The strange death of social democratic Europe

Essay commissioned by the Nordic Council for its online roundtable entitled: “Social Democrats: Crisis or rebirth?” in August 2010

Social democracy is not merely going through a rough patch: it has seen a steady decline in support over the last three decades. It is unlikely to see any revival in its fortunes until it rediscovers its foundational principles, and throws off the restrictions to its ‘radical horizon of the imagination’. If it does not, it is not just a tragedy for the parties themselves, but for all of Europe, as dark forces to the right of mainstream conservatism wait in the wings to fill the vacuum its absence creates.

A couple of months ahead of the European elections last June, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, the Danish president of the Party of European Socialists, was at a debate in the European capital with David Rennie, the then Brussels correspondent for The Economist.

Rasmussen was crowing that the Socialists would romp to victory as Europeans, shocked by the economic crisis and fed up of years of deregulation, privatisation and growing inequality imposed by the centre-right, would return en masse to social democracy. A new era of a ‘Social Europe’ was in the offing, he insisted.

social democrat rose

Rennie chortled at the suggestion. The reporter for the hyper-liberal magazine, in no way a fan of any flavour of socialism, suggested that such a development was profoundly unlikely as the polls already suggested the opposite and that voters knew full well that such policies have been imposed as much by European social democrats as their conservative rivals.

More chillingly, he suggested that in the marketplace of ideas there will always be a demand for social democratic ideals and that if the centre-left was not willing to dominate this ideological space, much as he disagreed with every last tenet of it, the vacuum therein created would be filled by the far-right.

Weeks later, the results delivered a bitter defeat to the PES, while the far-right advanced – albeit moderately – in 10 member states.

The vote should not have come as the shock it was to the socialists. Apart from a brief fillip at the turn of the millennium, when social democrats were in power in 12 out of the then 15 EU states, social democracy has long been in a steady decline, if not quite a death spiral.

At an average level of support in the nineties of almost 30 percent in the EU12, down from 31 percent in the eighties and 33 percent in the fifties, over the last decade, the rout has accelerated, dropping to an average of 26.6 percent from 2000-10.

The parties receiving the biggest pummelling have actually been in those states where social democracy either dominated or had at least been unchallengeable in their traditional constituencies, the British Labour Party, Germany’s SPD, Sweden’s SAP. In the Netherlands, although the PvDA has to some extent risen from the grave in the recent general election, in the EU vote, the party received a risible 12 percent.

When in some nations the far-right is chalking up results of 17 percent or even 25 percent, one is not a Cassandra but a realist to be worried at such levels of support, as indeed are the outgoing head of the European Trades Union Congress – and even the centre-right European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (admittedly for different reasons) – who both recently said they feared some countries in the EU could see a return of the anti-democratic politics of the 1930s.

But the biggest victor has not been the centre-right, which has also seen a steady decline, or the far right, or even the far left whose electoral fortunes have only tepidly improved (and who in reality are little more than ginger groups of social democracy.

For all their Che Guevara t-shirts and red flags, their programmes are only slightly to the left of the mainstream and willingly respect market constraints every bit as much as their centre-left cousins when they enter into government coalitions, as Die Linke did in Berlin).

Single-issue groups are enjoying their brief Warholian fifteen minutes, as with Sweden’s Pirate Party (who, nevertheless, have eclipsed the SAP in membership) or the Netherlands’ Party for the Animals, but these are unlikely to ever have serious influence at a national or European level.

No, it is abstentionism and apathy that have won out.

As the centre-right and centre-left become increasingly indistinguishable on the economic front, partisanship has dematerialised and family, workplace, neighbourhood and certainly class traditions of voting for a particular party are dead. We simply cannot predict who will vote for whom anymore, or even if they will bother to vote.

There has also been a sharp drop and hollowing out of membership, in particular of activists from working class communities, while a professionalisation has set in, with characters dominating internally who have never had a job outside politics and are entirely removed from the ever-mounting pressures of real life.

Moreover, if we take a wider view than simply focussing on the electoral realm, social democracy is in decline on the industrial front as well.

Confronted with outsourcing, social dumping and de-industrialisation since the eighties, a trade union leadership on the defensive has tended to defend the gains of its existing and aging membership rather than attempt to extend the circle of those benefitting to immigrants in domestic sweatshops or the new, often hyper-educated precariat working in call-centres, Starbucks or low-wage IT-mills.

Trade union membership is slipping and most young people today while not actively anti-union, believe that joining a union is something their granddad did.

But why? What has happened over the last thirty years to the force that in the post-war period was such a hegemon?

Public healthcare, unemployment insurance, free education, the legalisation of trade unions, pensions, indeed the very existence of a middle class can be claimed in great part as victories of the social democratic tradition.

A mildly amusing American bumper sticker reminds: “Trade Unions: From the People Who Brought you the Weekend”. You might say as much about European social democracy. Yet it is not that people have forgotten or become accustomed to these “entitlements”, that they are content and that everything is basically ‘okay’, that they are bored with the centre-left. It is that the centre-left has become bored with them.

Unnervingly, it is the words of the Economist writer, a free-marketeer through and through, at the Brussels debate last year that point in the direction of an answer more than any soul-searching conferences, colloquia or papers social democrats themselves have churned out in the last 12 months.

