The crisis in European social democracy: a crisis like no other

Social democracy, as practiced so far, is disappointing and depressing. There are grounds for confidence in its future. But a qualitative leap is necessary.

Benoît Lévesque
21 May 2016

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

We are at the end of a cycle that started in the second XIXth century. During this cycle, including in the XXth century, the left was governed by the ideology of progress and economic determinism. After the collapse of the so-called ‘communist’ countries, the question of the relevance of a new left for the XXIst century was raised. Different elements are necessary to answer it, the growing number of citizen initiatives all over the world (that is the subject of the launch text by Laville), the ambivalent experiences of left governments in South America (second subject raised by Coraggio). The analysis of these complex background issues opens up new perspectives for collective action and emancipation (to follow, third and fourth texts by Wainwright and Hart) and the structural crisis of European social democracy (fifth, sixth, and seventh closing texts by Hulgard, Block and Lévesque). Very different from those of the traditional left; this week’s opinions and debates are also to be found in detail in Spanish (Reinventar la izquierda en el siglo XXI – Hasta un dialogo Norte-Sur) and French (Les gauches du XXIe siècle – Un dialogue Nord-Sud ). Jean-Louis Laville, economist and sociologist, supervised 'Les gauches du XXIe siècle – Un dialogue Nord-Sud' (Bord de l’eau, 2016).


"Don't be cheated." Christian Social Union poster in Germany's federal elections, 2005. Diether Enlicher/Press Association. All rights reserved.If one word is important in social-democracy, it is ‘democracy’ that confers a strong meaning on ‘social’. Moreover, if we want a social democracy or a socialism that can meet the challenge of the twenty-first century, including that of an ecological transition, the only way possible is that of democracy.

The latter must be expanded to embrace the economy (not just the redistribution of wealth) and deepened by the quality of deliberation. This work on democracy must be at several levels, starting with social democratic party policies for the development of their programme and for their choice of leaders.

Even within parliaments, representative democracy can be improved by better decisions, which means that it makes a greater contribution to social democracy. Similarly, governments at all levels should encourage participatory democracy.

Finally, the doors of companies and offices should be flung open to democracy by promoting the greater participation of stakeholders. The challenges of social and ecological transition will not be met without an appreciation of democracy in all spheres of society.

If we are looking to a future that will address the challenges of the twenty-first century, social democracy needs to be overhauled. The undertaking would radically surpass any reform carried out to date. The economic and social crisis, and especially the ecological crisis, could provide social democracy with new opportunities to establish itself on a scale broader than that of the nation-state.

It could then contribute to the emergence and consolidation of a sustainable development model. For this to occur, its leaders and supporters must first assess the vigour of social democracy as it stands, and then embark on a radical renewal process.

The structural crisis in social democracy

Identifying the tools that characterized social democracy in its heyday - the post-war boom period – gives us some preliminary clues as to the depth of the current crisis facing European social democratic parties. The main tools were:

- policies promoting economic growth and full employment;

- collective services of a universal type, redistribution aimed at reducing inequalities and social policies promoting social welfare;

- institutional mechanisms for regulating the market economy (work codes favouring unionization, consumer protection, environmental protection, etc.);

- monetary and fiscal policies and public spending policies;

- the creation of a mixed economy (private and public companies);

- lastly, a positioning in the world economy that promoted alliances with national and international forces sharing the values and principles of social democracy or, in the case of the European countries, taking this type of approach by way of a commitment to European integration.

From the perspective of social and ecological transition, we must reject policies of job creation and wealth distribution focusing on growth via a productivity untroubled by its environmental impacts. While prosperity is still possible, it can be achieved without conventional growth, which is avoidable.

Similarly, the institutional mechanisms of market economy regulation must now be reinvented – though this is occurring at a time when international treaties are making increasingly binding the mechanisms that give priority to market self-regulation. In addition, the already limited leeway still available to nation-states is being further eroded by austerity policies supported by most social democratic parties.

Finally, the modernization of social democracy has led to a thinning out of its traditional points of reference and a greater variety of national trajectories than to the forging of new identities.

One should be even more concerned upon examining the life and dynamics of European social democratic parties. As noted above, efforts to modernize in recent decades have resulted in a greater scattering of its points of reference and a greater variety of national trajectories than in the acquisition of new identities.

The agenda has not been based on a long-term political plan, but constructed on the basis of surveys and opinion polls, leaving the door wide open to the articulation of private interests, as may be observed in Italy’s Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD); which no longer refers to itself explicitly as social democratic.

Elsewhere, the inadequacy of reforms advanced by social democratic parties (when in power) disappoint both those who believe in the need for major transformations and the fraction of the left that sees itself as decidedly anti-capitalist, thus leading to radicalization and even splits within social democracy in several countries.

In sum, given the limitations of its modernization strategies, social democracy must be renewed to take on new challenges and meet new aspirations, but without forgetting that it can no longer confine itself to the national level. Of the possible factors that could deeply affect the renewal of social democracy, four merit examination, since they involve its social base and identity.

