Un défi historique
Wouter Bos is the leader of the Dutch Labour Party and currently finance minister in the coalition government that was formed after the last Dutch general election. A young man who two years ago was an unrepentant modernizer in the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown mold, he has been thinking long and hard about the social democratic predicament. Above all, he is concerned about what the threat from the left means, not just for his own party but for the political future of social democracy across Europe. The value of Bos’s analysis—which he presented to the Hertfordshire conference—is that it goes far below the surface of what some seem to regard wrongly as transient and superficial shifts in electoral commitments and preferences. The word crisis is overdone and may still be too strong to describe the outlook for social democracy in Europe, but fundamental social and economic trends suggest it faces an uphill struggle if it hopes to make a strong and effective comeback in the years ahead.
Bos has gone so far as to suggest that European social democracy in its present modernizing form is facing a new and formidable political challenge that threatens its historic dominance on the continent’s center-left. He is concerned with what he sees as the growth in diversity and fragmentation in European societies that are caused mainly by the impact of the dynamic and destructive forces of globalization on everyday life. People are becoming more divided in their own perceived interests and not just by class and gender but by ethnicity, religion, education, family, work, and career patterns as well as in their incomes and the amount of wealth and power they enjoy. National borders in Europe are growing more porous and less relevant with the free movement of capital, goods and services, and now labor through mass migrations.
Domestic-state policymaking, even the moral values states articulate, has grown more contested and divisive. As a result of these deep-seated social and economic trends in Europe, Bos argues, “We are seeing the traditional mechanisms that once fostered cohesion in our societies becoming less effective or less attractive and being replaced by forces that divide rather than unify.”
En quête désespérée d’un projet unificateur
The greater fragmentation of society and the emergence of divergent and often conflicting interests and values have made it much harder to develop a new form of social democratic politics that is beneficial for the many and not just for an alliance of segmented groups. As a result there is a lack of a grand narrative or a unifying project that binds together European social democracy.
This weakness can be found in particular in what has been happening in the workplace. It is now much more difficult than it used to be to promote solidarity or any sense of common purpose between workers because the ability of social democratic parties and their trade union allies to identify themselves with the backgrounds, needs and concerns of fellow citizens has become more compromised. Diverse cultural norms and habits have led to a noticeable crumbling of social capital and the sense of community that once bound workers together as a self-conscious movement. Modern European societies are less strong than they used to be in generating trust. As a result we find more alienation, sectionalism, competition, and an instrumental rather than an ideological attitude to the primacy of work and the labor process.
Bos argues that all of these workplace trends are producing what he calls “a new kind of inequality” in democratic Europe between the winners and losers of globalization. Nobody can deny that the dynamics of globalization have provided genuine opportunities for consumers and enterprises. “It offers the prospect of prosperity for the poor and freedom to the oppressed,” argues Bos. But there is also a darkening side to globalization, which is creating millions of victims and especially among those in the manual working class who historically saw social democracy as the political organizational means available to protect and liberate them from the insecurity and exploitation of an unjust and arbitrary economic system.
All these changes are hitting social democrats more profoundly than any other political grouping in Europe because they reduce the perceived effectiveness of the kind of progressive policies with which they are normally identified. It hits efforts to maintain or create any sense of social or political unity across internal divisions and it also weakens center-left appeals to internationalist solidarity around shared values. This is why social democrats have to focus their attention on religion and culture and not just on their traditional concerns with work and income equality in order to ensure their contemporary relevance.
La tentation du populisme
So, what can be done ? A wide-ranging public debate on the future of European social democracy has only just begun and it would be foolish to suggest that any one person or party has found a convincing answer to the problems of political decline in turbulent times.
Bos wants to resurrect the slogan “Back to the Future” and argue for a return to the morality of the early pioneers of European social democracy. He argues that social democrats must become “less academic and more populist.” To him this means putting key political words such as identity, empathy, trust, and security at the heart of social democracy’s new political language. He wants to see the parties of the center-left reconnecting themselves to their core voters by recognizing and responding to their genuine fears of insecurity and difference. Bos is not the only thoughtful social democratic thinker in Europe who questions whether their parties have gone too far in incorporating markets, private initiatives, free trade, globalization, empowerment, and personal choice into social democratic thinking. Now there must be a re-evaluation of the fundamentals. The old issues on the European left of distribution and equality, worker protection, and social justice need to be brought back into mainstream politics. As Bos puts it, we “cannot afford to gain new supporters by losing our traditional support base in the process.”
Most of those European social democrats who like to call themselves progressive modernizers seem unlikely to respond well to such an unpalatable message. But it reflects the new realities for the left in Europe. For too long too many of them have underestimated the genuine tensions that exist between modernization and more traditional goals like income redistribution and employee protection. What is needed urgently is a social democracy in Europe that puts “confidence, trust, and security” back onto the progressive political agenda.