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Social Democracy’s Incomplete Legacy

Our impulse should not be to reject social democracy's legacy, but to build on and complete its promise.

Sweden has a lot more to offer the world than just sensibly designed cars, vodka, and flat pack furniture. In recent years it has churned out a legion of musical artists and bands, much beloved in my rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood and similar locales around the world, many of whom have been directly supported by the country’s still-generous welfare state.

I don’t know if indie-pop heartthrob Jens Lekman has personally benefited from this particular kind of welfare state largesse, but the state of Swedish social democracy certainly seems to be on his mind a lot these days. For years he’s been known for his light-hearted yet acerbic takes on love and everyday life, but a number of songs on his more recent releases demonstrate a growing concern for the durability of the much-vaunted Swedish social model. On “Shirin,” a standout on his 2007 album Night Falls Over Kortedala, Jens swears to his Iraqi refugee hairdresser not to report her to the tax and immigration authorities for running a beauty salon out of her own apartment. His recently released EP, An Argument With Myself, has two songs that are even more overtly political. “A Promise” sees him talking to a sick friend forced into the workforce by new active labor market policies that are perhaps a bit too active. On first listen, “Waiting for Kirsten” seems like little more than a good-natured tale of drunkenly stalking the actress Kirsten Dunst during a recent visit to Lekman’s native Göteborg. But underneath the song’s glossy pop veneer lies his real concern: a defense of the venerable principles of social-democratic solidarity that made Sweden “Sweden”:

’Cause times are changing, Kirsten:
Göta Älv is slowly reversing;
They turned a youth center into a casino;
They drew a swastika in your cappuccino.
And the VIP lines are not to the clubs
But to healthcare, apartments and jobs.
“Hey buddy can I borrow five grand?
’Cause my dad’s in chemo,
And they wanna take him off his plan.”

During the brief time I spent in Sweden, I learned quickly that left-wing Swedes are somewhat apt to overstate the erosion of their welfare state and of social democracy’s ideological hegemony. The former is still probably the most comprehensive in the world, and the latter is so deep and pervasive that even the country’s far-right parties are compelled to make their public appeals on the basis of solidarity and equality (for native-born white Swedes only, of course). Still, there’s no denying that social-democratic parties and policies have been in varying stages of retreat for at least the last two decades, and Sweden and the Nordic countries generally have been no exception. In the most recent national elections in 2010, the ruling center-right coalition led by the Moderate Party won reelection to a new four year term, marking the first time in modern Swedish history that a non-social democratic government has won a two consecutive terms in office. The Social Democratic Party, perhaps the most electorally successful party in the history of parliamentary democracy, polled their worst result since World War I. Worse still, the Sweden Democrats, a far-right racist and anti-immigrant party, polled their best ever result and have seats in the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, for the first time.

A quick tour through the contemporary European political landscape tells much the same story. British voters tossed out the Labour Party in the spring of 2010 after three consecutive terms, bringing a Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government to power that promptly embarked on an austerity program so far-reaching it might even make some Congressional Republicans blush. Portugal’s center-right parties pummeled the ruling Socialists in last year’s legislative and presidential elections, and the more radical Left Bloc lost half its seats in parliament. After presiding over one of the worst recessions in modern European history Spain’s Socialists were blown out by the center-right Popular Party last fall, marking their worst showing at the polls (a mere 28.8%) since the transition to democracy three decades ago. Since the installation of Mario Monti’s technocratic government in Italy late last year, the center-left Democratic Party has shown little inclination to fight his austerity program; indeed, they have been one of his main pillars of support in Italy’s famously fractious political system. And in Greece, where pundits and economists have openly called for living standards to be cut by as much as 40%, the previously dominant center-left party PASOK is on the brink of implosion. Utterly discredited by its administration of a savage austerity program and its support for the unelected technocratic government of prime minister Lucas Papademos, PASOK is now the fifth most popular party in Greece, behind the center-right New Democracy and three left parties — SYRIZA, Democratic Left, and the Greek Communist Party — whose opposition to austerity has attracted PASOK voters disgusted by the party’s attack on its traditional social base, the public sector unions in particular.