The social base of social democracy in political parties

The crisis of mass parties has been described as a "crisis of parties in their relationship with civil society (...) rather than a general crisis of the partisan form". If this hypothesis is true, it points the way to addressing the question of the social base to which social democracy should devote itself.

First, social democracy must rely on the mobilization of its members, supporters and activists in democratizing the political party itself. Individuals as citizens should choose their leaders based on the programmes advanced. An initiative of this type is already under way with the creation by the French Socialist Party of primaries. But genuine democratization requires going much further.

Second, it must rely on alliances and coalitions, not only to avoid leaving the door open to the rightist forces, but also as a means of revitalizing its planning. In principle, this is a realistic strategy since there are more and more citizens involved in diverse political organizations, some of which share affinities with social democracy, as in the case of the Greens and certain leftist parties. While common platforms spring to mind, it is probably possible to go a step further were these alliances to come up with a vision that is not limited to the next election, and a common agenda for research and ongoing activities.

Third, social democracy must also mobilize civil society’s associationist elements, even if the latter are not automatically virtuous or effective. Citizen participation is increasingly manifested through associations proposing objectives that are a matter of collective interest or public interest. Therefore, a social democratic party cannot rely solely on labour unions; it must also embrace associative circles generally.

By focusing on these three groupings, the potential social base of social democracy could be broader than ever before, but this potential enlargement poses a new challenge, one involving diversity, complexity and heterogeneity. It would lead to new requirements for deliberation (and procedural matters), and for establishing appropriate mechanisms. It also implies a strategy for strengthening civil society and an openness on the part of elected officials toward citizen participation.

The values and positioning of social democracy as reformist parties

Values remain essential in the radical reform perspective because they indicate why we are committed and why we fight. Reflecting on values implies revisiting the so-called traditional values of social democracy in the light of its historical trajectory and emerging challenges, while taking into account new concerns. It is not enough to insert fashionable new values, as did the Labour Party of Tony Blair. We must also rethink not only the content of the traditional values of equality, freedom and solidarity but also their interrelationships. Negotiation will no longer involve only capital and labour but all citizens and associations concerned about a good life for themselves and for future generations.

For the reformulation of values to be credible, it must be accompanied by a new rationale, position statements and especially transformative reforms. To be convincing, transformative reforms must build on existing experiments or on the introduction of conditions favourable to such experiments. In one way or another, these involve the state, the market and civil society, with each of these entities also being called upon to change.

This approach is more demanding than so-called revolutionary approaches that often involve forging ahead blindly. The transformations required by a radical fight against inequality and for the preservation of the environment involve a massive undertaking, even when such transformations are transitional in character.

Unless social democratic parties, which are the only parties on the left that can hope to take power in the short term, now join forces with their allies and set themselves the task, the new approach is unthinkable in the very short term (barring a catastrophic or unforeseen scenario in which all stakeholders would be losers).

Achieving a smooth transition will be difficult; it will involve developing a social, ecological and planetary New Deal. Owing to Europe’s specific historical trajectory, and the fact that it has a critical mass of social democratic and leftist parties, it is conceivable that this process could begin to take shape there. This may very well be utopian (in the sense of going beyond what has already existed until now), but a utopia that could evolve into a reality.

To be sure, the left is often stifled without its utopias and, as Ricoeur demonstrated in his reflection on the complementarity between ideology and utopia, the latter can provide society with a certain context or perspective.

New compromises for reforms leading to a major transformation


Social democrat politicians celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome, 2007. Jan Bauer/Press Association. All rights reserved.Following the economic and social crisis of 2008, the neoliberal programme for change unmistakably revealed its limitations. Still, new compromises conducive to social democracy will only be possible through a new societal paradigm. Right now, a social and ecological transition – one based on a powerful scenario that does not rely on modernization and eco-efficiency alone – may be the approach needed for major transformation.

A rigorous conception of sustainable development (SD) requires that we prioritize its elements so as to use the economy as a means, formulate social and individual development as an end, and make ecological integrity a condition.

Within this perspective, SD broadens to take into account both the short term and the long term; present generations (intragenerational justice) as well as future generations (intergenerational justice); companies in both the North and the South; the local and the global; and common goods (sometimes referred to as “the Commons”) of which the most critical are climate, air and water – given the finiteness of the earth's resources.

In this approach, SD cannot be reduced to the incorporation of the environment into sectoral policies; rather, it assumes "confrontation with the non-market and non-monetary spheres linked to regulated markets", thereby opening the door to a plural and solidarity-based economy. Without appropriate governance at various levels, including the planetary level, it is difficult to see how such a complex vision could result in identifiable advances. 

This suggests that, by using the above framework of reference, there will be greater emphasis placed on major issues and broad social and societal conflicts; new compromises will be forged. Negotiation will no longer involve only capital and labour but all citizens and associations concerned about a good life for themselves and for future generations. If a new model for growth is still possible in principle, such a model would now engage in minimizing what is toxic, replacing it instead with goods and services with high quality social content and high quality energy.

Structuring the national and European levels

Social democracy in the twenty-first century will be renewed if it takes charge of the century’s problems, which are global, and include the fields of finance, environment, migration and global public goods. Controlled globalization presupposes a global agreement (or a social contract), with policies responding to market inconsistencies instead of making markets the exclusive mechanism for regulation.

