A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Ideological Zombies

Europe’s social democrats, the SPD in particular, need the courage of their convictions.

Led by politicians like Willy Brandt, Bruno Kreisky, or Olof Palme, social democracy in Europe reached its high point in the 1970s. So far their heirs have failed to reboot it for a globalized world, having been tamed by international capital. However, SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel has a chance next year to turn things round. Will he take it?


© REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

Punk and social democracy have one thing in common and one big difference. The similarity: both were swallowed by neo-liberal capitalism. The difference: only punk is aware that it is dead.

It’s 40 years since Malcolm McLaren and his then wife Vivienne Westwood opened “SEX”, their London punk boutique that presented a dyed-and-pierced aesthetic with a Sex Pistols soundtrack to the “no future” younger generation in a United Kingdom that was going to the dogs. They had their fun, but what came next? Thatcherism and Spandau Ballet.

Last weekend, to mark punk’s 40th anniversary in Britain, the late McLaren’s son, Joe Corré, lit a punk funeral pyre. Burning punk collectibles worth several million pounds was a protest, he said, at how the movement had become a “McDonald’s brand … privatized, packaged, and castrated by the establishment.”

That same fate has befallen social democracy, which, roughly a century before punk, took hold in Germany as the political face of the burgeoning union movement. Social democracy empowered the working class by popularizing what were then radical ideas of social justice and state oversight of markets, promising common social goods like universal education and healthcare. Social democracy in Europe survived fascism, and while being co-opted by communism in eastern Europe, it peaked in the 1970s under Willy Brandt in West Germany, Bruno Kreisky in Austria, and Olof Palme in Sweden.

This week their respective political heirs – Sigmar Gabriel, Christian Kern, and Stefan Lövfen – met in Vienna to reboot the social democratic ideals. And barely anyone noticed.

Instead of presenting a concrete plan, theirs was a limp attempt to reboot a failing brand. It fell on deaf ears because Europe’s social democrats have tried this every other year over the last decade. The result: instead of firing up a new generation, social democracy meanders around Europe like an ideological zombie, arms outstretched and stumbling into every hole before it.

Lack of Honesty, Lack of Conviction

The problem is twofold: a lack of honesty and a lack of conviction. If Europe’s social democrats were honest they would admit that they simply don’t have the answer to rebooting the European social democratic model for the globalized world. That is because, like punk, social democracy has been privatized, packaged, and castrated by international capital. Because social democrats, with their “Third Way” politics of the late 1990s, played a role in their own castration. And because, unlike the hard left, social democrats don’t really believe in facing down their castrators. “We are staring into the abyss,” said Kern, Austria’s chancellor of six months, suggesting their endeavor is motivated less by new, fairer politics and more by the fear of Europe’s ruling social democrats losing power – and, with it, their last hold on political relevance.

After decades of neo-liberalism and post-crisis belt-tightening, the three leaders in Vienna said Europe needed a social democratic makeover. Hurray. The EU’s four fundamental freedoms – of trade, capital, services, and labor – needed a fifth social pillar. Great idea.

How? In concrete terms, they said, this meant giving EU governments “more fiscal-political freedom” to invest in growth and jobs, infrastructure, and fighting youth unemployment. Labor laws needed to be updated for the 21st century single market, Lövfen said, so “EU freedoms don’t come at the cost of workers.”

The problem, as always, is the implementation. These three amigos have little or no political credibility as defenders of the workers or keepers of the social democratic flame. In the mid 1990s, after drinking from the poisoned, third way chalice, German SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder swapped union support to be embraced as the “bosses’ comrade”. He introduced social reforms admirers say saved the German economy or, critics say, gave birth to today’s working poor. Some 14 years on, the SPD still cannot decide whether to disown and reverse the reforms, or own up to them and take credit for the subsequent economic boom. As they say in Ireland: shit or get off the pot.

In the last years, these three social democratic parties were all in power when the EU nodded through eurozone crisis program that socialized billions of private banks debt and hung it around taxpayers’ necks – as “rescue” rings in crisis countries and bailout payments in non-crisis countries. Under Gabriel, the SPD in Germany spends one year chastising Europe’s periphery as fiscal “sinners” and the next sulking that their peripheral neighbors show them the cold shoulder.

The World Has Moved On

As Europe’s social democrats grapple with their extended identity crisis, the world has moved on. First, hard left parties peeled away social democrats’ welfare and social justice robes and added some anti-globalization, pro-Russian patches of their own. Then center-right parties, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, moved back to the center ground. Now squeezed by both sides, the social democrats find themselves in a tug of war with far-right populist parties in Sweden, Germany, and Austria, offering vulnerable voters the promise of more welfare and fewer Muslims. Those hit hardest by globalized transformation are being tempted by an opportunistic, xenophobic social nationalism when what they really need is robust, tolerant, old school social democracy 2.0.

Yet those best placed to deliver this have failed to do so, suggesting they either can’t or won’t.

In his eleven years as SPD leader, Gabriel has announced but not delivered, in order: an EU with an enhanced social dimension; “solidarity” bonds of pooled, lower-interest sovereign debt issues; and more flexible stability pact rules to aid indebted euro members. In recent months he has promised more investment for Germany’s crumbling infrastructure while, last week, his party backed yet another balanced budget with minimal spending for the future.

Each time Gabriel has a new idea, he either drops it privately or, under howls of protest from his center-right coalition partners, rows back publicly. I may be wrong, but this week’s “social pact” bore suspicious similarities to a Franco-German pact Gabriel launched with France’s Socialists a few years ago, and later buried.

And yet the departure of French president Francois Hollande leaves Gabriel as Europe’s longest-serving, most senior Social Democrat leader. Next year’s federal election in Germany offers a chance for Gabriel to change the record in Europe. He could shaft Chancellor Merkel and activate the center-left majority that has existed in Germany since Merkel came to power in 2005 – if he has the courage of his convictions.

The only chance left to revive some form of social democracy is a three-way pact with two of three parties: the Greens, the liberal Free Democrats, and the Left Party. Such a bold move might risk Sex Pistols-style anarchy in German politics. Sticking with the safe option – another grand coalition with Merkel – would be social democracy’s final, fatal embrace of punk’s “no future” philosophy.