Death Agony of Social-Democracy

Where can social-democracy go? In Greece, the parties of the center, once utterly dominant on the country’s political scene, can barely scrape together a majority combined even with the help of a mass of bonus seats for the plurality party. Their opposition is now formidable in the form of SYRIZA, a left social-democrat outfit with a programme of radical reform that would stretch liberal political economy to the breaking point, but staying well short of an explicit commitment to revolution. In France, the victory of the Parti Socialiste is complete with its clear majority in the Assemblée Nationale following François Hollande’s election to the Elysée. In the UK, the Conservative-LibDem coalition appears ever weaker and less able to enforce its majority, while the Labour Party has been leading it in the polls by large numbers for months on end. In Germany, the ruling rightist coalition has suffered painful defeats in the länder against the SPD. In short, it seems finally things are looking up for European social-democracy.

Yet this is an illusion. The current crisis, the most severe such produced by capitalism in the Western world since 1929, is the crisis of neoliberalism. Every aspect of it, from the attempts to resolve it by combining state support for finance with austerity for the masses, the boom-bust structure located in real estate and financial instruments, and the denouement in the shape of the bankruptcy of the great speculative banks: all this is rooted in the essence of the neoliberal project, the use of state power to (re)create a new ‘free market’ system, destroying the old welfare state consensus by force and thereby recreating a capitalism more pure and yet more state-dependent and corrupt.

The consequences of this are now apparent to all, but the apathy and resignation of the majority of working people and the middle classes in the West allow it to continue without much serious opposition. There can be no clearer confirmation of the impossibility of mainstream political opposition to the neoliberal project than the failure of such stalwarts of traditional social-democracy as PASOK and the Labour Party to even oppose the most unnecessary, myopic aspects of the right’s austerity programmes. Where all of Britain suffers under the yoke of the severest assault on the living standards of the masses since the 1920s, all Labour can offer is to say ‘not as much at once, and not as fast’. Ed Miliband, the nonentity leading the party, has systematically refused to even rhetorically suggest Labour would do otherwise were it in power. The only real opposition to austerity in the political mainstream therefore comes not from the traditional social-democratic sources, but from figures such as Paul Krugman: Keynesians, who much like Keynes himself seek not to reform the economic system, let alone its political structure or threaten its ruling class, but who simply seek the long-term interests of ‘productive’ capital over the short-term interests of financiers and speculators. For all the ‘opposition’ of this kind displayed on television debates and in the newspapers, from the point of view of socialism this amounts to a purely technical debates between the managers of capitalism: it holds no interest for those who want a different way out.

The renewed strength of the social-democracy therefore can have no historic meaning, and it has no ability to move in any direction. It is telling that the worse hit by crisis and austerity the country is, the more leftward the reformists turn. In France, one has the Parti Socialiste, whose former leader Lionel Jospin once explicitly denied that the word socialism could have any meaning in the modern age and which therefore retains nothing but the name; in Greece, on the other hand, one has SYRIZA, the most consistent and serious formation of the vigorous, committed, and popular social-democracy of old, the one that despite its commitment to reformism was nonetheless willing to challenge the rule of capital on its own terms, which saw that no meaningful change was possible without this. These are two different beasts indeed. But they belong, notwithstanding all that, to the same genus. Although their strategy, honesty, and seriousness differ wildly, they belong to the kind of social-democracy, and this political phenomenon is historically on its way out. SYRIZA may well effectively pluck the fruit of being in opposition against a now almost completely comprador coalition of ND and PASOK, and is electorally strongly positioned to make life difficult for their neoliberal enforcement programme. But historical limitations are stronger than the vagaries of particular elections and even particular countries. These are the death-throes of social-democracy, and it is precisely the failure of all the social-democratic parties to honestly state the nature of their ‘opposition’, and their acceptance of the capitalist ideology that there is and can be no alternative, that demonstrates their historical obsolescence.

