Jan Pronk

Lost in Expectations. Social Democracy Today

Adress to Social Democracy Conference, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia, 17 February 2012

My personal political choice in favor of social democracy, about fifty years ago, was based on four considerations.

First: ethics. I had been brought up in a Christian environment. I had been taught Christian values such as care for one’s neighbor and stewardship concerning the Creation. These values were in line with principles which appealed to me when I was a young student: solidarity, equal rights of all human beings, justice, freedom, care for the earth and its resources. Taken together, these principles made a system. For me that system was much more than liberal democracy. I felt attracted by social democracy because I felt that values such as equality and freedom are interdependent and stand on a par with each other. People had a duty to live up to a given mandate and take care for each other, wherever they lived on this earth and whatever their background, without discrimination. People had not been allotted equal opportunities, but they had equal rights to live. Everybody was obliged to see to it that his or her fellow creatures could enjoy those equal rights.

Barth, Bonnhoeffer and other theologians proclaimed that such a sense of duty should prevail over personal liberties and merit. They also made clear that people should try to live up to such duties not only together with fellow Christians, but with all people which had a similar determination. For political action sharing the same principles, values and objectives was more important than drawing on the same spiritual or religious beliefs. Rather than joining a so-called Christian political party, one should work together with humanists and with people with a different or no religion, but with common aims. In this respect social democracy presented itself as a matter of course.   

Second: rational analysis. I had studied economics, following classes of Tinbergen, the first Nobel Prize winner in economics. After having finished my studies I became one of his research assistants. Tinbergen told us about the value of optima rather than maxima or other extremes as policy targets. In the longer run any society would benefit from choosing optima: the optimum rate of economic growth instead of the highest attainable, an optimum distribution of income rather than huge inequality or absolute equality, and the optimum regime, which was not a compromise between a planned command structure and market forces, but a value on its own. This was in line with the theory of welfare economics, based on a broad perception of utility, not on the notion of man as a purely economic animal. Whatever does constitute the best outcome of a socio-economic process, and the best choice of the policy measures to achieve that outcome, will depend on predetermined values, outside the realm of the market. Social democratic policy making seemed to be in tune with such a normative scientific analysis of economic processes and systems.

My third reason was that after the First World War the political ideology of social democracy increasingly grew focused on the interests of society as a whole, instead of labor class interests only. Socialism, after much internal debate and partitions, had developed into social democracy, respecting the institutions of the state, including the constitution, elections, minorities and public law. Social democrats had learned to respect the interests and rights of other classes and groups: farmers, self-employed, non salaried workers in the informal sector, intellectuals, civil servants and the middle class, including entrepreneurs and capitalists. Social democracy became a movement with a view on the public interest as a whole, which implied fighting all forms of social, economic and political inequality and violation of justice, rather than serving the interests of labor only.

In my country this development of the socialist party into a movement looking beyond labor class interests, and bringing together people from different cultural and religious backgrounds, was called a ‘twofold breakthrough’, cutting through dividing lines between classes and cultures. The two breakthroughs supported each other. Serving general public interests, with a strong bias in favor of poorer and weaker population strata, required a willingness to put group interests in perspective, trusting that others would do the same. Countervailing selfish capitalist and non democratic powers required joint action, irrespective of cultural differences.

A fourth reason to join the social democratic movement was its international orientation. The society is global, structured by economic and technological forces which do not respect national frontiers. That was already the case when Marx wrote Das Kapital. It became even truer after World War II, when globalization entered a new phase. Any political movement should be aware of this. In the end political choices concerning values, objectives and instruments should be global rather than national. This is not only a matter of equity (ethics), but also efficiency (rational analysis), because disregarding international dimensions is bound to result either in damage abroad or in unintended distortions at home. There was and still is only one political ideology which from the outset has been explicitly based on a world view: socialism, which later on became social democracy.  

Those were the reasons why half a century ago I made a choice in favor of social democracy and became a member of the Labor Party (PvdA) in The Netherlands, rather than a Christian political party (like my parents), or a party with a different ideology, such as the liberals at the right of the political spectrum, or the communists further left. All four reasons, as far as I am concerned, are still valid today. During those five decades I have not always been happy with all political choices made by my own party or other social democratic parties in Europe. However, the four considerations which brought me to embrace social democratic principles, to choose in favour of a social democratic ideology, and become an active social democratic politician, still stand today.   

