Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk: a Strategy for the European Left

If Tuesday’s elections represented the triumph of liberalism in the US, no similar trend is to be found in Europe. Far from capitalizing -irony intended- on a crisis brought upon by markets-turned-casinos, the center left in Europe has systematically been voted out of office, lost power in the European Parliament, and failed to articulate a convincing counter narrative to the drive for austerity. With the possible exception of France, European social democracy (i.e. what Republicans like to call ‘socialism’) is weaker today than it was four years ago.

Why has this happened?

Margaret Thatcher never won more votes than in her first run for office, just as today’s conservatives in Spain obtain absolute majorities while barely improving their electoral results. So we are not witnessing the rise of the right, but the collapse of the left. And no one is to blame for this more than social democrats themselves.

In many ways we are still dealing with the legacy of the 70s and 80s, when oil shocks and stagflation brought an end to Keynesianism in the West. Progressives have spent the following generation on the defensive –that is, when they weren’t actively contributing to their own evisceration. This they did through a variety of lemming politics called third way. As an attempt to reconcile the old left and the new right, the third way had a certain appeal. It also provided a way to bridge the gap between working and middle classes, crucial for any successful social democratic strategy, in a time when the very concept of “class” seemed outdated. Although French socialists were the first to convert, Clinton, Blair, and Schröder came to represent this new left, which was happy to privatize railways, proclaim the death of “big government”, and slash through welfare spending.

The problem with this strategy is once it was adopted by the left, there was no “left” left. I fully agree with Tony Judt’s description of the third way as opportunism with a human face: practice trumps theory, and what little theory backs the third way is undone by its track record, since social democrats are still expected to defend the welfare state. The case of the Spanish socialists under Zapatero is one among many, but is illustrative. Despite a progressive agenda that included legalizing gay marriage and an early withdrawal from Iraq, PSOE was voted out of office for adopting austerity measures.

Are there really no alternatives? Is there any “change we can believe in”?

After two decades of third way politics in the name of progressivism, the term “social democracy” has become profoundly discredited. Not only have social democrats forgotten to walk the walk, they can’t even talk the talk. The left, again in Judt’s words, suffers from a discursive disability. Consciously or not it has adopted the newspeak of neoliberalism, agreeing to discuss the welfare state in the language of “profits” and “efficiency”. In fact we are not only talking about an investment, but also a guarantor of minimum standards of dignity. Dignity, much like the humiliation that comes from not having one’s basic needs covered, cannot be measured in economic terms. Every time social democrats tap on self-interest to advance their agenda, they shoot themselves in the foot.

Recovering the language of the left and using it to structure an inspiring narrative should therefore be the first task of social democrats. The left needs to articulate a bolder message, so shying away from its most powerful rhetorical instruments will no longer do. The emergence of the precariat where the middle classes once stood, as well as widespread concern with growing inequality in Western societies, reminds us it is time to resurrect the language of class.

As for walking the walk, the European parties of the left must form Popular Fronts. There have always been and there will always be parties and voters left of center-left. By now, however, most communist parties in Europe are almost social democrat. With the exception of Germany, the Greens are a single-issue party lacking a credible, nation-wide appeal. The point is all these factions can come under the common umbrella of social democracy and form coalitions aiming at full employment, stronger capital controls throughout the eurozone, the abolishment of European tax havens, and an end to austerity, all in the context of an increasingly integrated EU. This would require social democrats to go through a long and loud mea culpa, bury third way politics, purge their respective parties of Blairites, and acknowledge the demands of their constituents.

The term “Popular Front” might sound nostalgic of the 1930s, but the move is nowhere as dramatic. Unlike many Americans, Europeans do not want to give up their universal welfare states –at least not in exchange for nanny states devoted to socializing the losses and privatizing the gains of the financial sector. Since this transformation is taking place from France to Greece, the center left should follow Samuel L. Jackson’s advice and adapt to reality.

If it still sounds radical, consider the alternatives. Social democracy is an inherently conservative project. One of its main tasks is to defuse and channel social discontent that may otherwise lead to revolutionary socialism or the original third way: fascism. When parties like Syriza do not move in time to fill the gap left by the collapse of social democracy, the path to power is opened for the extreme right. A new and re-strengthened left in Europe is needed now more than ever.