Europe's Social Democratic Countries Move Right

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"The movement is everything; the final goal, nothing," Eduard Bernstein, the great German social democrat -- in many ways, the father of social democracy -- wrote in the late 19th century. Ironically, Bernstein remains one of the few socialist leaders who achieved his final goal, which was to persuade his fellow socialists to reject the fatal illusion of revolutionary transformation and to embrace instead the cause of day-to-day social democratic reform of capitalism. Marching, cautiously, under Bernstein's banner, the socialist, social democratic and labor parties of Europe managed over the subsequent century to create the continent's welfare state -- capitalism mitigated by universal benefits and worker rights.

But what happens to social democracy when, having long since abandoned the final goal of socialist transformation, it also has lost its sense of movement? The answer to that question may be apparent in the results of last weekend's elections for the European Parliament. In voting across 27 nations, virtually all of Europe's social democratic parties took a pasting, no matter whether they were in office or in opposition in their respective countries.

In Britain and Spain, where they control the government, the Labor and Socialist parties, respectively, got clobbered. In Britain, Labor turned in its worst performance since it became a major party in the early 1900s, and the tenuous survival of Gordon Brown's government has turned into a daily soap opera. The parties of the left also lost big in France and Italy, where they are in opposition, and in Germany, where they are the junior partner in a conservative-led government.

As my colleague Anne Applebaum noted yesterday, you might think that a crisis of world capitalism would help the parties of the left, especially in Europe, where their long-standing critique of the laissez-faire American economics that both built and brought down the global house of cards has clearly been proven right. And yet, in the middle of the first systemic breakdown since the 1930s, the parties of the left are, at least for now, being left behind.

In one sense, the parties' problem is that the capitalism they humanized so well at the national level is no longer national. The creation of an effectively borderless European Union and of a global economy has made it harder for those parties to expand, or even defend, their achievements. Many of the factory and construction workers who were their historic constituents found themselves competing with lower-wage workers who either came to their countries or to whose countries European companies relocated their plants. Moreover, as the middle class grew in Europe and the proportion of factory workers declined, the electoral base of the leftist parties changed accordingly. Some parties, following the Third Way policies of Tony Blair, sought to scale back their welfare states somewhat, thereby opening a rift between themselves and their longtime union stalwarts. Moreover, during the past three decades, many hitherto ethnically uniform European nations have become home to sizable populations of non-European origin, which has led to a continent-wide rise of vicious anti-immigrant parties that have also eaten into social democracy's onetime base.

For European social democracy, the cost of all these transformations has been the loss of a clear sense of direction, of mission, of Bernstein's "movement." Defending a social democratic island on a laissez-faire globe, the parties have found themselves alternately embracing and opposing the deregulations of the past quarter-century, with better results for some (the Scandinavian parties) than others. For most, it's been two steps forward, two steps back. Some movement.

Electorally, however, their chief problem in this recession may be that the parties of the right, at least on the continent, defend the welfare state every bit as much as they do. Europe's two preeminent conservatives, France's Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel, extol their nation's generous unemployment benefits, paid family leave and national health insurance systems as superior to America's you're-on-your-own economic arrangements, and as built-in buffers against the ravages of depression. Indeed, in arguing for globalizing a regime of strict financial regulation, Sarkozy may have charted a course that the European left should follow -- expanding their economic model to the global level rather than continuing to fight a losing battle to defend it country by country.

So is Barack Obama going against a global tide by trying to make American capitalism a bit more social democratic while Europe's social democratic parties sputter and wheeze? Few on the European right would say so. Even their conservatives view America's deregulated economy not only as inhumane but also as a threat to global, and European, economic stability -- a belief that the past year's collapse has intensified. The nation that most needs that Bernsteinian sense of movement, of social reform, is the United States.

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