Where is social democracy going?

Image: Kelly


How to merge the welfare state with political freedoms, continental security with popular sovereignty, the Republic with irrevocable political freedoms

Between August 11th and 13th, in São Paulo, another meeting of the Reconstructing the Welfare State in the Americas program took place, launched by UNDP\UN in 1996 and today coordinated by Jorge Castañeda, Gaspard Estrada and Carlos Ominami. At the time, under the direction of Roberto Mangabeira Unger, its first members got together “driven by a common intuition”: to seek ways out for the democratic affirmation of the Latin Continent.

Its continuity today, with the presence of new democratic leaderships of the recently emerged young lefts, has been acquiring more breadth and, at the same time, more precision of purpose in new meetings. The Program had started by calling for discussion democratic leaders from the left, from the center left and even from the center right in Latin America, who would have the capacity to influence in their respective countries the destinies of the transitional policies of the dictatorships of the 1970s, to establish their respective nations in the recomposing liberal-democratic structure, then destroyed by the military coups that devastated a large part of Central and South America.

Participating in the first meeting that took place in Chile, I followed several editions of the Program, with Lula, José Dirceu, Marco Aurélio Garcia, Brizola, alongside eminent economists, such as Dante Caputo, “party” cadres from the democratic field, such as Ricardo Lagos, Michelle Bachelet, Vicente Fox, López Obrador, Fernando de La Rua and many other personalities, who took different paths, in their political choices and definitions.

With the harvest of presidents elected in the democratic restoration exhausted, the debates turned to the search for consensual solutions in a bleak economic scenario, internally in Latin America, and externally in the central cores of the world-system. A structural rearrangement was underway that was changing the patterns of accumulation, profoundly restructuring the ways of providing work and services in all sectors of the economy, with a heavy impact of new technologies on the common life of millions of people.

The division that occurred within the project was natural, since, after the expiration of the military regimes, “seductive” neoliberal alternatives began to appear, which in addition to promising a transition “protected” by financial capital, for States that behaved well to pay their commitments with the respective public debts they had acquired during the dictatorships. The hegemony of rising domination pacts, around the “only way”, which seemed dogmatically strengthened in the “upper classes” absorbed a good part of the democratic right that participated in the debates, since the left had immense difficulties in providing new alternatives: the spirit of the Washington Consensus won, in part of the first debaters, through the neoliberal illusion.

In some countries timid reformist governments were repeated and in the more “realistic” left field, due to the lack of stable majorities to govern and the lack of understanding that, from then on, the reforms would be different from those of the last century, to account for the backwardness and of underdevelopment. The center-left democratic reformism that governed several countries, even though it obtained few social results – evidently significant in comparison to previous “liberal” governments – left an important proof of appreciation for democracy and minimal respect for the institutions of the Republic.

Now it's time to establish a principled connection between the new lefts that have organized themselves over the last 15 years, mainly so that we can merge the old and decisive social demands with the new cultural demands, for new ways of life, for the relentless fight against racism and to all forms of discrimination, endlessly reproduced by reactionary conservatism with a tradition of slavery. This is a historical need for a new and strong popular and democratic unit already in place for this century.

Several of the participants in those meetings became presidents, through different political paths – in the field of liberal democracy – or became ministers, presidents of parties and state officials, in various positions of state responsibility. Since then, however – nowadays – the issues have become even more complex, giving us other realities to be unraveled, such as the new system of alliances to govern, compatible to form political majorities, on the one hand, and – on the other – the surprise of the emergence of a “new left”, young, generous and brilliant – although fragmented due to its unresolved identity claims, which appear both as disconnected from the revolutionary or democratic-reformist experiences in America, as well as lacking a popular base with the resistance capacity analogous to the old days.

Vicente Navarro, one of the great scholars of the social-democratic path and the evolution of disputes around the State and Welfare, has shown, throughout his intellectual path, that the alternatives of the United States in the Reagan era – for example – were not configured as a dispute between “social Keynesianism” X “neoliberal strategies”, but rather a dispute between “military Keynesianism” X “social Keynesianism” (historical basis of the social democratic conception of the last century), both policies based on State intervention in the economy .

But Ronald Reagan's policies "had gone beyond the classic Keynesian", as his global gendarmerie war policies heavily strengthened state intervention, mainly in the military industry, proceeding with a strong state intervention in the economy, moving away from a government liberal in the classical sense to make an “interventionist” government, modernizing (by the right hand) Keynesianism and increasing the tensions of imperial wars.

Geoff Eley in his classic forging democracy shows that before 1914 the militant base of social democracy in Europe had approximately two million militants, and in Germany alone it had one million adherents, predominantly among the poor, unemployed, workers, students and the intelligentsia. With the beginning of the demise of the Second International, initiated at the Zimmerwald Conference in September 1915 – due to differences in principle about the attitude of social democracy on the inter-imperialist World War – the victory of the Revolution in Russia in 1917 and the transformation of the Party Russian Social Democratic Worker in Communist Party, social democracy and communist movements start their separate paths in history.

In present times – marked by the defeats and relative successes of both experiences – a new civilizing challenge arises: in a time of blockage, both of democracy and of a revolution, with the loss of the moral and political strength of social democracy in the face of neoliberal advances and of the disaster of the Soviet bureaucratic experience, along with the emergence of new poles of geopolitical power in the world and the rise of fascism.

How to merge – in a broad movement around the desire for well-being, peace and the regeneration of politics as an instrument in the struggle for equality and human dignity – the social State with political freedoms, continental security with popular sovereignty, Republic with political freedoms irrevocable? The answer is the “homework” that this UNDP\UN Project associates with other support points, public and private, that exist all over the world, that do not dissociate democracy from social progress and that will never accept fascism and war as a solution to humanity's problems.

They are utopian, some will say. Well, we can answer: “neither more nor less than seeking a communist paradise or a perfect social democracy, which intended to inaugurate an era of peace and human solidarity, based mainly on the negotiating “good sense” of the political elites of the privileged classes.

*Tarsus in law he was governor of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, mayor of Porto Alegre, Minister of Justice, Minister of Education and Minister of Institutional Relations in Brazil. Author, among other books, of possible utopia (arts & crafts).

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