Social Democracy: Trap, Utopia Or New Horizon For Europe ?

pierre heritier

Pierre Heritier

The social dimension of Europe is not restricted to social protection: what will be the place of labour and of workers in an economy dominated by the market forces? What new foundation of the relations between capital and labour can we consider? Social democracy is currently one of the favourite topics of seminars, colloquiums and political speeches. Is this concept likely to give an argument to those who create prosperity with their know-how, their creative energy, their engagement or just their work but who suffer from the pressure of the labour market which is generally unfavourable for workers, or even from competition between territories, countries and continents? Or is this a smokescreen instead, or a gadget to reassure those who often need to make concessions in order to avert shipwreck? Both interpretations are possible at first sight. Why not seize the opportunity to give some sense and content to this generic term which in the minds of European citizens evokes multiple types of representation, action and strategic configuration. As far as I am concerned, I think that its implementation requires answers at different levels and not only at company level.

A representation of salaried workers in strategic decision-making places of major customers, to say it simply in boards of directors of big companies, only makes sense if we know the general context, the limits and the scope of that measure. The efficiency of a reform in countries which do not know co-management would be multiplied by an enlargement of the area of intervention of the ‘labour factor’ as is the case in Germany: first and foremost, the role of trade unions should be recognized and reinforced in their basic activity. The ability to negotiate well on critical issues is certainly the basis of a ‘social democracy’. Extending the power of representative bodies of workers – whether it be workers’ councils or committees – would also be part of this new balance of power. We know the German example in which co-management is not restricted to the existence of salaried board members[1]. We do not know so well the powers of Dutch boards of directors which have some kind of ‘veto right beforehand’, which of course comes with a responsibility for employees’ representatives (complying with the rule of secrecy). At regional level (regions, districts, Länder), we should reflect about the place and the role that social partners should have – and they sometimes already have. It is absolutely necessary that salaried workers are represented in places where production processes and tomorrow’s economy are being decided, so that they can express their opinion and put forward their proposals.

As a matter of fact, companies themselves depend on market conditions. What use would any bargaining or action power in a company be if those who are supposed to use them are left to fight defensive struggles to manage one social plan after another or provide support in case of redundancy plans or site closures? It goes without saying that the union’s action is pragmatic and that the role of the workers’ representatives consists very much in finding the best compromise in any given situation or framework that is imposed on them. But aren’t they supposed to do something about that ‘framework’ as well? Historically, during each phase of any change in competition, there has always been a struggle between those who want to regulate the terms of the competition and those who want to ‘deregulate’. How can we cope with this? How can we reinvent, at least at regional level, like in the Eurozone, what has been done at national level in the Rhineland model? How can we implement cooperative policies that create employment and solidarity in the whole of the Eurozone ?

All this implies strategic, even ideological questions. This new framework we should invent almost completely is part of a ‘new New Deal’, of a social compromise between trade unions and entrepreneurial company leaders, who innovate, who are open and locally based, ‘company leaders who have a carnal relationship with their company’[2]. Finally, to make a social democracy come true, ‘changing labour’ is absolutely necessary: the worker should become the actor of his work and of the economy. This implies he cannot be the appendage of a machine, nor the element of a procedure, or suffer any other form of oppression. The same goes for trade unionism, which should rethink its system of relations with salaried workers.

In fact, the emancipation of the worker, whose know-how has been confiscated, is the foundation of a true social democracy and of any political, social and union citizenship[3], but also, I am convinced, a formidable tool of creativity and progress. The joy to work – replacing the suffering at work – would allow an incredible progress in all fields. We need a new social and economic deal moving towards a European social and economic model that is innovating with a human face. To make democracy a tool for today and a perspective for tomorrow.

It’s the best way, but it’s a long way !

[1] Cf. : the bargaining power of Germant rade unions and the important role of workers’ councils and company councils.

[2] The expression is from Alain Mérieux, one of the major French company leaders in the chemical industry.

[3] Read ‘La cité du travail’ by Bruno Trentin, former secretary general of CGIL.

This article is part of the EU Social Dimension expert sourcing project jointly organised by SEJ, the ETUCIG Metall, the Hans Böckler Stiftung, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Lasaire.


  1. peter kennedy says

    Hi Pierre,
    I agree with your sentiments that labour, the activity of ordinary working people, ought to be at the centre of social progress and emancipation. However, social democracy, as a specific movement in history and not a model outside of time, proved itself to be the accomplice of capital rather than labour and so another means of oppressing labour. To emancipate the creativity of workers requires workers emancipate themselves from capital and the dictatorship of the market. It’s the best way, which need not be the long way.