Since 1945, social democracy has been one of the powerhouses of the political scene, particularly in Europe. While social democracy has stood for some solid principles that sought equity and protection of the less fortunate, the current state of this political ideology in a lot of countries is far from being a serious proposition for government. Why is this the case and what should be done to remedy this situations? I will explore these 2 questions in this article.
Let’s have a look at the situation of social democracy in Europe. Starting with Germany, SPD (the Social Democrats) has been part of the government for some time now, together with the moderate right wing CDU (the party of Merkel). While, overall the German public policy is much more tamed than the Conservatives in the UK, it still has neglected the rising cost of living, the depreciation of medical services, infrastructure investments, a true reform of the archaic higher ediucation system and increasing consumer protection. SPD, which should have been a force to drive these policies, has been accaparated by a centrist way of dealing with current issues. In other words, it has sacrificed its ideology for the sake of being part of the government and having access to power. No wonder SPD took a big hit in elections coming in third after the Green Party. SPD is a moderate annex of the conservatives.
Romania has a social democrat government for 3 years now. It is probably the European country outside of Scandinavia that in the past 30 years had the highest number of years with a social democratic government in power. But is the current Romanian government truly social democratic? The answer for me is very simple: absolutely not. The Romanian government has increased the salaries of the public sector and retirees, which was a thing much needed taking into consideration the rising costs, very high inflation and the unjustified austerity policy of the conservative government right after the financial crisis. But a government is not only there to increase the standard of life of the public sector. It is there to protect everybody who works and PSD has failed to do that. The reason is that PSD has denounced social democracy and has looked to emulate the political doctrine of Hungary and Poland. Why am I saying this? First, the anti-European stance was something taken of the right-wing, nationalist playbook. Second is the example of the conservative referendum asking for the definition of family that was backed by extreme right-wing interests, mostly from the US. Social democracy, in principle, shouldn’t discriminate against personal orientation. Moreover, the Romanian government hasn’t invested in infrastructure nor education. On the contrary, it has threatened to slash funding for universities and in some cases did it (see the case for the University of Bucharest). A true social democratic system would look after the interests of the citizen and invest in the public good. Education, in particular higher education, is the greatest of the public goods. It is the only true mode of social mobility. PSD has ignored this as all the other governments in Romania.
Ultimately, there are many more examples in Europe, but this article would be indeed longer that intended. It is better to move on and think what exactly is the bread and butter of a social democracy. Further, I lay some principles that if violated, a government cannot be considered social democratic.
First, the power of corporations to influence public policy should be way lower than the power of citizens to do the same. It is very well known that corporations have uncomprehnsible amounts of money being poured into lobbying and politicians, no matter what political ideology they hold, are influenced by it, often at the expense of the interest of the population. Governments are elected, directly or indirectly, by citizens and not corporations and they should work only for the betterment of society and the standards of living. A social democrat government should have this principle at heart, otherwise there is no diference between them and conservatives.
Second, education should be free. There shouldn’t be much debate why education is important and why it should be free. But, this should be the case because education allows for social mobility, as previously stated. Social democracy should foster any sort of social mechanism that allows for people to reach their potential.
Third, healthcare should be affordable to everybody and be public. Healthcare is about ailing suffering people and private interest is incompatible with this idea. While, private companies are indeed a driving force in innovating, the point of access for healthcare should not be governed under the principle of profit.
Fourth, affordable housing should be a right. Unfortunately, in much of the western societies, housing has been privatized and highly financialized. More and more people are renting subpar houses, paying a large portion of their income without an actual long-term benefit. This allows a small group of people who afford buying a large number of houses to benefit disproportionately. Renting a house also adds to the daily insecurity of life. People can be kicked out if they fail to pay rent because of temporary loss of income. The landlords benefit the most: they keep the property and the money. This is obviously an imbalance of power and a social democratic system shouldn’t allow it.
Fifth, we live in a legal state and not a state of law. We see more and more cases when big corporations are using their money to sue small companies or even citizens. Because the legal system is very expensive (e.g. lawyer fees), the people who don’t have money are disadvantaged. There are many cases of this happening, it takes a Google search to find them. My point is different: what kind of society creates a legal system where who has money is more likely to gain access to a good defense? A corrupt one, for a start. A neoconservative one, to be more precise. The legal system should be free and justice should be blind to the financial situation of the person who is engaged in it. Even a slight deviation from this principle renders a government outside of the social democratic sphere.
Sixth, fundamentals of living should be affordable. Water? Energy? Internet? Basic food? You cannot live without them. In the society we have built, you have to go to work to get money to pay for them. If these become too expensive, then the standard of life decreases greatly. A social democratic government would regulate greatly the price of these fundamentals.
Seventh, work standards should be put in place so that the relationship between companies and workers is fair. This is mostly related to what is happening at Amazon fulfillment centers where workers need to wear diapers because they are not allowed to go to the toilet. Amazon is not the only example here. If you want to look more into the textile factories in Romania that produce goods for luxury brands, you will find that same happens there. This is not capitalism, this is exploitation. If the inclination of a company is to dehumanize, then the government has the role to protect its citizens. Remember please the first principle I outlined here.
I could carry on with this list of principles and I might come back at a certain point to update it. But, I would rather say something different now. Capitalism is not necessarily incompatible with social democracy. As you could very well notice, I never claimed that we need to wipe out companies or abolish private money. On the contrary, companies produce value for the society. In the same time, they can also be distructive for society if they have too much power to decide what is good and what is wrong (e.g. have a look at Facebook). A social democracy should be first about rebalancing the power between ordinary citizens and those who own the financial power.