The fall of Social Democracy: Two different perspectives

3538369964_afe3f647e7The first article was drafted by Luís Carvalho
Everyone has heard of Social Democracy, the political Ideology that advocates for State regulation and intervention in the Economy along with gradual reforms for a more fair and equal Society/Economy inside the framework of the Capitalist system, or as one of the Social Democracy “fathers” used to say: “Markets whenever it’s possible, State whenever it’s necessary”, Eduard Bernstein.

It seems like a reasonable thought and something that some people can relate with, and in fact it was one of the predominant Political Ideologies in 40’s. When EU was founded there were two main political Ideologies, Christian Democracy and Social Democracy, some of the founding fathers of the EU were Christian Democrats like Joseph Bech and Walter Hallstein others like Paul-Henri Spaak and Sicco Mansholt where Social Democrats.

If we go back to the post world war II world, it was the beginning of the Cold War, Capitalism vs. Communism, Social Democracy was already a reality in some European countries and it was a moderate approach, like Communism and Capitalism had a child of their one with the best things from each one, the free enterprise and private initiative along with a regulated market, widespread union membership and redistribution of wealth through a Social Welfare State.

The best examples of how well this system worked are referred as the Nordic model (Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Denmark and Norway), people were able to give life to their business ideas, workers were protected by Unions from exploitation, some Services like Healthcare, Railways and Electricity were state owned. The message couldn’t be clearer: “practice a continuous evolution to reach a better world and society through gradual reforms”, or as some might call it Evolutionary Socialism (Reformism).

“So why are Social Democratic parties loosing their votes?” Well, in the 80’s Neoliberalism became a strong ideology, Reagan became US President in 81 and got re-elected in 85, Thatcher was Prime-Minister of the UK from 1979 to 1990 and so a whole agenda was widespread of the Almighty markets vs. the Wasteful Government. The Government started to be seen as “someone” messing around people lives and pockets, and so the top tax rate was slashed, public services like Railways were privatized and the Market was unregulated, the once moderate Social Democratic parties, were now seen as a Radical Left-Wing supporters against Private enterprise.

The strategy taken by Social Democratic parties to fight this tendency was the worst they could think about, instead of fighting this Neoliberal agenda and show that the ones with a true “Radical Agenda” were in fact the neoliberals themselves, the majority of the Social Democratic parties started a conversion through moderation for an even more moderate wing or as some like to call Third Way/Radical Centrism, Tony Blair playing an important role in this part.  The big ideological differences were now a thing of the past and the differences were mainly in terms of tax and spending policies.

The once Reformism was now reconfigured to look like a “Progressive movement of Social Liberalism”. Guterres former Leader of the Portuguese Socialist Party tried to associate his party with a Rose instead of the typical raised fist, Valls even wanted to change it’s party name from Socialist to something more Liberal.

They even wanted to bring Moderation to their logos
They even wanted to bring Moderation to their logos

This whole process is well described and called “The radicalization of the moderation” in Zizek’s famous book Welcome to the desert of the real, traditional moderate left, centre-left parties don’t want to sound too compromising and become “catch-all” parties which makes them loose the traditional working class voter to some surprising parties like UKIP and NF in the last European Elections aggravated by the rise of Anti-Immigration sentiment.

In short, too much moderation has proven to be an electoral catastrophe as a result of lack of identity from Social Democratic Parties, they lost their historical voters and are now more in danger with Anti-Establishment parties self proclaiming “Reformism” like Citizens in Spain, it’s about Time the whole Social democratic movement rediscover itself before their whole identity, Reformist Stance and voters are taken over forever…

The fall of Social Democracy: Two different perspectives

The second article was drafted by Mo Ahmed
Social democracy across the continent is undergoing a major crisis. Across the European Union, where the left rules, it is either unpopular or on the retreat. In France, Francois Hollande, socialist president of the republic, is the most unpopular French president in history, while even in Sweden, Stefan Lofven and his social democrats ae under pressure from the far right Sweden Democrats of Jimmie Akeson. Everywhere else, the old parties of the left are losing seats and losing ground.

The question is, why is this happening? The economic crisis would be the easy explanation, but why is it that the parties of the mainstream right, which largely supported boom and bust and have largely continued the neoliberal policies of social democrat governments so successful? If neoliberal policies were so incredibly popular, why are ultra-neoliberal parties so successful whilst the old social democratic parties are not?

The reason for this decline is a root cause that is much deeper than economics. It goes back to the days of the 70s and the 80s, when social democracy was experiencing its previous major crisis, when Ronald Reagan talked about the shiny city on the hill that could be built without taxes, and Margaret Thatcher declared that, no matter how nasty or difficult her policies were, she would not be moved. That was when the old base of traditional social democratic parties, a coalition of the socially conservative but economically radical working classes and middle class socialists began to break apart. Over the next few decades, this process was accelerated and exacerbated by the policies of Reagan and Thatcher.

Trade union membership and organised labour began to decline, to be replaced by individualised labour and self-employed workers, most of whom parties of social democracy have little appeal with, because those parties have either not responded to their concerns or are widely seen as being out of touch and only for organise labour. In my own country, this explains the apparent paradox of the Labour Party doing badly in Cornwall, the poorest part of the UK and the poorest in Northern Europe. The so-called “Third way” provided some respite, and a brief comeback for many centre left parties during the 1990s, but the policies of 3rd way social democrat governments were little more than a mere continuation of those of the Reagan-Thatcher era, and served to continue to accelerate the vast demographic changes which destroyed the traditional progressive base.

The final tipping point was the financial crisis of 2007/2008, which turned the decline of the old base into an open revolt against it. Today, even “Third way” governments or parties such as that of Renzi in Italy or (Formerly) of Hella Thorning Schmidt of Denmark are deeply unpopular and are losing ground.

Today, parties of social democracy across the continent are mainly composed of middle class progressives, metropolitan liberals, and ideological leftists. The old working class, labour components of these parties have largely shrunk or in some cases have disappeared altogether (An example of this would be the SPD in Germany) .

The new parties of the working class are the parties of the radical right, who have successfully appealed to the concerns of the old Labour base and have successfully constructed a narrative of decline and fear that is a matter of fact for the working classes in modern globalised capitalism. The future for parties of the old left are difficult. There is no path or solution for parties of social democracy that does not involve some sort of response to globalisation and feeling of dejection and anger with the traditional social conservative working class base. For now, it remains to be seen if Europe’s centre left politicians have the vision, ideas or courage to develop such a narrative.

Mo Ahmed is chair of Manchester Labour Students and Labour candidate for Timperley in the May 2016 local elections in the UK. Luis is one of the 2015 graduates of Democracy and an Economics Student.


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