28 Sep 2010

The Demographic Schizophrenia of the Left: Which response?

by Rene Cuperus


The problems of the European center parties are a pars pro toto for what’s happening in society at large. A possible split within the people’s parties (Volksparteien) may be a foreshadowing of the split in society. What we urgently need is a new social deal, a new pact between the privileged and the less privileged, forging a new idea of progress. A pact of socio-economic security – based on welfare state stability – and cultural openness – a tolerant, international outlook, while retaining national democracy.

In the past decades our societies have been confronted with major challenges: the globalisation of our economic and financial relations; new technologies and the rise of a post-industrial knowledge economy; ill-managed mass migration from regions not accustomed to western-liberal lifestyles and values; a European integration process that has overvalued the market and has undermined national democratic procedures.

These changes have redistributed opportunities among countries, regions and persons. They have favoured the well educated, cosmopolitan well to do. And they have disappointed the less educated, lower class Prekariat, as well as large middle income groups who favour national rather than European or cosmopolitan orientations. We are talking not about traditional class relations, but rather about political-cultural orientations and moods, about political psychological phenomena such as resentment about social déclassement and overall discontent. The American economist J.K. Galbraith analysed in his The culture of contentment (1993) the division and the lack of solidarity between a content middle class versus the disillusioned underprivileged, the American version of die Zweidrittelgesellschaft. Today the situation seems worse, whereas big parts of the middle class are not content any more under conditions of globalisation, migration and social fragmentation, making the theoretical conditions for solidaristic politics even worse.

Basically, the social-democratic response of the past decades has been one of adaption to new circumstances, far too little one of reform in line with our own values. The political and policy elites, including the social-democratic ones, have made permanent innovation the trademark of their policies, the Big Adaptation to the New Global World their only program and principle.

While our parties at the end of the nineteenth century aimed to balance industrial and traditional views on labour and happiness, the contemporary social-democratic leadership far too uncritically hailed the new, and forgot about the traditional life and values. It failed to develop and communicate ‘’just’ reform policies and thus alienated itself from the constituencies it traditionally represented. In program, style, organisation and leadership, there is an urgent need for a fresh renewal and reorientation.

One can observe a widening gap between the political and policy elites and large groups – if not the majority – of the population of the continental European welfare states. There is a massive level of unease in many Western countries, trust in institutions and politics is at a record low, there is a crisis of confidence and a crisis of political representation. The ever-growing pan-European presence of right-wing and left-wing populist movements, which often appear following a reform of the welfare state, remains an alarming and grimy reminder of the general unease in the population and the crisis of confidence which besets the established political scene. In the process of reform and adaptation to the New Global World Order, there has been a fundamental breakdown of communication between elites and the general population.

Europe faces a dangerous populist revolt against the good society of both the neoliberal business community and progressive academic professionals. The revolt of populism has, as a matter of fact, been ‘produced’ by the economic and cultural elites. Their TINA-project creates fear and resentment under non-elites. Their deterministic image of a future world of globalisation, open borders, free flows of people, lifelong-learning in the knowledge-based society is a night mare world for non-elites.

In the elite narrative, sizable parts of the middle and working class are being confronted with economic and psychological degradation. Theirs is no longer the future. They feel alienated, dispossessed and downgraded, because the society in which they felt comfortable, in which they had their respected place and which has been part of their social identity is being pushed aside by new realities. They consider social democracy as part of that ‘modernization’ that is eroding old comforts and old securities. Social democracy in far too many countries has lost touch with these sentiments and worries. It has become part of that ‘brave new world’ of the bright, well-educated, entrepreneurial and highly mobile.

As a tragic consequence, we are confronted with, what I might call, the Broken Society of the Left: the split of the social-democratic constituency into future optimists who embrace the new world of globalisation, market dynamics, individual enterprise and diversity; and the others, future pessimists, who feel threatened by these forces. What’s at stake is the alarming fragmentation of the social democratic constituency into the camps of social liberal academic professionals versus traditional trade union-social democrats; a cleavage between higher educated and lower educated, between cosmopolitan libertarian attitudes and national-populist attitudes. Will European social-democracy survive the sociology of the new global world? Will the Volksparteien, the people’s parties, survive the new sociology of our societies? That’s the 100 billion dollar question of the coming period.

