Monday, 11 May 2015

If I were a social democrat, what would I think about the UK and Alberta elections?

The pundits’ electoral post-mortems after the UK defeat and Alberta victory tell us nothing about the 40-year-long, global trend of social democratic morbidity.

Last week was quite the manic-depressive few days for social democrats.

A shock, historic win for Alberta’s New Democrats after 44 years of conservative rule in the province, giving hope to the centre-left around the world that if they can win in Canada’s Texas, they can win anywhere. And a shock, historic defeat for the British Labour Party, suffering its worst share of the vote since 1918, squeezed between the Scottish National Party north of the River Tweed and a hard-right UK Independence Party in England and Wales that dug away at support in the Labour heartlands.

In both cases, social democrats of assorted flavours have quickly offered up their explanations for the results. There has been crowing in Alberta about the importance of leader Rachel Notley’s charisma, her party’s moderate pitch that including a commitment to continued development of the tar sands, and the clever strategizing of her campaign director.

In the UK, Blairites such as Labour leadership hopeful Chuka Umunna, David Miliband and, well, Blair himself have been swift with their told-you-so’s that the microscopic shimmy to the left under Ed Miliband was a deadly error, while what remains of the left of the party (if one can think of such figures as Tristram Hunt and the mercurial Peter Hain as on the left) is arguing that the straightforward, unapologetic social democracy of the SNP is clear evidence that on the contrary, the party has lost the confidence of the working class. Here too, there is focus on the strategists. What happened to the pixie dust that 2008 Obama chief advisor and ‘political magician’ David Axelrod was supposed to sprinkle over Miliband? How was it that 2012 Obama campaign manager and 2015 Cameron strategist, Jim Messina, triumphed over his rival Democrat operative and ‘brother’ instead?

For the class of professional political agents who now dominate social democratic parties at the expense of the trade union activists that once made up their cadre, the discussion over what went wrong and what went right emphasises strategic technique above all. Even the inter-Milibandian question of whether policies should tack slightly left or right is not really an ideological fight, subsumed as it is under the rubric of the great game of political strategy. Though some like Hain or Hunt may still have a vague instinct that the world should be fairer than it is, overt ideological principle has long since been set aside. In this world, Notley’s team simply played a better game than Miliband’s.

Yet for all the internal polls, focus-groups and Big Data analytics upon which strategists, psephologists and the politicians themselves depend, they are missing the bigger empirical picture. For all the Axelrodian, Crosbyite swapping of advisors between parties in different countries, they are also lacking a true global view of the existential crisis of social democracy.

And when one does take this long, empirical, internationalist view, as Greek political scientist Gerassimos Moschonas did with a seminal piece of research a few years ago, one realises that Notley’s gob-smacking victory and Miliband’s gut-wrenching loss are both just two outlier data points of foam, frothing atop the broader current of the decades-long decline of social democracy, and that better advisors, or this or that policy tip-toeing leftward or lurching rightward can do nothing to reverse it.

For his paper, Moschonas crunched the numbers on support for social democratic parties across 16 European states from 1950 to 2009. This is important because with many more data points than just the typical pundit or politico’s focus on a single, national election, the research smooths out the signal of what is happening to social democracy everywhere from the noise of what is just due to local circumstance (a more charismatic candidate, a bad bit of scandal, better strategists, this or that policy, Blairism vs not-so-Blairism, etc.).

He found that support for social democracy averaged across all jurisdictions maintained itself throughout the 1950s and 1960s at the high water mark of trade union strength and the welfare state at about a third of voters (33.2%), and has declined ever since, with each decade worse than the last without exception. Down 1.5% in the 1970s; down 0.6% in the 1980s; down 1.9% in the 1990s; and down 2.6% in the 2000s.

Averaged across the fifty-year period investigated, that’s a steady droop of over two percent every ten years. Extrapolated to the present halfway mark through the 2010s, social democracy will have declined on average across all jurisdictions by another percentage point as of 2015. We should however not discount the possibility that the decline may have accelerated, as the decline became more pronounced in the 1990s and 2000s, or that there may be a ‘Pasok’ point of no return—a level of support below which the decline rapidly becomes a rout.

Beyond the steady decay of support, Moscschonas found an increase in voter volatility—that is, sharper swings in levels of support—again since the 1970s. His prognosis for social democracy is bleak, as the “rationale of numbers” makes clear.

Though restricting his investigation to Europe, Moschonas’ numbers are not likely to alter much if extended to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—as well as India and the US if we consider the Congress Party and the Democratic Party in the last two cases to be analogues of social democracy. (South America and South Africa would also be interesting cases to consider, even though they have had quite different experiences with democracy, and indeed with social democracy, as the neoliberal limiting of the policy space available for a government since the 1970s is the same for these regions)

If we extend our analysis beyond social democracy, we find that they are not the only victims of this process. Here, we can take another metric: membership in political parties. And when we do, as Ingrid van Biezen and her colleagues did in a separate, 2013 paper, we find that membership in political parties across the board has plummeted sharply over the same period, from the 1970s to the present day.  The UK, France and Italy have lost about one to two thirds of their members in the last three decades. The Nordic parties have lost 50 to 60 percent of their membership rolls. Across all established democracies, the absolute number of members has almost halved since 1980.

