The decline of social democracy in Europe

Ideas die too. The cemetery of political parties overflows with the remains of organisations that at one time ignited passions and roused multitudes but are now relegated to oblivion. Who in Europe today agrees with Radicalism, though it was one of the most important political forces (centre-left) of the second half of the 19th century? Or Anarchism? Or Stalinist Communism? What happened to these formidable mass movements that in their day could mobilise millions of workers and peasant farmers? Were they just passing fashions?

Because of what it has abandoned, retracted, and renounced, European social democracy today finds itself being dragged towards the grave. Its life cycle seems about to end. And yet, this is happening at a time when its arch rival, ultraliberal capitalism, is passing through one of its worst periods ever. How can social democracy be dying just as ultraliberal capitalism finds itself in severe crisis? The answer is clear: because it was incapable of generating popular enthusiasm for its weak response to the urgent social problems of the day.


Without compass or theory, it gropes along, seemingly broken, its leadership sickly, with neither organisation nor ideas, neither doctrine nor direction. And, most important, without identity. This was an organisation that was supposed to have carried out a revolution but backed away from the idea. It was a workers party, but today it is the party of a comfortable urban middle class.

The recent elections demonstrated that European social democracy no longer knows how to appeal to the millions of voters who are victims of the brutal postindustrial world brought about by globalisation — the multitudes of disposable workers, the new poor of the suburbs, the marginalised, the retired though still of working age, at-risk youth, middle class families threatened by destitution, all groups damned by neoliberal shock.

The social democratic parties that had been in power were dealt serious setbacks, while those in the opposition also suffered losses. If evidence had been lacking of the European social democrats’ failure to devise an approach different from that of the EU leadership, Gordon Brown and Jose Luis Zapatero provided more than enough when they backed the shameful election as president of the European Commission of ultra-liberal Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, the fourth man of the March 2003 Azores Summit where the decision was made to launch the illegal invasion of Iraq.

In 2002, the social democrats were in power in 15 countries of the EU. Today, despite the fact that the financial crisis has proved the social, moral, and ecological bankruptcy of ultraliberalism, social democrats rule in only five countries.

Indeed, repudiating their very foundations has become a habit: European social democrats decided years ago to ramp up privatisations, demand lower budgets at the expense of the citizens, call for raising the retirement age, dismantle the public sector, while pushing for giant corporate mergers and concentration and pampering the banks. It gradually converted itself, without remorse, to social-liberalism, dropping as priorities certain objectives that were part of its ideological DNA — for example, full employment, the defence of acquired social advantages, the development of public services, and the eradication of hunger and poverty.

European social democracy lacks the vision of a new social utopia. Times have changed. In the minds of many constituents, even the least well off, consumerism has triumphed, along with the desire to get rich, have fun, luxuriate in abundance, and be happy without feeling guilty.

In the face of this dominant hedonism, permanently stamped into people’s minds by relentless advertising and manipulation by the media, the leaders of the social-democrats do not dare go against the current.

They have even managed to convince themselves that it isn’t certain that capitalists get rich by exploiting workers but that, to the contrary, the poor are taking advantage of the taxes paid by the wealthy. They think, in the words of Italian philosopher Raffaele Simone, that “socialism is possible only when misfortune outstrips happiness, when suffering far exceeds pleasure, and chaos triumphs over structure”.

In contrast, however, in certain countries of South America, we may be seeing a rebirth, with force and creativity, of a new, 21st century socialism, as in Europe the bell tolls for social democracy.

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