Whither (Wither?) Social Democracy?

In Economics, European Politics, Full Employment, Politics, Public Policy, Social Democracy, U.K Politics, Uncategorized on June 16, 2009 at 10:23 pm


If you’ve been following international news, you’ll know that about a week ago, the E.U elections were held, and showed a substantial fall-off in support for those social-democratic parties allied around the PES (Party of European Socialism) whether or not the national party in question was in or out of government, a smaller fall-off for the more center-right EPP (European People’s Party) and ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), a worrying increase in fringe party representation (including the election of 2 BNP, i.e, fascist, members from the U.K), and a surprising increase in Green party representation.

Given the disastrous results for the British Labour Party in this year’s local elections and the pre-existing weakness of social democracy in European politics across the continent, the E.U elections suggest that in the near-future we may see a Europe where social democratic parties are out of power in every single country, suggesting that the European social democratic left is in serious trouble.

This has caused substantial debate on the future direction of the European left, and I took part in two interesting threads on Crooked Timber, which because of its very trans-national and cosmopolitan audience, provided some very good and diverse commentary. You can check out these debates here:

After going back and forth on these threads, I’ve been thinking a lot about what will happen, and what needs to happen with social democracy. Below, you can find some preliminary thoughts on the matter.

The Party – Inside vs. Outside

One of the themes that emerged from these discussions was that the social democratic parties themselves were tired, anemic, and lacking in ideas,  and that this was a major source of their electoral weakness. What was more troubling was an attitude that the struggle for the social democratic party had been waged and lost in the 1970s and 80s, that neoliberalism had won and penetrated the party structure so thoroughly that there wasn’t much of a potential alternate leadership within the party, nor much public enthusiasm for making an effort at internal party reforms.

To me, this is one of those situations that the left occasionally finds itself in when its diagnosis doesn’t match the solution. Here, the problem is that (because of neoliberal influence), the party has not found a way to respond to the crisis of modern capitalism and the uncertainty, fear, and anger this is causing among their traditional base and the wider electorate. The problem is that, without access to the party from the inside, without the ability to change leadership, platforms, agendas, and rhetorics, there’s no way to turn the party towards a difference course.

Furthermore, I’d like to know why it’s a good idea to leave the party in the hands of the “New”s – those neoliberal/ish reformers who currently wield power? As a matter of political strategy, it seems dangerous to me to leave a political formation that gets double-digit political support unchallenged, as well as leaving the institutional resources (both in terms of electoral machinery, loyal voters and activists, and the intellectual memory and skills of how to govern) of the party in the hands of one’s political rivals.

Giving Up vs. Fighting On

Instead of making a fight for the party, the sense from these discussions (and I fully acknowledge that blog conversations are not a representative sample) is that the natural constituency for an internal party fight, are looking elsewhere for activism, either in social movements/NGOs or third parties. The theory here was that the left tried to win an internal party debate in the 1970s and 80s, that they had lost, given up, and moved on to other projects.

While of course I sympathize with any group that experiences a thirty-year political decline (see: left-wing of the Democratic Party, 1972-2004), I don’t think that giving up is a viable strategy. As I’ve discussed above, leaving the party institution in the hands of neoliberals/neoliberal fellow-travelers poses a grave strategic threat to try to mobilize outside of the party, because a good deal of the party’s constituency will remain loyal to the institution and you’re leaving a flank open institutionally. While some have argued that this might cause parties to shift in the direction of their disaffected supporters, I disagree. When partisans leave a party, it increases the internal influence of those who remain within the institution, namely your opponents. Look at what’s happened to the American Republican Party following its disastrous showing in the last two elections – they’ve shifted right, not left, because the activists and politicians who’ve survived the defection of moderate and liberal Republicans are from the conservative wing, and push the party in the  direction they favor.

I would also argue that social movements, while they are capable of pressuring the political system in moments of crisis, do so in an episodic fashion, and can’t really govern on a day-to-day basis in the same way that political parties can. For that reason, I’m rather suspicious of political arguments that argue for embracing social movements while avoiding electoral politics – in my mind, it’s far better to use a mixed inside/outside approach, where the social movement engages deeply in electoral politics, but retains an independent stance to allow them to keep putting pressure on the system, and to keep the threat of “pulling out” viable against backsliding from their political allies.

As for third parties, there’s nothing strategically wrong with them as a vehicle for activism, with some major caveats. The first is that you have to be careful to engage in coalition-building, so that you’re not bringing the right wing to power. The second is that you lose the built-up institutional resources of longer-established parties, both in terms of their electoral machinery, but also in terms of government experience and historical roots.

Which brings us to…

What is “Green”?

