Do Social Democratic Parties Have a Future?
In light of the popular movements of today and the debate on democracy they triggered, we don’t even know if traditional party politics will be the most adequate vehicle to address the challenges related to globalization, financial capitalism, inequality or the environment. But, thanks to “What is Left of the Left?” we have a better grounding and knowledge about where the Social Democratic parties stand and the path that they have covered so far.
By Katerina Svickova
To state that the political left is searching for its soul is not particularly revealing to informed left-leaning readers. A look at the political map of Europe these days shows that the electorate is not convinced about the capacity of the left to steer their societies through this economic downturn. In the United States too, support for the Democratic administration and the Democratic Party is low. Numerous books, including “The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism,” reviewed on this site, are asking why neoliberalism gained such a grip on power and on the minds of decision makers, opinion makers and large shares of the general public. So where to has the Left (seemingly) disappeared? What is left of the Left?
“What is Left of the Left?” is also the title of a volume edited by James Cronin, George Ross and James Shoch, three distinguished U.S. scholars. Cronin is a historian specializing in modern British and European history, Ross is a political scientist with rich expertise in European studies and Shoch is a professor of governance with a publication record on American economic, trade and industrial policy. Accordingly, the volume is a sound piece of academic work and a very matter-of-fact exploration of the ups and downs of the left since the 1970s. It offers well researched and well presented insights into the struggle of the European and U.S. left-wing parties to get a grip on major challenges facing them since the ’70s.
These challenges include: the end of capitalism’s “golden age” and loss of faith in Keynesian policies, the collapse of Soviet communism and its disenchanting effects, the globalization of the economy, the acceleration of the trend towards post-industrial employment and shifts in social structure and demography. The assessment of how European and U.S. left-wing parties coped with these challenges is conducted from two perspectives. Several chapters trace the development of Social Democratic parties in specific places (U.K., France, Sweden, U.S. and Central and Eastern European countries) while other compare responses of left-wing parties in several countries to particular issues (new social risks, immigration and European integration). Further, the volume contains chapters that ground these contributions in a longer term account of the fate of the left. Lastly, the well written introduction and conclusion distill and bind together insights from the individual contributions to ensure that the volume is not just a set of disparate chapters.
What are some of the overarching insights? First, mainstream left-wing parties today are more center-left than left. The contributions in the volume make this clear and underpin empirically the shift of socialist parties to the center over time. This shift was particularly profound in the U.K. Labor Party as Cronin shows. However, it is also visible in the Swedish Social Democratic Party, still the bastion of true Social Democracy as Jonas Pontusson argues. Also in France, starting with the famous U-Turn under President Francois Mitterand (from a socialist economic program to a strongly neoliberal policy), the center-left became not so different from the political center-right in economic policy and the direction of reforms. A chapter on the left in the post-socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, now all Member States of the European Union, also indicates that most of the left-wing parties are left-wing largely just in proclamations but not in action. They became advocates of the same economic policies — liberalization, privatization and marketization — as the center-right. However, it would be simplistic to assign a common, universal underlying reason for this shift. The chapters show the specific challenges that the left was facing in their particular national contexts and to which the parties then tailored their responses.
The second overarching message is that the challenges lying in front of the left — in the form of globalization and shifts and changes it brings along — are not the first ones of such profoundness. The chapter by S. Brenan on “Social Democracy’s Past and Potential Future” shows the learning process and the internal discussions and divisions in Europe’s socialist parties since the end of the 19th century. Back then, as now, socialists also had to find a response to globalization. And they were not spared difficulties after that, including the need to find a response to the catastrophe of the World War I, the economic depression and the carnage in the wake of World War II.
Brenan argues that the adaptation and response was successful when Social Democrats managed to thwart the orthodox Marxist doctrine, which condemned them to passively waiting for capitalism’s end and accompanying class conflict. Instead, they had to accept that capitalism was not dying and that it generated much desired wealth, albeit while causing a lot of dislocation. An important lesson learned was that rather than waiting until capitalism discredits itself and collapses, a more appropriate and more electorally rewarded response was activism, regulation of capitalism and the protection of vulnerable from the negative consequences thereof. Rather than conflict, cross-class cooperation offered a better ground for the acknowledged need to control the economic forces by political ones. Capitalism and markets were to be tamed rather than defeated or abandoned. This shift in the vision of Social Democrats could be also epitomized by the words of French poet Paul Eluard, “There is another world, but it is in this one.”
