What scope is there for the emergence of a Left in Europe able to overcome the mutual suspicions between social democratic parties and those situated in more extreme positions? And to what extent can such a Left offer a political programme that is new, realistic, and exciting?
For many years, during which communists and social democrats confronted one another, these questions were not pertinent. Nor were they during the boom years, when things appeared to be going well and social democracy was one of the props of the system. But the crisis has upset everything.
On the one hand, the radical options have been reborn. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, a party of the non-social democratic Left (Syriza) governs a Western European country while in other countries, like Spain, new forces have emerged (Podemos). This is logical given the injustices created by economic policy and the increase in social inequality. These parties represent especially the groups hit hardest by the crisis.
On the other hand, the social democratic parties are in crisis: their support has plummeted across the majority of the continent, receding to the levels of the 1970s. One possible interpretation is the following: social democracy continues to aspire to be a governing option, and therefore part of the establishment, while at the same time understanding that it cannot stand idly by and should contest neoliberal recipes and globalized financial capitalism. Given the difficulty of reconciling these two elements, the social democratic discourse becomes confused. To those with the most radical ideological principles, social democracy seems too accommodating, while those who are more moderate are frightened by the suggestion of profound change and opt for centrist or right-wing forces. This type of problem explains in large part the recent disappointing results of the Labour Party in the UK and of the Socialist Party in Portugal.
In these circumstances, the Left is more divided than ever. In countries with proportional systems, new parties emerge that in practice favour – in spite of their intentions – the victory of right-wing parties (as in Portugal and perhaps Spain on the 20th of December). At the same time, in countries with majoritarian systems, a path has opened within the progressive parties for candidates who put off a part of their traditional electorate (as with Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the United States).
In order to deal with this division, two things have to be recognized. Firstly, the parties to the left of social democracy will not win elections, and if they arrive to government, it will have to be in coalition with social democratic parties. The circumstances in Greece have been quite exceptional and it is difficult that they reproduce themselves in other European states. The fundamental reason is that in developed countries the immense majority of society rejects radical solutions involving risk or uncertainty. Adventures and grand transformations are doomed electorally. This means that there will neither be “constituent processes” nor an “overcoming of capitalism” nor even electoral “sorpassi”.
Secondly, the remedial policies of social democracy, based on redistribution through social spending, are insufficient to correct the increase in inequality and the growing precarization of the work force. Of course, the welfare state continues to be an imperious necessity in order to protect citizens and guarantee a certain equality of opportunity, but it is not enough to confront the problems that the crisis and the monetary union generate.
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What can be proposed, beyond the lament and self-absorption of the radical left and the electoral pragmatism of social democracy? Sentimentality aside, the obvious objective should be the following: to join forces around a realistic programme for change with capacity to generate equality. For this programme to be realistic means that it should be attractive for a social majority, without generating fears that put off a lot of people nor generating impossible expectations. It should be a programme that goes beyond remedial social democracy but does not go so far as to challenge capitalism.
To give content to this programme, it is useful to proceed from this diagnosis: social democracy is unable to correct inequalities due to a power structure unfavourable to its interests, created by global financial capitalism in general and the monetary union in particular. Confronted with this power structure, the traditional policies of the welfare state are insufficient. The existing power structure must be challenged. Only if a new equilibrium between capital and labour is established can the inequality, which has been created in recent times, be reversed.
The key of the so-called “social democratic period” of the thirty years between 1950 and 1980, approximately, was not just that social democracy governed in some countries. In fact, in Germany the SPD did not enter government until 1965, in a grand coalition with the CDU, and only governed between 1969 and 1980; in Italy the social democracy of the PSI only governed as a junior partner of Christian Democracy after 1963; and in France there was not a socialist president until 1981. The key was, rather, the existence of an economic-labour framework that regulated the relation between capital and labour thanks to a strong influence of the trade unions.
From the 1980s this framework was gradually eroded, as neoliberal policies advanced and displaced economic and social power towards the corporation to the detriment of workers. The only way to halt the neoliberal advance requires the Left, when it reaches power, to not only attempt to remedy the negative consequences of contemporary capitalism, but also the attempt to modify the power relations on which this capitalism rests.
This requires the Left to adopt a position that is much more critical with the institutions and policies of the euro zone, especially in those countries where the EU has historically been seen as a lifeline and an agent of process, in order to form a united front of countries with a plan of deep reform to recover the European social model as the primary objective of the integration process. And, at the internal or domestic level, the Left needs to end the excessive power the banks and big corporations have over the economy as well as politics. This is a necessary condition for the politics of equality to work.
The crisis has led to a concentration of power that is tremendously detrimental for the interests of the Left. In Spain, not only do we have a dual labour market, with workers on permanent contracts at the centre and precarious workers at the periphery, but also a dual corporate structure, with a few excessively powerful companies an endless array of unproductive small businesses that are highly vulnerable to the economic cycle. A greater equality among workers and among corporations, reindustrialization, investment in knowledge and a reduction in the weight of the large financial and energy companies should all be on the agenda.
In both cases, the supra-national and the national, the Left needs to work so that the rules of the game are more balanced and the progressive policies can be carried out in a context that, if not favourable, is at least neutral.
We are already familiar with the various labels of the Left (old versus new, moderate versus radical, etc.): for one reason or another, they are disappointing and partial. The more radical Left is outside reality and can only aspire to be a residual force. The more pragmatic is satisfied with applying remedial policies. A Left without labels should have an objective that is ambitious but feasible: break with neoliberal hegemony, demanding a deep change in distribution of economic and political power.
Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Juan March-Carlos III Institute of Social Sciences (Carlos III University, Madrid). He is the author of numerous academic articles in journals such as Journal of Conflict Resolution, Politics & Society, Annual Review of Political Science, Journal of Peaece Research, and others. His last book is La impotence democrártica (Democratic Impotence, 2014).