No match for Europe

The decision to modernize Germany’s ruling Social Democratic party (SPD) and to revamp its ideological and political character has generated tense discussion and conflicts inside its ranks. The SPD is no isolated case. Most of Europe’s socialist and social democratic parties are undergoing a similar process. Up to now, the aim of Europe’s social democratic parties has been to redistribute the wealth produced, and any surplus, through the welfare state. Some commentators actually scoffed at the system of governance that emerged in Europe’s most advanced states in the wake of World War II, asserting that liberal, Thatcher-type governments produced wealth, while socialist ones took care to redistribute it. Schematic as this formulation may be, Europe has always alternated between liberal rationalism and welfare-oriented socialism – conflicting systems in which Europe has nonetheless found a balance. But this system of governance has been stretched to its limits. First, because growth, that is the production of wealth, is no longer confined within national borders but now takes place at a global level. Second, because the cost of sustaining the welfare state has exceeded the size of the wealth produced. It is no coincidence that this unevenness has affected virtually all European states at their most vulnerable spot, namely their pension systems. Tony Blair’s New Labor party in Britain was the first to undertake this historic wager by introducing the concept of «third way» politics: This held that we will either have to administer capitalist development in a new a global environment and further the social cause at the same level also, or we will be pushed to the political margin. Regardless of the conundrum following the Iraq war, Blair’s wager has not been decided yet. Their German peers have undertaken the same bet, but they have actually gone a step further. Their goal is to redefine the concept and content of social justice, shifting the emphasis from a passive cherishing of the merits of redistribution toward a more active contribution to wealth-creation. For its part, Greece finds itself in a peculiar state. The Socialists are oscillating between an urge for liberal reformism and the party’s populist roots. The liberal conservatives, on the other hand, hesitate to proclaim their liberal credentials. Not surprisingly, political debate in this country does not match the quality seen in other European states.