Why is this? To understand this, we must provide a potted history of social-democracy as an economic and political movement. Social-democracy has its roots in reformism. When in the late 19th century the workers’ movement organized independently under the banner of socialism, it grew greatly in power and stature. Expectations were high, opposition to capitalism was proclaimed everywhere, the workers of different nations united in the Internationals, revolution seemed in the air. But when push came to shove, in 1914, all these workers who “had no country” slaughtered each other happily, in the millions. Of course, war brought collapse, and attempted revolutions, of which only the Russian one succeeded fully. Yet when even after years of massacres, an unparalleled demonstration of the ineptness, manipulation, and mendacity of the old capitalo-aristocratic ruling classes, and widespread famine and destruction, the working class when faced with the choice overwhelmingly chose the course of reformism. Communist uprisings, attempting revolution on the basis of a minority of workers and soldiers, were bloodily crushed, often by explicitly reformist governments – and they could do so, because the majority of workers supported them. Despite everything that happened, capitalism was not fully grown, it had not subsumed all of the world’s production under its rule, it had only poorly and unevenly developed the productive forces in Western Europe (let alone anywhere else), and the European working classes were buffeted in their position by the subjugation of the colonized countries. Consciously or not, the working class knew this, and while they demanded great reforms and changes of the state organization and the labour market in their favor, they decisively chose against revolution. It was not the avatar of History, but the working classes of Italy and Germany, of Spain and of France, themselves who said: the time is not ripe.

So the Noskes and the Scheidemanns won, and Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered, the Hungarian revolution drowned in blood. Everywhere reaction set in: the Russian revolution, a venture into the future and an attempt to force the course of history against all the law of the development of class society, the greatest and most noble adventure in world political history, failed in its attempt to borrow the future against the present. Tt was forced to suspend the revolution, to have the dictatorship of the working class take up the task of capitalist development, and instead of bringing the future into the now, it mortgaged the now for a future that would never come. Lenin was succeeded by Stalin, the great builder and destroyer of nations, the very personification of the ‘creative destruction’ Joseph Schumpeter identified as the core historical mode of appearance of capitalist development. In other nations, the fascists took power, part revanchists from the big bourgeoisie of the defeated nations, part leftovers of Arno Mayer’s “persistence of the Old Regime”: between these, the bourgeois liberals (often still half-aristocratic), and the developmental powers of the Soviet Union and China, a great and terrible war was waged of unprecedented destruction.

Again, after this, the working class was faced with a choice: again, there was a movement towards a stronger reformism, from NHS to the left-reformism of the Communist mass parties, from the Great Society to the ‘cradle to grave’ welfare state, the very fulfilment of the dreams of the old reformists of 1900. But again, the working people of the world chose against revolution. They rose up against colonialism and the imperialism of the great powers; China stood up, and became in its own right the greatest developmental state the world has ever seen; in Europe, they demanded the destruction of any remnants of the ancien régime, whose supporters were swept away by urbanization and the trentes glorieuses of Keynesian capitalism and its centralization of capital, putting feminism and gay liberation on the agenda and rising in 1968 against the mendacity and conservatism of their parents’ generation. The world was tense with the confrontation between the great liberal-imperialist power of the United States and the aspirations of the new masses outside old Europe, their interests represented by the USSR and by China (who later inevitably clashed of their own).

But capitalism has a logic of its own, as Marx detailed scientifically in Capital. The destruction unleashed upon the world by WWII had destroyed unimaginable amounts of accumulated value, and at the same time the increase in conscious planning of the economy (whether in the ‘free West’ or the ‘real existing socialisms’) and even of technological change itself brought unprecedented increases in productivity. However, the Americans won the struggle for the Third World, and it was brought fully under the real and formal subsumption of capital, and Western capital at that – providing a continuation of the imperialist spoils which underwrote the reformist project now victorious everywhere. The so-called state capitalism, all terminological quibbles aside, presented mankind with a glimpse of its potential, but could not escape the logic inherent in the accumulation of value. Due to its nature as the choice of the majority classes of the underdeveloped countries, it was always at a disadvantage compared to the great military and economic power of the imperialist states, and it lost the battle.