However, this shift, and finding appropriate concrete responses to concrete issues, has not been an easy process, as the studies of individual countries demonstrate. It was accompanied by internal fights, a superficial embrace of new ideas on creative reformism of the markets or, conversely, becoming too comfortable in the mixed economy. In such situations, cynicism within the party transposed into a public perception of the party as emptied of a vision, becoming a status quo defender that protects vested interests. This is, however, not inevitable, as the chapter on the Nordic model by Jonas Pontusson demonstrates. In the Nordic countries and in Sweden in particular, Social Democracy flourished and managed to influence the whole atmosphere and thinking, including that of the right-wing parties. Pontusson argues that the social democratic Nordic model remains viable under the conditions of globalization and liberalization and supports his argument by empirical evidence showing superior performance of Nordic countries in terms of economic growth, employment or educational attainment compared to liberal market economies, like the U.K. and U.S., and the continental social market economies, like Germany. He shows how the egalitarianism of the Nordic countries contributed to their success. A crucial message is thus that social solidarity, equality and economic growth are not contrasting goals but can go hand in hand.
The third important point that the volume makes regards the difficulties of nationally based parties to cooperate and coin policies at the transnational level. This is probably no revelation but a case study written by Ross on the left parties’ response to European integration helps to explore the facets and roots of the challenge and to understand the barriers involved.
The insights of the volume do not only apply to European Social Democratic parties. Three chapters of the book explore the situation of the Democratic Party in the U.S. The chapters address directly the challenges identified in the introduction of the whole volume. R. Teixeira presents an analysis of the evolution and transformations in the Democratic coalition — the various social groups that form the electorate of the Democratic Party. If the insights and conclusions of the author are correct, the outlook of Democrats in prospective elections is a positive one as demographic developments and social changes seem to be in their favor. C. Howard provides a fine-grained analysis of the American welfare state. Howard paints a more complex picture of U.S. social policy whereby both Republicans and Democrats support welfare but within the overall frame of mind of distrust in big government. He shows how Democratic officials changed their approach in recent decades, shifting from social insurance to tax expenditures and social regulations. In his account, the American welfare state is larger than generally perceived in terms of the level of spending (because he also adds tax-related measures). Yet it achieves relatively little in reducing poverty and inequality as it is designed mostly to cater to the middle class and upper middle class, i.e. to the most active members of the polity. This suppression of the issues of poverty and inequality has now, though, returned with a vengeance through the Occupy movement, which rightly calls for putting the issue of inequality back on the public and government agenda. Finally, the third chapter presents the ambivalent response of the Democratic Party to issues related to globalization and, specifically, free trade.
So overall, what can we say, after reading the volume, about for what the current center-left stands? The response can be boiled down, in brief, to recognition of the “variety of lefts.” The analyses have shown that in each country, the Social Democratic parties target differently composed constituencies, face historically and contextually influenced problems and identify their own solutions. There is no simple pattern and no one-size-fits-all recipes to the individual and overarching challenges. Jane Jensen very nicely illustrates this in a chapter on new social risks, showing the diversified responses of Social Democratic parties in Sweden, Germany and the U.K.
From a volume of this type, one could always ask for more depth, more comprehensiveness or for other comparisons. A reader concerned about the fate of the leftist policies might also yearn for more clues about where the left could go and what responses it could present. Yet the book does not do this job for the social democratic parties or movements. It does not suggest a vision that they should consider. Moreover, it does not diminish the challenges standing in front of social democratic parties. So even having read the volume, we still don’t know where the left should concentrate its effort and how to re-kindle the enthusiasm and inspiration among people as the left used to do. In light of the popular movements of today and the debate on democracy they triggered, we don’t even know if traditional party politics at the national level will be the most adequate vehicle to address the challenges related to globalization, the excesses and dislocations of financial capitalism, social transformations, inequality or the environment, or whether the future of the leftist ideas lies in alternative movements or more cooperation at the transnational level. But with this volume, we have a better grounding and knowledge about where the social democratic parties stand and about the path that they have covered so far.
The insights from the volume can help us set more adequate expectations from what political parties and party politics can and cannot achieve. Despite being very straightforward about the challenges, the volume carries also a positive message. Left-wing parties already stood in front of tough challenges and managed to find viable solutions. It has traditionally been the job of the left to show that a better world is possible and to activate, mobilize people around this vision. In the past, it managed to do so. So chances are that today and tomorrow, it ultimately will be able to do so, too.
Katerina Svickova holds master degrees in European Studies, European Economic Integration and International Relations from the University of Economics and Charles University in Prague and the Central European University in Budapest. She has worked in the non-profit sector supporting social enterprise. She currently works for the European Commission. Opinions presented in her posts and articles represent strictly her personal, and in no way an institutional, perspective.
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