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Reinventing Social Democracy: Keynote Speech by Joel Rocamora

I watched the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV in Amsterdam in 1989. I wanted to provoke my companions who were mainly national liberation movement supporters. I said out loud – “That’s it, now we’re all social democrats”. Little did I know that the coming years would bring about not the ascendancy of social democratic parties but their slow seemingly inexorable decline. It is no consolation that national liberation movements also left the stage of history.

Today if we look at Western Europe, the heartland of social democracy, it is only in Portugal where there seems to be a viable Left political trend. In Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain, most recently Italy, social democratic parties are being marginalized by right wing, populist parties. Austerity policies have decimated the social security structures, the main achievement of social democratic parties.

Non-Communist progressive political parties in Southeast Asia,1 whether they call themselves “social democratic” or not, have not had the experience of running governments, occupying mainly opposition spaces at varying distances from the center of power. They all face the challenge of shaping a coherent alternative to corrupt, authoritarian and populist ruling regimes. The experience of European social democracy provides important lessons, positive and negative.



In the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia, progressive parties are small, besieged by authoritarian regimes. In Indonesia, they confront a veritable cabal of political parties and impossibly high requirements for participation in elections. Political parties have been marginalized by the military in Thailand. While formally the ruling party, the NLD in Myanmar has to operate within constitutional limits set by a still dominant military. It is only in Malaysia where the opposition coalition, Pakatan, has a good chance of winning in the coming elections.

European Experience

What then are the lessons we can glean from the European experience? We have to start with their very different histories and social and economic situations.

“The typical sequence in the first generation of social democracy in the North was strong collectivities, democratisation and basic rights plus self-help, in addition to Keynesian policies; this was followed by interest representation, social growth pacts and welfare state programmes. In the South, however, weak industrialisation implied fragmented interests and collectivities; and the linkages between state and society were usually undemocratic and inefficient. Thus, social growth pacts and welfare states were unrealistic.”2

The key here is that in Western Europe industrialization created large proletarian populations which became the social base of social democratic parties, enough to launch these parties to power. In some countries, in Scandinavia, for example, labor union power was institutionalized in social growth pacts. Political parties were obliged to push Keynesian economic policies and social welfare programs demanded by their social base. Long histories of state formation marked by union activism assured democratic rights.

In Southeast Asia, the common experience was colonialism, the subjection of local economies to the needs of colonial mother countries, and the imposition of territorial boundaries with uncertain integration of populations into the new polities. In almost all of these countries armed insurrections challenged ruling governments. State formation under these conditions meant weak central governments with constant temptation to resort to authoritarianism. Except for the period of Sukarno in Indonesia, and the unique case of the Peoples’ Action Party in Singapore, political parties were weak.    

In most of Southeast Asia outside of Indochina, communist parties were defeated in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties. It is only in the Philippines where the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) continues its armed struggle within a Marxist-Leninist-Mao Tse Tung Thought framework. While the future of the CPP is, in my opinion doubtful, its ideas continue to influence other Left groups. Central to CPP strategy is “smash the state”, a clear cut separation between the old and the new, what the theory calls “rupture”.

Orienting strategy towards “rupture”, a radical break with capitalist structures, limits tactical possibilities in relations with the state, and a tendency towards opportunism in relations with other political groups. This is true not just for the CPP but also other Left groups, those grouped in Laban ng Massa (Struggle of the Masses). Even in Akbayan, which has broken with old Left ideas more decisively, these ideas continue to have some influence. Despite periodic affirmations of the need to build a base in local politics, Akbayan continues to focus most of its organizational resources on politics in Manila.

“The theory of ruptural transformation is not a plausible basis for constructing a democratic egalitarian transcendence of capitalism. While there have been revolutionary challenges to capitalism, the historical examples of ruptural  transformation have never been able to sustain an extended process of democratic experimentalist institution-building…it is likely that the concentrated forms of political power and organization needed to produce a successful revolutionary rupture with capitalist institutions are themselves incompatible with the participatory practices needed for democratic experimentalism.”3

The decline of social democratic parties in Europe is linked to the failure of the “Third Way” pioneered by Tony Blair in the UK but followed in other European countries. “The collective class capacities of potential challengers to capitalism have not systematically strengthened with capitalist development. In part this is because of the heterogeneity of interests within the broadly defined working class, but it is also because of the robustness of various forms of class compromise which undermine the capacity for challenging the system.”4

Rapid economic growth in much of Southeast Asia has opened new possibilities. Victims of “development” have generated counter movements. “These are mainly for social justice, public welfare reforms and the implementation of them. The prime argument is that such movements might pave the way for the re-sequencing of social democratic development, if they congregate behind reformist-cum-populist leaders who need wider backing to win elections. In such processes, it might then be possible to build the broader alliances that are necessary to foster both the missing solid and democratic linkages between state and society (including interest representation) and social growth pacts.”5

Tornquist and Djani’s account of two movements in Indonesia, one the story of President Jokowi’s rise from mayor of Surakarta to the presidency, the other about the remarkably broad and successful KAJS (Komite Aksi Jaminan Sosial, Action Committee for Social Security)), in which unions and civil society activists worked in tandem with progressive politicians in Jakarta to promote social policies and legislation for health protection. Unfortunately, the result was “populist transactionalism”, exchanging struggles for progressive policies with particularistic favors to social movement leaders, and only in the best cases, to their organizations.