Years after Tony Blair left office, social democrats on the continent still do not tire of lambasting Tony Blair’s embrace of free-market forces and ideas. But there is no little hypocrisy here. The assault of the SPD’s Gerhard Schroeder on the German welfare state and Lionel Jospin’s privatisation mania cannot be forgotten simply because the former did not sign up to the war on Iraq as the British Labour Party did (and in any case, every European social democratic party signed up to Afghanistan with gusto, even if now many regret it).

The deregulation that greased the wheels of the economic crisis were pushed by the left as much as the right; tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy embraced by the centre-left as necessary measures to attract investment required a paring back of social benefits that undermined parties’ support not just amongst the working poor but also the middle classes that feel – quite rightly – that they are bearing an unfair burden as the main source of national revenues.

Inequality has soared while notions of trust and community solidarity have cracked. Rates of mental illness, obesity and incarceration gallop forward. Hope for change is displaced from collective action toward individualised responses to dissatisfaction with one’s lot: celebrity worship, consumerism and home improvement: “My community, my neighbourhood, my union can’t improve things; but if I build a conservatory on my house, things will at least be better for me.”

Responding to the disquiet amongst traditional supporters, some parties have taken the easy route: copying parts of the language and policies of the far right on immigration and law and order, eviscerating civil liberties and locking up migrants in detention centres.

Finally, when it comes to Europe, parties in power have participated with equal enthusiasm in Europe’s construction of the single market, an achievement that has not been accompanied by a concomitant construction of common social protections.

As even neo-classical economists point out, the economic imbalances between EU member states that are the root of the ongoing sovereign debt crisis are a product of wide variations within Europe of productivity rates and labour market regulation. Their solution and that of the markets is a race to the bottom, but the left in Europe, particularly in the south, has been a capitulation to this demand rather than any articulation that such imbalances can be solved by more robust EU-level fiscal transfers and common social standards.

If social democracy across Europe has been in a morass for decades, Pasok in Greece and Portugal’s Socialists, and to a lesser extent Spain’s PSOE, have decided to commit electoral suicide via their austerity packages. Papandreou in particular appears unmoved by the civil unrest he has unleashed. He is tearing his country apart.

But fundamentally it is not ideological drift that is most at fault, but a cowardice, a lack of ambition, a willing acceptance of markets’ restriction of the limits of policy space, or, in more poetic language, as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it, there has been a retreat in the “radical horizon of the imagination.”

The famous democratic deficit at the heart of the EU and citizens’ growing frustration with a Brussels machine that still has very weak mechanisms of accountability are left for the eurosceptic right to address, with their nationalism and trivial, oracular, mythical complaints about bans on straight bananas or buying eggs by the dozen.

Euroscepticism too has been a beneficiary of the social democratic deer stuck in the headlights. Why do social democrats not openly embrace a radical democratic vision for the continent, a United States of Europe, tackling both citizens’ quite legitimate disquiet and confronting head on the nationalism that has never been, or should never have been, a bright star within the social democratic ideological firmament?

The irony seems to have been lost on them that the pressures of capital flight that have so long restricted their policy space at the national level can be much more vigourously resisted from by a market the size of the EU.

For a brief moment when the economic tsunami began to engulf Europe, politicians across the bloc seemed to have rediscovered John Maynard Keynes, while a flurry of progressive think-tank treatises and centre-left policy papers heralded the dawn of a ‘Green New Deal’, in which the quite expensive public investment – and, crucially, long-term strategic economic planning – that will be needed to make the shift to a low-carbon economy, with its massive investment in wind and solar power, nuclear fusion, intelligent electricity grids, re-investment in public transit, a shift toward rail and canal-based freight transport and away from industrialised agriculture, was the solution.

But not two years later, these genuinely hopeful documents appear to have been so many ‘tintenburgen’, or ‘ink castles’ as the Germans call such endeavours: heaps of paperwork no one ever reads or pays any attention to, as grand schemes for a new era of ambitious public spending have been replaced by draconian emergency austerity measures, gutting what remains of the state (all the while that military expenditure, as ever, remains untouched).

But Zizek’s ‘horizon’ could be pushed out still further. As a child of the eighties, I am old enough to remember both the bed-wetting fear of the real possibility of nuclear holocaust and the sugar-rush-like thrill and excitement of space exploration, of shuttles and rockets and satellites. Today, no country, no enemy truly threatens us.

Where is the brave nation that decides to pack up its military tout court, that decides it will redirect the trillions wasted on tanks and jet-fighters and white phosphorus and uranium-depleted ammunition toward massive new investments in education, science, technology and medicine?

Where is the party manifesto that says: ‘Yes, we will and can put men on Mars within a decade, cure cancer within two and vanquish the mental and physical debilitations of old age before the child who is born today retires!’

Where is the social democratic Manhattan Project? Where is the peaceful but Total-War-like mobilisation to end poverty, to end inequality?

Social democracy will not survive if it only proposes to defend what remains of the welfare state or, as in practice it actually does, cuts more slowly than the right would. There must be the offer of hope, of the New Man, of a New Society, of a New World, where every single person on this planet will – and soon! – be able to realise the full potential of his or her humanity.

This, the grandest of ambitions, was the fundamental promise of early social democracy that captured the imagination of generations of so many working people, scientists, intellectuals, artists, writers and musicians – and what differentiated socialism from all other offers.

It is, to use a hackneyed but accurate phrase, the ‘vision thing’, and it’s something that Rasmussen and his Party of European Socialists just does not have. Woe betide Europe if they do not find it somewhere and pretty damn quick.

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