Thursday, December 28, 2017

Jochen Bittner Explains the Decline of Social Democracy

Across Europe, the center-left is in precipitous decline. German's Social Democrats have gone from 40% of the vote in 1998 to 20% in the most recent election. To Jochen Bittner, the explanation is the Social Democrats' embrace of the EU and other international bodies:
The first contradiction is that democracy’s apparent victory in 1989 also marked the beginning of the degradation of democracy. The convenient self-delusion of the “neoliberal” decades was that you could strengthen both national democracy (including welfare-state capitalism) and transnational policymaking. Capital could be harnessed to the nation-state at the same time it was being freed to move beyond it. Regional integration, meanwhile, came to mean more than just markets; transnational governance was the watchword.

Davos and Brussels were the capitals of this elitist complacency. In the headquarters of worldwide economic liberalization and European integration, respectively, dissenters of the cosmopolitian consensus were branded as narrow-minded or as “Europhobes.” Yet the truth is that you cannot have transnational governance without limiting the powers of national parliaments, thereby limiting the power of the people. And you cannot attempt to control capital at home while loosening the reins that prevent it from moving abroad.

The result has been long in coming, and predictable. Democracy has pushed back, through bottom-up agitation from ordinary people who had taken to the streets from Leipzig to Bucharest. And when the elites pushed back, whether it was over the Greek debt crisis or the refugee influx, who was standing alongside them? The erstwhile voice of the people, the Social Democrats.
Since the French Revolution, the European left has had two great dreams: democracy and internationalism. If Bittner is right, they are incompatible.

In the short term, I think he is right. The people are not ready for world government, so embracing democracy means rejecting rule from Brussels or the WTO and insisting on national sovereignty. Many of my friends on the left were shocked by the Brexit vote, which they saw as simple racism. But it is not so simple. The EU is not a democratic polity, so embracing its authority means abrogating democracy. Real democracy means defying it. Until the center-left parties work out coherent positions on this key question, they will continue to falter.

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