Rob Ford, a belligerent right-wing serial liar with a proclivity for infantile temper tantrums and drunkenness, was elected mayor of Toronto this past week. Handily. This was after seven years of competent and scandal-free leadership by an NDP mayor, David Miller.
The man Miller endorsed to replace him was a long-time NDP councilor renowned for his decency and sterling public service. He got creamed, however, with barely 12% of the vote. Ford, on the other hand, ran on a platform calling for “ending the gravy train” and downsizing and privatizing services, tapping into a vein of inchoate suburban anger over hard times and high taxes.
The results in Toronto seem to point to a broader trend. At the moment, there are only two NDP provincial governments in power. Federally, the NDP is hovering at a mere 19% in the polls, while Harper’s reactionary and authoritarian government is up to 37% and within striking distance of a majority come the next election.
In the U.S., the Republicans, who have become even more conservative than ever with the emergence of the proto-fascist Tea Party movement, is about to retake the Congress and possibly the Senate this week.
Abroad, social democratic parties are in trouble too. In the UK, the much loathed Labour Party was pushed from power this summer, replaced by a Tory coalition government that announced the most drastic public sector cuts seen in a generation, possibly chopping half a million state jobs. In France, Italy and Germany, social democratic parties are out of power. In Spain and Greece, the social democratic parties holding office are dealing with severe economic problems (20% unemployment in Spain) and crippling government deficits, leading to huge cuts in public services.
There are bright spots, of course. Economies with a strong social democratic foundations – the Scandinavian countries, Germany, Holland and Brazil – have been doing well or weathering the recession better than most.
Still, in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, one has to wonder why social democratic parties are not faring better? After all, one would think voters and workers would be flocking to embrace their kinder, gentler Keynesian policies. Instead, they are floundering. Begging the question: Is social democracy expiring?
In many respects, I would argue that social democracy has been in trouble for quite some time. And the Great Recession has exposed the shortcomings to these parties’ approach to economics.
And the reason is simple: social democratic parties have become parties of capitalism like every other mainstream party out there. They no longer even pretend to be socialist anymore. They simply claim to be better managers of capitalist economies. And so, at a time when capitalism isn’t actually functioning very well, and is becoming increasingly inhumane, social democratic parties have found themselves in a quandry. Do they really hold the solutions to the economic woes we face? Voters, meanwhile, are responding to simplistic platforms offered up by conservative parties to lower taxes and blame minorities for the economic challenges upon us.
It’s worth examining how this has come about. Prior to 1916, the Second International was made up of a socialist and labour parties that were largely inspired by Marxism and the belief that capitalism had to be replaced by a worker-owned and controlled economies. What ultimately split this movement was the ideological differences between the revolutionaries and the reformists over the road to socialism.
The revolutionaries, which formed themselves into communist parties, believed in the violent overthrow of the state and replacing market economies with planned economies.
The reformists, which formed social democratic parties, saw the route to power through the ballot box and introducing legislative reforms that would empower workers through trade unionism, progressive tax systems and pro-worker labour laws and social programs. The market and capitalism could, in effect, be managed and periodic economic crises be smoothed over.
And what was the outcome of these differing approaches? The communist-led governments had some success in leading largely agrarian, peasant-based economies into industrialization, albeit usually at a catastrophic cost, and creating moderately modern economies. However, these were economies beset by shortages, poor planning, waste and inefficiencies. Their experience revealed that it’s just about impossible to plan something as complicated as an economy from a centralized bureaucracy, and that a limited free market has its benefits (Lenin’s NEP as an example). By the mid-‘70s, the Soviet Union’s economy, for example, began to stagnate and go into decline (a good book on the subject is “Russia’s path from Gorbachev to Putin: the demise of the Soviet system and the new Russia” by David Michael Kotz and Fred Weir).
By the 1990s, most of the communist systems had collapsed and capitalism been embraced.
Social democratic parties had much better success. Although, to be fair, they were usually elected in countries well industrialized and with strong trade union movements. But Scandinavia and other Western European countries enjoyed some of the highest standards of living in the world with some of the most generous social programs – and still do.
Nevertheless, by the 1990s, even social democratic parties were struggling. The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the rise of neo-liberalism conspired to create a crisis for social democracy. One that is now manifesting itself like never before. And largely because capitalism and the corporate elites no longer need social democratic parties.
Next: Why the demise of Social Democracy
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- Dead Money (August 23rd, 2012)
- Baskin-Robbins and the Walmartization of Ice Cream (July 20th, 2012)
- Labour Losing to Capital (July 19th, 2012)