What next for European social democracy? The good society debate and beyond.

Author:Meyer, Henning
Position::Notebook - Essay


The Good Society Debate, which was hosted on the website of the Social Europe journal in cooperation with Soundings, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) and Compass, was the first of its kind. Our intention was to use the opportunities that easily accessible new media provide to bring together thinkers from all over Europe (and beyond). The future of European social democracy, with Jon Cruddas and Andrea Nahles's Building the Good Society paper as point of reference, was the guiding topic of the debate, and the series of election defeats for social democratic parties in most European countries provided the political background.

When we conceived the idea of the debate, we were hoping to get forty contributors together. In the end it was ninety people who contributed, many of whom took the initiative and contacted us to offer their contribution as the debate progressed. We had more than 22,000 visitors who viewed more than 51,000 pages over the course of the debate. This is a remarkable result given the very specialist nature of the discourse. These statistics clearly show that there was a strong desire amongst left-of-centre academics, politicians and activists to openly debate the current state of social democracy in Europe, and that there were many more who took an interest in our deliberations, from Tasmania in the south to Alaska in the north.

Such a long and broad debate invariably presents a lot of different viewpoints and it was sometimes hard to keep up with the reading due to the number of articles published each day. For this reason, we will attempt to present a thematic summary of the online debate in this article. Such a summary necessarily omits many arguments. We will nevertheless try to present recurring themes and points of analysis as well as elaborate some initial lessons from the debate. The Good Society Debate was of course only a starting point. A lot of more detailed work still needs to be done.

The social democratic crisis

Many authors took the opportunity of the debate to discuss the origins of the social democratic crisis in the national as well as European context and two questions in particular: First, why is social democracy in crisis? And second--partially related to the first question--why did the economic crisis not benefit social democrats and why are they losing so many elections?

Why is social democracy in crisis?

Almost all commentators tried to give an answer to this central question, referring to the situation in either their respective country or Europe in general. Many were very critical of the performance of their political parties, criticising above all the 'Third Way' and associated political reform projects of the 1990s and early 2000s for the loss of direction, credibility and public trust. Philippe Marliere of University College London in particular criticised the fact that

since the 1980s, social democrats have blindly promoted free markets. They forgot that the most economically successful and fairest societies have been those where the state has kept a strong regulating role, and where public services have been consistently funded and kept in public hands. With Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroder, uncritical support of globalisation became the new mantra ... In reality, the gap between rich and poor has significantly increased while social democrats have been in government. And the middle classes, who cannot any longer rely on effective and cheap public services, are also increasingly struggling. Peter Mandelson once famously said that he was 'relaxed about people getting filthy rich'. His wish has come true. According to Colin Crouch of Warwick University, the Blair-Schroder project claimed

that it had the answer to the problems of social democracy for post-industrial society, but it failed to develop anything that distinguished itself from neo-liberalism, especially in the UK. This is because it failed to develop a popular base, to root its position in society. This view was also shared by the freelance writer Fredrik Jansson, who tried to answer the more general question of 'Who are the social democrats in a post-industrial society?', and suggested that to find an answer one has to look beyond the traditional social democratic constituencies to trade unions and social movements.

The notion that social democracy has lost credibility and trust as a direct result of the modernisation programmes of the last decade and a half was a recurring theme in many contributions (see for instance Klaus Mehrens, Jenny Andersson, Henri Weber and Rene Cuperus). Rene Cuperus of the Dutch Wiardi Beckmann Stichting summarised this impression eloquently when he argued that

European social democracy faces an existential crisis for one reason: the electorate is of the opinion that social democracy is betraying the good society it once promised and stood for--the good society of equal citizenship, solidarity, social mobility, trust and strong community. The electorate thinks that this good society has been undermined and destroyed by an elitist, pseudo-cosmopolitan concept of the good society, built around neo-liberal globalisation, European unification, permanent welfare state reform, ill managed mass migration, the rise of individualism and a knowledge-based meritocracy. French MEP Henry Weber in his contribution provided a variety of explanations for the defeat of social democracy in Europe. Reminding us that in 2002 eleven out of fifteen European Union governments were socialist, Weber identified more profound reasons for electoral defeats:

They are to be found in the exhaustion of the 'social-democratic crisis compromise' agreed upon in the 1990s. Furthermore, the non-cooperative national strategies that European socialist and social democratic parties were led to implement at the turn of the century (whether with good grace or bad) have also contributed to the impasse. For Weber it is the European level which is the main battleground for a return to power: 'In short, the crisis of social democracy comes from its inability to implement a European response to the challenges of globalisation'.

Weber's view of the deep-seated nature of the malaise was echoed by David Marquand of Oxford University, who sees an 'ominous paradox' for European social democracy.

By rights, this should be a social democratic moment. The economic crisis of the last two years has shown beyond doubt that the neo-liberal economic paradigm which has dominated theory and practice for nearly thirty years is--quite simply--wrong ... Yet, so far, the only response has been a deafening silence. (1) In his video contribution to the debate, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone sought to explain this silence. Livingstone argued that because of the gradual adjustment of social democratic politics to the neo-liberal mainstream, social democratic parties have neglected the development of an alternative political programme. In contrast to conservatives, who used the 'golden years' of social democracy to develop an alternative political project to be ready to step in once the social democratic consensus appeared vulnerable, social democrats in recent years have not done the same. As a consequence, social democrats had no political alternative to offer when the confidence in neo-liberalism started to wane in the wake of the financial crisis and subsequent recession.

Other authors went even further in their criticism of social democracy. Mike Cole (Bishop Grosseteste University College) and Jeremy Gilbert (University of East London), for instance, argued that the dual crisis of capitalism and social democracy revealed deeper philosophical flaws that required a radical cure. Gilbert argued

the lesson we must draw is that social democrats were always quite mistaken to imagine that they had somehow tamed capitalism, domesticated it, reinvented it...

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