After three decades during which the centre left first adapted to neoliberalism, and then adopted it wholesale, it is sometimes difficult to establish what exactly social democracy stands for these days.
All of the major European parties that occupy this political space initially came into being to articulate working class demands, and were nominally committed to socialism. Even after Blair’s clause four rewrite, the Labour Party still officially defines itself as ‘a democratic socialist party’.
Few members these days expect social democratic formations to build the New Jerusalem; if we are going to employ that analogy, I suspect that Labour would be hard pushed to construct a jerry-built shed on the outskirts of greater Tel Aviv at the moment.
But what supporters still do expect is some sort of protection from the worst that rightwing governments can throw at them. Labour’s promise of cuts pitched somewhere between those of the Thatcher years and those being implemented by the ConDems is hardly an inspiring vista, but millions of voters still cling to that as the best deal on the table.
Labour, however, has the luxury of opposition; Spain’s PSOE and Greece’s PASOK do not. These two social democratic parties find themselves right now implementing wrong-head policies that directly contradict their stated values. PASOK may find its standing reduced from governing party to coalition partner by the time you read this, but the thrust of the argument still stands.
Both of them face obliteration at the next election, largely because of they have rejected the alternatives put forward by radical Keynesian and Marxist economists, and instead force through programmes of immense detriment to their electoral base.
That is, in itself, a comment on the state of democracy. Given the choice between acting in the interests of those upon whom their existence depends and acting in the interests of the financial elite, they have chosen to follow the latter course. Indeed, they do not appear to have even considered any other strategy.
The irony is that both PSOE and PASOK were founded by activists who had in some cases found the courage to resist military dictatorship, even if that meant prison or torture.
Only a generation later, their successors have caved in to mere bankers and have condemned themselves to almost certain destruction in the process. This is not what social democracy, at least at its best, was supposed to be all about.