[Murphy 12/8/17] In the early decades of the twenty-first century, social democratic parties went down to defeat in country after country in Western Europe and were eclipsed by the rise of right-wing, national-populist, or even fascist-type parties. For a time the latter managed to appear to social and demographic groups that had historically supported not only the Social Democrats, but the Left in general, such as “blue collar” workers, students, public employees and young voters. But the crisis of social-democratic parties was merely the tip of the iceberg, the base of which consisted in the crisis of the entire Left, ranging from classical Social Democracy, to green and post- or neo-communist parties. This crisis was not only political but impinged on the very social basis of progressive politics. What then needed to be done? To answer such a crucial question, it was necessary to grasp the nature of the relations between left-wing parties and their social base. Historically, social-democratic, communist and green parties had always risen as the political offshoots of vibrant social movements: trade unions, working class mutual aid associations, cooperative societies, religious communities, environmental protection organizations, anti-colonialist, feminist, civil rights and LGBTQ movements. Such movements not only provided progressive parties with electoral momentum, but they also built large networks that allowed the disenfranchised to socialize and to empower themselves.
The crisis of the political Left was thus nothing but the final act of a tragedy that had begun at the end of the 1970s, the deep sense of which was perfectly summarized by Margaret Thatcher’s notorious phrase, “There’s no such thing as society”. As the historian Tony Judt put it, what was unfolding was “the steady shift of public responsibility onto the private sector to no discernible collective advantage”, which caused, in turn, “an increased difficulty in comprehending what we have in common with others”. It followed that bringing back progressive politics meant bringing back society itself, understood as the common space where individuals could reclaim the capacity to flourish, through free collective association and with the support of public institutions. The question remained, which forces could possibly achieve such a goal? And how would they go about it?
Existing progressive forces seemed doomed to fall short of the mark. Western communist parties had already lost most of their social base even before they were buried by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and only became further marginalized. As for the Greens, they had embodied the hope for a renewal of progressive politics throughout the 1980s and the ‘90s, fueled by new forms of civic engagement. However, they steadily abandoned their “alternative” roots to fully integrate into existing institutions.
Social-democratic parties long presented themselves as a beacon for progressive politics in western Europe, by helping to craft the welfare state system in the 1950s and 60s. But by a strange irony of fate, those same parties were instrumental in dismantling that system in following decades. The demise of social-democratic parties could not, however, be reduced to the treachery of their élites. On the contrary, it was rooted in two structural weaknesses of the compromise between capital and labor that they helped to bring about. As Tony Judt remarked, social-democratic parties benefited from “a very particular combination of circumstances”, both from a political and an economic point of view, which were doomed to fade away. Moreover, they tied their political action to the framework of the nation-state, which was in crisis as globalization proceeded. [Murphy end]