Monday, October 5, 2009

Is Socialism Dead in Europe?

A very misleading story appeared in The New York Times on Sept. 28, 2009. With a headline: "Europe's Socialists Suffering Even in Downturn" it began melodramatically: "A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of socialism's slow collapse." Of course, if it were really true that socialism were dying in Europe, the more appropriate headline would have been: "The spectre of socialism that has haunted Europe for over a century is slowing fading away." But that would not be accurate, as we shall see.

The article goes on to say:
"Even in the midst of one of the greatest challenges to capitalism in 75
years, involving a breakdown of the financial system due to “irrational
exuberance,” greed and the weakness of regulatory systems, European Socialist parties and their left-wing cousins have not found a compelling response, let alone taken advantage of the right’s failures.

German voters clobbered the Social Democratic Party on Sunday, giving
it only 23 percent of the vote, its worst performance since World War II.

Voters also punished left-leaning candidates in the summer’s European
elections and trounced French Socialists in 2007. Where the
left holds power, as in Spain and Britain, it is under attack. Where it is out,
as in France, Italy and now Germany, it is divided and listless."

So socialism is dead, kaput, without influence and unmourned. Well, not quite. The article goes on to point out, quite rightly, that:
"Europe’s center-right parties have embraced many ideas of the left:
generous welfare benefits, nationalized health care, sharp restrictions on
carbon emissions, the ceding of some sovereignty to the European Union. But they have won votes by promising to deliver more efficiently than the left, while working to lower taxes, improve financial regulation, and grapple with aging populations.

Europe’s conservatives, says Michel Winock, a historian at the Paris Institut d’√Čtudes Politiques, “have adapted themselves to modernity.” When Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Germany’s Angela Merkel condemn the excesses of the “Anglo-Saxon model” of capitalism while praising the protective power of the state, they are using Socialist ideas that have become mainstream, he said."

So socialism is dying as a revolutionary movement because it has gone mainstream. When the mainstream is socialist, a socialist revolution makes no sense. Socialist tweaking makes more sense.

Socialist ideas are now accepted accross the political spectrum by all the parties that can legitimately expect to gain power. The so-called center-right has won by becoming itself a kind of leftist option - abeit one with a certain mild rhetorical sympathy for some aspects of capitalism. Chiefly, business enterprises are valued as cash cows for the high-tax, welfare state that is now the mainstream European model.

What it now means to be "right-wing" in Europe today is to put oneself forward as a more efficient manager of the welfare state. Rolling back the welfare state, increasing individual liberty, setting business free to create wealth - these are derided as "the excesses of the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism." No wonder Britain's true conservatives want out of the European Union.

We need to understand that this is the way liberals in the US and Canada are also attempting to re-set the terms of political debate. Only versions of socialism or the ever-expanding welfare state are allowed as viable options for discussion. Conservative ideas are ostracized as beyond the pale - as "right-wing extremism" or "regressive."

Europe may be deluded enough to think that it has reached the "end of history" but it is more likely that with its decline into demographic suicide, its decreasingly democratic form of government by technocrats and its increasingly unaffordable welfare state system, it has simply reached the end of the line.

Well, all empires have to fall sometime; it has been a good run. No, socialism isn't dead, but Europe itself is getting close to terminal.

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