Building Blocks

I believe the building blocks for the reinvention of social democracy exist in Southeast Asia. Except for the CPP in the Philippines, one of the elements, the abandonment of armed struggle is in place. A related element, moving away from “rupture”, from a “smash the state” perspective, only has a few adherents left. There are a few civil society groups pushing “ignore the state”  projects, but these projects with their anarchist antecedents, are more prevalent in the North, in Europe and North America.

Far from being a long term threat, populism provides a historic opportunity. Whether in the North or in the South including Southeast Asia, populism is built on widespread and deep seated dissatisfaction with the way things are, with governments and the politicians who run them. This in turn is the result of widening inequality and the scandalous income gap between the owners and managers of capitalism and ordinary workers. Deep in the structures of capitalism and its crisis is the way that finance capital is more and more distant from the real economy.

Social democrats also have to move away from ambitions for centrally planned economies. “In lieu of the anarchy of the market, socialists believed that the people’s lot would be improved by a rationally planned economy, implemented through the institutional design of a centralized comprehensive plan. But the ‘perverse’, unintended consequences of central planning subverted its intended goals, with the result that few people today believe it to be a viable emancipatory alternative to capitalism.”7  This does not mean the wholesale abandonment of industrial policy.

It’s a given that social democracy has to move beyond its dependence on the industrial working class. “While it is certainly true that the course of capitalist development has incorporated a growing proportion of the labour force into capitalist employment relations, at least in the developed capitalist world this has not resulted in a process of intensified proletarianization and class homogenization, but rather in increasingly complex class structures.”8  In Southeast Asia, class formation is even more complex.

Building strategy based on the complexity of class structures requires mastering coalition politics. This means, to start with, consolidating the forces of the Left, in turn requiring moving away from the sectarianism and “small is beautiful” attitudes on the Left.  The admonition can be as simple as “work with people you may not want to invite to dinner”. This means we have to build up from coalitions and coalitions of coalitions. We have to accumulate power within the state, which means mastering elections, which means, in the end building new social democratic parties.

The social democratic welfare state is in retreat even in its homeland of Western Europe, thankfully not as fast as the retreat of social democratic parties. “Capitalism’s expansionist drive threatens to subject ever wider domains of human activity to market forces: the commodification of health, childcare, elder care, human reproduction…”9  Southeast Asian economies have reached a stage whether it is now possible to pay for a welfare state. There are experiments in state provision of health and other social security services. Progressive parties can learn from the European experience in consolidating these tentative steps into full-fledged welfare states. We have to move decisively from “smash the state” to “use the state”.

We can only call ourselves Leftists if we anchor our organizing on the poor and marginalized, on the urban and rural poor. But we should not disregard the middle class. Leftists tend to look down on middle class groups, seeing them as “petty bourgeois”. One of the victims of neoliberal policies in the North are the middle classes whose incomes have been stagnant for decades. Southeast Asian middle classes, whether in the service or agriculture sectors, face many obstacles that the Left can mobilise around. In the Philippines, for example, peasant groups still devote most of their energies to pushing agrarian reform, largely disregarding land reform beneficiaries and their issues.

Organizing, politics in general is a matter of communication. The reinvention of the social democratic alternative has to move from theory to figuring out the best way to communicate with groups we want to organize or coalesce with. We have to understand that the civil society base of Left parties have distinct discursive language different from that of the urban and rural poor. In the Philippines, it is the Right that has made full use of social media to advance their politics. We need to catch up, concretely to intensify organizing among the youth who are more adept at social media.

After so many years on the political margins, Leftists tend to focus on advocacy, to “bearing witness to injustice”. There will always be people who prefer to remain in these political spaces. But we should be clear about what we want: we want to build strong social democratic political parties, strong enough to win elections, take over government, and “using the state” build new welfare states. It is only by doing this that we can win not one but many victories. ###

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 1 I do not know enough about the situation in South and East Asia to say much that’s intelligent about them. I have also excluded Vietnam and Laos because the problems of socialist transition are very different from situation in the rest of Southeast Asia.

 2 Workshop on “Perspectives on the Democratic Developmental State” School of Government, University of the Western Cape, 27-28 February 2018. Populist Challenges of Renewing Social Democracy Olle Törnquist (University of Oslo).

 3 Erik Olin Wright, “Compass Points -  Towards a Socialist Alternative” New Left Review 41 September-October 2006.

 4 Wright, ibid., p.103

 5 Tornquist, op.cit.,p.1

 6 Joel Rocamora, “How Should the Left Relate to Populists – A Review”, February 19, 2017. Luky Djani and Olle Tornquist, Dilemmas of Populist Transactionalism, Jogjakarta: Polgov Publishing, 2017.

 7 Wright, op.cit.,p.100

 8 Wright, op.cit., p.103

 9 Ibid, p.100