A collective howl of protest and despair will resound through Europe's streets and squares on Wednesday at the annual May 1 rallies, which, in happier times, celebrate the dignity of human labor.
It is difficult to be festive when 26 million Europeans are jobless and economic recession blights the continent. For the first time in generations, numerous parents fear that the future living standards of their children will be lower than their own. Their sense of powerlessness is all the greater because, in or out of government, Europe's center-left parties – once the formidable political voice of the organized working classes – no longer appear capable of fulfilling their historical mission as protectors of jobs, welfare and social cohesion.
(Read More: Economic Mood in Euro Zone Sours Again in April)
Five years of financial crisis, fueled by the excesses of reckless capitalism, might have crippled the electoral fortunes and ideological credibility of conservative, laissez-faire parties on the European right. Instead, the left comes armed with solutions that voters mistrust as impractical, expensive or out of step with the times.
Perhaps the right benefits from the shortening political memories of modern electorates. Iceland's voters ejected the Social Democrats last weekend and returned to power the same center-right parties that presided over the island's financial implosion in 2008. Fianna Fáil, the Irish right-of-center party destroyed in a February 2011 election because of its responsibility for Ireland's collapse into a debtors' ward, is once more climbing up the opinion polls.
But what goes around comes around. The shortcomings of center-right governments doubtless guarantee that the center-left will one day return to power in economically struggling European countries, just as the Socialists did one year ago in France thanks to depleted public confidence in Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president.
(Read More: ECB Says Ditching Austerity Would Not Help Euro Zone)
For the moment, France is the exception. The center-right rules the roost across the European Union, governing four of the six biggest nations – Germany, Poland, Spain and Britain. It shares power in Italy's new ruling coalition, and in any future election it looks well-placed to exploit the lacerating internal quarrels of the Italian center-left.