostered unease among workers in the host countries who fear increased competition for jobs and scarce resources. Populists, like Donald Trump, UKIP and the Front National, exploit these anxieties for their electoral gain.
Over this period, there has been a rise in Islamophobia resulting from terrorist attacks such as the September 11 attacks, the London bombings and more recently the attacks in France and Belgium. Populists have not been slow in latching onto this fear of Islamic terrorism. Banning Muslims from entering the US was a central plank of Trump's electoral platform.
There is no doubt that the social and economic effects of the 2008 financial crash have increased the discontent of the working class. While workers have had to endure austerity imposed on them, the rich minority continue to become richer. Governments are seen to be complicit in this increasing inequality.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites and the failure of social democratic parties like the Labour Party to reform capitalism, socialism and communism have been seen by many workers to have failed. Therefore, when workers become angry with the effects of capitalism, many of them turn to right-wing populist parties. Ironically these parties usually champion the same free market capitalism which ultimately lies behind working class discontent. They offer no solution to working class problems, and like the Social Democratic Parties before them, they will inevitably fail in their efforts to transform capitalism should they come to power. Socialism is the only solution to working class problems.