O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
(William Blake, 1794)
Social democracy is in crisis. Its officialdom, represented by Socialist International, won't publically state this of course. The leadership of the constituent members will put on a brave face when confronted with the proposition, alternating between flippant rejection or trivial claims of an electoral cycle. But more privately, or at the very best among its small class of theorists and intellectuals, they surely know the problem. All over the world social democratic parties are losing elections, and often dramatically. Even with the support of other, smaller left or environmental parties, there is a strong trajectory towards conservative or neoliberal parties, far greater than what has been seen for decades.
A Brief Scan of the World Situation
In the Scandinavian heartland, the Swedish Social Democrats have, yet again, been defeated with a low of 30.66%; their worst result since they first contested the polls in 1911 and received 28.5%. In Finland the Social Democrats received their worst electoral result since WWII in 2011 (19.1%) - and at that time there was a large Finnish left (the Finnish People's Democratic League) which received more votes. From a low of 24.3% in 2001, the Norwegian Labour Party has clawed back some votes to reach 35.4% in the 2007 elections - still one of their lowest results from 1933. In Denmark, the Social Democrats lost government in 2001 and became the second-largest party, after being the largest since 1924. It also lost the 2005, and 2007 elections with a mere 25.5% of the vote; another poll is due this year.
Following the disastrous decision to form a "Grand Coalition" with the Christian Democrats in Germany, the vote of the Social Democrats plummeted 34.2% in 2005 to 23% in 2009; their worst result since the formation of the Federal Republic. In France, the Socialists have consistently failed to receive either 30% of the National Assembly or the first round Presidential vote since the 1980s. Throughout the rest of Europe, the Socialist International affiliate parties are largely in opposition. An exception includes the Socialist Workers Party of Spain (which did make small gains in the 2008 election, with 43.87% of the vote). In Austria the Social Democratic Party of Austria retains government in coalition with the centre-right Austrian People's Party with a swing of minus 6.08% in the 2008 elections reducing their share to 29.26%In Iceland the Social Democratic Alliance made modest gains in the 2009 elections (29.8% of the vote, up 3%), and are aptly helped by the Left-Green Movement (21.68%, up 12.87%).
In the former Yugoslavia, the Democratic Socialists in Montenegro (who won the 2006 elections with the allies the Social Democrats of Montenegro, with a combined 48.62% of the vote - and are faced with a social democrat opposition as well!). Nearby, the Social Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina is also in government (with 26.07% of the vote), with the Independent Social Democrats in Republika Srpska receiving 43.30 in that region; the latter has been suspended (as of July 2011) by the Socialist International for promoting "a nationalist and extremist" line. Also in the peninsula, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement received 43.92% of the vote in the 2009 elections with a 5.8% swing; having presided over the Greek financial crisis, it is questionable whether this majority will remain.
In the British Commonwealth the Labour Party suffered a terrible electoral loss last year dropping 6.2% to 29.0%, the worst result since 1983. In the Australia the Labor Party is clinging to power with successive losses of state governments and the worst opinion polls in decades, a low of 27 percent. In Aeotora New Zealand, the Labour Party after losing 7.11% of the vote in 2008, down to 33.99% and is currently languishing in opinion polls. Even in Canada, where SI member the New Democratic Party achieved a significant improvement in its vote (+12.44% to 30.63%), it did so significantly at the expense of the Liberal Party (-7.36%), the Greens (-2.87%) and the Bloc Quebecois (-3.94%), leaving the Conservatives to again win. In "the world's largest democracy" (India), Socialist International has not affiliates, consultative parties, or even observers, despite the historic successes of politically aligned parties such as the Indian National Congress and minor parties such as the All India Trinamool Congress, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam etc. This differs to Pakistan where the Peoples Party, an SI affiliate, is the senior party in the governing coalition, having received 30.6% in the 2008 general election.
