Social Democracy New Power Prospects

Martin Schulz's ascendancy could provide beacon of hope for Social Democracy in the rest of Europe. But Germany's party must move beyond its old-fashioned program.
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Martin Schulz, new hope for Europe's Social Democrats.

Martin Schulz represents the prospect of political change in Germany and Europe.

He is an experienced politician at the local and European levels but in German domestic politics he is a homo novus. Many hopes can be projected onto such a man.

Mr. Schulz wants to make social justice and the fight against nationalist right-wingers his priority. It is an answer to an authoritarian wave that was made possible by European Social Democrats, who had no answer to people's feelings of panic, being forsaken and social anomie – which the far right has since tapped into in many European societies.

Authoritarian nationalists are also poaching voters in domains that leftist parties and unions claimed for themselves just a few years ago. The income and purchasing power of blue-collar workers was traditionally protected and increased by leftist parties, but that is no longer the case in an increasingly flexible global labor market.

The Front National is France’s number one workers party. Donald Trump was able to conquer long-standing bastions of democracy. Central and North European leftist party voters have deserted to the right. The demise of French Socialists also serves as an example.

There is a paradoxical backdrop of many societies and parliaments still having a Social Democratic majority. Indeed Martin Schulz would actually have a narrow majority for a vote of no confidence against the German chancellor. He has abstained from such a move for good reason. The Social Democratic Party (SDP), Left Party, and the Greens don’t constitute a “camp” though and too many members of parliament from all three parties could have voted against him.

Still, roughly two-thirds of the parliamentarians in the German Bundestag are in favor of a state welfare program. Besides the SPD, Left Party and Greens, that includes a considerable part of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

The state of the world and nature today demands that future generations’ prospects should be made the focus of politics.

Even France's right-wing populist Front National is considered by real neoliberals to have socialist elements. In contrast to the generation of its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party today is advocating for a welfare state – although one that naturally excludes foreigners and immigrants for the benefit of its own people.

The number of vulnerable has grown. However, it is no longer the left-wing parties that are addressing people's frustration and anger, but xenophobic and anti-immigration parties. French politician and Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon was able to win the primary election by backing a guaranteed minimum income. Former SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel proclaimed in early 2016 that social justice and security was the core concept of 21st century Social Democratic policy.

The SPD now wants to break out of the prison of its coalition with the CDU. SPD ministers are focusing on social policy, Labor Minister Andrea Nahles and Family Affairs Minister Manuela Schwesig are waging a fierce fight in defense of the  minimum wage, guaranteeing retirement benefits, beefing up of social assistance and wage equality. But nevertheless, since the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) has established itself, Social Democrats have continued to slide in the polls.

Is a turnabout possible with Martin Schulz? Will Social Democratic politics get another chance in Europe? Can it revive the latent welfare state by winning back its former constituency of people who favor social protection but are not necessarily xenophobic? Can it mobilize young voters who currently have little interest in democratic participation? Is the demand for a “progressive” alternative realistic?

The Social Democrats have come to be regarded as the bosses’ comrades – and seen as part of the problem.

Before addressing programs and communication formats, let’s look at the body language and bearing of Social Democrat protagonists. Very few Socialists from Rome to Oslo, Bratislava to Lisbon radiate the serious political will to grab “it” (and the European bull) by the horns, in other words, to really want to start something better or new. It isn’t a matter of improving PR, but of a convincing bearing, something like that offered by the social liberal Emmanuel Macron in France, who distanced himself from the Socialists with his “En Marche!” movement. It is a movement that has managed to motivate many young supporters to become politically involved either again or for the first time. Martin Schulz has at least set the ball rolling here with his fighting talk.

The program of Socialists and Social Democrats often gets rhetorically stuck by concentrating on a core constituency of skilled workers, educational achievers and older age groups. The SPD offers old-fashioned prospects: A high school graduation and full-time employment, in other words, more educational equity and protection from precarious working conditions. But in almost every rich country, there is increasing income and financial inequality.The digital workplace is hardly offering any permanent jobs with a guarantee of retirement benefits, especially for those who did everything right but still see their educational certificates losing value.

The elevator that quite smoothly provided upward mobility into the 1970s is stuck, and so those who are affected by temporary work and old-age poverty are frustrated and turning away from Social Democracy and political discourse. Those who have been excluded, or feel that they have, apparently feel that former guarantors of social justice are just as much of a bastion of vested interests as the other “elites.”

Outrage over tax avoidance and evasion, epitomized by the Panama Papers scandal last year, and also symbolized by the bonuses executives and bankers award themselves, even those who have clearly cheated and committed fraud, hardly help Social Democrats. They have come to be regarded as the bosses’ comrades – and seen as part of the problem. Anti-capitalism has broken loose from its home and has found an outlet in xenophobia (which the workers’ movement has never been free of). If Socialists can’t keep people safe from globalization competition, then people look to xenophobia to protect the social benefits that come from residing in rich Europe.

Justice today also means transcending the solidarity framework of the national state.

Würselen, the town that was first on Mr. Schulz's campaign trail, is located not far from the brown-coal region in North Rhine-Westphalia, a region the local SPD has resolved to protect. If Martin Schulz wants to win, he must break with fixation on industrial tradition– and become “greener.” The Social Democrats lacks a feeling ecological sustainability.

Inter-generational justice today also means transcending the solidarity framework of the national state. There is a temporal dimension, namely a good life for our children and our children’s children too. The state of the world and nature today demands that future generations’ prospects are made the focus of politics. The climate goals set in Paris and the sustainable development goals (SDGs) proposed in New York are being neglected in German political discourse (by the Greens as well, by the way). As quickly as possible, we must switch electricity production completely to renewables and initiate a transformation of transport – a goal that already pays off today and that has enormous economic potential.

This applies to those branches of industry Germans are still clinging to. The energy, automobile and chemical industries in their currents states are all in demise. The SPD has clung to them almost slavishly, instead of bravely promoting economic alternatives and adaptations. Those who declare jobs to be just as important as climate protection need to recognize that healthy, sustainable, sensible jobs are to be found in an ecological global economy, while the rusty tankers of the industrial age are running into the ground.

It’s strange how narrow the Social Democrats’ understanding of social policy is. Basic income and state-owned companies, including cooperatives, which originated with the social movements and reformers of the early 19th century, hardly play a role in their deliberations. Meanwhile, they stick to the minimum wage and avoid old-age poverty through “secure pensions.” They face the acute problem that wage labor and income have long become decoupled. Family policy too appears to be strongly orientated to the (legitimate!) demands of women in today’s working world than on that of today’s young girls in 20 or 30 years’ time.


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