• Social-Democracy is Over: We Need to Build the “Left That Comes After”

  • Par Jean-Luc Mélenchon | 24 May 09
  • The call for social-democratic conversion was the privileged formula of a large part of French Socialist leaders as well as left journalists in response to the 2007 electoral defeat. However, none of them ever explained what they meant by “social-democratic model”. In my book “In Search of the Left” (En Quête de gauche) I presented extensive research on the social-democratic government discourse and practice in the principal European countries from the 1990s on. The conclusion is unambiguous: social-democracy, as a strategy and as a programme that can offer people an alternative, is just as dead as state communism. However, the capitalism of our era is entering a phase in which it is once again unleashing financial, social and ecological catastrophes of unequalled scale. With the dramatic evolution of the ecological crisis, many are wondering if this time it is not human society itself that is at stake. In the face of this extraordinary situation we find ourselves without a political model, whence the importance of having a reliable compass of principles in order to map out new paths.

    A Theoretical and Strategic Impasse

    Social-democracy, which dominates the European left, lacks strategy and an alternative programme because it has not taken full cognizance of the ways in which the nature of capitalism has changed in our epoch. It is in a theoretical and strategical impasse which is emphasised by its impotence in the face of the current financial crisis. For a long time now it has seen its methods as being the only alternative. Within liberal globalisation it has done nothing but reproduce the old 19th-century social-democratic strategy which consisted of wresting advantages for the workers within the framework of capitalism on a national scale. This strategy has been totally exhausted once capitalism changed its nature and its scale. The transnationalisation of capitalism and its radical reorganisation around the unique imperatives of the financialisation of all sectors of the economy are misunderstood and poorly analysed within the Socialist International. In effect, while in the national context the industrial capitalist can have an interest in discussions with trade-unions and in weighing in on the definition of norms, in liberal globalisation, finance capital no longer needs to make any political or social compromises to balance what it gets from labour. The balance of forces in favour of capital that results from transnationalisation is all the greater that it is badly understood or is taken as a law of nature.

    This form of capitalism weakens the possibility of grasping the whole picture. The financial sphere has subjected all areas of activity of societies to its norms. This state of affairs does not fall from the sky or from some spontaneous movement connected to the development of science and technology. Globalisation is first of all a political phenomenon. It functions as a new form of domination to the benefit of rent. It is the dictatorship of shareholders. We see therefore everywhere in the world a terrible pressure to grant the market sanctuary, to put it out of reach of collective decision. That is what the project of the European Constitution tried to do, proclaiming “free and not falsified competition” to be the central principle of the European Union to which all else had to be subordinated. This new age of capitalism is allergic to popular sovereignty. A dull tyranny is insidiously taking hold in the form of a generalised laisser-faire. The market can only have itself as regulator, so it goes. As a consequence, its principal adversary is a citizenry that meddles with it by establishing norms and laws that can be opposed to the impulse of the market. It therefore tries everywhere to roll back the norm based on the general interest, and the citizenry that expresses it, as the mode of conduct of public affairs.

    In these conditions, the social-democratic creed of “regulation” of capitalism falls on deaf ears and cannot have any hold on reality. How indeed can we regulate a reality that does not submit itself to structures of deliberation and of public decisions? How can we regulate a system whose objective is precisely to free itself of all the constraints that could limit, direct or slow down its expansion?

    This major contradiction of social-democratic discourse regarding regulation explains why social-democrats are so disarmed in the face of the current crisis of capitalism. Since they refuse to think of surpassing capitalism and to propose breaking with the present order, they are reduced to supporting at all costs the rescue and patching up of the system.

    Social-Democracy Against the Social State: The European Example

    When one facilitates liberal globalisation one does not wrest any compromises and ends up by simply accompanying the movement of the world the way it is or even by taking the lead in the destruction of the social state, for instance as the German, English, Swedish or Danish social-democrats did.

    The Dismantling of the Social State

    The right to retirement is an emblematic example of this because it is an essential marker of the welfare state built by the left. On this point the social-democratic cave-in is universal in Europe. In all countries there are plans to raise the retirement age to an ever higher figure, up to and beyond 65. Tony Blair established a record in 2006, raising the age to 68. In Germany, starting in 2001, Schröder promoted private supplemental pensions through capitalisation. After this, the grand coalition, whose minister of social affairs is a social-democrat, decided to raise the retirement age to 67! It should be added that in order to get the full rate, one has to have paid contributions for 45 years. In this the German social-democrats surpass the French right-wing!

