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Centrists Are Pining for a Golden Age that Never Was (Review)

The author claims that today she would cross the street to ignore some of the attendees at that gathering, while she suspects many of them would deny having been there at all. The reason why is that, particularly over the last decade, there has been a splintering of the center-right.

While some, like Applebaum, remain part of the “pro-European, pro-market centre-right,” others have turned to the Law and Justice Party — Poland’s government and a force which is firmly on Europe’s nativist right. It is the bifurcation of this previously solid status quo that haunts Applebaum, a shift extending beyond her adopted home to Russia, Western Europe, and even the United States. Why, the author wonders, has this happened all at once?

Conspicuously absent in the answer that follows — which focuses instead on personalities, the politics of nostalgia and digital culture — is the inability of the neoliberal model, specifically since 2008, to provide rising living standards. One exception is an early effort, where the author peculiarly understates the world’s biggest economic crisis since the 1930s, “The recession of 2008-9 was deep, but – at least until the coronavirus pandemic — growth had returned.”

Growth for who is ignored here, as is the fact that across those very countries Applebaum is concerned with — Britain, Poland, Hungary, Spain — living standards have stagnated for more than a decade. In Hungary and Poland GDP per capita didn’t recover to 2008 levels until nine years later. In Spain, where Applebaum speaks to a party operative for the hard-line right-wing Vox Party, even now it remains lower than a decade ago. Given that unemployment in the country, a poster child for the new economy in the early 2000s, was at 14 percent before the coronavirus, that is an extraordinary oversight.

While the term “lost decade” was once applied exclusively to a cluster of countries such as Japan and Italy, since the financial crisis it has grown to encompass much of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). The number of Americans using food stamps almost doubled in the years following 2007. For all the talk of “fake news” in the 2016 election, when Donald Trump would frequently mention how forty million Americans required federal assistance just to eat — questioning how this represented success under Barack Obama — that figure was entirely accurate.

At one point in the book, Applebaum goes as far to assert that real poverty no longer exists in the Global North, “in the Western World … if we describe them as “poor” or “deprived,” it is sometimes because they lack things that humans couldn’t dream of a century ago, like air-conditioning or wifi.” Tens of millions of people requiring government assistance to eat three square meals a day, and in the world’s wealthiest society, suggests otherwise.

Read entire article at Jacobin