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The Long, Lingering Death of Social Democracy
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Sometimes it feels like we’ve reached the end of history. The headlines seem ominously familiar: the economy remains in the tank, inequality continues to widen, and social democracy – the last significant electoral embodiment of the left still standing – appears unwilling or unable to do much about it. Much pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth accompanies every lacklustre social democratic turn at governing but there never appears to be much headway in breaking the impasse. Meanwhile, the suggested critical alternatives – Occupy, local food movements, local economies, direct actions, etc. – tend to ignore both the state and any meaningful engagement with the general public. For those who understand capitalism as fundamentally shaped by the state, and the state in turn affected by the great mass political organizing of the 20th-century left, neither social democratic inactivity nor the turn to civil society is very satisfying. But what can be done, if anything? Social democracy’s decline often seems inevitable, like a long, lingering death where little can block the eventual terminal stage.

To begin we need some perspective on the problem, starting with some solid analysis about how the present state of social democracy has come to pass. Here we do not lack for commentary. The past two decades have produced an enormous literature claiming to diagnose what ails the left. Perhaps with such insights, the left might regain its confidence to make history again. But be forewarned: different analysts tell very different stories of the left and its challenges, offering wildly different recommendations about “what is to be done.” The battle to interpret the left’s history may prove crucial in influencing its future. The most recent contributions claim to add something new: a systematic assessment of the governing practice of the latest innovation on the left, the Third Way. But despite the new subject matter, the books divide along very traditional lines of critique that are arguably more than a century old. The various contributors differ over how to define what social democracy is, what its challenges are, and what its future trajectory should be.

The debate turns on which of social democracy’s component parts is more flawed: the “social” or the “democracy.” On the one side, a considerable body work in the past two decades has condemned the social vision of traditional social democracy, claiming that the experience of 20th-century left governing allegedly shows the impracticality of messing with the economy, redistributing wealth, changing society and social norms, etc. For this group, tracing its lineage back to the first high-profile left revisionist Eduard Bernstein, what social democracy is or should be has always been in flux and the subject of contention. Under the pressure of historical and social change, the left must modernize, adapt to new circumstances, and abandon old theories and practices. But for another group the real problem with social democracy is, and always has been, its democracy. From early critics like Roberto Michels to the more recent Occupy movements, the problem with the electoral left has been its relationship to its supporters and to the larger society. After all, the dramatic economic inequality and exploitation that gave rise to the historic social democratic parties is, sadly, still with us. And there is much evidence that voters still seem interested in the traditional social themes of the left and party members often resist attempts to water them down. All this raises questions about just where the pressure is coming from to abandon the “social” in social democracy.

Two recent books take up these different sides of the social democracy debate. In What’s Left of the Left, editors Cronin, Ross, and Shoch make the case for modernizing the left, abandoning much of its traditional social vision, and adapting to the more recently dominant market orthodoxy and its attendant inequalities. By contrast, in Social Democracy After the Cold War, editors Evans and Schmidt argue that the electoral left’s real problems are largely democratic in that social democratic governments regularly introduce policies that are not wanted by their electorates and do not work in practice. Contrasting these two books illustrates how the debate tends to be structured differently by both sides and...

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