Is Social Democracy Ever Coming Back?

As labour parties and their political projects appear to recede deeper into irrelevance in every election around Europe, we might wonder whether the death knell ring has rung for social democracy. But what remains to be seen is whether this trajectory will continue, whether the political landscape is in the process of shifting irreversibly – and if so how Greens can assert their place in it, and their vision for a new social democratic pact?

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history. In an article for The National Interest, the American political scientist argued that, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberal democracy had won a permanent victory. If nothing else, 2016 made one thing abundantly clear, however: there are no permanent victories in politics. The arc of the moral universe does not always bend towards justice. Rather, the end of one set of dialectic struggles is merely the beginning of another.

Quite to the contrary of Fukuyama’s analysis, countries are backing away from liberalism. And that is now true for the West as much as for those parts of the world less steeped in the traditions of liberal thought. For those of us who count themselves as belonging to the Left, some reflection is in order: Social democracy has been complicit in this process. Since the 1970s, social democratic parties and ideas have progressively lost currency in Europe and elsewhere. To the extent that right-wing populist forces have emerged across the continent, it was the failure of the Left to find solutions to the problems associated with globalisation, economic deprivation, and social corrosion that allowed this to happen.

The 2008 financial crisis was a watershed moment for centre-left parties. And it has also come to represent a paradox. When capitalism came to rear its most ugly head, the political Left was conspicuous mostly in its absence.

While political analysis likes to focus on emerging right-wing forces, the collapse of labour parties across Europe is probably a much bigger story. At the party-political level, the implosion of the Dutch Labour Party is only the most recent event supporting this hypothesis. Even though parties as a whole can no longer be considered the nerve centre of liberal democracy in the same way they were a few decades ago, the retreat of labour parties across Europe is a tell-tale sign of the state of social democracy.

UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking to supporters. By paulnew [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
The 2008 financial crisis was a watershed moment for centre-left parties. And it has also come to represent a paradox. When capitalism came to rear its most ugly head, the political Left was conspicuous mostly in its absence. Nine years later, and social democracy remains in the doldrums. The dominant approach towards the crisis has been austerity, a strategy that could hardly be more antithetical to social democratic principles. This begs the question: What’s left of the Left? And can social democracy ever make a comeback?

The new political fault lines

Political paradigms don’t shift very often. At least since 1945, most people have thought about western politics through a reasonably well defined notion of Left versus Right. But that consensus appears to be eroding. The emerging organisational principle pits open societies versus closed ones. In general, this grows out of a wide sense of frustration over the effects and extent of current patterns of globalisation. In particular, the issues at hand are immigration, the distribution of economic gains, social and cultural change, and a sense of local belonging.

It is a commonplace to say that globalisation has been the dominant force driving the global economy. But the problem with globalisation is that governance is not able to keep up with the pace of global markets. Even where there is political will to address some of the governance gaps, the administrative capacity of many governments is insufficient to handle the amount of coordination required. In fundamental terms, that is the reason behind phenomena like global tax havens, social dumping, and worldwide financial deregulation.

A banner drop at the WTO meeting in Seattle, 1999

The degree of political timidity about the globalisation-governance issue has compounded the problem. Organs like the G20 have proven inadequate as mechanisms to reassert political control over market processes. While the EU was an attempt at constructing an institutional response to the challenge of globalisation, it also fostered it at the same time. And as much as socially progressive people on the Left may resent the implication: for traditional social democracy, the erosion of the nation state has come to represent a problem.

In the 1950s and 1960s, social democratic policy revolved around how domestic markets could be managed. By contrast, the contemporary question for social democratic thought is to what extent globalisation can be managed, and managed effectively. In his 2000 article, Dani Rodrik explained that governments around the world are faced with what he called the globalisation trilemma. The Harvard economist argued that, between economic hyperglobalisation, national sovereignty, and democracy, countries could only ever achieve two out of the three at the same time. With the end of capital controls in the 1970s, national sovereignty appeared to be the loser in this triangle, a notion further entrenched after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The return of the nation

National sovereignty is now back with a vengeance. In part, this process should be seen as a rejection of the kinds of policy prescriptions that have dominated economic and political thought. A swing towards neoliberalism since the 1980s has meant that the logic of the market has come to supersede the logic of politics. Of course, on the face of it, the very notion is patently untrue. Markets are decidedly political. Yet, across Europe the political response to the financial crisis was based on a Thatcher doctrine: There is no alternative. In concrete terms, this meant that saving French and German banks in order to calm markets became more important than preserving political stability.

