With the Soviet model shattered forever, it is the social democratic one that is now in deep crisis in Western Europe. On the face of it, judging just by the results of June’s European elections, the suggestion is too dramatic. The moderate left, respectful of the established order, did not do that badly. In the new European Parliament the Socialist group remains the biggest. It now has 199 members out of a total of 567, compared with 197 out of 518 members in the previous assembly–a slight setback, but hardly a catastrophe.
Admittedly, the prospect for individual parties is gloomier. In Spain, Felipe Gonzalez suffered his first electoral defeat since he came into office twelve years ago. In France, the fall in the Socialist vote put an end to Michel Rocard’s presidential ambitions. In Italy it was Achille Occhetto who, faced with Silvio Berlusconi’s triumph, resigned as leader of the Democratic Party of the Left (since the Socialist Party has been wiped out altogether, the ex-Communists must now be considered as Italy’s moderate left). In Germany, the 5 percent drop in the Social Democratic vote was a big blow to Rudolf Scharping, the new party leader, whose chance to become Germany’s next chancellor in the October elections has been seriously weakened. Only in Britain did the left emerge in an apparently comfortable position, though in the past the Labor Party has shown an uncanny capacity for snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory.
To lose an election is not in itself tragic; you may do better next time. But the Western left is burdened with a worse predicament: an obviously obsolescent strategy. Social democracy, in the now accepted meaning of the term, may be defined as the reformist management of the capitalist system. It prospered in the thirty years of unprecedented expansion after the war. Then, as the economic crisis deepened, it tried to cling to consensus politics while the right went on the offensive, attacking labor unions, privatizing public property and breaking international barriers.
Yet even this is not enough. In a highly deregulated world, with the number of jobless in Western Europe at levels unknown since the war, the left is being asked to sacrifice even more. A report on unemployment published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which I will analyze below, provides the capitalist cure for the current crisis. It can be summarized in a sentence: The have-nots must bear the cost of capitalism’s version of perestroika. If social democracy accepts this prescription, it commits political suicide. But if it wants to carry out reforms today, it must look beyond the confines of existing society, thus breaking with its role, its philosophy and its past. It is this crucial dilemma that we must keep in mind as we rapidly survey the political landscape of Western Europe in the aftermath of its insignificant yet highly revealing election.
The Viscount and the Tycoon
If Germany’s political horizon is overshadowed by the parliamentary poll coming in the autumn, France’s is already dominated by the presidential election of next spring. After thirteen years of François Mitterrand’s Socialist rule, the right is eager to take over. Its trouble is that it has too many candidates. Though the two main contenders–the rough former prime minister, Jacques Chirac, and the smooth current one, Edouard Balladur–belong to the same neo-Gaullist party, their battle is bound to be bloody. On the left, as the prospects of Rocard, who never had the blessing of Mitterrand, were getting dim, Jacques Delors, the outgoing President of the European Commission, was gradually moving into the limelight. The European election was not even a dress rehearsal for next spring’s vote: The ruling right-wing coalition put up a common list, which fared badly, capturing only one-quarter of the vote. But the Socialist list, headed by Rocard, did disastrously, with less than 15 percent. Such low scores are partly explained by the fact that, with the exception of Britain, Eurodeputies are elected through proportional representation; the list receiving 5 percent will have some representatives, and people can therefore afford to vote for lesser candidates. This time the killjoys, or the main beneficiaries, each receiving more than 12 percent of the votes cast, were Philippe de Villiers, a sort of Jean-Marie Le Pen with an aristocratic accent, on the right, and Bernard Tapie, a tycoon whose awkward wallet lies, like his heart, on the left.