Τετάρτη, 29 Μάιος 2024

The crisis of socialdemocracy/Causes and prospects

I. The historical background

Social democracy emerged in the 19th century as a movement which initially had both revolutionary/Marxist and evolutionary/gradualist tendencies. This dualism took its most characteristic expression in the clash between the Lenin's and Bernstein's approach towards capitalism and its transcendence. The former was stressing that the reformist strategy would lead to the "embourgeoisement" of the working class and therefore to the survival of the capitalist mode of production. Bernstein on the other hand was arguing that the gradual improvement of the workers' conditions by democratic means such as the gradual spread of voting right, was a necessary precondition, in the long term, for the overcoming of capitalism and the eventual establishment of democratic socialism - i.e. for achieving a shift from the dominance of capitalist to the dominance of socialist relations of production.

II. The "golden years"

Subsequently the bernsteinian position prevailed and this led in the early post-war period to the so called "30 glorious years" of the social democratic movement from 1945 to 1975. In fact, during this period many social democratic parties came to power and managed to "humanise" capitalism. They managed to develop the welfare state and to spread civic, political and social rights to the working class base of the social pyramid - a condition never achieved before in modern times.

III. The crisis

In the late 70's however we witness a severe social democratic crisis. It had two main causes: First, due to the new technologies of the post-fordist era, the industrial working class base of the social democratic parties shrank. Second, the rise of neo-liberal globalisation and the reduction of the nation state's autonomy changed the balance of power between capital and labour - since the state was not any more able to regulate and control the rapid capital movements within its national frontiers. This meant that there is a marked imbalance of power between capital and labour. When the state or the trade unions tried to contest capital's strategies, private enterprises can easily move to countries where labour is cheaper and labour legislation is weak or non existent. Due to these developments social democratic parties, in order to survive, were transformed into "catch all parties", they lost their pro-labour progressive character and accepted to some degree the neo-liberal principles as expressed in the famous "Washington Consensus" which entails anti-inflationary policies, austerity, balanced budgets, anti-union measures etc. The sort of measures that Germany imposes on the eurozone today. The implementation of this neo-liberal strategy, as is well known, created huge inequalities, the relative diminution of welfare resources, unemployment, and the peripheralisation of a large part of the population in several european societies.

IV. Definitions

There are those (particularly on the left) who identify social democracy exclusively with its golden-age period. They argue that today "real" social democracy is dead; it was a phenomenon of the fordist past and its present decline is irreversible. On the other hand there are also those who still call themselves social democrats and who define social democracy in a broader manner: as a reformist movement which, under favourable conditions, can overcome its present crisis by creating new strategies aiming at a second humanisation of capitalism. Such new ideas and strategies already exist but, in most countries, material conditions and neo-liberal policies render them peripheral.

V. The european level

Given that globalisation entails not the shrinking of the state but the reduction of its autonomy, it is obvious that the social democracy of the early post-war type is not any more possible. More generally, a progressive social democracy is not any more possible "within one country". It can only be achieved on a post-national level. It can only be achieved within a broader framework like the eurozone which has greater autonomy vis-à-vis the global social order. Of course, this presupposes that the eurozone changes its present architecture. It presupposes a decisive shift from the neo-liberal, german dominated Europe to a social democratic community of countries which realises that its survival depends on greater solidarity between the economically more competitive to the less competitive countries. It is only in this way that the present imbalances and dysfunctions of the eurozone will be overcome. Dysfunctions such as growing inequalities between centre and periphery and massive unemployment in the latter, these trends leading to europhobia and to the spectacular rise of anti-Europe extreme left and right wing parties and movements.
In fact, the main weakness of the eurozone's overall structure is that it consists of two types of economies: the more developed, north-western competitive countries and the less competitive south and eastern european ones; all operating on the basis of the euro currency. This situation leads to a systematic transfer of resources from the less to the more competitive economies. Such an "unequal exchange" entails sums greater than the aid that the european centre gives to the periphery. Given this process, the only way to redress the above imbalance is to create serious redistributive mechanisms which will gradually diminish the growing gap between rich and less rich members. It presupposes, in other terms, a shift from the neo-liberal to a social-democratic european order.
Is a Europe based on solidarity possible? I think that it is difficult but possible. Germany, as already mentioned, is the dominant power in the EU. Not the voters but the german elites realise that it is in the long term interests of their country to maintain the Union. For destroying it, given the rising new economies, Germany will become a third class player in the global economic and geopolitical arena. For the moment Merkel wants something impossible: to maintain the eurozone neo-liberal character and at the same time ensure EU's long term survival. However, one cannot achieve both. Therefore Germany will soon have to choose either solidarity, i.e. a social democratic transformation of the EU or its eventual dissolution.