To be sure, not all of Europe’s social-democratic parties confront similarly grim short-term electoral prospects. Last fall, Danish voters brought a Red Bloc government under the leadership of the Social Democrats to power, marginalizing the far-right Danish People’s Party in the process. In France, the Socialist Party’s Francois Hollande has long led incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in the polls for the 2012 presidential election, but a recent Sarkozy resurgence and a growing challenge from the Left Front’s Jean-Luc Melenchon have thrown the race wide open. And in perhaps the most inspiring electoral result since the Great Recession began, in 2009 a coalition of Social Democrats and Left-Greens won a majority of seats in Iceland’s parliament, nationalized much of the nation’s financial sector, and offered debt forgiveness to huge numbers of struggling homeowners.

While it may be premature to sound the death knell for social democracy, it is clear that the current crisis has accelerated the long-term decline of social-democratic politics in Europe. Social-democratic parties may still be able to win elections and form governments, but they’ve shown little inclination to break decisively from neoliberal policy prescriptions when in power. From Greece to Spain to Ireland to France to Germany, the principles of solidarity and social welfare that have underpinned the kinder, gentler form of capitalism embodied in the phrase “social Europe” are under attack. They may not hold up under the combined pressures of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and European Central Bank as they pursue neoliberal structural adjustment. Citizens across the continent have protested against the dismantling of their social protections, sometimes ferociously, but to date they have not been able to turn the tide. At the moment, at least, an “asocial Europe” appears to be the continent’s future.


In the recently published book What’s Left of the Left, a group of prominent political scientists, sociologists, and policy experts attempt to make sense of social democracy’s long transition from left to center-left, from opposition to capitalism to its humane and rational administration. This is not a neutral or objective piece of scholarship. All of the volume’s contributors can be counted among the partisans of social democracy and accept the putative wisdom of the center-left’s rejection of socialist visions in favor of capitalism with a human face. Edited by James Cronin, George Ross, and James Schoch, and including contributions from such luminaries of the academic center-left as Sheri Berman, Gerassimos Moschonas, and Jonas Pontusson, it attempts to provide an intellectual framework to advance the project of “progressive politics in tough times.” The book is far too long and detailed to permit comprehensive treatment here, so I will focus primarily on those contributions that are most relevant to our purposes. While valuable for anyone seeking to attain an introduction to the contemporary European center-left, it reflects the profound limitations of the political tradition it seeks to defend.

Before proceeding further, it’s probably best to define exactly what we mean when we talk about “social democracy.” This is a harder task than may appear at first blush. Throughout its history, social democracy has been protean and chameleon-like, adapting and re-adapting to the larger political-economic context in which it has found itself. Until World War I, the phrase encompassed all non-anarchist socialists, from reformists like Eduard Bernstein and Jean Jaures to revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin. After reformists and revolutionaries split first over support for the war effort and then for good after the October Revolution in 1917, the former laid claim to the title of social democracy while the latter typically defined themselves as Communists of one sort or another.

By the mid-1950s, most Western social-democratic parties and movements had, at least in practice, abandoned the goal of socialist transformation for the more modest program outlined by the British Labour intellectual Anthony Crosland in his watershed 1956 book The Future of Socialism. Instead of aspiring to establish public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, Crosland argued that socialists and social democrats should instead seek to harness the wealth-generating capacities of modern capitalism for social ends. The task of modern social democracy was not to overthrow or transcend capitalism, but to manage it and redistribute the surplus in the interest of social equality. This perspective has attained almost total hegemony on the Western left since Crosland wrote his book, and it is wholeheartedly embraced by the contributors to What’s Left of the Left.

As Sheri Berman puts it in her contribution, “helping people adjust to capitalism, rather than engaging in a hopeless and ultimately counterproductive effort to hold it back, has been the historic accomplishment of the social-democratic left, and it remains its primary goal today in those countries where the social-democratic way of thinking is most deeply ensconced.”

