What’s Left?: Social Democrats in Disarray

“I’m frankly a bit fucked off about all this. Like practically everyone else on the Left, I expected to be able to meet the worst crisis of capitalism in generations with more aplomb.”

— Richard Seymour, Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made, 2014

Why has the right, including the populist right, rather than the left, been the main political beneficiary of the anger and bitterness that has roiled Europe since the 2008 financial crash, the eurozone crisis, and the resulting deep recession and brutal austerity? After all, these events surely proved the relevance of the left’s critique of capitalism. The crisis has been so deep and prolonged that a kind of social disintegration has been taking place, at least in the Southern cone, without precedent in postwar Europe. (In Spain, youth unemployment is more than 55 percent.) More: the crisis has been managed largely to the benefit of the already well-off, in a spectacularly brazen fashion. The trillions that were handed over to banks too big to fail are now being gouged out of citizens too weak to resist. (This intensely political class strategy is called “austerity.”) The recovery, such as it is, is benefitting almost exclusively the already affluent, as catalogued in Danny Dorling’s cry of moral outrage, Inequality and the 1%. It is a recovery of McJobs, zero-hour contracts, and food banks. One UK charity alone, the Trussell Trust, has handed out 913,000 food parcels in the last year, up from 347,000 the year before.

The left is increasingly marginal to political life in Europe despite the fact that, in the words of Owen Jones, an important voice of the British left, “Living standards are falling, public assets are being flogged to private interests, a tiny minority are being enriched at the expense of society and the hard-won gains of working people—social security, rights in the workplace and so on—are being stripped away.” And the radical parties and movements to the left of the social democratic parties have been faring no better. In the brutally honest assessment of the British Marxist Alex Callinicos, “Nearly seven years after the financial crash began, the radical left has not been weaker for decades.”

But the European left’s inability to forcefully meet the crisis is not due to a failure of individual political leaders, but the fact that it has not developed, in theory or practice, a response to the three great waves of change—economic, socio-cultural, and politico-intellectual—that have crashed over it since the late 1970s. 

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Social democrats, as Sheri Berman showed in The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century, used to be able to do something that no one else could: bring capitalism, democracy, and social stability into a more or less harmonious relationship. They knew from bitter experience that if markets really were “free” and left to “self-regulate” then society would be devastated; that in addition to degrading the environment, what Marx called the cash-nexus, the reduction of human relations to naked self-interest, would erode communal life and the common good, installing greed and possessive individualism in their place; that merely contractual relations between spectacularly unequal, anxious, and deeply untrusting individuals, acquisitive, philistine, and competitive, would triumph. 

But in the 1980s European social democrats lost their nerve, and fell into a suffocating consensus that says there is no alternative to neoliberalism: marketization, deregulation, privatization, financialization, an assault on the bargaining power of labor, regressive tax regimes, cuts to welfare. As “New Labor” architect Peter Mandelson famously put it, social democrats should now be “intensely relaxed” about people getting “filthy rich,” while sneering at the trade union movement, and often their own alarmed working-class supporters, as “dinosaurs” (or “bigots”) for harboring the idea that it was possible to stop the neoliberal globalization and “get off.”

The fruits of this radical transformation of European social democracy into a political force pursuing a slightly kinder and a slightly gentler neoliberalism—which some dub “social neoliberalism”—have been bitter. At the top of any list would have to be the erosion of the links between the social democratic parties and their working-class base and the “hollowing out” of social democratic parties until they became little more than coteries of leaders, staffers, and wannabe MPs, relating mostly to each other and to media and lobbyists. In a brilliant essay in the London Review of Books last spring, Perry Anderson made a start at a taxonomy of the whole shocking malavita. “In France,” he noted, “the Socialist minister for the budget, plastic surgeon Jérôme Cahuzac, whose brief was to uphold fiscal probity and equity, was discovered to have somewhere between 600,000 and 15 million euros in hidden deposits in Switzerland and Singapore.” The result? When the financial crash occurred, European social democratic parties, in thrall to neoliberalism, were seen as just as guilty as the executants of the neoliberal solution to the crisis (bank bailouts and popular austerity), leading to the overnight electoral meltdown of those parties. In Greece, Pasok plunged to a barely threshold-clearing four percent of the vote, despite having been the country’s dominant party for many decades. 