In my country social democracy went through a process of revival and renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. Since 1945 it had been a leading political force, which could claim successes of post war reconstruction, full employment and the establishment of a social welfare state. However, in doing so the party had developed a rather high-handed political culture. This led to protests by a younger generation of newly political activists, the so called New Left.  The movement came up in the slipstream of political protests and cultural renewal around 1968, calling for emancipation and democratization and opposing colonial imperialism, such as concerning for instance Vietnam and Southern Africa.

It was the time of the expansion of the welfare state, the emancipation of women, the rise of feminism, the widening of opportunities in education, the rise of a youth culture and popular music across national frontiers, claims for more democracy in universities and politics, the broadening of human rights concepts, decolonization, and European integration in order to prevent another war.

The protest movements gave a boost to the renewal of social democracy. In those years everywhere in Europe social democratic parties and institutions were strong, either in government, or in opposition.

It is different today. In the seventies social democracy in the Netherlands could count on about one third of the electorate.  During the elections held in the first decade of the new century this decreased to about one fifth. Recent polls point to ten percent only. Also in other countries social democratic parties which had been relatively strong during the second half of the previous century are losing political power and electoral support. There are differences amongst countries and the pattern is changing over time, but the overall picture in Europe can be characterized by five general features:

  • Social democratic parties are more frequently in opposition than in government.
  • They are smaller than before.
  • There are more centre right governments than centre left.
  • The general political landscape is more fragmented than before. It consists of a larger number of parties, all of them smaller than before, more and more new parties, reflecting the mood of new generations (the Greens, the animal welfare movement, piracy parties favoring privacy, rightist populist parties, anti- immigration and anti Islam groups), and special interest parties, such as parties representing elderly people.   
  • The electorate is fragmented along different dividing lines than before, and much more volatile.

In comparison with some decades ago these features show quite a different picture. There may be some cyclical factors at play, but the general trend is structural. Not only social democratic parties have been affected, but also other traditionally strong political parties in Europe, e.g. Christian Democratic parties. The changes indicated above have resulted in a weakening of the centre and in greater political polarization towards both the left and the right of the spectrum.

The question is whether the weakening of traditional social democratic political parties and institutions implies a weakening of social democracy as such. Is it a weakening of the spirit, the mood, the attractiveness of social democratic values and principles per se?

The Netherlands, an illustration.

As an illustration I would like to elaborate my earlier remarks about the situation in the Netherlands. Social democrats in the Netherlands have had their successes. Throughout the second half of the last century the Dutch economy was characterized by high employment. We were able to raise the level of investment in education substantially, which led to broad participation in education, also by children from weaker economic and social classes. Old age pensions were increased much beyond subsistence level. Public health service was made fully accessible to all, at reasonable prices and high quality. Welfare services were expanded beyond old age, unemployment and handicaps. The participation of women on the labor market increased substantially, and not only part-time. Women’s rights, reproductive rights and gay rights were expanded, enshrined in law and well respected. Large scale programs of renovation of houses and cities were initiated, resulting in good quality social housing. The poverty of the nineteen thirties was left behind. A welfare state was established, providing both safety nets and trampoline devices. The public sector expanded, followed by programmes of public sector innovation and public private partnerships. International development assistance was brought to a level of 0.7% of the national income in the nineteen seventies, and further increased to 0.8% in the nineties. The Dutch welcomed asylum seekers from abroad. They demonstrated an active attitude towards developments on the international market, and participated prominently in international public policy making and the development of international law. They also took a frontrunner position in European integration.

However, there were disappointments and set backs. In the seventies the Labor Party failed to introduce a program against land speculation. Coalition partners disagreed and formed a centre right government. In the nineties the Labor Party, in a new coalition, had to compromise with regard to liberalization and privatization of some public services, in particular in the field of energy and transportation. And just after the beginning of the new Millennium, when all economic indicators in the Netherlands were fine (a balanced budget, a strong currency, financial stability, near full employment and sustained economic growth), and public opinion had been very positive with regard to the introduction of the Euro, suddenly the mood changed. A wave of discontent emerged, concerning delays in public services and allegedly increased insecurity in cities, together with growing resentment against foreigners. Social democrats were pushed into a defense position. The left was held responsible for protracted immigration of asylum seekers and families and their sometimes troublesome integration. This led to a major defeat of the party at the parliamentary elections of 2002. Since then it went through the motions: up and down, but along a downward trend.

