Democracy and disillusion: hopes and dangers for the European centre left.

AuthorSkrzypek, Ania

The idea of Europe as a project of liberal democracy, dominated by parties of the centre right and centre left, is weaker than it has been at any point since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet our current moment is defined not just by anger and resentment, but the progressive potential of new popular movements for gender equality and climate justice. There is hope here for social democrats--if they can change their politics to match the times.

It is three decades this year since the historical victory of democracy that brought down the Iron Curtain. The end of the Cold War eventually brought more Europeans than ever before together into one Union. The 1990s was when people saw the impossible happen and the unthinkable becoming real. Even if, in many areas, the transition to liberal democracy was not a peaceful or easy process, expectations were still high. The 1990s promised a future of harmonious coexistence, respect for human rights, the rule of law, and of working together for broadly shared prosperity.

Historians often think of thirty years as a generation. Europe is now entering a period in which the post-cold war generation has definitively passed. Our continent's progressives must consequently reckon with the ways in which the promises of the 1990s have been left unfulfilled. The cumulative disappointments of the past three decades have created a dissonance between the world of politics and the demands of citizens. With the European Parliamentary elections of 2019, we have reached a point that feels like the closing of a chapter. European democracy can no longer be identified with its historic parties of the centre left and centre right.

Everyday political discourse is filled with convenient, comforting claims: turns of phrase that seek to reassure rather than enlighten. Among these is the sentence that comes back every time ahead of an election: 'These upcoming elections are historic!'. In other words, whatever happens, they will make a real difference. For Europe's social democrats, battered by years of electoral defeat, this claim stands for a hope that, maybe this time, the historical pendulum will swing back to us. Reassuring phrases help us not to fall into despair. But while they offer a consolation, they are very dangerous. They allow us to believe in what sounds good, or what appears to be a better version of the actual situation at hand--preventing digestion of what is difficult and harsh. But our situation is not going to magically improve. Progressives are not going to wake up from what they still hope to be a bad dream.

It is time to face the truth instead. Our present moment is historically significant because it marks a significant and qualitative change in the nature of politics. It is a defining junction. Can social-democratic parties remain viable in this new context? Choosing the right path will be critical in terms of redefining our role, and establishing our ability to shape the years to come.

Three moments of disillusionment

In order to understand our own political moment more clearly, we need to review three moments of disillusionment since the democratic breakthrough of the 1990s. Each of these was defined by a rupture between the consensus view of Europe's politicians, and the needs and subjectivities of its citizens.

The first moment was the globalisation debate of the later 1990s. Across Europe, politicians claimed that globalisation was an overpowering process that couldn't be changed in any substantive way, but instead should be welcomed as an opportunity and managed. Activists rallying in the World Social Forum, ATTAC and other groups, by contrast, claimed otherwise, mobilising behind 'anti-globalisation' and 'alter-globalisation' positions. Most famously in Seattle in 1999, they took to the streets exclaiming 'Another world is possible'. This was not what Washington or Brussels were saying. This was a clear warning to established parties and institutions that popular consent for neoliberal globalisation could not be taken for granted.

The second moment of disillusion came with the global financial crisis in 2008. This was an evident crash moment for neoliberalism yet it did not lead to its collapse. If anything, it enabled it to consolidate and grow bolder. And this turnaround was not enabled by some mysterious global force, generously funded by multinational corporations, but by the governing parties of major democracies, who chose to pursue austerity politics and gave up on the dream of a robust, universal welfare state. Just as in the earlier phase of global economic expansion, governments repeating the mantra of 'no alternative' were confronted by popular mobilisations, this time by movements such as the Indignados and Occupy Wall Street.

The third moment of disillusion was more diffuse, and harder to pin down. It took place about half a decade ago, as the political mentality of the European mainstream became one of permanent crisis management. This persistent short-termism contrasted horrifyingly with doomsday scenarios drawn from the impact of parallel...

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