    The conversion of most social-democrats to the liberal doctrine of “less state” has also been translated everywhere into severe cuts in public expenditure. Not only did Blair not reconsider the privatisations occurring in the Thatcher era; he himself attacked what remained of the public sector: air traffic control, prisons, nuclear, urban transportation… Likewise in Sweden the social-democrats have been the pioneers of liberalisation. Starting in 1993 they closed a record number of post offices such that Sweden now has the worst rate of accessibility of postal services in all Europe.

    Redistribution through taxes, which was a pillar of social-democratic programmes, has also been abandoned. As the head of Denmark’s government from 1993 to 2001, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, current president of the European Socialist Party (PSE), did not hesitate to abolish the tax on wealth. Schröder also accomplished liberal feats in the fiscal department. Under his instigation, the highest tax rates on revenue went from 51 % to 42 % and the tax on profits from 40 % to 25 % ! And that was nothing in comparison to what his heir apparent Peer Steinbrück just did as the grand coalition’s Finance Minister – he has just gotten the tax rate on profits decreased from 25 % to 15 %. Today Germany is the European champion of fiscal dumping.

    Alliance, Then Government With the Right

    Blair and Schröder did not hesitate to negotiate adoption of the most controversial texts with the right. In Germany this was the case with the Hartz IV reforms, voted in 2004 thanks to the help of right-wing votes. And in March 2006 Blair got privatisation of the financing of secondary schools passed with the help of the Conservatives.

    Since social-democracy can no longer manage to be majoritarian alone, it has no hesitation in allying with right-wing, conservative or liberal parties, in the name of “a government of the better” and of “the only politics possible”. Sometimes this alliance is even forged when a left majority is possible.

    The most important example is that of the grand coalition CDU / SPD which has governed Germany since 2005. However, this is also the case in the Netherlands where the Workers Party has been in coalition with the right since the end of 2006, in Austria since January 2007, or in Finland where the Social-Democratic Party governed with the right up to the elections of March 2007. And even when this strategy ends in an electoral defeat and the advance of the extreme right, the social-democrats stubbornly persist as in Austria where they are renewing their grand coalition with the conservatives. There is a particular serious point to note: In almost all of these cases, the social-democrats are not leading the government. The Prime Ministers are right-wing: Angela Merkel in Germany, Jan Peter Balkenende in the Netherlands. That is, these are not coalitions in which the left takes the support it can get in order govern and carry out, despite all, a part of its programme. On the contrary, it is the left that is giving a leg up to the right so that the latter can govern. And this strategy is speeding up the crisis of the social-democratic parties’ relation to its electorate.

    An Electoral Disaster

    The social-democrats have lost 13 of the last national elections in Europe. And even when they only barely succeeded, the reality of the results was calamitous. Thanks to the electoral system Labour has 55 % of seats in Parliament with only 22 % of the votes of registered voters ! Theirs is also the weakest score of a winning party ever recorded in the country’s electoral history. Blair’s party went from 13 million votes in 1997 to 9 million in 2005. And with him the people have largely fallen into abstentionism which has gone from 25 % in 1997 to more than 40 % in 2005, and even to 77 % in the European elections.

    The collapse is all the more impressive for the German SPD which lost the last 12 regional elections. Therefore, if the left has remained a majority in the country since 2005 this is solely due to the score of the new party of the left, Die LINKE ! But the SPD preferred to govern with the right…

    In Sweden, the first unhinging took place in 2003 when the Swedes rejected by 56 % the adoption of the Euro defended by the social-democrats. Then in 2006 the Social-Democratic Party was removed from power having its worst score since the adoption of universal suffrage in Sweden in 1921.

    In Denmark, after having exercised power from 1993 to 2001 under the leadership of the moderniser Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, the Social-Democratic Party foundered with 25 % of the votes in the 2005 election.

    The Impotence Experienced at the European Level

    Social-democracy’s impotence was spectacularly displayed when from 1999 to 2000, it led 13 of the 15 governments of the European Union. The balance sheet is one of the most meagre. The facts showed that all of the talk of a social-democratic alternative benefiting from the European framework was without any concrete content. The lesson is that whether or not the parties of the PSE are in the majority nothing changes. For example, at the time of the European Convention preparing the Constitution project the PSE delegation was led by the Italian social-democrat Giuliano Amato, a former Communist. He proposed almost no concrete amendment to the project presented by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s presidium, while conversely Christian-democrats and liberals had plenty of amendments. This episode makes plain how the social-democrats have given up being, however little, a political force for an alternative to the dominant model.

    Closer to us, for two years now it is even the social-democratic leaders who, in the European Parliament, are the motor forces behind projects as frightening as the Great Transatlantic Market, through which the US government has found an additional way to bind Europe to its strategy. Atlanticism has become a constant in social-democratic discourse, which thus deprives social-democracy of any autonomous political strategy in favour of peace.