Of course, paradise never lasts: in the 1970s a capitalist crisis challenged the reformist consensus more seriously than anything had since 1945. The vast rate of productivity increases caused the rate of profit to fall, both in the West and in the East, and capital’s room to permit reformist maneouvering without further battle diminished by the day. Over the glorious decades of capitalism’s only boom period, reformism seemed a natural and eternal progress of mankind. History always punishes such illusions, and the reformist parties and organizations grew weak, forgetting they still operated within the constraints of accumulation for accumulation’s sake, and no other. The capitalist classes set in a counteroffensive and surprisingly easily destroyed much of that which had been taken for granted as the eternal conquests of the working class provided by reformism. Moreover, the strengthening of Western capital this provided weakened enormously the position of the developmental powers, which were unable to escape their own capitalist limitations as well. The Soviet Union, bulwark of nations, fell apart and with a speed and ease that amazed all the world took the establishment of ‘real existing socialism’ with it. This was an enormous setback for the majority of the world population in pursuit of their emancipation, while it strengthened beyond belief the ability of the now increasingly transnational capitalist class to overcome its weak reformist opposition. Neoliberalism became its ideological programme, long prepared but only now hegemonic. Everywhere in the world the transnational capitalist class imposed its uniform rule of the market on any area not previously so subsumed, not shying away from explicit destruction of all opposition.

Rosa Luxemburg already pointed out that the politics of reformism is the labor of Sisyphus: one must always start over again. No sooner is this or that historic reform achieved, or it must be defended at all costs against the capitalist class, and a single loss of a political struggle suffices to have to start at the beginning. This causes the ‘noble frustration’ characteristic of the social-democratic left. As long as capitalism prevails, all reformism’s achievements are in essence illusory, even if they appear as a ‘real illusion’ (and one that keeps people alive, mind). They are like the genie’s spell which is real and sustaining for the participants as long as they believe in it, but confronted with any skepticism as to its roots in reality, it will vanish, taking its bounty with it. As such, this would be at least a historically progressive phenomenon as long as capital could be forced by struggle to cede such riches for the working class, like the eight-hour day Marx so vigorously argued for. However, when this is not the case, social-democracy is in a much worse position. With the capitalist class being ever more mobile and capable of creating a global segmented labor market and a global shift in production from the high-wage to the low-wage countries, the basis for social-democracy is undermined in the development of the social productive powers themselves.

But even this could be survived in the Western countries as long as their imperialist power extended to supplying the Western working class with its accustomed ‘moral economy’ at the expense of the rest of the world, as Britain once did with Ireland. However, this power diminishes as the power of the national bourgeoisies diminish; and what’s more, with the globalization of the labor market there is less and less need on the part of capital for accomodation with the Western working classes. Now the Greeks are denounced as too lazy and selfish to be worth bothering with anyway; next it will be the French; then even the Brits and the Germans will hear this. Social-democracy can no longer deliver, reformism can no longer succeed, because capital does not need it any more. Social-democracy is now not just fruitless, but it is historically redundant.

Is this then a recipe for total despair? No. Indeed, for social-democracy itself, there is no means of revival in sight, at least not in the European countries. The social-democratic politicians know this well: half of them have already gone over to the side of the neoliberals and resigned to the inevitable, whereas the other half attempt to keep the flag flying by nostalgic appeals to the golden days of the 1950s, campaigns to defend the remaining fortresses of reformism, attempts at chauvinistic ploys against foreign workers, or by means of identity politics. This will not avail them in the longer run. The sooner this moribund body is cast by the wayside, the faster the march forward may be. The real hope lies elsewhere. Marx’s crucial insight, perhaps the central one of his entire political economy, is that in the process of its own development capitalism produces the forces of its own opposition, and eventually its own demise: it creates its own gravediggers. Worldwide, there is now no part of the globe that has not been fully subsumed under the logic of capital accumulation; there is no place without its national and its transnational bourgeoisies, aware of their power and historic role; for the first time in the entirety of world history, a majority of the global population are, in fact, urban workers, the proletariat. Moreover, capitalism’s development of the productive forces has brought unprecedented globalization also of the means of communication and of processing information. It has not only made the world in its own image, but also connected this world in a way never before known. Anyone anywhere in the world requires now ever fewer means to be able to know what is happening far away, to communicate with other nations and continents, and there is for the first time ever a nonreligious awareness of global problems and a global social structure, beyond mere notions of ‘Christendom’ or ‘ummah’.