Amongst the left in the Netherlands the high spirit of the sixties and seventies has gone. Politicians have grown ‘wiser’, more rational, some would say: less romantic, more ‘no nonsense’, more oriented towards efficiency, cost reduction and good management, rather than equal rights, social benefits and political mobilization. After the turn of the century the country became inward looking: instead of the open attitude of the past, opinion leaders and the general public became Eurosceptical. Development cooperation was increasingly met with cynicism. Xenophobia became a dominant characteristic of Dutch society. The Dutch withdrew from the international public arena. Opinion leaders said that the Dutch interest in international relations should be first and foremost commercial. Social democrats were not leading this reversal of the trend, but they were far from actively challenging the neoliberal conservatism. Leftist parties became accommodating, fearing to lose their constituencies and the electorate.

The Dutch Labor party has indeed lost a large part of its constituency. People have turned away for different reasons. Some of them had been young social democratic activists before, but repented and became conservative. That may have been due to the fact that the original choice in favour of social democracy, at that time had been in line with what was seen as politically correct, and thus a little superficial. However, most people left because they were disappointed. They felt that social democratic programmes were watered down, either because party leaders did no longer believe in the underlying ideas and had become pragmatic, or because of compromises which had to be made in successive coalitions.

Nowadays many who left the Labor Party lend their support to the Socialist Party. This party was established in the nineteen seventies. Its ideology at the time had Maoist tendencies and it had remained quite small. However, it gradually changed into a party with a leftist democratic populist national orientation and has been granted much popular support.

How did we lose them?

In a recent speech David Miliband, looking around and noting how much the parties of the left are losing, both in government and in opposition, asked the question:  ‘where have the voters gone?’ He sees them going into all directions. Some leave because they feel that their class base, and the values they share, has been violated by the left. Others go to the far left or the far right, because of economic reasons - for instance out of fear for losing jobs, income or welfare - , or because they resent rapid social change due to globalisation, or because they dislike immigrants. Another group consists of middle income or middle class swing voters, who have a comfortable lifestyle and don't want to lose it. They certainly don't want to trade in part of it for more generous welfare systems. They do not turn left or right, but just leave and stay away. They may feel turned off by the compromises of power, have no truck with the right, but lose their appetite with political parties and the system as a whole.

According to David Miliband since the 1920s there have been three constants in every successful social democratic programme: greater protection from the dangers of life, more power over your own life, and stronger communities in which to live your life. In recent times all three promises have come under strain under the pressure of economic and social change.  That is why social democratic parties of the centre left have lost their constituencies. The economic interests and social values of people have changed, due to modernization, globalization and economic emancipation and that is why people feel alienated from traditional social democracy.

Do compromises turn people off? Citizens are not unreasonable. They understand that a party which is losing its clout in negotiations will have to compromise. They will accept compromises, provided that these will be presented honestly. However, there are limitations. Compromises may go too far. Political leaders may have promised never to compromise and then do otherwise. In such a situation may loose their faith and turn away.  

As a consequence a party will shrink further. This calls for either more compromises or for a decision to join the opposition. The latter option will enable that party to take undiluted positions, which are attractive to its constituency. However, in the meantime people may come to the conclusion that the opposition is paying even less than a compromise in government.

Both the radical left and the radical right have become more attractive to European voters. The radical left is clear, uncompromising, assuring the electorate: ‘you will keep what you have got, and what you have grown accustomed to’. The radical right has become salonfähig. The radical right assures its followers: ‘those who may perturb you will keep away’. These are attractive messages. But the strongest temptation is to turn the back to all political parties, in particular those with pretentions. People may become so disappointed that they decide to lend their support to no party at all, because they lose their confidence in the political system and in representative democracy structured along party lines. 