More: the neoliberal economic kampf unleashed in the 1980s also incapacitated the organized working class, the traditional support base of social democracy. Views differ about how incapacitated. The most pessimistic voices are those of Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, who claim that decades of neoliberalism have produced nothing less than a revolution in subjectivity, a kind of Ayn Randian acquisitive individualism has become normative, rendering alien both collective organization and support for redistributive social democratic policies. Less pessimistic, but hardly cheery, is the idea that neoliberalism has caused a structural collapse in the capacity of workers to organize and act in their own interests. While capital is global, mobile, and regnant, organized labor is increasingly deindustrialized, indebted, and precarious; often temporary, part-time, insecure, and, quite frankly, unorganized. For example, UK trade union membership fell from 13,289,000 in 1980 to 7,841,000 in 1997. Today, less than 15 percent of workers in the private sector are in unions. As Warren Buffett famously noted, a class war has been raging and his side has been winning. 


The social and cultural changes induced by what is now more than 40 years of neoliberalism are no less debilitating for social democracy than the economic ones. Neoliberalism seems to destabilize every longer-lasting identity and every deeper attachment it touches. European societies are now extraordinarily atomized; social life is fragmented and individualized, often very lonely, and bewildering, lacking the sustaining experiences of stable families and communities, the comfort of home (which is much more than mere shelter), the meaning provided by local associations, that precious notion of the “common good” and sense of being part of something that is beyond the smallness of self. 

Instead, there has been an explosion of inequality, relative poverty, and acquisitive individualism. To take just one statistic, in 1950, top executive pay in Britain was 30 times that of the average worker; in 2012, it was 170 times. Studies such as The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, have shown in exhaustive detail that such extreme inequality is associated with rising illness, family breakdown and crime, and the general fraying of what the policymakers call “social cohesion.” 

The manic, pathological quality of neoliberal consumerism has produced an explosion of personal debt. An unexceptional Guardian headline in January ran thus: “New consumer debt reaches seven-year high in UK: Consumer helplines sound alarm bells as new borrowing on credit cards, loans and overdrafts in November tops £1.25 billion.” Neoliberalism, then, is also a culture—a dense cluster of social norms, values, and practices that become “commonsensical”—and as such it has eroded restraint, personal responsibility, deferred gratification, and self-discipline. The result is a crop of social maladies: the spread of obesity (67 percent of UK men and 57 percent of women are either overweight or obese), chronic mental health problems (1 in 4 experience a problem in any given year in the UK, and only 1 in 10 UK prisoners has no mental disorder), self-harming (400 per 100,000 in the UK), depression (1 in 5 older people in the UK suffer), and drug abuse on a truly gargantuan scale. 


But the crisis of the European left is also intellectual. The socialist project crashed in the West in the 1980s with the exhaustion of the postwar social democratic consensus, and in the East in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. At that moment, the left found itself at an intellectual crossroads. Since then, it has taken two roads forward. Both have turned out to be dead ends. 

The first was “social neoliberalism,” which, as noted above, sought a future for social democracy by effecting a ruthless adaptation of labor and trade union movements across Europe to the economic rules and cultural sensibility of neoliberalism. In the UK this was known as “The Project” or “The Blair Revolution”; it was what was new in “New Labor.” The social democrats lowered their horizons, put away their dreams of a New Jerusalem, and instead accepted the new (neoliberal) rules of the game. 

And it worked—in the good times. Tony Blair was a lucky general who presided over 10 years of uninterrupted economic growth before being edged out by Gordon Brown just before the crash of 2008. On his watch, social neoliberalism used the larger tax take (it even increased taxes on the rich; but stealthily, so as not to cause alarm) to engage in what President Obama once called “spreading the wealth around.” The resulting amelioration of the harsher edges of the lives of the poor and the working class should not be dismissed. Indeed Blair’s defenders argue passionately that New Labor is as good as social democracy gets to be, these days. 

However, in the long term (and not all that long), after flirting unseriously with two big ideas—stakeholding and communitarianism—Blair settled for a very small idea—“what works”—and that usually meant what is most cost-effective. New Labor developed an irritation with talk of alternatives to neoliberal global capitalism. Instead they became its protectors and celebrants. Listen to Gordon Brown, Labor chancellor of the Exchequer from 1997 until 2007, when he finally took over as prime minister, singing a hymn of praise to the markets in his 2006 Mansion House speech, two years before the crash: “The message London’s success sends out to the whole British economy is that we will succeed if like London we think globally . . . if we . . . advance with light touch regulation, a competitive tax environment, and flexibility.” 