In the United States, there are two electoral affiliates, one with a small membership of around 5,700, a modest improvement somewhat of an improvement from recent years, the other effectively moribund. In the rest of the Americas, the significant gains by left-wing forces in the past decade have largely occurred independently of Socialist International affiliates. In Ecuador the democratic socialist PAIS Alliance received 45.78% in the 2009 elections; the SI-affiliated Democratic Left received a mere 1.44%. In Bolivia, the Movement for Socialism received 64.22% of the vote in the 2009 general elections, in a country which has no SI presence. In Brazil the SI-affiliated Democratic Labour Party is a minor member of the "Lulista" coalition, holding 28 seats in the 513 member Chamber of Deputies; of similar ideology, but not affiliated are other coalition members such as the Brazilian Socialist Party (34 seats), and the Worker's Party (88 seats).
In Argentina, the sizeable SI-affiliate Radical Civil Union and the Socialist Party of Argentina, came second to the "left Peronists" under Néstor Kirchner. The Socialist Party of Chile. In Chile, there are three parties affiliated to Socialist International, all members of the opposition following the elections of 2009 which were won by conservative parties by 1 seat; the Party for Democracy received 12.69%, the Socialist Party 9.88% and the Social Democrat Radical Party 3.80%.
In North Africa and the Middle-East, Socialist International expelled the ruling National Democratic Party of Egypt and the Tunisian Constitutional Democratic Assembly just prior to those governments being overthrown; the question is asked why they didn't do so years beforehand, especially in the former where the behaviour of the regime was well known. In Morocco, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, with 8.9% of the vote for parliamentary elections in 2007, is a junior member of the government. In Israel, the once-ruling Israeli Labour Party came fourth in the 2009 elections with a mere 9.93% of the vote (down 4.9%) and has recently split. The more modern New Movement-Meretz group also losing ground, receiving a 2.95%. In Turkey, the Republican People's Party, considered the founding party of the country, received 25.98% of the vote in the 2011 general election, a significant increase (up 5.13%) from the 2007 results.
In the rest of Africa, Socialist International fares significantly better, especially from former revolutionary parties. In South Africa, the African National Congress governs with 65.9% of the vote from the 2009 general election. In Namibia, the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) governs with 74.29% of the vote from the 2009 election. In Angola, the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola - Labour Party received 81.64% of the vote in the 2008 election, in Mozambique the Liberation Front of Mozambique received 74.66 in their 2009 election. In Zimbabwe the two factions of the Movement for Democratic Change received a majority of seats and 51.27% of the vote, a enormous blow against the authoritarian rule of incumbent President Robert Mugabe. In Mali, Socialist International is fortunate to have the main governing party (ADEMA-PASJ) and the main opposition party (Rally for Mali) as affiliate members.
Finally, for the rest of Asia the only place with a significant SI affiliate is Malaysia, where the Democratic Action Party won 13.77% of the vote in the 2008 elections, a significant gain on previous performance (the small Philippine Social Democratic Party is a consultative member). In neighbouring Singapore, the social democratic Worker's Party has no established itself as the opposition winning 16.34% of the total vote, but only contesting 20 of the 84 seats (Singapore's governing People's Action Party resigned from SI in 1976 as it was facing an expulsion motion for the suppression of free speech). Despite the substantial changes in Thailand, there is no SI affiliate there, the now-ruling Pheu Thai Party representing a modernist popularism, a common ideology throughout Indonesia as well. One could assume the Burma's National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, although banned, is a natural ally as well. The most tragic story is the collapse of the electoral significance of the Japanese Socialist Party; the largest political party in the first general election under the Constitution of Japan in 1947 (143 of 466 seats), now holding a mere 6 of 480, being in serious decline since changing their name to the Social Democratic Party of Japan in 1996, the politics of social democracy being largely taken by the governing Democratic Party of Japan (holding 308 of 480 seats).