VI. The global level

Moving finally from the national and european to the global level, in left wing circles there are new theories that predict the imminent collapse of capitalism. Such theories are not new, but they have been revived today by the recent world economic crisis. The basic logic here is that the present unprecedented concentration of wealth at the top of the global system which means that 1% of the population owns more than 1/5 of the global produced wealth. This grotesque situation, according to the well known work of Thomas Piketty, has not only surpassed the 19th century's colossal inequalities, but the owners of these resources direct them not to the more but to the less productive financial sectors - where profits are quicker and much higher. The growing "financialization" of the world economy creates difficulties for the enlarged reproduction of capitalism. According to those who predict the coming collapse of capitalism, such internal/systemic contradictions will lead to the final end of capitalism.
I think that this type of theories have to do more with wishful thinking and less with a serious assessment of present and future developments. It is true of course that the capitalist mode of production, contra Fukuyama, is not to last forever. But surely its overall collapse is not around the corner. After the collapse of the soviet collectivist economic system, I think that capitalism will be with us for a long time still. It might of course change form. Neoliberalism may have already reached a peak (as has shown Obama's successful quasi-keynesian strategy for dealing with the crisis). More generally, I think that capitalism in an overall mixture of different forms, as an extremely flexible and adaptive system will survive - if not in the very long term, at least in the decades to come.
The reason for the above is that in the global economic space there are at present three types of capitalism which together are dominant on a planetary level:
(a) The neo-liberal type whose dominant actor remains the USA.
(b) The rapidly ascending authoritarian capitalism of China.
(c) The weaker, quasi-socialdemocratic/"socioliberal" type of western european capitalism which has a long history of popular social reforms and which might in the future, if the eurozone survives as an economically, politically and socially integrated formation, become a serious force of progressive social transformation.
For the moment, there are only two hegemons, two serious global players in the economic arena: the USA and China. The USA still remains the leading economic power in the world. Its technological advances, the quality of its research and the dynamism of its workforce, place the country at the top. China, on the other hand, with the impressive rapid growth and the size of its economy, has become the other dominant global power. Of course, for the moment the suppression of civil and political rights has created a very negative image of China in the West.
But, on the other hand, its rapid economic growth starts creating a large middle class which, as in South Korea and Taiwan, may lead to the gradual opening of its political system. Moreover China has achieved a unique social transformation. Despite its huge inequalities in the urban centres, it managed to get out of absolute poverty almost half a billion human beings. That means that for the first time in chinese history, during bad harvests peasants do not face starvation.
Finally, as far as the eurozone is concerned, if it avoids collapse, might become the third major economic player. If that happens, we will pass "from the G2 to the G3" dominance. The G3 have of course divergent interests. But increasingly, as nation states are becoming more and more interrelated, their common interests might become stronger than their conflicting ones. And this because there are several problems which, if not dealt with globally and cooperatively, will hurt all three: problems like climate change and global environmental destruction, non effective control of atomic energy, terrorism, the rapidly expanding global networks of drug dealers, traffickers of human beings etc.
But above all, the three global capitalist superpowers have a common interest in regulating the world economy in a way that future economic crises will be less destructive, more effectively managed. That means, regulating the world market not in a neo-liberal but in a neo-socialdemocratic manner. This need not imply the creation of a world state but rather the cooperation of three mega actors, who have a common interest in running the global capitalist economy in a more rational manner. A good example of the need for G3 cooperation is the repeated efforts of the US government to persuade the eurozone leadership to change the neo-liberal austerity strategy in dealing with the world crisis.

VII. Concluding remarks

To conclude:
- Social democracy is not dead, a revival is possible.
- The overcoming of social democracy's crisis presupposes:
First, the creation of new progressive strategies for the overcoming of its present crisis. Progressive strategies in the sense that they will aim at reactivating new mechanisms for the further spread of civic, political, economic, social and cultural rights to the social base.
Second, the above entails seriously regulated markets, aiming at growth, democracy, social justice and environmental responsibility.
Third, such new social democratic strategies will have greater chances of success if they take place in a united Europe leaving behind a neo-liberalism which, at least partly, has strengthened the right wing populisms that threaten the very existence of the EU.
- For those who think that the collapse of capitalism is not around the corner, that it will be with us for a long time, a revival of a capitalism with a human face is the only path forwards. For transcending capitalism in a revolutionary manner, under the present conditions, is unlikely to succeed; or if it succeeds it will lead to new types of authoritarianism. Therefore, given the continued adaptability of global capitalism, it is the social democratic type, at least in the medium term, that can lead us to a more humane global social order.
Finally, needless to say, this paper gives a rather optimistic view of future developments. Unfortunately, there is also a very pessimistic scenario, a scenario where global pressures for G3 cooperation are weaker than the formidable forces of chauvinistic nationalism leading to zero-sum geopolitical games. Unfortunately, contra Hegel, history is not always the unfolding of human reason. In this, rather festive, context which celebrates the emancipative spirit of the ancient Olympic Games, I have decided not to deal with the possible darker scenario.

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