A return to agonism?

An article in Foreign Affairs discusses the need for the social democratic left in politics to return to its roots, thus saving itself, and society with it.

It opens, When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, social democrats in Europe believed that their moment had finally arrived. After a decade in which European politics had drifted toward the market-friendly policies of the right, the crisis represented an opportunity for the political center left’s champions of more effective government regulation and greater social justice to reassert themselves. After all, it was thanks to center-right policies that deregulated financial markets had devolved into a kind of black hole, detached from the wider global economy but exerting a powerful force on all kinds of economic activity. When the financial services industry finally collapsed, the effects went far beyond Wall Street and the U.S. economy, plunging financial markets and economies everywhere into a deep crisis that has still not been resolved”.

The author writes crucially, “social democrats in Europe sensed a possible silver lining. For decades, they had argued for stiffer regulations to steady inherently unstable financial markets, to no avail. The crisis, it seemed, proved them right. Moreover, in the wake of a massive global recession, millions of people had to turn for support to the welfare systems that social democrats had built and sustained: yet another vindication, they believed. And yet five years later, Europe’s social democratic moment has yet to materialise. Social democrats have won victories at the national level in a number of countries, including Denmark, France, and Slovakia. But these relatively modest gains have been overshadowed by a sense that Europe has fallen into a period of political volatility, a permanent emergency of sorts brought on by the flaws revealed in the euro system and the European Union as the global financial crisis morphed into a eurozone crisis. Even though social democrats have not yet been able to fully capitalise on the situation, they still have a chance to do so, but only if they come to see how the mistakes they made during the previous two decades reduced their political capital and left them ill prepared to take advantage of a political environment that should play to their strengths”.

The writer argues for social democrats to return to thier old ways of challenging unfettered immoral capitalism and at the same time protect the welfare state that so many now rely on during these times. The piece adds that “From the late 1970s until the mid-1990s, they had suffered significant declines in electoral support in key countries, such as Germany and the United Kingdom. These declines prompted soul-searching on the European left, which took different forms in different countries. One common conclusion, however, was that as neoliberalism spread and economies around the world changed dramatically, traditional social democratic politics seemed outdated to many voters. Across the Atlantic, in the United States, the Democratic Party, led by President Bill Clinton, responded by shifting to the right, plotting a “third way” that accommodated market-friendly neoliberal policies”.

Of course what actually happened was that the so called “New Democrats” in fact adopted, almost wholesale, the GOP platform of mass privitisation and welfare cuts. Naturally other parties joined Clinton in ditching their values and jumping off the cliff. Part of the result of this was a decline in voter turnout. People saw little ideological difference between the parties and saw fewer and fewer reasons to vote.

As the writer says, “The key intellectual shift shared by the many different third-way currents that emerged in the 1990s was their application of pro-market policies to almost every area of governing. Third-way proponents saw social security systems not primarily as insurance against major life risks, such as unemployment, illness, and infirmity, but rather as a means of economic reintegration. Their goal was to transform the social safety net into a trampoline, focused less on addressing the immediate needs of the poor and disadvantaged and more on helping such people rapidly rejoin the economy. In practice, these reforms increased the risk that the unemployed would face permanent downward mobility, with the government subsidizing their reentry into the very bottom end of the labor market”.

The writer argues, correctly that “Still, in electoral terms, the third way worked well, at least for a time. By the end of the 1990s, social democrats led most of the EU states”, the piece goes on to say that “to many voters, the extent to which social democrats had changed their stripes represented an opportunistic betrayal of their core beliefs that left them almost indistinguishable from their political competitors. Such accusations took their toll, but the weakness of the third way became undeniable only after the financial crisis. Suddenly, traditional social democratic warnings about the inherent instability of markets — the kind of talk that third-way leaders such as Blair had left behind — seemed prescient, not old-fashioned. But because social democratic leaders had spent the previous two decades adopting, rather than adapting, neglecting to develop a true alternative to neoliberalism’s insistence on unfettered markets, the crisis found them intellectually unprepared”.

The writer continues, “Today, while they should be riding high, the social democrats appear overwhelmed by the rapid change that is taking place around them — just like almost every other group in the European political ecosystem”. She goes on to add later that “To accomplish those goals in the midst of a continent-wide political crisis, social democrats must abandon their recent obsession with short-term electoral tactics and return to their political and ideological roots, offering voters in their countries a vision of a “good society.” The core social democratic values of freedom, equality, and social justice should be the guiding ideals for a good society that recalibrates the relationship among citizens, the economy, and the state. A dynamic and sustainable economy must be not an end in itself but a means to improve the lives of all citizens, not just a few at the top. The allocation of income and wealth in many places today has little to do with people’s performance; it is mostly the result of power and influence. A good society would reinstate the performance principle”.

She gives the example of Apple. In an old fashioned and paternalistic way, though these are not inherently bad concepts she writes, “It should have come as no surprise that retrofitting the techniques of retail marketing to electoral strategy would not make for coherent politics — it rarely makes for good business, either. Steve Jobs, the visionary founder of Apple, understood this well. When asked by his biographer, Walter Isaacson, why he refused to rely on traditional market research, Jobs replied, “Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. . . . People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Europe’s social democrats should heed Jobs’ advice and craft a new and convincing political agenda that reflects their core values, rather than trying to reverse-engineer a platform that just reflects what opinion research suggests the public wants to hear. An electoral strategy based on articulating core social democratic values would also offer a tactical advantage. As European societies become more culturally and socially fragmented, trying to target particular groups of voters with tailored messages means chasing ever-smaller segments of society with ever-narrower messages. This divide-and-conquer approach served third-way politicians well during the years of stability and prosperity. But during a crisis or a prolonged period of instability, it has prevented social democratic parties from putting forward broad-based platforms that could unite otherwise diverse social groups around a single economic and political vision”.

She ends the article, “if Europe’s social democrats are to have a real shot at winning office and governing successfully, they need to think big. Rhetorical adjustments will not suffice, nor will simply rebranding third-way ideas for the current situation. To finally seize the moment, social democrats need to return to their roots and offer Europeans a vision of a good society, one that can redeem the promise of social justice and a prosperous economy”.


2 Responses to “A return to agonism?”

  1. BJP vs Congress | Order and Tradition Says:

    […] to a shrinking turnout and a corrisponding lack of legitimacy. The main reason for this is the lack of ideological differentation between the […]

  2. End of Christian Democracy? | Order and Tradition Says:

    […] An article in Foreign Affairs by Jan Werner Mueller discusses the death of Christian Democracy in Europe. This follows on from the article some time ago discussing the end of European socialists. […]

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