    Social-Democracy Against the People: The Latin-American Example

    To confront the neoliberal hurricane which erupted early on in Latin America, it was at first to the social-democratic parties that the people turned. In Bolivia (MIR), in Brazil (PSDB), in Venezuela (AD) or in Peru (APRA), the social-democratic parties, often affiliated to the Socialist International, promised to reduce poverty (while modernising the economy” through neoliberal measures. Since that time, despite electoral alternations, the same economic policies continue to be pursued. The failure of these policies led to bloodbaths and the total explosion of the traditional political arena.

    In these countries, the social-democrats did not content themselves with applying liberalism but also ferociously repressed the people themselves. In 2000, the Bolivian government, in which the social-democrats of the MIR participated, responded by the imposition of martial law. In 2002-2003, the “gas wars” witnessed an attempt of the poorest population strata to blockade the country to impede the pillage of their resources. The government responded by dispatching the army against the insurgent neighbourhoods resulting in more than 100 deaths. In Venezuela, it was around the fall of purchasing power that the rebellion was built: on February 28, 1989 – says “Caracazo” – the crowd demonstrated peacefully in Caracas. It was encircled, then massacred by the army in accordance with the Avila Plan decided by the social-democratic president Carlos Andrés Pérez – 3,000 dead ! In Argentina, the repression of the popular movement by the social-democratic president De la Rua caused 100 deaths, although the army refused to obey the order to intervene, which the president dared to issue.

    The balance sheet for the traditional left was terrible at that time. In all of these countries the impossibility of answering the needs of the population while promoting liberalism in the national framework made clear for the great majority the impasse of social-democracy which was unable to launch an alternative and took responsibility for repressing those who tried. Under these conditions, the old social-democratic parties were quite simply eliminated from the political landscape, deprived of any social base (AD in Venezuela, MIR in Bolivia, Liberal Party in Colombia). Elsewhere, other social-democrats only managed to linger on by occupying the political space lost by right-wing parties in disarray. This is notably the case in Brazil and in Peru where it is the social-democratic candidates (Alckmin in Brazil, Alan García in Peru) who today are achieving the unification of the right.

    From Social-Democracy to the Democratic Party: The Risk of the Disappearance of the Left

    The Latin-American experience shows that the liberal drift of the social-democratic parties can sometimes cause the left to disappear from the political landscape. One of the stages of this disappearance is the transformation of social-democracy into a mere “democratic” current. The original source of this swing to a kind of “post-left” is located in the US in the “modernising” turn that Clinton and the neo-Democrats imposed on the US Democratic Party in the 1980s. I demonstrate in my book “In Search of the Left” that the Blairites and other adepts of the “Third Way” in all countries draw from this one source. The Italian example is very revealing about this slide. In organising the realignment of social-democrats within a “great” Democratic Party open to centrists, Romano Prodi and Walter Veltroni have literally destroyed the Italian left. In the last legislative election, their strategy not only allowed Berlusconi to win with a 10-point lead, but, for the first time since 1895, there is not a single parliamentarian elected as a socialist, nor, for the first time since 1946, as a communist.

    The French Socialist Party (PS) is not safe from such a transformation. Prepared in small doses by Hollande during his 10 years at the head of the PS, this ideological transformation was incarnated openly for the first time by Ségolène Royal in the presidential campaign – with the defeat which was predictable from the beginning. Most leaders of the French party have learned no more lesson from this than the Italian leaders did from their defeat. During the current preparation for the PS’s Reims Congress some will be content to change candidate while retaining the same line. I and my comrades in the PS left are explaining that the party should no longer be committed to this path. That is our first objective in this congress. We sum it up by saying that we want to prevent the final transformation of the SP into a democratic party. The outcome of the Congress will therefore be crucial for the future of the French left itself. If the old factions of the party’s majority were to keep their positions it would mean a situation of total impasse for our party’s left. It would once again be condemned either to agree to policies which would ruin the expression of its autonomy or to internal marginalisation. This situation will be all the more serious as it would be the third confrontation of this party with major events in the face of which it has either shown its impotence or shown its hostility to the popular will. Let’s look at it without mincing words: In 2002 the candidate was beaten in the presidential election in the first round. In the following congress those responsible kept their positions. In 2005 the party came out for the “yes” in the European Referendum, and the people voted “no”, especially in the left’s working class zones. The leaders were kept once again; but the socialists who were partisans of the “no” were put into quarantine. In 2008, just before the greatest crisis of world capitalism, the party adopted a declaration of principle which praised the market economy. Then, during the financial crisis, the socialist groups in the legislatures settled for abstaining from the vote in favour of the bailout plan for the banks despite its total lack of measures to protect workers and the real productive economy. Thus, in the face of three major crises of French society, the PS had no other response but to support the status quo and align itself with the policies proposed by its right-wing competitor.