Miliband concluded that in a neoliberal setting supporters who identify with broadly defined social democratic values are dispersed across other parties and interest groups, opting in and out campaigns and structures. In my view this dispersion is not only due to the neoliberal setting characterizing today’s policies. It can also be the result of a different phenomenon: a post modern philosophy in life, which should not be confused with neoliberalism. Social emancipation of people has made people more than in the past individualists. They rose above their class and became less class conscious. This is structural, unavoidable, and by itself not negative. Emancipation can enhance people’s awareness of the public good and feelings of solidarity with fellow human beings. But this will only be the case for more than a few individuals when a movement, presenting itself as social democratic, is leading the way.

How did they lose us?

Does the social democratic movement still want to lead? It seems that many people do longer believe that this is the case. Social democratic politicians should not ask:  ‘How did we lose the people?’, but: ‘How did the people lose us?’

It is often said that social democracy has become victim of its own success. The emancipation of the labor class led to the blurring of distinctions between classes. This resulted in skepticism with regard to the ideology of socialism, which had class struggle in its banners. The end of the Cold War was a second success. This implied less fear, and less want of strong states, which could withstand enemies. It also meant an end to an ideological struggle between East and West and the collapse of state socialism. All this fed already existing skepticism concerning the state and the public sector.

These two reasons explain a lot. But there is more. People lost contact with their movement, not only because they changed (from labourers into middle class people), and because the world changed (due to globalization and the end of the Cold War), but also because social democracy itself changed. It changed from a movement into an institution. A movement is able to mobilize and lead. Institutions restrict themselves to management.

Increasingly people in Europe have come to the conclusion that social democratic parties have not lived up to the principles they said to embrace, the values they preached and the promises made. This goes beyond disliking political compromise. People resent what they see as a betrayal of basic principles and values.

Such feelings of betrayal can be a consequence of undue revisionism. Revisionism is not wrong in itself. On the contrary. Reductionist reappraisal of Marx’s analysis was valid, not because his class theory was wrong, nor because his view on the relation between material and immaterial incentives in the economy was wrong, but because his prophecy with regard to a breakdown of capitalism and his political strategy were flawed.

Revisionism of the original social democratic ideas - such as socialization of the means of production - has been criticized because of an implicit narrowing of goals and downsizing of expectations. The social democratic movement has indeed increasingly focused on incremental change instead of basic reform, let alone revolution. But this change of strategy does not necessarily imply narrowing and downsizing. On the contrary. In the beginning of the twentieth century the original goal of socialism, liberalization and emancipation of the labor class, was extended with peace as an objective worthwhile fighting for. Some decades later democracy was accepted, not merely as a method of policymaking, but as a value in itself, and as a goal. In particular since the Second World War new objectives were added: freedom, human rights, gender equality, cultural elevation and the preservation of nature. All these revisions served to enrich social democracy. All of them still called for fundamental reform of the prevailing capitalist system.

However, since the end of the Cold War new revisions have served to reduce social democratic thought and practice to some form of adjustment and accommodation to what was understood as the reality. Embracing efficiency rather than equity, and individualism rather than solidarity, was a sea change. A new belief in advantages of the market mechanism resulted in a preference for deregulation of markets in general and flexibility of the labor market, with employability rather than employment, privatization as a substitute for public service, management rather than politics, quantitative performance indicators instead of quality, a meritocracy rather than the emancipation of less privileged people, personal responsibility rather than social security. Separately, each of these preferences could be defended as a form of rational pragmatism. Taken together it was a change of paradigm.

The new thinking (neo-realistic or no-nonsense) was borrowed from neoliberalism, which after the Cold War got an upper hand in the political discourse, appealing to new generations. Social democratic parties had to take position, and did so in an often accommodating fashion, for instance by presenting a so-called independent ‘third way’. Thereby they distanced themselves from their original class base, without at the same time developing a view on society as a whole, in the common interest of all classes. Such a view should have resulted in decreasing inequalities, and public policies to correct negative consequences of the greater reliance on market mechanisms. However, the opposite took place. Since around 1990 markets in Western countries grew bigger and became more and more interconnected. Maintaining a strong public sector, though smaller, could have resulted in a new balance. However, widening the scope of the market went hand in hand with blurring the distinction between markets and the public sector. Market mechanisms were introduced in the public sector. In the same period in all these countries economic and social inequalities have increased.