If we take politics as a struggle over the distribution of power within a society, there are always alternatives. Rather than economic policy, austerity is a political choice. But a decades-long turn towards neoliberalism has meant that the window for alternative policies has become ever narrower. There is a sense, then, in which the return of nationalism is a desperate attempt to revert back to a time when governments had more or less full control over domestic policy. Yet, short of some sort of global war, it seems very questionable whether anyone can actually put the globalisation genie back in the bottle. In Rodrik’s trilemma, the resulting loser would be democracy.

a decades-long turn towards neoliberalism has meant that the window for alternative policies has become ever narrower

Not surprisingly, then, we are seeing a trend towards what Fareed Zakaria termed illiberal democracy in a 1997 article and subsequent book. From Viktor Orbán in Hungary to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—and possibly Donald Trump in the United States—populist leaders are in the process of overseeing an erosion of long-held liberal notions. While it would be unwise to put all of these figures in the same basket, there are a number of broadly shared features among them. Most prominently, these are xenophobia, nativism, and economic and cultural nationalism. Constitutions are being rewritten and long-lasting norms thrown overboard. The goal is to arrive at what could be described as political autarky.

“Let’s take back control” was a popular slogan during the Brexit campaign

Brexit is an illustrative example. The overwhelming driver behind the Brexit vote was the motivation to somehow “take back control”, whether from the European Union or from an assortment of other perceived threats such as the European Court of Human Rights, multinational companies, or unchecked immigration – take your pick. To untie oneself from the shackles of the liberal international order is in fact an ambition that goes back to parties on the left side of the spectrum. In 1970s Britain, it was Labour that was split on the question of EU membership, not the Conservatives. At the time, Labour’s left wing opposed Britain’s membership in the European Economic Community for fear it would lead to trade-induced job losses at home. In that sense, the struggle to tame the forces of globalisation has been an implicit feature of political discourse for quite some time. Nevertheless, as protectionism has receded as a motivating force among the Left, the rejection of the cultural dimensions of globalisation has become ever more forceful on the Right.

The notion of taking back control is hardly limited to Brexit. It pervades everyday aspects of life. Netflix recently announced it would start offering features allowing its customers to create their very own interactive stories ready for consumption. Among the vast amount of content on offer, users can choose what feels most comfortable and safe to them. No experiments. The same process shapes the echo chambers that we increasingly build around ourselves, a phenomenon fostered by the structure of social media in particular. By insulating ourselves from contrarian perspectives, we try to recreate the comfort of a time imagined to be simpler and less polarising. Instead of “choose your own adventure”, this is more akin to choosing your own reality. From this perspective, we should not be too surprised that alternative facts have become a politically feasible basis on which to conduct government business.

And therein lies the challenge for today’s social democracy. As progressives, how do we advocate for progress when, for many people, the kind of progress that has been marketed to them is seemingly the problem?

When traditional social democratic Keynesianism is no longer a workable option, advocates of social democracy have a hard time competing with the right-wing nationalist conception of control. Of course, what is being sold—in Britain and elsewhere—is not actual control, but the illusion of it. And for many people, that just might be enough. In the absence of actual control of domestic economic outcomes, governments have increasingly resorted to highly unstable alternatives. One poignant example is how, spurred by easy credit, many Americans were encouraged to purchase homes they could not actually afford in the run-up to the housing crisis. In part, the political decision to enable the housing boom rested on the imperative to offset stagnant wages. The result was the illusion of wealth rather than actual prosperity.

In Europe, one popular strategy in this vein has been to scapegoat Brussels for everything that is wrong on the continent. Most conspicuously, the entire raison d’être of UKIP has been to whip up Europhobia in the UK, which has obviously yielded spectacular results. Against the background of widespread frustration over domestic policy agendas across the continent, politicians have frequently given in to the temptation of painting the EU as the roadblock to more effective policy solutions. The UK’s exit from the union will illustrate the extent to which these arguments actually hold up in the real world.

The challenge for Green parties

The first Global Greens conference, held in Canberra, 2001

Insofar as Green parties are members of the extended social democratic family, they would be well advised to take the erosion of social democracy seriously. The prospects for a more sustainable economy, for instance, are going to depend on whether future governing arrangements will have to cater to nationalist, right-wing agendas. In a worst-case scenario, the return of such nationalist fervour could spell the end for the nascent global climate consensus around the Paris Agreement, for example.

Green parties have to get back to being the political arbiters of social movements.