Most radicals would interpret this ideological shift as a repudiation of any kind of sweeping, transformative project in favor of an acceptance of the status quo; that in rejecting socialist transformation it is little more than a form of left-liberalism. But for Berman, social democracy is not simply a left-wing appendage on the body of liberalism but a full-blown political-ideological alternative of its own. “The core principle” of social democracy, “that political forces should control economic ones, was a reversal of both classical liberalism’s theory and long-standing practice.” The very success of the social-democratic project in postwar Europe, she contends, occluded both its novelty and how controversial it was within the broader socialist left.

Berman’s argument concerning the uniqueness and comprehensiveness of the social-democratic project may have a certain degree of purchase in the context of the Nordic countries and particularly in Sweden, where the Rehn-Meidner model of full employment, generous and universal public services, and solidaristic wage policy arguably pointed toward a path out of capitalism and toward something approximating socialism. But as Pontusson points out in his essay on contemporary Nordic social democracy, a plan advanced by the Swedish trade unions in the 1970s to gradually socialize the ownership of private corporations (advanced by the same Rudolf Meidner who lends his name to the Rehn–Meidner model) represented much more of a radical break with the social-democratic tradition than the wave of deregulation and privatization the Social Democrats pursued to deal with the deep recession that gripped Sweden in the 1990s. The failure of the so-called “wage earner funds,” and the failure of the social-democratic parties more broadly to pursue any kind of program that might upset the foundations of capitalist social relations — a failure that would ultimately undermine the foundations of social democracy itself — bears out the critique of social democracy advanced by the socialist intellectuals Ralph Miliband and Marcel Liebman in the 1980s:

What socialists confront here — or ought to confront — is an ideological, political, even psychological, construct of great strength, which is open, flexible, loose on its right, but which is very unwilling, even unable, to yield much on its left. In other words, social-democratic leaders find it much easier to compromise and consort with their conservative adversaries on the right than with their socialist critics on the left.

This rightward and self-defeating bias in social-democratic political practice is readily apparent when we consider the construction of the European Union, whose structure and logic is perhaps the greatest threat to social democracy in Europe today.


American liberals and social democrats tend to go dewy-eyed at the mere mention of the European Union, but while there’s no doubt that EU societies are comparatively more humane than ours such a comparison does not set the bar very high. While certain aspects of the EU have proved beneficial to the traditional social constituencies of the Left (in binding EU-wide working time directives, for instance), a neoliberal policy bias is inscribed in the very logic of European integration. This is particularly ironic when we consider that European social democrats have been integral to this process from the start, and in doing so, have undermined their own best impulses.

As George Ross explains in his essay on the history of the EU, the construction of a continent-wide polity and economy was never a left project. In the years immediately following World War II, most European leftists and social democrats were preoccupied with building and defending their own particular national social models. Founded in 1957 by the Treaty of Rome, the European Economic Community was initially conceived by center-right Christian Democratic politicians in Germany, France, and Italy who wanted to keep a lid on inflation and maintain price stability. The development of the EEC stalled after its initial burst of optimism and activity. But somewhat amazingly, in the mid 1980s leading forces in the French socialist movement came to its rescue, bringing much of the rest of the European left with them. Hitherto, the French left scorned European integration and still spoke openly about creating a rupture with capitalism and establishing socialism through the nationalization of finance and a vastly expanded public sector. But in the face of massive capital flight and economic stagnation after their watershed victory in the 1981 elections, the Socialists under President Francois Mitterrand and Finance Minister Jacques Delors sought to rehabilitate the party’s electoral prospects in the famous “U turn” toward liberalization and Europe. They deepened France’s involvement in EU affairs and sought to turn the EU into an instrument for pursuing the social reforms they were not able to attain at the national level.

They largely failed in this endeavor, but the turn to Europe by the French left marked a turning point in European social democracy’s long transition from left to center-left. The adoption of the Euro currency and the Stability and Growth Pact, which mandated that Eurozone nations cut public expenditures and keep annual deficit spending below 3% of GDP were daggers pointed at the heart of social democracy’s traditional constituencies — unions, especially those based primarily in the public sector, and those who relied heavily on the welfare state to maintain their standard of living. These are the policy levers by which EU bureaucrats and neoliberal heads of government such as German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicolas Sarkozy have forced austerity onto the restive peoples of the European periphery, many of whom have come to see the EU as little more than a plot to enrich Germany and the other rich countries of the continent’s northern tier at their expense. It’s difficult to imagine a social-democratic renaissance within the political and economic parameters of the EU, an institution explicitly designed to promote market liberalism and undermine the systems of social protection built by the Left and the labor movements in the trentes glorieuses, the thirty years between the end of the war and the breakdown of the postwar order in the 1970s.