Alienation and erosion

In a recent address the Dutch philosopher Blommaert mentioned three reasons behind the decline of the socialist left.  First: coherent in-depth analysis of world systems is no longer en vogue. Books are written about the spirit of the times, people’s beliefs, manager’s choices, political mechanisms and the marketing of ideas, but since Polanyi, Wallerstein and Galbraith nobody ventures an overall analysis of the interdependence of economic, social, cultural and political structures and the worldwide consequences for the liberation and emancipation of people. Sector studies prevail.

Blommaert mentioned a second reason. In the past left-wing political activists challenged a system in order to fully understand its workings. Education helped people broadening their knowledge about social systems; democratization helped them to confront systems that were seen as unjust. Nowadays, the objective does not anymore seem to be a fundamental improvement of the lot of all people in a system, but a partial improvement of the situation of those who are directly involved.

There is a third reason behind the decline of social democratic thought and action: socialism has been detached from humanism. There doesn’t seem to be a direct link anymore between socialism and the freedom of individual people, their autonomy, emancipation and development. Since Marx wrote Das Kapital production systems have changed as a consequence of the introduction of new technologies, new divisions of labor, new services and new methods of communication. However, people are still alienated from the result of their endeavors. The economic system has been designed to make people work, trade and invest, earn an income and consume. The same system tells them that they will increase welfare by consuming ever more. This is a fallacy: more and more material consumption is not the same as social, cultural, esthetical, artistic, emotional, political and intellectual development. More consumption can even destroy welfare. More consumption by people with adequate purchasing power, in a situation of absolute scarcity and large inequality, alienates them from their fellow citizens and from society as a whole. Both ecological decay, cultural impoverishment and increasing inequalities are forms of alienation. 

Such alienation has become prominent, nowadays. Neoliberal policies result in more and more deregulation, privatization, marketization and commercialization of health care, education, drinking water, social care, nature conservation and the environment. An unbridled market mechanism results in discounting or neglecting social costs and benefits. Costs and benefits for future generations are regarded as less relevant or even disregarded altogether. Risk aversion to future generations is common practice, based on an implicit assumption that ongoing technological progress will enable future generations to deal with future problems, which we cannot yet master at present - such as climate change, genetic modification, loss of biodiversity, and health risks associated with the introduction of new chemicals - , including the problems that we create for them. 

The financial sector in the economy gets the upper hand, over and above the real sphere. Investment decisions by private companies, banks and hedge funds, guided by short term interests, aim at the maximization of shareholders value. Capitalism used to be rooted in the real economy: maximization of profits resulting from investments, and capital accumulation in order to produce goods and services, with the help of labor at low costs. Modern capitalism is flourishing in the financial sphere: accumulation not of productive capital, but of money, and making money with money.

Not only on the markets themselves, but also in political systems facilitating the markets the interests of higher middle class and upper class people with adequate purchasing power dwarf the interests of people in the lower middle class and the underclass. Social democratic parties had aligned themselves more and more with middle class interests for political reasons, because the battles had to be fought in the centre of the political spectrum. Middle class interests could be served by accommodating neoliberal ideas. Neoliberal policies benefit in particular people with much purchasing power, capital, money and access to resources. These are the higher middle classes and, first and foremost, the capitalist upper class. Lower middle class groups, in other words: the former labor class did benefit much less. The newly emerging underclass, consisting of poor immigrants, low-skilled persons and people in distress, became neglected, or even excluded. Moreover, increasingly governments shy away from confrontations with capitalist upper-class power groups, who are allowed extremely high incomes and bonuses. Together with wage restraints following the recession, and parallel cuts in expenditure for public services and social welfare, this is bound to result in resentment. This resentment affects social democratic parties more than others. They get the blame, because they had always pretended the opposite.     