New Labor’s social neoliberalism also eroded local democracy and the public realm. It pushed aside actors other than those at the center, who then set about micromanaging Britain; a grim and relentless bureaucratizing cult of quasi-government bodies; a new model army of “consultants” and “czars” and “super-heads”; a morass of soul-destroying “targets” and “performance indicators” and “inspection regimes” and “audit trails”—all this demoralized a generation of public sector workers for little obvious gain. 

Peter Mair, in his essential text Ruling the Void: The Hollowing-Out of Western Democracy, points out that neoliberal political parties no longer represent; they govern. They lose touch with their base because they no longer project its voice. Instead, they become the bringers of neoliberal order to their base on behalf of the neoliberal system. (“We are all Thatcherites now!” declared the New Labor guru Peter Mandelson at a 2002 gathering of “third way” leaders.) As a result, the base voted with its feet: longstanding party members drifted away and millions of working-class voters, unenthused, disorientated, and increasingly alienated culturally from the ever more educated, ever more middle-class party members, stayed at home on polling day. Political partisanship—strong identification with “your” party—plummeted and voter volatility skyrocketed. 

And so, on May 7th this year, a Conservative victory at the UK general election left Labor shattered. It received only 30 percent of the vote, and to compound the misery, the Scottish National Party won an astonishing 56 of the 59 parliamentary seats in Labor’s historic heartland. 

Analyzing the defeat, Jon Trickett, MP, Labor deputy chair and part of Ed Miliband’s inner circle, noted that by 2005 “Labor had lost 4 million voters since the election in 1997,” and that “a substantial part of these missing millions were traditional working class voters.” Crucially, he added, “this pattern has continued over the last 10 years.” Thus, while “Labor’s electoral base [in 2015] was by far the most middle class we have secured in our history,” the party “suffered a cataclysmic decline among working class voters.” 


Two kinds of alternatives filled the political space vacated by social democracy: decentralized anti-capitalist social movements of the “Occupy” type, and New Left parties, often splits from social democracy, among them the Communist Refoundation Party in Italy, the Left Bloc in Portugal, Respect in the UK, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark, the Left Party in Germany, and, of course, Syriza in Greece. 

How have these alternatives fared? One is reminded of what the scientist Tyrell said to his creation—the fearsome, doomed replicant Batty—in the film Blade Runner: “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” For a time, in the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, disparate movements for an alternative globalization emerged, and briefly took center stage, creating an exciting new language and style of popular protest, while the new parties also achieved some successes. 

However, the good times were short-lived. The movements failed to sustain themselves beyond the high points of struggle (and, one should add, of publicity). After 2005, reports political theorist Alex Callinicos, “the process went into reverse . . . organizational implosion, electoral reverses . . . disarray . . . a will to fragmentation” to the point that “evidence of a new form of left politics emerging has proved more apparent than real.” In Italy, the Communist Refoundation Party joined the social neoliberal coalition of Romano Prodi, backed privatization and war, and was destroyed as a result. In the UK, the demagogue George Galloway, leader of the Islamist, far-left “Respect Coalition,” turned on his partners in the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and drove them out. In Germany, the Left Party lost ground electorally.

Seen in this light, the victory of the radical left-wing Syriza in the Greek general election of 2015 appears exceptional. Callinicos lists some of its unique reasons: the sheer depth of the economic crisis in Greece, “fully on the scale of the 1930s, causing immense human suffering”; the scale of the electoral meltdown of Pasok, the historic Greek social democratic party, crashing from 43.9 percent in October 2009 to 4.68 percent in 2015, due largely to its support for the brutal program of spending cuts which had bailed Greece out; and, crucially, “the intensity of the social struggles” in Greece, from the youth revolt in 2009 to a staggering 30 general strikes against austerity since early 2010. 

Four reasons suggest themselves for the failure of the European radical left other than Syriza. First, immaturity. The crisis simply came too early for these tiny sects to be able to exploit the political opportunity. Second, sectarianism of the classic Life of Brian kind (in that film, the Judean People’s Front famously attacked the People’s Front of Judea as “splitters”). Third, the revolutionary left’s lack of an alternative program when the crisis hit. Fourth, the fact that much of the radical and revolutionary left in Europe is not a left at all in any normal sense, not a vision of a feasible alternative society or a route toward it, but rather a kind of incoherence and negativity armed only with a list of enemies. To the extent it is for anything, it is for any political force resisting “western-patriarchal-racist-homophobic-logocentric-capitalist-imperialism”—from Russian President Vladimir Putin (cheered on in the Ukraine by the British Stop the War Coalition to Hezbollah (“We are all Hezbollah now!” read the placards carried aloft through the streets of London.) 