Practically all of the contributors to What’s Left of the Left? pay lip service to the breakdown of the postwar order, but as is symptomatic of works of this kind none of them perceive that crisis as illustrative of the limits of social democracy. The late historian Tony Judt did not contribute to this volume, but the defense of social democracy he mounted in his final book Ill Fares the Land also reflects this crucial shortcoming of contemporary conceptualizations of the political crisis that afflicts the center-left. Judt argued that “our problem is not what to do; it is how to talk about it.” He traced the roots of this putatively discursive problem to the New Left: “The young radicals would never have described their purposes in such a way, but it was the distinction between praiseworthy private freedoms and irritating public constraints which most exercised their emotions. And this very distinction, ironically, described the newly emerging Right as well,” unwittingly clearing the ground for the emerging neoliberal order.

Judt is partially correct. The contemporary left, broadly conceived, offers no shortage of discrete policy proposals but seems unable to articulate a discursive framework that offers a coherent and comprehensive alternative to a stubbornly resilient neoliberalism. But these problems ultimately stem from the fact that by the early 1970s, social democracy reached its political and economic limits. The welfare state strengthened the position of organized labor, reducing corporate profits and increasing workers’ political power relative to capital. Social-democratic parties and trade unions began to formulate plans to encroach on capital’s control over the means of production. In Sweden the unions proposed the establishment of worker funds that would gradually take ownership of firms away from capitalists. Elements of the British Labour Party pushed for more comprehensive forms of economic planning. And as we have already seen, the Socialists under Francois Mitterrand moved to nationalize vast swaths of the French economy, including 90% of the country’s banks. These political developments, coupled with the breakdown of Keynesian macroeconomic management, ruptured the underpinnings of the postwar order. The crisis could have been resolved by either moving further toward socialism or by breaking radically toward neoliberalism. The latter option won out. The political and economic power of capital was restored and left political formations were decimated.

We’ve lost the ability to talk about social democracy (much less socialism) not simply because of a crisis of faith. It’s because the institutions with the ability to articulate an alternative discursive framework (not just left parties but labor movements as well, which have shrunk in all Western countries, the Nordic social democracies included) have been defeated as real political alternatives.

This points to the fundamental limitation of social democracy, or “socialist capitalism” as Michael Harrington more accurately described it. It’s a compromise between socialism and capitalism, but one that’s made on capitalism’s terms. As Harrington pointed out decades ago in his book Socialism, “the fact is that as long as capitalism is capitalism it vitiates or subverts the efforts of socialists . . . In fact, capital fights back, it does not meekly accept the programming of social-democratic ministers . . . economic power is political power, and as long as the basic relationships of the economy are left intact, they provide a base for the subversion of the democratic will.”

The Occupy movements and the demonstrations of the indignados in cities and public squares across Europe have given voice to the discontents of late social democracy. These movements don’t simply oppose the most explicit and forthright advocates of neoliberalism. They largely reject engagement with the tired and unimaginative parties of traditional social democracy, and with labor movements who have not devoted adequate attention to organizing young workers and those left out of residual systems of labor protection.

The radical energies the Occupiers and indignados have unleashed have been bracing, particularly for those of us who have only ever known defeat and demobilization. To a significant extent, the traditional formations of the social-democratic left deserve their scorn. Still, one cannot and should not lose sight of the fact that, as Harrington remarks somewhere, for all their limitations, the world’s social-democratic parties and movements are responsible for freeing more human beings from political and material deprivation than any other political formation in history. In building the new political movements of the twenty-first century, our impulse should not be to reject the social-democratic legacy, but to build on and complete its unfulfillable promise.