Feelings of betrayal concern in particular an ongoing erosion of public values and widening of inequalities. Both tendencies are hard to contain and reverse. In a democratic system people can use their political rights to check inequality and unrestrained market power. To that end they will have to mobilize their fellow citizens on the basis of values such as equity, justice, responsibility, sustainability and solidarity. However, the forces of the market do the same, but in a different direction. The less restrained their power is, the more they will be able to influence dominant value systems in society. Increasingly, in a capitalist society channels of value transfer - information, communication, media, entertainment and education - have been brought in the hands of the same commercial forces which control finance, investment, production, marketing and trade. Through these channels they preach values which service the market: efficiency, modernity, innovation, pleasure, beauty, youth, conspicuous consumption and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. In all political systems, whether democratic or authoritarian, commercial market forces can steer consumer preferences. The overriding message is: ‘your identity is that of a consumer’. Capitalist commercial forces will always have more resources than public and social forces that bring a different message. By now the capitalist system has developed a capacity to neutralize its critics.  

The message to consumers is sophisticated. Commerce appeals to an appetite for whatever is modern and new. Values such as equity, sustainability, precaution, soberness and public responsibility, are not opposed, but subtly nuanced and put into perspective: ‘sustainability: yes, of course, but only in so far as this can be attained efficiently and without violating established rights’. At first sight this would seem reasonable, but it means that public and social values are placed second to private interests of privileged groups.  

So, increasing reliance on neo-liberal policies, which result in larger inequality, less social welfare and erosion of public values, will also undermine the capacity within a democratic system to get other than commercial messages across. Neo-liberalism, while strengthening market systems, at the same time will gradually dismantle the countervailing power which would be necessary to keep balance.  


The picture above has been sketched in general terms. Due to globalization all countries will be affected by economic change at more or less the same time. Of course, there will be differences between countries, but everywhere the same challenges will have to be addressed. This is in particular true for the countries of Europe.

Social democracy began in Europe, more than a century ago. Half a century later, after World War II, the social democratic movement played an important role in the rebuilding of Europe and its unification. Europe is both old and young. The peoples of Europe had gone through centuries of nation building and state formation, often attended by war, unfreedom and killings. The new Europe is as yet only sixty five years old, no more than two to three political generations. In that period impressive results have been achieved. The banning of war, and the establishment of mechanisms to guarantee democracy and human rights, are major accomplishments, unique in European history. They were followed by the creation of a common market and steps towards a European social welfare state. European cooperation and integration went step by step forward, economically as well as politically, helped by the establishment of common European institutions and a common European legal framework, with a charter, courts and procedures to make this work. European social democracy can be proud of its contributions to these accomplishments.

Will they hold? The present trend is not positive. Minority groups in Europe, such as Roma and Sinti, and so-called illegal immigrants from Africa, do not receive the protection which they deserve according to human rights law. Muslims are looked upon as second rate citizens and as a potential threat to the security of so-called autochthonous Europeans. Xenophobia is on the rise, not only against Muslims and Africans, but also with regard to migrants coming from European member states such as Poland and Greece. They are regarded as a burden, rather than as having enriched European civilization.

Presently in Europe combating climate change, sustaining the ecological balance and preserving the natural environment which we hand over to future generations, receive lip service. Solidarity is being preached only with those with whom we feel sitting in the same boat. For the first time since the beginning of European integration, people have been made poorer intentionally. Old age pensioners and unemployed in Southern European countries are excluded from solidarity. Victims of economic distress are left on their own; they are supposed to be responsible for their own misery. At the same time, and in the same countries, banks are being bailed out.

The process of European integration seems to be paralyzed. A shortsighted view on national interests is getting the upper hand again. The international financial crisis is affecting all countries, but the poorer countries in Southern Europe have been hit more than the richer countries in the North. The latter are less and less willing to assist the former. The future of Europe as a common concept does no longer appeal to young generations. Not many people are willing to fight for European ideals: a civilized Europe on the basis of values embraced after the French Revolution (solidarity, in order to guarantee equal rights of all people to be free) and after World War II: peace, openness, and cooperation and equal rights on basic human welfare. These values have not been lost, but they are under duress.

European citizens seem to lose confidence in politics as such. In Greece people revolt against the political system. They accuse politicians of betrayal. In Italy people have become immune against scandals, assuming that is normal behavior of privileged political elite. In Spain young people do not wish to make a choice between parties anymore: in their view it is all the same. They do not even revolt, but step away. In Belgium people have observed that life just could on, despite the fact that after elections political parties were unable to form a new government. Business and the bureaucracy took care. In the Netherlands people accepted a government which could take office, and stay, after political surrender to an extremist populist faction under a leader with absolute power. In Europe as a whole the management of the present financial crisis is left to technocrats. Leaders of countries, once democratically elected, have been sidelined or even pushed out of office by the European bureaucracy, in the name of drastic economic reform and rescue.

