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Drat! Just When It Was Getting Fun to Be a Social Democrat Again!

The SPD Party Congress still means three days of esoteric debate interrupted only by ritual incantation, expensive coffee, and German food.
John Leslie

Issue #49, April 2000

There are several reasons to attend an SPD Party Congress. Unfortunately, the list does not include fun. Although they have become shorter, going still means three days of esoteric debate interrupted only by ritual incantation, expensive coffee, and German food. If you are serious about climbing the ranks, the national Congress is an unavoidable opportunity for networking. Otherwise, entertainment should not figure prominently among your expectations.

The 1999 Congress, however, was supposed to be different. A year after his election as chancellor and eight months after replacing Oskar Lafontaine as party chairman, Gerhard Schroeder could proclaim his leadership to the party faithful before an impressive record of policy failures and electoral defeats. And his government still had a bruising battle over tax reform and budget consolidation to look forward to.

gerhard schroeder Intensifying the ambiguity of SPD members toward their own chancellor was a growing fissure in European Social Democracy. In Britain New Labour seemed electorally unassailable as it trumpeted something called a third way that, in content at least, was more reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher's policies than those the SPD pedaled under the same label in the 1950s. On the other side, Lionel Jospin's Socialists enjoyed declining unemployment rates and public deficits, while adamantly refusing to sacrifice statist policies to current economic orthodoxy. Just before the Party Congress, Schroeder threw his lot in with Tony Blair. He bound his own programmatic contribution, the New Middle, unmistakably to New Labour's infatuation with individual initiative and responsibility. In his terse resignation from Schroeder's cabinet, on the other hand, Oskar Lafontaine articulated the conviction of many Social Democrats that the heart beats on the left, leaving no doubt that -- in geographic terms -- this meant on the left bank of the Rhein and not the Channel.

Schroeder and, in fact, all of European Social Democracy, have been the victims of both their convictions and their success. Being in office throughout Europe for the first time since the 1970s, European Social Democrats must confront their greatest fear, wielding power. If you are on the Left, power cannot be an end in itself. It must serve another, progressive end. This opens a can of (red?) worms. Before you decide what Social Democrats should do with power, you must define what social democracy is. For over a decade Social Democratic politicians mostly in opposition -- assiduously avoided such discussions as unpalatable to voters.

Even when they choose to address such questions, Social Democrats no longer seem able to connect coherently who they are with what they should do. What I'll call, for convenience, the 'French side' confuses social democracy with a particular postwar approach to policy. These policies seek to promote the liberty of socially dependent individuals by redressing economic and social inequalities through centralized redistribution. The state promotes liberty for some by limiting the outcomes market or other mechanisms of social organization are permitted to create. Unfortunately, such centralized policies come in conflict, increasingly, with the liberty of other individuals notably entrepreneurs and the unemployed. They also clash with the intentions of other actors in European markets, such as the European Commission. More importantly, the groups for whose members such policies promoted liberty -- blue and white-collar employees -- are increasingly difficult to distinguish according to common interests and cease to be those whose liberties are most vulnerable. While the French side promotes a particular policy approach, it is difficult to understand why and for whom.

On the British side, the situation is no clearer. Representatives of New Labour claim that questions of interest and distribution are no longer the concern of politics -- a proposition that has become no less dubious with age. New Labour's leaders claim that, because they no longer have a particular clientele to serve, they are the party best suited to administer the country. The position blends bland nationalism and compassionate liberalism. Solidarity of the national community replaces social equity as the goal of policy, while individual liberty is left mostly unfettered by state prescription of social and market outcomes. Individual responsibility and initiative are left to promote the welfare of the community as a thousand flowers bloom. Thus, the British side promotes an innovative policy approach, but denies how social and market forces concentrate inequalities such as to require systematic remedy by state policy. Hence, while the French side advocates a policy approach tailored to social groups that either cease to exist or need such help, the British side contends no such help is needed on other than an ad hoc basis.

I procured an invitation to the SPD Party Congress in Berlin thinking that, while a showdown between these fronts might not resolve the inconsistencies of European Social Democracy, it would at least provide an entertaining spectacle of bloodletting. I was sorely disappointed.

tony blair The forces of reaction have conspired most insidiously to deny Social Democrats the clarity that comes in battle. Before the December SPD Congress Austrian voters, the German opposition, and the European economy united to obviate any internecine struggles between Social Democrats about the relative importance of liberty, equality, and solidarity. The prospect of Jorg Haider's Freedom Party assuming power in Vienna confronted Europe's Social Democrats with a vision of ethnic exclusion that had nothing to do with any conception of solidarity they might hold. Revelations that Helmut Kohl systematically accepted illegal funds from wealthy contributors and channeled them through Swiss accounts presented a view of political equality that Social Democrats could agree amongst themselves they did not share. Finally, economic growth in Europe kicked in just in time to spare German Social Democrats the need to make difficult decisions about how to apportion tax burdens and fiscal resources. Fate has provided the means for Social Democrats to unite themselves in disunity and avoid the necessity for difficult choices or creativity.

Since December, European Social Democrats have tolerated each other's deviations contentedly. Jospin, et. al. can point to rising French employment and revenues, while imposing a 35-hour work week. Tony Blair may merrily go his third way. And Gerhard Schroeder can ascend to the apolitical stratosphere of statesmanship with the comforting knowledge that a prostrate and scandal-rocked opposition is unlikely to force him into the fray of political decision-making anytime before the next election. At the moment at least, nothing on the horizon seems likely to force Social Democrats to confront nagging questions about who they are and what they should do now that they hold power. Sadly, when such an event occurs, it will be difficult to implement reforms.

John Leslie is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at UC-Berkeley.

Copyright © 2000 by John Leslie. All rights reserved.