There are two overlapping and interrelated challenges that a green strategy must address. These are climate change and economic inequality. But to the extent that the former remains a tricky domestic proposition in political terms, the latter could serve as a more palatable option in the short term. The advantage is that solving inequality will help to bring down emissions as well. These priorities will have to be translated into political action, however. And that’s an area where Greens have struggled recently.

Green parties have to get back to being the political arbiters of social movements. This is something that conservatives have always understood. They have made much more frequent and effective use of the political system to drive the agenda. Politics matters. Perhaps the best and most poignant example of that observation is the Tea Party movement in the United States. While it did get its start as a distinct anti-tax movement outside the bounds of parliamentary politics, its leaders made a concerted effort to put pressure on the Republican Party to adopt its positions, in effect both radicalising and infiltrating a major political party in the blink of an eye. In the process, Tea Partiers built up both power within and without the system.

Green activists would do well to entertain similar strategies. In part, the failure of the Left to drive change via the political system is due to the persistent notion that mainstream political channels are conservative in nature. Parliamentary politics always requires compromise to some degree. Outcomes can be muddled and unsatisfactory. As a result, the status quo is often difficult to overcome. Thus, the argument goes, the Left should look for alternative avenues. Of course, that is self-defeating. In fact, putting an emphasis on working through political channels is now more important than ever.

In the past, progress was often achieved through the workplace. High rates of unionisation in the West meant that workers maximised bargaining power. In some places like Scandinavia and parts of Germany, that model is still effective. But whatever the debate about deindustrialisation, it seems clear that one casualty has been the rapid erosion of unions across Europe. So far, we have not seen the emergence of a suitable substitute for the functions that unions used to fulfil. Decisions that were once left to such institutions are now up to either the market or to politics. Needless to say, green social democracy would advocate for the latter over the former.

The problem with contemporary social action is that too often it remains ephemeral in nature. The sorts of long-term commitments that often accompanied activism in the previous century are becoming harder and harder to replicate. At the same time, the explosion and diversification of thousands and thousands of NGOs means that it is frequently hard to coordinate. As a result, fragmentation means that political space is not used effectively or efficiently. What is missing is the coherence that formed part of the success of the anti-nuclear movement, for instance.

The catch-22 a new green social democracy would have to solve is how to address the big issues of the future …. in a way that appeals to citizens in the here and now.

Flash social protest is very good at toppling governments and corporations. But it is less good at driving long-term institutional change. The challenge is to combine the excitement of radical action with the boring job of crafting progressive policy, and to be able to sell that in an appealing manner. Perhaps more than any other political group, however, Green parties are caught between a rock and a hard place. They appear to be in a permanent state of agony over whether to stick to classically green topics or branch out to win over new voters. The suggestion here is that it helps to be bold, and to position oneself clearly. The catch-22 a new green social democracy would have to solve is how to address the big issues of the future – automation, the trend towards the gig economy, economic and social polarisation, and the defence of the open society – in a way that appeals to citizens in the here and now. That is no easy task.

Like social democratic parties, Greens have been struggling with a precise definition of who their target audience is in a new political environment. The temptation to give in to easy answers is there. But Greens would do well do heed Schiller’s advice: posterity weaves no garlands for imitators. As a general rule, right-wing populists are better at right-wing populism than the Left. As abhorrent as Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, and that lot are, they have an excellent grasp of what their audience is looking for. In addition, it is well known that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Pandering to the Right for political purposes will only serve to normalise positions that stand diametrically opposed to progressive policies. Such unrealistic short-term moves will undermine the construction of a long-term agenda.

To occupy the space vacated by traditional labour parties, Green Parties will have to develop a better rapport with precisely those communities who feel underserved by the current political class. The success of the Dutch Green Left has also shown that a clear profile can be appealing in a climate where voters are looking for alternatives. In that sense, the Dutch experience illustrates the point that, as traditional labour parties continue to haemorrhage support, new Green ideas can in principle step in to fill the void. Whether they can find their way on the agenda will depend on the extent to which activists and parties can build a constituency around them.

The biggest challenge in constructing a green social democracy for the 21st century will be to find the ties that bind. Part of the reason why labour parties are no longer functional is that the kind of labour they were built upon no longer unites the masses. Therefore, the old social democracy is not coming back. A new version will likely be defined by features like a progressive carbon tax, some version of a universal basic income, and genuinely fair free trade. It is now on Greens to make these into a compelling case.

This article first appeared in the Green European Journal. Green Agenda thanks the editors and author for permission to republish this piece.