December 2016        

The long, slow death of social democracy

Eoghan O’Neill

Brexit, the election of Trump and the rise of the right in Europe are phenomena that indicate the demise of liberal capitalism, with the accelerated accumulation of wealth, the global war economy, the increasing precariousness of labour, increasing poverty and inequality, the hollowing out of democratic structures—all encapsulated within an ideology of “no alternative“ and all of which are required for continued imperialist expansion.
     The social-democratic compromise between capital and labour, formulated in Roosevelt’s New Deal and expressed in the Keynesian economics that framed the economic order for the imperialist core between the mid-1940s and mid-70s, is no more. This compromise was forced upon capitalism by the strength of organised labour and by capitalism’s fear of the influence of the Soviet Union. This fear would be reinforced by the rise of national liberation forces, many of which were Marxist or contained significant Marxist influence.
     As capitalism developed new tools for the exploitation of its former colonies, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, it sought a détente with the wealth-producing industrial workers in the imperialist core. However, by the mid-1970s Keynesian economics had run its course. Hyperinflation and increasing unemployment undermined the détente with organised labour; and, recognising that the Soviet Union was no longer a threat, capitalism felt able to take on the unions and implement the neo-liberal agenda.
     The response of social democracy was capitulation. Unable to offer an alternative to the march of neo-liberalism, the social-democratic parties turned their back on the working class and sought a new dispensation. They attempted to cut a niche for themselves within the dynamics of neo-liberalism, by appealing to the Enlightenment sensibilities of the middle classes—only to find that the famed Enlightenment consciousness of liberalism was without foundation. That Enlightenment consciousness of fairness stretched only as far as the bank balance.
     Experiments in “social partnership” created an illusion of togetherness while in reality it served to keep in check the demands of labour and to bring the organisations of labour and the social-democratic parties deeper into the fold of capitalism—only to be abandoned when capitalism no longer had a use for it.
     The Labour Party in coalition government was more concerned with the survival of the party than with protecting the interests of workers. It became so immersed in the ideology of neo-liberalism that it proved difficult to distinguish it from its neo-liberal partners.
     This was not limited to Ireland. We saw the emergence of “New Labour” in Britain and witnessed the drift of all European social-democratic parties to the right, culminating in the betrayal of SYRIZA in Greece.
     Last-minute fight-backs have occurred, such as those of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the United States. While both have demonstrated the potential of an alternative to neo-liberalism, both offer little more than reheated Keynesian economics. The working class has been left rudderless. This was demonstrated in Brexit and in the election of Trump. It was demonstrated in the re-election of SYRIZA, despite their betrayal, and the surge of populist parties throughout Europe, including Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil.
     Quite rightly, the left has argued that Brexit and Trump’s election have more to do with a rejection of establishment politics than with xenophobia, although this cannot be entirely dismissed. The question is whether the left can fill the gap left by social democracy, whether it can build the class-consciousness of working people and thereby offer a real alternative to capitalism.
     Weak as the left may be, it requires bold steps to engage with the working class, to cast the challenges of everyday existence within the framework of capitalist exploitation and to begin to map a socialist alternative.
     Here in Ireland the big questions of our continued membership of the EU, of our economic dependence on transnational corporations, the unity of our people and denial of any real form of democracy have to be addressed. We must envisage the delinking from capitalism and begin the discussion within our class of the possibilities of socialism.
     We need to fully understand what class means in the twenty-first century, what is the role of the state, and get to grips with the modern form of imperialism.

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