    French Socialism’s Originality: Social-Democrats and Social Republicans

    The democratic mutation of the PS would be all the more striking since historically and ideologically the French party has always distinguished itself from social-democracy by affirming an original model of “republican socialism”. It takes as its source an event preceding the emergence of the social-democratic movement: the Great Revolution of 1789.

    For social-democrats in general, all moral and religious values are nearly equivalent and all are acceptable within the respect of the right of everyone to be different. The institutional forms of political democracy are judged according to their aptness to come to decisions in a reasonable manner. Social-democrats are not really concerned to know if these institutions are at the same time consonant with the declared principles of common life, as is the case in the Republic. On the contrary, French socialism, whose pillar was for a long time the social-republicanism of Jean Jaurès, always leaned on a more globalising vision of history: “At the very moment that the wage-worker is sovereign in the political order he is, in the economic order, reduced to a kind of serfdom”, Jean Jaurès declared. In this vision, political action subjects the whole of social relations, including relations of production, to collective deliberation. Moreover, it needs ceaselessly to reconstruct them in order to perfect them according to an absolute requirement: the general interest. And the latter is not the sum of individual interests. That is why Jaurès states in the same speech to the National Assembly in November 1893: “socialism proclaims that the Political Republic must lead to the Social Republic”. This is what I call historical socialism in France.

    Therefore, in France it is not only the social state that the capitalism of our era threatens. It strikes at the very identity of France which is based on the existence of a sovereign political collective, a legal community one and indivisible, and of the definition of the general interest. Throughout the world, less strong national structures have already crumbled under the battering ram of the new age of capitalism. Before our eyes in Europe nations are undergoing fragmentation, as in Belgium, Italy or Spain…

    In this context, a high price will be paid for the eclipsing of republican consciousness organised by the PS’s “democratic” current and various sectors of the extreme left of the country. The dismantling of the basic supports of the republican form of our society is neither perceived nor fought against by them. The comprehension of what the right is aiming at is stunted and reduced to futile isolated protest, on a case by case basis, without the capacity to show the coherence of the liberal counter-revolution, nor its long-term implications for our society. It seems to me therefore urgent to re-establish the presence of the critical term socialist republicanism in the public arena of my country. And it is vital that it is from the left that the return of this goal of the republican refoundation of France and of Europe is launched.

    The Need to Reinvent the Left

    The numbing of the left in France can lead to worse things, including an Italian-style collapse. The “democratic” line, at first developed by Clinton then Blair, is progressively spreading to all of the socialist left. Its essential principles are clearly identifiable: First, to reject the frontal opposition between left and right. Then to reject the strategy of gathering together the left – to the benefit instead of a political rapprochement with the “centre”. Finally, to relativise the question of sharing the wealth as an essential issue of the social and political arena. One cannot but note that this line does not bear up under the impact of the electoral campaign nor that of opposition. Already the paralysis is reaching the whole organism of the main section of the left, and from there it is contaminating the whole space of the left. Tomorrow, if the PS’s temptations to change alliances win out, the consequence will be a split and the encouragement of sectarianism, which could destroy the entire left.

    For lack of combat watchwords, for lack of political organisation capable of carrying the counter-offensive, may engaged citizens are drifting or are being discouraged. The first duty of a left conscience is not, however, only to comment but also to act, to do something.

    I think, as do many other socialist militants and, I think, as do the still more numerous socialist voters, that France has space for a programme and a party that is anchored in an orientation of historical socialism, for which our history has given us the means. This is the condition to dynamise all the left in its diversity. In the face of the current political void created by the ideological and practical breakdown of the PS which dominates the left, I think that the socially transformative left must respond to the need for a new political force. The question is to know from where this proposition has to start. I exclude nothing. The SP could make a choice. This would be the most convenient and would cost the least energy. A new popular front could be the new force, if it were open to all of the left without exclusions, and if its programme took up the great social and republican reforging which the country needs. However, I have no intention of deluding myself with hopes whose expiration dates are always postponed. I know that this question has to be resolved before the election of European deputies, for the latter will be the concrete response to numerous political questions raised on the left given the total enfeoffment of the social-democratic parties to the Treaty of Lisbon. There is no lack in the world of examples that show that a very audacious reinvention of the left is possible. The German experience of Die LINKE, as well as the Latin-American experiences of reinvention of the left, can permit the sketching out of axes to bring alive this proposal of a new force. Socialists, communists, Trotskyists, ecologists, republicans and altermondialistes – today we have the responsibility of opening up a path other than that of the disavowal which threatens the extinction of the left.