The worldview of this reactionary post-left—to give it a name—is extraordinarily crude and wrapped in impenetrable academic jargon. You can get a degree in reactionary post-leftism in the UK; thousands do every year, as the universities become sites of stultifying intellectual conformity reminiscent of the old Soviet Friendship Societies. The world is understood to be divided into two camps facing off in a Great Contest; the oppressed versus the oppressors, anti-imperialism versus imperialism, the “multitude” versus “empire,” and so on. Radical politics is reduced to cheering on one side and damning the other. This worldview is an acid, eating away at older left-wing values such as gender and sexual equality, liberty, free speech. What’s left is not really a left. Take, for example, the influential academic post-leftist Judith Butler. About the fascistic, Islamist, anti-Semitic, misogynist authoritarians of Hamas and Hezbollah, the lesbian socialist feminist Butler said this: “Understanding Hamas and Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.” 


In 1975—ironically the moment of its passing—the French Marxist Louis Althusser announced that the purpose of his theoretical work had always been to “help put some substance back into the revolutionary project here in the West.” Perhaps the call to put some substance back into the social democratic project in Europe today will turn out to be similarly out of joint with these neoliberal times. 

But perhaps not. Owen Jones is a fresh-faced, sharp-witted activist and Guardian columnist, and the best-selling author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011) and The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It (2014). His political project is the radical renewal of the social democratic project in Europe through three long-term responses to neoliberalism. 

First, there’s the recovery of intellectual élan. Jones advises the left to learn from the right-wing free market outriders who helped to turn the tide of opinion in the 1970s. He reminds us that they, too, were once dismissed as “defeated, irrelevant fringe elements” and urges the democratic left to create its own outriders—a collective intelligence institutionalized in think tanks, journals, websites, and networks dense enough, intellectually vibrant enough, connected enough to imagine a compelling real-world alternative to neoliberalism. 

Second, and unfashionably, Jones stresses the importance of rebuilding the sinews and the confidence of the working class, which he thinks remains the indispensable agency of any sustainable social democratic project. Mostly, that means new policies able to transform the lived experience of workers: an assault on “precarity” and zero-hour contracts, the introduction of a “living wage,” the reform of union laws to level the playing field, the development of workplace democracy and “co-determination,” and the establishment of full employment as the overarching policy goal of government. 

Third, Jones calls on the left to be brave enough to imagine a new political economy that can align democracy, social stability, and prosperity. He offers a sketch—it would be wrong to claim more than that—of an alternative economic strategy: attack inequality through progressive taxes, the best guarantee against tax avoidance; rebalance the economy by reducing the power of the financial sector (if capital controls are good enough for the IMF, notes Jones, they should be good enough for the left); strengthen the public realm by bringing utilities back into public ownership and expelling the market from places it really never belonged while exploring new forms of shared ownership among workers, users, and state—not the old bureaucratic statism, then, but thoroughly modern forms of co-operativism and mutualism.

Many social democrats now speak of the need for a “Great Rebalancing”—and this need not mean only an economic rebalancing, i.e., the overhaul of corporate governance, a financial transaction tax, a more diverse banking system, and so on. It should also mean a rebalancing of power, starting with a check on the arbitrary power of corporate “barons” and a commitment to the “commons,” those essential public goods and spaces, including the environment. Also a cultural rebalancing: social democrats may yet rediscover some much older traditions for which William Morris is the patron saint. As the British philosopher Kate Soper has written, in place of the stress, obesity, noise, stench, and junk of neoliberalism, in which “many people, for most of their lives, begin their days in traffic jams or overcrowded trains and buses, and then spend much of the rest of them glued to the computer screen, often engaged in mind‑numbing tasks,” social democrats could stand for “more worthy, enduring or entrancing forms of human fulfillment” and a “fairer, less harassed, less environmentally destructive
and more enjoyable way of life.”

For sure, these are no more than signposts on the way toward a serious social democratic alternative to neoliberalism. And building an electoral coalition able to deliver them will be hugely difficult. But we social democrats now know more than enough about the two roads travelled by the left in recent decades—one marked “social neoliberalism” terminated in being “intensely relaxed” about people getting “filthy rich” and the loss of millions of working-class votes; and the other marked “anti-imperialism,” which ends with a cult proclaiming “We are all Hezbollah now!” The road we have not taken is global social democracy—democratic, egalitarian, internationalist, and liberal. We should take that road, even if, like the poet, we cannot look down it far. 

Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom and a senior research fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Center.


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