We might be dealing with a world in flux and complex transformation, comparable with the transformation at the end of the 19th-century from Gemeinschaft into Gesellschaft. Where is the new Durkheim, the new Tönnies, the new Weber to give meaning to the change which we are witnessing today, from Gesellschaft into globale, multikulturelle Gesellschaft? Will European social-democracy be able to deal with the pressures, anxieties and fears which accompany this rough and turbulent transformation?

The pressures of adaptation to the new globalised world are particularly directed towards those who do not fit in to the new international knowledge based economy, the unskilled and the low-skilled. The overall discourse of adaptation and competitive adjustment has a strong bias against the lower middle class and non-academic professionals. This harsh meritocratic narrative is one of the root causes for populist resentment.

Policy and political elites are selling and producing insecurity and uncertainty, instead of showing security and stable leadership in a world of flux. With the exception of some Scandinavian countries, European policy elites do not show welfare state pride stability in times of change and reform. This ambivalence about the very foundations of the European welfare state models is in itself producing populist unrest.

Unease and Distrust in contemporary European society must be located at more levels than that merely of the welfare state reform. We are experiencing a shift right across the board: the magic of the post-war period seems to be all used up: the post-war ideal of European unification, the post-war welfare state model and the post-Holocaust tolerance for the foreigner; they all seem to be eroding and under pressure. The overall process of internationalisation (globalisation, immigration, European integration) is producing a gap of trust and representation between elites and population around questions of cultural and national identity, modernity versus tradition.

The problems of the centre parties are a pars pro toto, a mirror for what’s happening in society at large. The pressures of division and fragmentation on the social democratic parties are the pressures within society. A possible cleavage or split in our party may be a foreshadowing of the split in society at large. What is fundamentally under attack is the social cohesion, the social fabric, the solidarity of our societies. What could be under attack is the European social model, and European social democracy as one of its foundations and pillars.

Social democracy defined as the coalition, the connector between privileged and underprivileged, between lower and higher middle class. So the big challenge for contemporary social democracy is how to keep our parties together, and by doing so keeping society together.

The crisis is not in our values and ideals, but in the way we implement them in the new world of globalisation, post-industrialisation and individualisation, live up to them, deliver on them, according to our voters.

What should be done?

What we urgently need is a new social deal, a new pact between the privileged and the less privileged, forging a new idea of progress. A pact of socio-economic security (based on welfare state stability) and cultural openness (a tolerant, international outlook, while retaining national democracy).

We must develop a program that addresses the social-economic insecurities and capabilities of the broader social-democratic constituency, as well as the cultural anxieties, and that appeals to both traditional working class voters and the middle classes. A program that dares to promote continuity and tradition (Tony Judt), instead of obsessively advocating modernity and innovation. A new narrative that can encompass the daily experiences and stories of our voters. Restoring the social-democratic Kümmererpartei (Johannes Rau), not to follow the voters in a populist way, but to reconnect to voters for trust and democratic deliberation, to learn and educate and to show moral leadership in a trustworthy and authorative way. i.e. to find the way back to our voters as a project of what German SPD-partyleader Sigmar Gabriel has called the Deutungshoheit (the ideological hegemony) in society.

Save and renew the Volkspartei, as a bridge between the winners and losers of the new world trends. This new ‘Volkspartei’ will emerge from progressive coalition-building encompassing other left political parties, as well as progressive individuals regardless of party-affiliation and ’progressive’ organizations, such as trade unions, churches and NGO’s.

Renew but maintain, against all American and Asian odds, the European welfare societies under conditions of mass migration and globalisation. Compete on the basis of human well-being and welfare against the narrow neoliberal concept of economic growth. Let European social democracy remain the pillar for a modernised European social market model develop a sensibility for cultural and identity politics. The big discontent and unhappiness in affluent welfare democracies are to a serious extent about community, social cohesion, security: postmaterialist problems of social psychology.

Restore the divide between left and right in politics, in order to fight the dangerous populist cleavage between the establishment and (a false entity of) the people.

We must be tough on populism and tough on the causes of populism.

Finally, the European social-democratic movement nowadays is too much paralysed by blues. Instead it should revitalise itself by getting soul back into the movement. Just change the music record.

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