December 5, 2011


Has the Euro Crisis Killed Off Social Democracy For Good? (Jonathan Blitzer, December 3, 2011, New Republic)

The sovereign debt crisis has done more than batter incumbent socialists out of office; it may well have stripped the social democratic movement of its soul in the crisis zone.

Even before the latest crisis hit, it was widely presaged that social democracy was on the wane in Europe. The continent's working class, fragmented under the pressures of globalization, had already been moving toward alternative parties for a number of years. But the current financial crisis has amplified those trends. The mood is uniformly grim among the continent's center-left set.

That's especially the case in the European periphery, where the debt problems are greatest. For left-leaning politicians in countries hurtling toward the precipice of insolvency, there is frightfully little room to alleviate mounting unemployment and anemic growth. "The crisis has shown what was probably true for some time, that these governments have limited scope to determine their own economic policy," Says Jonathan White, of the London School of Economics.

With bond markets aflutter and Brussels demanding massive spending cuts, incumbent governments have had little choice but to embark on toxically unpopular austerity. In March, Portuguese Socialist José Sócrates was forced to resign when an austerity package was rejected by Parliament. The Greek Prime Minister's exit, in November, was as precipitous as Zapatero's was agonizingly protracted. In the meantime, it's not taken long for the labor party in Ireland to come under fire for reneging on its campaign promise to put national interests first in its now infamous formulation: "Labor's way or Frankfurt's way." And the arrival of technocrats in Italy after the fall of the government of Silvio Berlusconi only underscores how incompatible austerity is with electoral survival: the country's center-left never even attempted to take the reins of power.

It is clearly not a sustainable situation for Social Democrats. They have lost credibility with the electorate not only because they've been virtually impotent in stimulating growth, but also, worse, because austerity has appeared to make them go against their principles. The traditional linchpins of the social democratic agenda--defense of the welfare state, a Keynesian economic vision, responsiveness to a pluralistic electorate--are in tatters. For the Spanish, Portuguese, and Greek Socialists who were forced to make cuts in their respective countries, austerity is their legacy.

Their conservative rivals, by contrast, now have the pretext they've been waiting for to cut government spending and privatize swaths of the education and health sectors.

Not quite.  What the Left--in these countries, but less so in the Anglosphere and Scandinavia--is failing to reckon with is that parties of the Right have evolved the same soul, one dedicated to the welfare state.  The political argument is just over how to provide that welfare, via socialist means or capitalist.  Socialism was tried and found wanting, but the traditional Left distrusts capitalism too much to adopt its mechanisms with gusto.  Even the successes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Helen Clark and the like fail to sway them.  One key difference here may be that we never experienced bloodshed between Left and Right, the way continental Europe did, so we don't harbor the same historical enmities.

Posted by at December 5, 2011 6:20 AM

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