The future of social democracy

The future of social democracy

Is there a future for European (and Greek) social democracy? I could provide a straightforward answer: Given their existing organizational structures, their sadly inadequate leaderships and their parochial ideological and political character, Europe’s social democrats are not very likely to win back their once-prominent position in the European political system. They will, at best, be in a position to operate as political supplements for a few more decades until they are replaced by new forces that will have come into existence in a 21st century setting.

The continent, both North and South, has for years been observing the electoral demise of social democratic parties. Europe’s social democrats have all suffered heavy election defeats. The latest victims were Italy’s Democratic Party, who saw their popularity sink below 20 percent after losing about nine percentage points compared to the previous election. Before them, their German counterparts suffered yet another heavy election defeat, in what marked one of their worst performances ever. The hemorrhage is strong enough to threaten their status as Germany’s second-biggest party. According to political science professor Gerassimos Moschonas, social democracy is now a family of parties with medium – and in some cases medium-to-small – power.

The causes behind this slow death are diverse and have been systematically analyzed in the past: a) the shrinking of social democracy’s social base – i.e. the industrial working class; b) the emergence of new parties with a fresh ideological agenda and particular appeal to young voters (for example the greens, the liberal or alternative left, and the radical left); c) their failure to put forward a convincing economic policy due to the dynamics of globalization; and d) the success of far-right populists in luring a chunk of the socially vulnerable classes.

Social democracy has become obsolete. It belongs to a different century and different living and working conditions. It was established at the peak of the industrial revolution and the nation-state, in the world of heavy industry and production chains. It was born together with the idea that conquering political power can bring about the radical transformation of the world. The collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 also clearly marked the end of that idea. The early 1990s saw dramatic changes around the globe. Most importantly, the nation-state lost much of its power as a result of globalization and European integration.

These developments left social democracy seriously damaged. Social democrats appear to have no clear idea of what section of society they want to express, or what direction they want to take. Representatives of corporative interests within the state or via the state can aspire to a good government tenure only if two conditions are met: a) if the European Union opens its purse strings and channels funds into key sectors of the economy; and b) if the nation-state can borrow and then spend money on state investments or to serve client-patron relations – i.e. what is often called “social policy.” The global recession exposed the shallowness of the social democratic dogma in the context of globalization. The liberals and the conservatives, familiar with the market and with a culture of fiscal discipline, had something to propose. Meanwhile, the populists of the radical right addressed the concerns of the losers of globalization due to the opening up of borders. Left-wing populists and radicals brought the debate about injustice and poverty back to the agenda. Social democrats were left without a strategy: not very convincing as responsible managers, and even less convincing as the voice of the poor. Amid the present conditions, it turned out that the only people with something to say are either those who trust the market and open society or those who hate it. The crisis revealed the broken compass of the European socialist left, which shifted either to the right, grudgingly and reluctantly accepting the neoconservative and neoliberal policies, or dizzily following the populism of parties like the Spanish Podemos, Italy’s Five Star Movement or Jean-Luc Melenchon.

In Greece, as well as in Europe, when social democrats turn to the right, they start to look a lot like the conservatives (even if they pretend otherwise); and when they move to the left they turn into sad populists, occasionally of a nationalist tendency, and do not hesitate to work with far-right parties in their bid to come across as anti-systemic. And now what? Should the friends of social democracy just sit around and wait for its official death certificate, or mourn for the voters defecting in other directions? For any supporter of the values of Enlightenment, of open society, of equal opportunity, of progress for all and tolerance, the answer can only be a negative one. Europe – and this country – must not allow itself to fall prey to all sorts of enemies of liberal democracy or the conservative champions of closed borders, nationalism and religious bigotry.

Nikos Marantzidis is professor of political science at the University of Macedonia. He is also visiting professor at Charles University in Prague.

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