The History Before The Crisis
The word 'crisis' is thrown about haphazardly, and that denigrates its importance. To illustrate how to distinguish the serious concern from the hyperbole, the following comes from Jurgen Habermas' "Legitimation Crisis" (1973): "In medicine it represents a point where, regardless of individual will, the physiological system of an individual is tested to capacity in its ability to heal. In literature, it is the point of the narrative where the protagonist either successfully confronts their antagonist, be that the setting, circumstances or another character or, in the case of tragedy, their own weaknesses. In the environment, or social systems, it is also sensible to speak of crises, points in time and place where the capacity of the system is faced with a 'life or death' test in its abilities to continue". The lengthy (albeit incomplete) contemporary global review of the state of social democratic forces whilst illustrating, perhaps vividly, the extent of the crisis of social democracy, does not illustrate the cause.
Early social democracy consisted almost entirely of revolutionary socialists; the tradition that contemporary people would understand as social democracy came from liberals, radicals, and democrats - recalling that in the 19th century the virtues of democracy were still under very serious dispute with both the Electoral Reform Acts were under serious criticism and Women's Suffrage belonging to the most extreme. It was not until the work of the Fabian Societies in Great Britain and Eduard Bernstein's revisionism in Germany that social democracy acquired a distinctly evolutionary and reformist point of view. Despite initial successes this perspective fell apart terribly with the advent of World War I, where the evolutionary parties aligned themselves with pro-war nationalism against anti-war international socialist unity. This moral and political failure opened the way for revolutionary Marxists to take the political initiative, which they did so quite successfully with the Bolshevik revolution and beyond with a anti-democratic statism that cost the lives of millions (a warning which Bukunin expressed with Statism and Anarchy in 1873).
The success of social democracy during the interwar periods was significantly influenced by the fluctuating orientation of Comintern during the period; in 1922 Communist International argued the policy of the United Front, working with social democrats as part of an overall policy "for the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the State". In 1928, the position radically changed, arguing that Social Democrats were actually "social fascists", deserving equal antipathy as the extreme right, then with an equally sudden turn to the Popular Front in 1935, which included liberal bourgeoisie as well as working-class organisations.
After the victory over Nazism the social democratic tradition had a great flowering. The experiences of the Great Depression, the war, and the Stalinist dictatorships, lead to a widespread dissatisfaction with capitalism, fascism and communism which was made explicit at the refounding congress of Socialist International as expressed in the Frankfurt Declaration, perhaps the most succinct and impressive statement of the democratic socialist agenda. When faced with the Cold War politics, socialists were able to simultaneously able to stand for both democratic rights for both east and west, taking a principled stand against both political conservatives and totalitarian communists. In the economic environment of the post-war reconstruction, liberal capitalism was clearly inadequate for the large scale strategic inventions and planning that was necessary, coupled also with the just demands for a welfare system, perhaps most famously implemented in the Welfare State policies of William Beveridge in the UK.
For a while it seemed that social democracy was a political and economic Juggernaut, operating under the post-war consensus between democratic socialism and social liberalism. However in the mid-1970s a serious of economic problems arrived which confronted the orthodox Keynesian policy. Whilst oft-cited OPEC oil crisis of 1973 was a minor issue in itself, it did initiate the structural problem of stagflation where increases in the money supply did not result in proportional increases in productivity, and employment or even occurred with a decline. Instead of a critical evaluation of resource allocation for the purposes of productivity, an alliance of neoliberal economists and political conservatives launched an attack on regulatory frameworks and progressive income taxation.
The response of many social democrats has been to jettison their adherence to public ownership in some sort of "third way" which combined neoliberal and capitalist economic theory with liberal-left social policies. Such an orientation was initiated by the Hawke and Keating governments in Australia, the Blair government in the United Kingdom, Schröder's government in Germany, and the Clinton government in the United States. Explicit socialism is rejected (even market socialism, or cooperative socialism) in favour of using market-like mechanisms for regulation of capitalism. For a period it was also argued that such a strategy would lead to electoral success; the left would have nowhere to go and would vote with the third way social democrats and the right would be split with a number supporting their agenda. It was an explicit attempt to claim a shifting political centre which would ultimately prove to be unsustainable as it had no principled foundation. As a result, social democratic parties have been bleeding to both the left (Greens in Australia, Die Linke in Germany, United Left in Spain etc) and the right. This is the crisis confronting social democracy.