The economic crisis of today is the more complicated, because of a parallel crisis of confidence and leadership. The crisis is seen as a result of power play at a global level, against which people and their organizations cannot defend themselves at the national level. At the same time they are afraid to align themselves at an international level. Such alignments, including bodies of a European political union, could serve as countervailing powers against global finance and world capitalist commercial powers. However, the European instinct is to look inward, rather than outward, and to cling to an identity close by, whether nationally or culturally.

Political leaders in Europe hardly dare to contest these instincts, fearing to further lose citizen’s confidence.  They follow their constituency, rather than offering an alternative and taking a lead. They try to rationalize this by probing people’s discontent, with the help of frequent opinion polls, and take the outcome as yardstick for their political choices. However, by sweeping all prevailing unease on a heap, rather than analyzing real injustices and inequalities caused by the economic system, all qualms are being cherished. The shortcomings then are addressed by new forms of management, aiming at greater efficiency, instead of systematic reforms. The results are small, partial, temporary and sometimes counterproductive. This then leads to further discontent and frustration. 

European social democracy

The problem is hat European social democrats are not taking a very different position as compared to other political parties and movements in Europe. Social democrats are no longer presenting an alternative. So far there is no common European social democratic answer to the economic and financial crisis, no common effort to constrain the power of market based conglomerates or to build countervailing power. European social democrats have not presented a common alternative economic and social policy to guarantee the young unemployed a place in the European society. Inward looking nationalist approaches prevail, but they are hardly contested.

This is very disappointing. As a social democratic politician I have been active in various capacities for more than three decades. During that period I have been party to many political compromises, at national as well as at international level. There is nothing wrong with compromise as such. This is part of the game. Nowadays there is an even greater need to compromise, because everywhere in Europe social democratic parties have lost a fair part of their influence. However, compromise is not the issue. Compromises are made during negotiations, towards the end of a political process. The difficulty with European social democratic parties is that they do not even try to get the best possible result in negotiations, anyway not a result in line with basic social democratic principles. From the outset they prefer taking accommodating positions, rather than mobilizing their constituencies. In international negotiations there are no efforts whatsoever anymore to agree on common positions of social democratic parties. It seems as if the movement is not interested in building countervailing power at the world scene. Measured with the yardstick of social democratic objectives the results in international negotiations are systematically below expectations.

For the Socialist International this has been a problem right from the beginning. The movement had been paralyzed by ideological debates, until it split up some hundred years ago. Thereafter the movement became wedged between nationalist aspirations. The end of World War ll and establishment of the European Community brought parties in Europe together. When some decades later decolonization was completed, this was achieved at world level as well. However, the Socialist International and the Federation of Socialist Parties in Europe have never become a unifying movement. At world level it could not make its presence felt. Gradually the movement sank away in irrelevance, surprisingly after the end of the Cold War even deeper than before.

In the early nineteen nineties European social democratic parties, when confronted with the first war on the continent since 1945, the war in the Balkans, failed to take a common position. Ten years later, when the US decided to invade Iraq, they disagreed with each other whether to join or not. Social democrats are still divided amongst themselves with regard to conflicts in the Middle East, including the conflict between Israel and Palestine. European social democracy has also not been able to develop a common strategy to address the largest international financial crisis since the crash of 1929. These are four examples of failure. They do not concern little problems, but questions of major importance to Europe and the world outside. The failure is not that of a loose group of individual national political parties, but of a movement which from the outset had claimed to be essentially global. At present social democratic parties in Europe seem to be no less nationalistic than others. And they choose accommodating policies, rather than reform. 

Above I have referred to the accommodation of the middle class, bowing to the dissatisfaction of people which are relatively well-to-do, and disregarding the needs of the global underclass. In essence this comes down to accommodating capitalism. It would of course be very difficult to bring about basic reform of a world system. However, who can deny that in view of the present world crises (a financial and economic crisis which goes hand in hand with a resources crisis - water, fertile land, food, energy - , climate change, loss of biodiversity, lasting world poverty and unemployment, to name a few) such fundamental reform would be required?  It may be even more urgent than some decades ago.