Party memberships in contemporary European democracies have now fallen to such a low level that they no longer seem to offer a meaningful indicator of party organisational capacity,” Biezen writes. “This inevitably calls into question our dominant way of thinking about political parties as a meaningful linkage mechanism between the general public and the institutions of government.”

We forget that historically, it was not merely elections that were the vehicle of popular political engagement, but the political party itself—and its associated sports leagues, “ladies’ auxiliaries”, political education classes, and study groups—was a transmission belt of ideas from the general public to elected officials and vice versa.

And similar declines can be found in trade unions and in a range of civic bodies, from churches to community service organisations, Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, and parent-teacher associations.

It is remarkable that no social democratic intellectuals are currently devoting the most focussed attention to this crisis of social democracy, to this collapse in civic engagement. Although, since the death of Tony Judt, there really are no social democratic intellectuals worth the title left. There are tribal social democratic pundits like the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee or Owen Jones, but no real social democratic thinkers. There is just this or that recommendation for how the domestic or regional party can do better.

No one is asking: “Why is social democracy dying?”, “What happened in the 1970s that caused this?” “What happened in the 1990s to accelerate this phenomenon?”


It is no accident that the decline kicked off in the 1970s. This was the decade of the break with the Keynesian consensus that had held firm across the political divide since the end of the war. Full employment, integration of trade unions, demand management and a generous welfare state had been embraced by the right as much as the left since 1945 in response to the three decades of war, revolution, depression and holocaust from the Bolshevik October to the Second World War. At the end of hostilities, elites had been afraid that if they did not provide some modicum of the social reform that the majority were demanding, they would receive social revolution. Capitalism had to be the very best version it could be in order to dissuade people from opting for communism. But by the 1970s, full employment had produced high rates of inflation that may have floated away the moderate debts of workers (car loans, mortgages) but bit deep into large holdings of capital, and a bolshy workforce that not only restricted the surplus value employers could extract, but also contested capital’s droit de seigneur on the shop floor, because if workers didn’t agree with what management wanted, they could just walk down the road and get another job the same afternoon. A militant workers' movement produced full employment, which in turn produced a militant workers' movement. It had to be broken. 

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan usually take the blame for ushering in neoliberalism—that combination of supply-side economics, privatisation, deregulation, welfare spending cuts and, later on, corporate-led globalisation--but Labour prime ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan and US Democratic president Jimmy Carter and his Federal Reserve Chairman, Paul Volcker, were earlier pioneers of the battle against inflation. The ‘Volcker Shock’ hiking interest rates to 21% reduced manufacturing output, slashed median family income by 10 percent, and raised unemployment to 11 percent. High interest rates quickly spread to the rest of the advanced capitalist world. Similarly, it was Carter, not Reagan, who initiated banking and transport deregulation.

It did not have to be this way. Sweden’s social democrats did consider responding to the economic crisis of the 1970s not with a challenge to the power of labour, but with a more thorough-going socialisation of the economy than social democracy had until then been willing to consider. But the party backed off from the Meidner Plan, as the strategy was known, in the face of predictably fierce opposition from capital.

This retreat by social democracy from its post-war policies was the beginning of labour’s growing disenchantment with its erstwhile representatives. But what had been begun by social democrats was perfected by conservatives. In set-piece battles with trade unions in the UK and US, the most militant sections of labour were soundly defeated, teaching a lesson to the rest of the labour movement that the days of pushover bosses and regular wage hikes was over. François Mitterand, elected in 1981 on what today would appear as a hard-left platform likewise was handily tamed by capital within months. Similar crackdowns on labour spread around the developed world, perpetrated as much by social democratic administrations as by conservative ones (and in the case of Joschka Fischer and Gerhard Schröeder’s coalition government in Germany at the turn of the millennium, Green-tinged ones too).

At the time, it appeared as though the losses were a temporary set-back. In retrospect, it is clear that t
he 1980s was the site of a world-historic defeat of the working class. The force that had been the central object of politics for 150 years was exiting the stage. 

In addition, the individuating and atomising processes required by neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s to break the trade unions also undermined conservative and apolitical mass organisational forms. This helps explain the wider decline in civic engagement. 

