The Neoliberalization of Social Democracy

Book-Review for Social Democracy After the Cold War, edited by Bryan Evans and Ingo Schmidt, 2012, Edmonton: AU Press – Published on new Socialist, by James Cairns, August 30, 2013.

The nine chapters in the edited collection Social Democracy After the Cold War describe the development of that trend and analyze its relevance for anti-capitalists. It claims to provide “a comprehensive examination of a politics that has come to be identified as the ‘new’ social democracy.” Comprehensive is a bold word and isn’t the best descriptor of a book that offers case studies of social democracy without including chapters on experiences in Southern Europe (think Greece and Portugal) or anywhere on the Asian, African or South American continents.  

That said, the collection does provide a richly detailed and very readable account of recent shifts in social democracy in several of its core homelands: the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Australia, and, with recognition of their unique political culture, Québec and the United States … //

… The case studies in Social Democracy After the Cold War demonstrate that throughout the industrialized West, social democratic parties have not only weakened their defence of public goods and citizenship entitlements but have embraced the logic of neo-liberalism without exception. In his chapter on the post-Cold War NDP, Evans suggests that the party’s electoral strategy is based in its promise that it can “manage neoliberalism better.” Östberg concludes that “Swedish social democracy has actively contributed to the use of the EU for economic reforms that move in a neoliberal direction.” Echoing his framing chapter, Schmidt explains why the leaders of Germany’s Social Democratic Party “saw the abandonment of any commitment to the Keynesian welfare state as a necessary adjustment of their politics to new economic and social realities.” Woodward suggests that Australia’s Labour Party has maintained stronger links with unions than has been true in other places but “its need to placate business groups has also demonstrated the limits of social democracy in a globalized world.” Sheldrick tells of how the British Labour Party “pursued a relentlessly electoral strategy that accepted neoliberalism and market-based politics as a new consensus.” Rosenfeld, offers fresh thoughts on social democracy in the United States (a context in which “very few social democrats even call themselves social democrats”). He  concludes that social democracy as a movement – in Europe, Asia, and the US – “has become independent of a true working-class base… no longer argues and organizes for major reforms within capitalist society… accepts, for the most part, the limitations of neoliberal globalization… [and] has no relation to any transformative project against capitalism.”

Individually, the case studies offer detailed local histories of the transformation of a major current within the broad Left. Taken together, they suggest that social democracy is no longer part of anti-capitalist struggle. The notion is implied throughout the book. At times it is plainly stated, as when Schmidt concludes that “alternatives to neoliberalism and the competition state… must be built beyond social democratic parties” and Sheldrick calls “irrefutable” the logic that “if the Left in Britain is to have a voice, it will need to split from the Labour Party and establish a new, independent left-wing party.”

It’s against the backdrop of social democracy’s collapse as a vehicle of working-class agency that Rashi closes out the collection with an analysis of the new political formation Québec Solidaire. After explaining the failure of both the separatist and federalist variant of social democracy in Québec, Rashi concludes that this history

has opened up a space, probably unique in North America, for a bona fide Left to assert itself. This new Left, in tune with the social movements that have allowed Québec to resist conservative and neoliberal policies to a degree not seen elsewhere in the continent, is attempting to forge a mass alternative capable of influencing the political scene. The future success of Québec Solidaire depends on its ability to deepen its program of a post-capitalist, green, and independent society while simultaneously building larger alliances with social and political forces seeking to oppose the right.

The case of Québec Solidaire is inspiring. Here is a broad “new Left formation,” which Rashi argues is moving “toward explicit anti-capitalism,” with two elected parliamentarians in Québec’s National Assembly. Activists across the broad Left have much to learn from the fact that the party represents not NDP-style “social democracy from above” but rather “a much more ‘grassroots left approach’… intimately linked to the rise of the anti-globalization movement.”

In addition to learning from new experiments, however, it is also important to question whether even the degenerated version of social democracy might still play a role in anti-capitalist strategy. In part this is because new social movements never emerge fully formed; they grow unevenly and out of a context shaped in important ways by remnants of older Lefts. The case studies in this collection call for something beyond social democracy but do not inquire into how such movements might form and how existing social democracy might factor into rebuilding a mass left. In light of the more critical politics still present in social democracy – unevenly, to be sure, but also rooted in real working-class experiences and power – it is worth asking, in the Canadian context, at least: Should anti-poverty campaigns not publicly press the NDP to raise welfare rates in a way they wouldn’t the two traditional parties of the ruling class? Might Palestine solidarity activists not learn something important and potentially find crucial support by challenging the NDP’s tailing of Harper’s Israel policy?

Social Democracy After the Cold War makes a valuable contribution by documenting the fall of Keynesian and the rise of neo-liberal social democracy. Of course, social democracy, like all political movements, is full of contradictions; and while it is important to be clear-eyed about the limitations of the movement today, this means not simply viewing it as a spent force. We need to analyze its contradictions, which involves attending to the fact that not all social democratic members and supporters are committed to a neo-liberal orientation. Many progressives express themselves through social democracy, even when they recognize the problems with this approach. Thinking through such contradictions could help clarify the sorts of pathways through which broader layers of activists might find their way to new, more radical movements.
(full text).

See also this Video: Social Democracy After the Cold War (booklaunch), 29.04 min, uploaded by LeftStreamed, Sept. 22, 2012: Edited by Bryan Evans and Ingo Schmidt, published by AU Press. Guest speaker: Leo Panitch. Recorded 19 Sept. 2012 at Ryerson University, Toronto …;


Snowden Document: NSA Spied On Al Jazeera Communications, on Spiegel Online Internatinal, August 31, 2013: Arab news broadcaster Al Jazeera was spied on by the National Security Agency, according to documents seen by SPIEGEL. The US intelligence agency hacked into protected communication, a feat that was considered a particular success …;

New Snowden revelation details vast US intelligence black budget, on World Socialist Web Site WSWS, by Thomas Gaist, August 31, 2013.

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