As it was designed for the nation-state level, social democracy faces a new and huge undertaking should it decide to move toward what some call social-globalization and others call alter-globalism.

However, as globalization was facilitated, first, by a strengthening of regional blocs, it seems reasonable to begin by renewing social democracy at this level. This is especially true for Europe – the continent most open to social and ecological transition ­– where the market for goods and services is not global but European.

This approach is all the more relevant since the crisis of European social democracy is largely the result of the crisis in the political construction of Europe, which includes the difficulty in creating a “social” Europe, a Europe with greater social solidarity.

Isolated states may find it increasingly difficult to find solutions to the crisis in social democracy. Once again, we notice certain paradoxes: first, over the last two decades the construction of liberal Europe has been one of the main sources of disappointment in European social democracy; second, a social democracy oriented towards building a more “social” Europe might seem to provide a measure of salvation in a sea of globalization, and this precisely at a time when the social democratic parties in power form only a minority of EU members, and when further development of the EU seems increasingly difficult.

There is a degree of convergence in social democratic discourse in major European countries, but it is still superficial. European social democratic parties are also divided on the issue of completing the single European market and the need for more stringent regulation. Within the 28 member countries of the European Union, compromises cannot be taken for granted, especially where national differences remain central. As it was designed for the nation-state level, social democracy faces a new and huge undertaking.

It is striking to note the diversity of strategies espoused by social democratic political parties. Examples include the absence of explicit references to social democracy in Italy on the part of the Italian Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD); the refocusing of British Labour; the rift within German social democracy; combative social democracy (its lack of success notwithstanding) by the coalition headed by Greek radical leftist, Alexis Tsipras.

This diversity suggests that while pro-EU arguments or rationales may be imperative, they should not prevent individual countries from innovating in their own countries and doing things differently from other countries. Nonetheless, in so doing they will have to invest in approaches that can rally their allied European partners, and potentially make Europe the continent most open to a thoroughgoing renewal of social democracy.


To the extent that social democracy has entered a structural crisis, its renewal calls for radical reform. Consequently, all of its constituent elements must be reviewed, including its social base of activists, members and electors. Its traditional values must be updated and brought into line with new values, including the social compromises and alliances required to this end.

At the same time, we need to consider the geographic level at which this occurs - be it national or regional (as in our discussion revolving around the European Union). The programs and policies of European parties claiming to draw inspiration from social democracy, and that are or have been in power, have proved very disappointing. When in power, they eventually govern with a right-leaning vision; they behave as if the social democratic vision did not allow for policies that addressed the major challenges of the twenty-first century: the growing inequalities and environmental damage, with irreversible global warming on the horizon.

Given the circumstances, one might well ask whether social democratic discourse has been overtaken, not only by the magnitude of the challenges ahead, but also by the views and innovative practices of the men and women working to rebuild society from the bottom up, that is, at the local level.

Indeed, civil society has never witnessed such an abundance of relevant initiatives and innovations! Moreover, initiatives taken within the local economy tend to form part of a new international solidarity. Thus, the forms of solidarity underlying fair trade and responsible consumption are having a global impact.

That said, there are several undertakings that need to be re-invigorated at the supra-national level, including a renewed relationship between the North and the South, and new public spheres of debate as exemplified by the World Social Forums. If, as seems to be the case, there is still no economic theory that could play a role comparable to that provided by Keynesian theory beginning in the 1940s, might not social democracy find in the experiments and achievements we have observed not only the rudiments of new economic policy but also a redefining of its main components? Lastly, there are many heterodox economists whose views might be brought to bear on these issues (Stiglitz. Ostrom, Sen Gadrey, etc.).

If social democracy, as practiced so far, is disappointing – if not depressing – there are grounds for confidence in its future, given the dynamism of civil society. For transformation to occur, a qualitative leap is necessary. Social democracy seeking radical change must encourage the emerging initiatives we have observed, which often fall within both the political and economic spheres.

But that is not enough; social democracy should also draw inspiration from these initiatives, thereby further generating a fresh vision of a more just, united and ecological world. The gateways to such an approach are numerous, but the first seems to be the democratization of political parties themselves, which would require that the mass of activists – and especially their leaders – display an openness to the diversity of energetic actors that constitute a driving force in society.

This also means that social democracy, which expresses itself through a variety of public spheres, must not only enter into a dialogue with but also interact with representative democracy.

That said, representative democracy must itself be more open to a more balanced selection of representatives (in terms of generations and gender), while the various implementation mechanisms must facilitate genuine debate on issues and challenges that are impossible to face in isolation. These are all huge changes, but constitute only the beginning, a beginning that might suffice in restoring self-confidence, prompting the first steps towards major transformation, by way of the required social and ecological transition.

This piece was translated from the French by Stuart Anthony Stilitz.

How to cite:
Lévesque B.(2016)The crisis in European social democracy: a crisis like no other, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements,21 May. https://opendemocracy.net/beno-t-l-vesque/crisis-in-european-social-democracy-crisis-like-no-other


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