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The Crisis In Social Democracy: A Sick Rose

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 no 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.

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on September 30, 2011.


Thanks for the quantitative overview Lev & interesting comments made.

I've heard this theme a few times over recent years, would make a few points though:

- I agree that erosion of social democratic principles by the parties themselves was a major problem. But from a political-economy perspective, I think your narrative misses the importance of how successfully the neoliberal & 'free trade' agenda reduced the room to manoeuvre for social-democratic parties. Binding 'free trade' agreements are a real problem for preserving worker & environmental rights, as even 'reflective liberal' economists like Joe Stiglitz & Krugman point out. (Of course in Australia, the irony is that the last Labor government that could reasonably be called social-democratic (Whitlam's) is the one that rapidly slashed our tariff barriers!)
- Related to the above, the combined breaking of many unions and ideological capture of mainstream media & economics led to a _cultural_ hegomony of the right that mitigated against social democracy (& further left socialism). It's hard to draw on social ideals like solidarity when society is atomised, and media sells hard the key to success as competitive individualism & consumption. (Of course, the fact that social democracy is struggling even in its Scandinavian heartland shows this isn't a preponderant factor, I admit - but it is quite important).

I do largely agree with your general recipe for social democracy though as a political force going forward. In Oz for example it's interesting that the Greens pressure has forced Labor to at least try to _appear_ as still connected to its social-democratic roots ;)

A related thought:- in my analysis, there is increasing ground for a social-democratic push in the US. The US left & progressive blogs seem to be coalescing around an agenda in response to the budget crisis crudely summarised as "don't destroy what social services we have left :- instead tax the rich & powerful corporations at least a _fair_ share, and reduce military expenditure." I think that kind of FDR-like approach could play well in the States - given that people have both lost faith in Obama's centrism and have also seen through the Tea Party's far-right-populist policies now they're seeing their fruits, and it's waning. The problem, even if this intuition is correct, is how such a social-democratic push could be expressed politically if Obama not up to it - by a rapid reform of the Democratic party and a new candidate?

Since the economic theory of David Ricardo (and even endorsed by Marx!), it has been very well known that free trade actually enhances the wealth of all trading partners concerned (to be blunt, Herman Daly's recent criticisms are quite wrong), of which the horror of the Corn Laws stands as an extraordinary and unfortunate vindication of the free trade argument. Of course, the political agenda often means that items incorporated in such treaties are actually the very opposite of free trade (e.g., those imposed by WIPO).

The issue with unions, and much of the political left, is that they didn't take the initiative with an increasingly globalised world, which is quite ironic for a political movement which was supposed to be internationalist. Certainly the lack of a social democratic movement in some of the most important parts of the developing world (e.g., India!).

In addition to the US, particularly with the model of a promoting those economic models which emphasise public intervention for industries with high externalities, I think another angle would be China, where the politics of Sun Yat-sen certainly deserve a new airing.

Mention should also be made here in the context of the recent events in Norway (this article was initiated before the events).

Politically, two major issues can be noted. Firstly was the attempt of various extreme conservatives to blame Muslims for the killings. Secondly, is the humanistic and democratic response of the political leaders of the country.

The mayor of Oslo, Fabian Stang, said: ''We will punish the guilty. The punishment will be more generosity, more tolerance, more democracy.''

This is how we win.

Compare with the Wall Street Journal, which decided to blame Islamic fundamentalists.

Norway certainly did not buy itself much grace from the jihadis for staying out of the Iraq war, or for Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg's demand that Israel open its borders with Gaza, or for his calls for a Palestinian unity government between Fatah and its terrorist cousin Hamas.
Norway can do all this and more, but in jihadist eyes it will forever remain guilty of being what it is: a liberal nation committed to freedom of speech and conscience, equality between the sexes, representative democracy and every other freedom that still defines the West. For being true to these ideals Norwegians have now been made to pay a terrible price."

A nationalistic socialism, grounded on enforced conservative social values? That sounds very family to what people in brownshirts were advocating some sixty plus years ago.

Any claims of its electoral appeal should be rejected by social democratic parties. Social democrats and libertarian socialists have more in common with liberal democrats than these people. Let 'Blue Labour' ally itself with what it truly represents; the far right.

Mr Jones pointed to a discussion in his autobiography, A Thinking Reed, which refers to comments by Polish philosopher Leszek Kilakowski, who said: "The trouble with the social democratic idea is that it does not stock and does not sell any of the existing ideological commodities which various totalitarian movements offer dream-hungry youth."

Four articles from the social-democratic doing a bit of soul-searching.. and discovering that they need to be a movement rather than a party. You don't say?

"Why Parties need to become Movements again" by Marcus Roberts and Daniel Elton - Winning progressive parties in the 1990s were those that had learnt the lessons of the 1980s: that division, disorganisation and an obsession with a core left vote was no way to win. As a consequence from Blair and New Labour to Schroeder and the SPD’s Neue Mitte, progressive parties in the ‘90s embraced change through [...]

POLITICS | Why does Labor exist?
Labor's search for meaning needs to go beyond the failures of the post-1996 party, writes Frank Bongiorno

POLITICS | Labor's shrinking core
Party reform won't solve Labor's broader problem, writes Paul Rodan

It makes a change to find some good content for once, I was getting tired of the never ending drivel I find lately, you deserve thanks for posting readable and informative data.

A study of the last four Swedish elections reveals the extent of the insider-outsider stranglehold on social democracy

The most important event in Swedish party politics in the past twenty years is the decline in the electoral fortunes of the Social Democratic Party.

For most of the post-war period, electoral support for the Social Democrats hovered around 45 percent. As late as 1994, in fact, the Social Democrats won 45.3 percent of the vote. Their best election since then was in 2002 (39.9 percent). In 1998, they received 36.4 percent; in 2006, 35.0; in 2010, only 30.7.

What sets the elections of 2006 and 2010 apart is that the combined support for the center-left fell sharply. The Social Democratic losses in 1998 were associated with a surge in support for the Left Party, allowing Göran Persson to remain as prime minister after the election. Between 2002 and 2010, by contrast, the support for the Left Party and the Greens did not increase at all; the combined support for the center-left therefore fell from 53.0 to 43.6 percent.

More at:

Ultimate crisis of global capitalism was delivered on a plate and they did not know what to do

"One of the political puzzles of continental Europe is the persistently poor performance of the centre-left. Events should have favoured the socialists and social democrats. The crises of the euro and the global financial system in part resulted from the extreme deregulation of financial markets overseen by the centre-right, along with its refusal to create a tighter-knit economic union in the eurozone early on."

Since the global financial crisis (GFC) Social Democratic Parties across the world have either collapsed, or have been severely diminished. In my opinion, one of the greatest catalyst behind the collapse of the Left and unfortunately the rise of the Far Right is the abandonment of economic equality by Social Democrats.

Many of these Social Democratic parties either became obsessed with identity politics or simply became agents for handing out austerity to the working poor, whilst protecting the architects of the GFC. In many cases they did both.

Not in Australia. The ALP in several states and within a matter of months, federally has simply gone back to their social democratic roots. Tackling economic inequality, tackling social inequality.

You can fight for workers wages and conditions, make sure their kids have the best access to education, especially vocational education, whilst removing barbaric and bigoted laws that discriminate against LGBTI people - an example.

And it is being noticed and written about. This yarn is just the start.

-- KS