New Internationalist

The decline of social democracy

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Why is it that, just as ultraliberal capitalism is floundering, social democracy is unable to step up to the plate? Ignacio Ramonet investigates.

Ideas die too. The cemetery of political parties overflows with the remains of organizations that at one time ignited passions and roused multitudes but are now relegated to oblivion. Who in Europe today agrees with Radicalism, though it was one of the most important political forces (centre-left) of the second half of the 19th century? Or Anarchism? Or Stalinist Communism? What happened to these formidable mass movements that in their day could mobilize millions of workers and peasant farmers? Were they just passing fashions?

The cemetery of political parties overflows with the remains of organizations that at one time ignited passions and roused multitudes but are now relegated to oblivion

Because of what it has abandoned, retracted and renounced, European social democracy today finds itself being dragged towards the grave. Its life cycle seems about to end. And yet, this is happening at a time when its arch rival, ultraliberal capitalism, is passing through one of its worst periods ever. How can social democracy be dying just as ultraliberal capitalism finds itself in severe crisis? The answer is clear: because it was incapable of generating popular enthusiasm for its weak response to the urgent social problems of the day.

Identity crisis

Without compass or theory, it gropes along, seemingly broken, its leadership sickly, with neither organization nor ideas, neither doctrine nor direction. And, most important, without identity. This was an organization that was supposed to have carried out a revolution but backed away from the idea. It was a workers’ party, but today it is the party of a comfortable urban middle class.

The recent elections demonstrated that European social democracy no longer knows how to appeal to the millions of voters who are victims of the brutal postindustrial world brought about by globalization – the multitudes of disposable workers, the new poor of the suburbs, the marginalized, the retired-though-still-of-working-age, at-risk youth, middle-class families threatened by destitution, all groups damned by neoliberal shock. For all of these people, social democracy seems to have neither a message nor solutions. The June 2009 European elections gave a clear indication of its current disastrous state. The majority of the social democratic parties that had been in power were dealt serious setbacks, while those in the opposition also suffered losses, especially in France and Finland.

European social democracy today finds itself being dragged towards the grave. And yet this is happening at a time when its arch rival, ultraliberal capitalism, is passing through one of its worst periods ever

They couldn’t convince voters they had a response to the economic and social challenges raised by the shipwreck of financial capitalism. If evidence had been lacking of the European social democrats’ failure to devise an approach different from that of the EU leadership, Gordon Brown and Jose Luis Zapatero provided more than enough when they backed the shameful election as President of the European Commission of ultra-liberal Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, the fourth man of the March 2003 Azores Summit –along with George W Bush, Tony Blair, and Jose Maria Aznar – where the decision was made to launch the illegal invasion of Iraq.

What foundations?

In 2002, the social democrats were in power in 15 countries of the EU. Today, despite the fact that the financial crisis has proved the social, moral and ecological bankruptcy of ultraliberalism, the social democrats rule in only five countries (Spain, Greece, Portugal, Hungary, and the UK). They have been simply incapable of taking advantage of this situation. Moreover, the governments of three of these countries – Spain, Greece and Portugal, each ravaged by the financial markets and the debt crisis – will end up more discredited and unpopular when they begin to rigidly implement the austerity programmes and anti-populist policies demanded by the logic of the EU and its principal gatekeepers.

Indeed, repudiating their very foundations has become a habit: European social democrats decided years ago to ramp up privatizations, demand lower budgets at the expense of the citizens, call for raising the retirement age and dismantle the public sector, while pushing for giant corporate mergers and concentration and pampering the banks. It gradually converted itself, without remorse, to social-liberalism, dropping as priorities certain objectives that were part of its ideological DNA – for example, full employment, the defence of acquired social advantages, the development of public services and the eradication of hunger and poverty.

European social democrats decided years ago to ramp up privatizations, demand lower budgets at the expense of the citizens and dismantle the public sector

From the end of the 19th century until the 1930s, every time capitalism took a step forward, the social democrats, backed by the Left and the unions, responded with original and progressive proposals: universal suffrage, free education for all, the right to a job, social security, the social state, the welfare state. The dynamic imagination that gave rise to these ideas now seems to have been exhausted.

A lack of vision

European social democracy lacks the vision of a new social utopia. Times have changed. In the minds of many constituents, even the least well off, consumerism has triumphed, along with the desire to get rich, have fun, luxuriate in abundance and be happy without feeling guilty.

From the end of the 19th century until the 1930s, every time capitalism took a step forward, the social democrats, backed by the Left and the unions, responded with original and progressive proposals

In the face of this dominant hedonism, permanently stamped into people’s minds by relentless advertising and manipulation by the media, the leaders of the social-democrats do not dare go against the current.

They have even managed to convince themselves that it isn’t certain that capitalists get rich by exploiting workers but that, to the contrary, the poor are taking advantage of the taxes paid by the wealthy. They think, in the words of Italian philosopher Raffaele Simone, that ‘socialism is possible only when misfortune outstrips happiness, when suffering far exceeds pleasure, and chaos triumphs over structure.’[1]

In contrast, however, in certain countries of South America (Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela), we may be seeing a rebirth, with force and creativity, of a new, 21st century socialism, as in Europe the bell tolls for social democracy. Requiem aeternam….

Ignacio Ramonet is the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique in Spanish.

Copyright IPS 2010. Reproduced with permission.

[1] Raffaele Simone, ‘Les socialistes proposent toujours le sacrifice’, (Socialists Always Propose Sacrifice), in Philosophie Magazine, number 36, February 2010, Paris.

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