The New Social Democracy – Towards Pluralist Network Parties

By Robin Wilson

The expert on western European politics Peter Mair hasdiagnosed a ‘hollowing out’ of politics in recent decades, as parties have become less representative voices for diverse groups of the citizenry and more mediatised vehicles for members of a detached political class to insert themselves into government.[1] This is particularly clear in France, with its presidential system: Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s fall from grace demonstrated that the future of French socialism had effectively been reduced to a decision by a latter-day medieval political prince as to whether he would deign to subject himself to popular election.

This hollowing out has been associated with the rise of transnational corporations, and transnational institutions such as the IMF, whose dominance of the global economy has left national governments increasingly unable to use the conventional levers of macro-economic policy to tangible effect.[2] It has been matched by the weakening of the countervailing power of collective labour organisations, leading to a ‘post-democracy’ characterised by formal enfranchisement but substantive disenchantment.[3]

Social-democratic parties were the product of the industrial revolution—the hegemonic German SPD was formed in 1875. Marx’s key interpreter, Karl Kautsky, argued that their role was to represent the working class, conceived as homogeneous (by implication male-manual), while capitalism fell victim to its own contradictions and socialism, one day, issued in. This teleological and schematic vision provided little guidance in the here and now, and so socialism came to be defined as what social-democratic parties pragmatically did.[4]

There were real achievements, particularly in the Nordic countries where they were strongest, from supporting the establishment of modern welfare states to Keynesian economic policies, which to an extent offset the reduction of the worker to a mere commodity left to the vagaries of the labour market. Their heyday was the post-war quarter century, where they chimed well with national Fordist production methods and mass consumption upheld by demand management.[5]

But ‘industrial’ capitalism gave way to ‘informational’ capitalism in the age of the personal computer.[6]Fordism was replaced by a post-Fordism serving increasingly demanding, diverse and volatile consumers across the globe. And more cosmopolitan social movements more in tune with individualistic society—women’s, peace and environmentalist organisations—displaced trade unions in prominence in the public arena. These developments left the old, male-dominated, hierarchical scaffolding of social-democratic parties increasingly rotten and atrophied.

How can they renew themselves?  First, they need to match the ‘networked’ nature of modern enterprises, rather than the ‘vertical bureaucracies’ of the past.[7] And just as the former delegate power to autonomous work teams, so social-democratic parties must abandon the uno duce, una voce leadership style manifested in an extreme form by Tony Blair and ‘New’ Labour. In the internet age, the ‘wisdom of crowds’ means the focus should shift from the staged-for-TV annual conference to a year-round process of research, discussion, practice and evaluation, involving working groups of members at all levels and using the party website for moderated debates in which members and supporters can take part. Members must themselves be networked at the grassroots into all local civil-society organisations, from childcare centres to campaigning NGOs.

Secondly, social-democratic parties must become more pluralist. Finally leaving behind a one-class, one-party mindset means recognising they hold no monopoly on progressive politics. The Norwegian red-red-green coalition, re-elected in 2009, has shown how an administration of different radical voices can unite around a progressive programme. In its language of proposing ‘collective solutions’ to individual problems under the banner of ‘Everyone on board’, it has found a modern narrative for how solidarity can be advanced in individualistic society.[8]

Thirdly, as Jenny Andersson has argued, social democracy needs to rediscover a critique of capitalism. This is where the once spearheading Swedish party has lost its way, with now two successive election defeats. Equality must become what can ‘define its soul’.[9] Sheri Berman has contended that loss of idealism is perhaps the greatest failing of social-democratic parties today.[10]

Above all, social democracy in one country is ultimately impossible in a globalised environment. The worst capitalist crisis since the 1930s demands a continent-wide alternative to self-defeating national austerity policies. The Party of European Socialists must become much more of a presence on the international stage—as advocate for a fiscal as well as monetary union, for a commitment by the European Central Bank to high employment (not just low inflation), for Euro-bonds to share the crushing burden being imposed on the peripheral eurozone economies, for a programme of ‘green’ public investments and for a ‘Robin Hood’ tax on financial speculation. It has to demonstrate that another Europe, another world, is possible.


[1] Peter Mair, ‘Ruling the void? The hollowing of western democracy’, New Left Review 42 (2006), 25–51

[2] Milivoje Pani?, Globalization and National Economic Welfare (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 78-94

[3] Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004)

[4] Donald Sassoon, One Hundred Years of Socialism (London: I B Tauris, 1996)

[5] Sheri Berman, The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 177-88

[6] Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture—Volume I: The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996)

[7] Castells, 151-72

[8] Wolfgang Biermann and Kristine Kallset, ‘“Everyone on Board”: the Nordic model and the red-red-green coalition—a transferable model of success?’, International Politics and Society 4 (2010), 167-91

[9] Jenny Andersson, The Library and the Workshop: Social Democracy and Capitalism in the Knowledge Age (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), 154

[10] Berman, 217

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