Instead we hear a different language. Social democrats have become accustomed to phrases such as the need to humanize capitalism, or to aim at so-called ‘responsible capitalism’, or simply ‘good capitalism’. These are contradictions in terms, fallacies. As political objectives they are simply not good enough. Social democrats should unmask concepts that, while looking ambitious, are nothing else than a cloak around the status quo. Don’t fool the electorate, don't fool yourself.

I do not argue in favour of taking revolutionary or uncompromising positions, which in a democratic systems would never bring any solution. But I would like to plead to go back to the roots and again proclaim some basic values, such as the ones which I have mentioned above. Explicit and consistent dissemination of basic values is not a ritual but a political act. Basic values have a mobilising capacity, as long as these values are not taken for granted, but taken seriously, including as crucial yardstick when faced with the choice whether or not to compromise. The strength of social democracy does not only depend on the capacity to meet the expectations of the electorate. It also depends on ideas, vision, the mobilising power of dreams and perceptions, the potential of a program to persuade people that the right questions are being asked, the right choices made, the proper answers sought, and that solutions can be found to the main challenges and threats of today and tomorrow. So, it also depends on leadership, the power to mobilise and unite behind a dream.

The values and principles, on the basis of which I made my decision in favor of social democracy, were not my invention. They had originated in a movement and had mobilized many people in many societies. I still believe in them, because in my view they are valid yet today and the best yardstick in political decision making. Moreover, I am certain that values like these, disseminated actively, still have the capacity to mobilize masses of people, young and old, men and women, with different religious or ethnic background, and belonging to different social groups and economic classes. Returning to the roots means that a social democratic movement commits itself to equal rights for all. That principle is at right angles to the present worldwide economic system. Equal rights for all, which means: all people, without any discrimination, world wide, including the yet unborn.

This is a tall order, far apart from the reality today. It is seemingly also far apart from present ambitions of the social democratic movement. But it is the first and foremost condition which should be met in order to restore the link between socialism and humanism. It is an ethical imperative, and, at the same time, a logical conclusion of a rational analysis of the relationship between principles and practice.

A second logical political conclusion would be for social democracy to define which are the major threats and challenges to the world society today and to seek an answer on the basis of these principles. First priority should be given to problems such as lasting world poverty, ever increasing inequality, climate change, loss of biodiversity, increasing proneness to disasters, growing scarcity of natural resources and minerals, food insecurity, worldwide youth unemployment, increasing conflict potential within and between countries, the increasing number of states which either fail, or become internally divided, or are led by oppressive regimes, more frequent and longer lasting escalation of conflicts, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, lack of control of new technologies which can be used for coercive purposes, unchecked power of transnational banks and companies, the tendency towards a new global contest between major powers, the ongoing dismantling of the international public institutions, including those within the UN, and the erosion of public international law. All such problems require much more attention, and full cooperation between social democratic parties, than addressing the misgivings of the middle-class. The needs of the middle-class should be answered, of course, but never in isolation, nor by means of policies that give rise to greater problems in society elsewhere.

Does social democracy have a future? Yes, provided that the movement will take yesterday’s roots seriously. Yes, in so far as the agenda will reflect the real world problems of today and the tomorrow. And yes, if it is willing to confront rather than accommodate the powers that control the present economic system. And, finally, yes, if, against the spirit of the time, social democracy is willing to present a vision, beyond nearby and short term interests, which can mobilize people which, once having overcome their frustrations, expect that a better world is still within reach.


Jan Pronk

Address to Social Democracy Conference, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia, February 17, 2012




Jan Blommaert, “Redelijk links”, Jaap Kruithof lezing, Gent,  24 Februari 2010. https://vl.attac.be/article1629.html

David Miliband, “Why is the European Left Losing Elections?”, Speech London School of Economic and Political Science, March 8, 2011.   New Statesman, 8 March 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7vhWwPc24A

Jan Pronk, “Links zonder grenzen”, Jaap Kruithof Lezing, Gent, 24 februari 2011, in: VN Forum, 2011 (1): pp 20-33. https://www.dewereldmorgen.be/artikels/2011/02/24/jan-pronk-links-zonder-grenzen