Social democracy… what is it good for? May 10, 2016Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
[German] Sigmar Gabriel, Social Democratic (SPD) leader and economics minister, hosted a “values” conference to discuss “new and old questions for social democracy”. But the biggest question went unanswered: what, in the year 2016, is the SPD for?
The same question is haunting centre-left parties around Europe as they grapple with a decline in traditional, class-based voter affiliation and the disappearance of the classic working class milieu.
I think though this is a terrible misreading of what happened to social democracy in the latter part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st. It is not that those dynamics weren’t evident, voter stickiness in relation to specific parties has been in decline in many polities. It is true that the the ‘working class milieu’ has changed, I think the term ‘disappearance’ though is incorrect.
But what of social democrat parties themselves in all this? And weirdly Scally answers that point himself implicitly when he notes:
Onstage with Gabriel on Monday, cleaning lady Susanne Neumann described the legacy of the SPD’s decade-old labour and welfare reforms: “shitty contracts” that condemned workers to low-pay, casual work with few benefits.
“You ran us down,” she said. “Why should I vote for a party that did that to me and gives me no answers?”
Social democracy essentially sold the farm. It bought into the idea that the market was all, that restraining it (at best) was as good as could be achieved, and in doing so it became an adjunct to right of centre and conservative parties who could much more plausibly present themselves as champions of that market. And when – as was inevitable – those labour and welfare reforms hit home, under the pressure of recession and other dynamics, and when the reality of what they represented became clear small wonder that, in some parts, voters drifted across to political parties that at the least paid lip service to their socio-economic concerns.
It could have been different. It certainly should have been. But for that to be the case it would necessitate social democrat parties that stood with the state and socio-economic structures that they themselves had been instrumental in creating. It would require shaping a narrative that wasn’t content with the status quo or the status quo ante but pushed for innovation in those latter structures. And these didn’t have to be state linked, or just state-linked. Social means of ownership, cooperatives, support for innovation in business that would encourage energy and dynamism as well as ensuring that that was framed by social contexts, and so on. So many opportunities. So much that could be done.
Instead social democracy at best has fought a rear-guard action where it has retreated to obvious fastnesses rather than attempting to extend its scope and at worst has become indistinguishable from the right.
I would even suggest that the following points up yet further problems:
A poll for the SPD showed just a third of Germans believe the party can deliver on its historical core competence: social justice. Under growing pressure to do a Corbyn, the centrist Gabriel admitted: “For social democracy, losing trust in social justice questions is existential.”
Social justice? That’s it? Not socio-economic change? There’s a lot of territory between contemporary social democracy and the Marxist left. And a good part of that territory is about pushing leftwards, not rightwards. But social justice? What does that actually mean? It’s like apple pie – who is against it? The most cynical Christian Democrat or Tory can wave it through, in their own version of same, as much as the most idealistic centrist. Small wonder that others have been able to slip in and make hay while the sun shines. That their world view is toxic in the extreme doesn’t minimise the fact of the limitations and constraints and ultimately retreats that social democracy imposed on itself (and those who so desperately needed it to work even half well) and serves to underline just how massive those retreats and defeats were.