This is no plea for technofetishism or the triumphalism of the transnational corporations who process and distribute the goods required, but it shows on the contrary what enormous fetters the capitalist mode of production sets upon unprecedented potential for global association and cooperation of the workers. With modern computing, planning and inventory systems hitherto unfeasible become a matter of programming skill; with the internet, any quality and quantity of information can be made available within less than seconds to anyone worldwide; with mobile phones and satellites, any area of the world can be unlocked for human communication at any time; and there has indeed, as Marx and Engels predicted, even arisen a world literature, a world cinema, a world cuisine, in short, a world culture. None of these things do or can in any way fulfil their real potential within capitalist limitations and when produced as commodities for the accumulation of value. This is clear. But their potential is nonetheless real, and it is only a matter of time until the workers of Accra, of Shenzhen, of Lima, of Jakarta and of Cairo will want these, the products of their labor, to be used for their benefit, just like once the workers of Paris and New York demanded this.

However, with capitalism having subsumed all, it cannot easily expand much further. All the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and its self-expansion becomes more difficult by the day; its own global competition and its own technological progress is destroying its rate of profit, and the pace of its expansion. Despite the further development of countries like China and India, Taiwan and Brazil, every decade the global weighted average rate of capitalist growth declines further. A possible global reformism, a social-democracy of the entire world, is still a possibility of the future. But the window of this opportunity closes further as capitalist competition more fully globalizes, as the labor market more fully globalizes, and the rate of profit and the rate of wage equalize in their slow but unstoppable manner across the world. Already, Europe’s political economy appears to be regressing to more Victorian proportions, and it is but a matter of time until the high wages and reformist guarantees that prevent corresponding resistance from becoming a potentially revolutionary force disappear into the ether of history. Then we may perhaps see Greece lead the way again, as it once did.

None of this is to say that in any true sense there is an inevitability about our future. Indeed, our self-conception as people possessed of free will requires it to be otherwise, and whether deluded or not, this is our fate. But it shows that the death of social-democracy, while wrenching and difficult for the Western working classes, is at the same time hope for the birth of something new. A renewal of socialism, this time in the true fullness of time: less a hostage of fortune than the valiant efforts of the Russians and the Chinese. It must still be the active work of those with the greatest stake in the matter, the working people worldwide who have nothing to lose but their chains. In this, intellectuals with vision, declassé elements, peasants seeking relief, high-waged workers aware of alienation and so forth can play an auxiliary role. A scientific and political consciousness of the historical origins of capitalism, its laws of motion, its necessary slow decline punctuated by the crises which revive it at the expense of the working people, and finally the knowledge of the possibility of overthrowing its rule and replacing it with a democratic system of cooperation and planning, these are still as needed as ever, and there is much work to do. But the death of social-democracy is not the end of all hope, it is the beginning of the end of capitalism. It may seem late for our understanding to avail us, but we may yet see our hopes fulfilled: “Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly”.


Interesting post, and I really enjoyed the one on Wisconsin as well.

Btw – you’ve mentioned how reformism (and the welfare state etc) was funded through imperialist ventures. Do you have any reading you could recommend regarding this?

Yes. The material on this is pretty disparate and not very well-organized in one place, and it is often found mainly in very obscure and heterodox books. But a good place to start, if extremely abstract and tough, would be to read Arghiri Emmanuel’s “Unequal Exchange”; then I’d follow with H.W. Edwards’ “Labour Aristocracy: Mass Base of Social-Democracy”, which is incredibly obscure but can be found online, and some books on global history and imperialism, and perhaps Samir Amin as well. But writing a monograph on the topic is something that I have a vague plan of doing in the future.

this italic quote below from darwin sounds
rather nice but having said that i still
perceive it as a class neutral quotation
from a boozh-wah christian gentleman
need i say more?
“If poverty is not the result of nature,
then great is our sin.” – Charles Darwin

i know well that ‘foolish consistency is
the hobgobin of little minds’ [emerson]

but from little things summat grows &
it beholds those of us with a smattering
of marx’s materialist concept of economics
as well as class struggle to stop being slouthful
class delinquents & get on with mobilising &
organising the working class into a mighty
force for nowt but the social-continuum
bringing to an end darwin’s “great is the sin”
easier said than done i know

“But the window of this opportunity closes further as capitalist competition more fully globalizes, as the labor market more fully globalizes, and the rate of profit and the rate of wage equalize in their slow but unstoppable manner across the world.”

Would this then be the endgame of imperialism? Does this imply that, while Kautsky was wrong when thinking about an ultra-imperialism in his time, ultra-imperialism would come to arrive looking like this? Or will this general trend suffer setbacks, perpetuating imperialism as the permanent stage of capitalism (or at least until capitalism lasts)?

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