Meanwhile the viability and even desirability of the entrance of the masses onto the stage of history was dealt three sharp knocks: the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 of course (coming atop earlier blows from the show trials, the purges, the gulag, the famines resulting from the collectivisation of agriculture, and the invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968), but also, in smaller ways, the Iranian revolution and the genocidal regime of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, which challenged the idea that popular mobilisation is always in the service of progressive ends. Repeated cries from democratic socialists of “That’s not what we meant!” have barely been heard. Instead, the capitalist realism of ‘the end of history’ and ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) is almost universally accepted. This goes part of the way to explaining why shifting left or the establishment of new parties to the left of social democracy such as Syriza, Die Linke, Podemos and the Socialistische Partij, have only in the last half decade or so since the economic crisis had any electoral success: Many workers may be bitterly disappointed with social democratic perfidy, but, quite understandably, they simply do not believe anything better is possible. 


Tristram Hunt comes closest to understanding the pickle social democrats are in when he identifies part of the problem as being the limited policy space available to social democratic governments who face multi-billion-dollar capital flight from their territory within hours of their election. Writing in the Guardian after the election, he says: “[O]ur economic policy needs to be built on the essential conundrum of social democratic politics in an age of restricted public finances.” Capital flight and economic sabotage has long worked to try to tame left-wing administrations, but prior to the financial liberalisation begun the 1970s, it was more difficult for capital to up sticks, and, with almost every state imposing relatively high, progressive taxes throughout this period, there were few jurisdictions to which capital could flee.

Today, in an era of $21 trillion in offshore accounts, transfer pricing, aggressive tax competition, unaccountable (in the case of the ECB, extraterritorial) independent central banks, and globalised production, there is very little policy space left available for any one country—and that policy window is closing ever tighter. Social democracy in one country is no longer feasible, if it ever was. Social democracy had been feasible in so many countries after the war in essence because they all (or at least all that mattered to capital) did the same thing. This cannot happen today.

Thus the disintegration of social democratic principle, and consequent erosion of support from working class voters, results from the constraints that capital imposes on the nation-state rather than from a Tony Blair or François Hollande or Tom Mulcair being ideologically more conservative.  So simply seeking a more left-wing leader or party is insufficient. A return to Keynesian demand management, as the likes of Paul Krugman and Robert Reich suggest, is equally unfeasible; it ignores why Keynesianism was abandoned in the first place.

And indeed, we do find that when parties to the left of mainstream social democracy, or at least with more expansionary fiscal stances, such as Syriza, the Greens or the Scottish National Party, enter government, they are no less constrained by capital. 

For social democracy to be a viable project again, there would have to be some global level of government that could tame capital; a jurisdiction from which capital could not flee. But, like the derisory options of a check-mated king, a move in this direction also confounds. Capital itself already recognises the need for transnational and even global governance. There are simply too many policy areas, from trade to the internet to climate change, that are of global consequence and cannot be tackled by one jurisdiction alone.

But this move toward global governance is not a move toward democratic global government, but passes via post-democratic structures such as the WTO, the IMF, the UN Security Council, the G8, G20, the European Union, and even the UNFCCC. These bodies are created via treaty and their laws, regulations and directives negotiated by ‘experts’ behind closed doors instead of crafted in public, open chambers by democratically elected representatives. And these structures work assiduously to further delimit what elected governments can do, removing great swathes of policy areas, particularly fiscal policy, from the realm of democracy, to be placed instead in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, diplomats and judges.

So social democrats cannot simply wait for elites to construct a global governance architecture and then take it over. The architecture of global governance is itself a block to social democratic aims.

Furthermore, in order to replicate today the conditions that permitted social democracy its moment from 1945 to 1975 in the first place, the construction of a robustly militant working-class and bottom-up internationalism, comparable to the class's pugnacity of the first half of the 20th Century, outside the current elite-led intergovernmentalist framework, would be necessary. It took an external threat for elites to concede social democracy the first time around. They will need to be similarly threatened this time around.

In the 21st Century, this doesn't just mean American workers coming together with Chinese workers and German workers with Greek workers, but rather the abandonment of the national idea altogether, a transformation of workers’ conception of ourselves toward that of a global category. That is to say, an international—or perhaps it would be better to say ‘universal and anti-national’—working class movement independent of national parties of whatever stripe; a global syndicalism, if you will. ('Workers of the world, unite', rather than 'Workers of all lands, unite')

In other words, the precondition of a renewed, viable social democracy is identical to the precondition of that set of ideas that goes one step further than social democracy: socialism—the capture of capital, not merely its taming. The revival of social democracy is inseparable from the revival of socialism.

But demonstrating the viability and desirability of independent working class action, of socialism, is, in the face of the volume of apparent evidence of its failure, of course a huge ask. And the seeming impossibility of this task will keep sending social democrats back to attempting the same old, same old, even as it delivers diminishing returns. 

All this is of course a vast, perhaps multi-generational undertaking (and one in which the growing labour insurgency in China, independent of the trade union bureaucracy and the Communist Party, will have to play a major role).

But social democracy in the 21st Century has no other option.

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