The European Green Parties, which seem to be the one left-of-center political formation not losing influence in Europe. Now why this is the case is a bit unclear; it might have something to do with the migration of left-of-center middle class/student/college-graduate voters, I really don’t know. (Incidentally, if anyone could recommend some good books on the European Greens, it would be much appreciated)

Certainly, it’s true that the Green movement has an advantage vis-a-vis the Social Democratic movement, in that it’s relatively young, and hasn’t been badly rattled by changing political/economic/social changes or internal party divisions. And from the discussions I participated in on Crooked Timber, it has the necessary complements for a political movement: it has a vision (grounded in the idea of an ecological community and a desire to move towards “sustainability” (which although vague, is no less vague than what “after the revolution” meant to early socialists)), it has a policy agenda which serves the vision (cap-and-trade and emissions standards, alternative energy portfolios, efficiency standards, a green manufacturing/building/”green jobs” revolution, etc.), and energy to spare.

However, as someone who’s instinctively a social democrat, I’m not yet sold on whether the Green Party is the wave of the future, or whether we should try for a Social Democratic revival, or both at the same time. The first issue is whether the Greens can broaden their political base and their ideology to include the working class and the poor; while I believe those Crooked Timber commentators who argued that the Greens are generally down with “social justice” issues and the guaranteed minimum income, there is a difference between being supportive of someone else’s  cause (the political equivalent of charity) and integrating ideas about class inequality, economic distribution, the right to organize, and so forth into their vision of how the world should be.  The idea that suggests itself to me is the idea of a “common green,” combining the social-democratic emphasis on de-commodification of human necessities, the right to a social minimum, and the ownership of the means of production with a Green emphasis on ecological preservation and sustainability.

In this, the question of the Greens reminds me of the curious role that New Liberalism played in shaping both the European and Democratic lefts in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. When the socialist/social democratic/laborite  movement began in European (and American) politics, they were actually quite weak, due to restrictions on suffrage, government repression, and prior political loyalties among the working class. However, at the same time that the social-democratic movement was picking up steam, there was a movement within liberalism that was reacting to the combination of social ills caused by capitalism known variously as the “social question” or the “labor question” or the “trusts question” by abandoning some of liberalism’s fears of government activism on behalf of the people. In the U.K, this took the form of a transition from Gladstonian liberalism and the rise of Asquith and Lloyd George and the introduction of the liberal reforms of 1906-1914, which created the foundations of the British welfare state, and the development of new economic and social thought from intellectuals like John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge, all of which the British Labour Party would build off of in 1945.  In Germany, you could look at the left-liberals/state socialists of the Social Policy Association and the National Social Union (people like Gustav von Schmoller, Adolph Wagner, and Max Weber) who helped to establish social insurance and other reforms that social democrats would later build on; in France , the left Radicals and the Red Republicans (including thinkers like Durkheim) played a role in creating a public space for the socialist/laborite community; even in the U.S, you could think of Progressivism and its influence on the New Deal as creating a mental space for liberal Democrats and the American labor movement to find common ground.

It’s possible that the modern Green movement could fill the same role today, helping the Social Democratic movement catch its breath and renew itself without handing over government to the conservatives.

What Is To Be Done?

If Social Democracy is to revive, and I would argue that it important both for Europe, the U.S, and beyond that it do so, my belief is that it will be necessary to launch a vigorous two front war, advancing both on the intellectual and political fronts.

Intellectually, there is a need for work on the levels of vision, agenda, and rhetoric. First, there is a need to update the historic vision of the social democrat movement to fully incorporate social/cultural/economic changes experienced in the last thirty years, and to fully incorporate the lessons taught by the new social movements – not just incorporated as part of a laundry list of support, but in a broader conception of solidarity. Second, there is a need for a strong agenda that really responds to the crisis of modern global capitalism (especially the increased economic insecurity and inequality) beyond just instinctual desires to boost social spending and an objection to globalization. Third, we need to find new rhetorics that can translate our vision and our agenda to old and new constituencies – not just the (white) working class that traditionally has been the social democratic movement’s base and who are now disaffected, but also the young and immigrant communities who don’t have the same  connection to the secure, unionized workforce and its superior connections to the social welfare state.

Politically, all of this will require an internal party effort to replace the current leadership and change the party’s position to something more visibly center-left, as opposed to the center-center or center-right that has been seen under New Labour and similar leadership without lurching so far left that we drop off the map. This means finding new, and I would argue preferably young, leadership who are not connected to the “New”s, and who can effectively reach outside – which means there also has to be an external effort to build alliances and broaden the coalition, to reconnect the Social Democratic political movement to wider social movements and other left-of-center political formations.

Then again, I’m an ignorant American. What do I know?

– Steven Attewell

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  1. […] Whither (Wither?) Social Democracy? […]

  2. […] my previous post about the E.U elections, one thing I neglected to talk about was the worrying rise in the anti-E.U vote in some nations, […]

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