More Liberty, More Democracy, More Socialism
For many there is significant potential for conflict between 'liberty', 'democracy' and 'socialism'. Fortunately the matter has been addressed since the beginning of modern social and political theory. Social democratic parties would do well to be more attentive of the enormous clarifications that have occurred through these scores of years. But this attentiveness also requires a far more important decision in order to break the crisis. For human beings are not inspired by just raw facts and expedient politics, indeed they are not inspired by this even primarily. Rather, the moral and normative has actionable priority. More than anything else, social democracy must be principled.
This of course would mean a significant change to most social democratic parties. For over a hundred years they have become part of the modern state, and the habit of winning elections through whatever it takes become deeply ingrained into the corporate culture of the respective organisations. Winning and losing power within the electoral cycle becomes more important than the changing of social conditions, and eventually replaces the objective of social justice. Electorally this suits conservatives who are orientated in the first place in acquiring power without social change. There is such a thing as "glorious defeat" and tactically it is very useful.
Being principled does not mean not acting in a strategic manner. Indeed, it can actually enhance it through having a clear, long-term agenda. The British sociologist, Thomas Humphrey Marshall, mapped an evolution of the notion of citizenship from civil, to political, to social rights. To rephrase Marshall's criteria to a contemporary and political form, civil rights refer liberty, political rights refer to democracy and social rights refer to socialism. If social democratic parties can offer liberty, democracy and socialism then they will return to the ascendency that they enjoyed in Europe in the 1950s.
In the case of civil rights, or liberty, the basic rights of physical integrity, identity and safety is a matter than all liberals and most conservatives will agree with, the exception being those conservatives to whom religious doctrine is more important than civil equality. Whilst numerous such people have no place in a modern political party; they are effectively premodern traditionalists in terms of their social outlook, even if they are willing to take the advantages of the modern technology. It is worth noting that even this basic level of citizenship, of civil liberty, does not exist in its total, phenomenological form, anywhere in the world. It remains a practical political objective.
In the case of political rights, the basic rights of political involvement, the reference is to procedural fairness and equality in law, freedom of association and participation in the political process and the right to vote. Again, this is an area where most liberals, fewer conservatives and some socialists will concur. Where it differs is among left and right wing authoritarians who argue that democratic rights can trump civil rights. This is certainly not the case; and the latter are deserving of constitutional and legal protections against the vagaries of demagogy, the tyranny of the majority, the pathological ochlocracy. Political rights also provides a basic level economic rights of association which includes unions and co-operative ventures.
Finally, in the case of social rights, the presumption is that individuals have the right to a share of social production. It is in this area that the only allies are most social liberals (but not classic liberals), socialists and environmentalists. Indeed many social democrats are justifiably wary at this level preferring a regulatory system to outright public ownership, with the unfortunate side-effect that they become captured by vested corporate interests. This A pragmatic mitigation is to ensure that social rights are limited by political rights, a cascading effect upwards. This is the only mechanism to ensure that under the aegis of "social rights" that civil and political rights are not trampled, as was the experience of Communism and fascism. Here the most effective economic targets are those with a high degree of externalities, the greatest being the natural environment itself - a point where genuine classical liberals co-exist with environmentalists and the new socialists.
To recap, the existing malaise in social democracy is an international and lasting phenomenon. It contrasts with a history which has seen periods of difficulty and great success, but is particularly critical because the problem this time has arisen from within; a crisis in principle. In order for social democracy to survive in a manner that it can differentiate itself from the liberal-capitalist mainstream it must provide a visionary narrative that seeks to fundamentally transform liberal capitalism itself. If they do not engage in providing such a vision there is can be no doubt whatsoever that the lifespan of social democratic parties is very limited; liberal and conservative parties will dominate in the field of civil and political citizenship, and a significantly smaller percentage will find their way to environmental and new socialist parties for social citizenship rights. Therein lies the choice for social democracy; change liberal capitalism or be absorbed by it.
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