12 maggio 2009


Megaron Plus – Athens, May 12, 2009

Dear friends,
let me first of all thank Ségolène Royale for her invitation to participate in this conference, and George Papandreu and the comrades of Pasok for their friendly welcome. It is for me a great honour to speak at the end of a debate in which we have been listening to so many distinguished personalities.
The subject that we have been invited to discuss is one of crucial relevance for left-wing and Socialist militants, leaders and intellectuals: “Which future for socialdemocracy?” I shall of course focus on European socialism, and I wish to start from what appears today as a thoroughly astonishing paradox.
The current crisis marks a deep change in times. This is not just a financial, economic and by now also heavily social crisis. It is a political and cultural crisis, too. It is the end of a cycle characterised by unregulated globalization and domination of an ultra-liberal ideology. The dogmatic delusion that the market-place is infallible has faded away. Public debate is turning back to ideas which are among the fundamentals of socialist tradition: first of all, the idea that politics and democratic institutions must orient and regulate economic development, because this is the only way in which capitalist development can be reconciled with the principles of democracy, social justice and respect for individual liberties. We are now rediscovering that money does not produce money, as the financial oligarchy wanted us to believe: that wealth and value are produced by labour, as written in our classics. The world will emerge from this crisis deeply transformed. We are undoubtedly on the threshold of a new phase of economic globalization where the need for equality and human advancement will play a bigger role.
Major change is going on in the political arena as well. First of all, the change in the United States of America. The neo-con season of unilateral decisions and aggressive policies is over. The new Administration has announced a turnaround: the search for dialogue with the Islamic world and with Iran, and a renewed engagement for peace in the Middle East. The stress is now put on the need for dialogue, on the preference for Western soft power or, at least, smart power, rather than the brutal use of force. The US have announced their intention to close Guantanamo and put an end to the times when torture and violations of human rights were justified in the name of the war on terror. At long last, they are advocating a multilateral vision of world order and, in this context, the need for a more balanced US-EU partnership. In other words, our ideas are in demand again: even those we ourselves had forgotten, or didn’t dare pronounce too loud, because we thought they were hopelessly out of fashion.
But here is the paradox: at the very times of such a major turnaround, it is Socialism in Europe that seems to be in the biggest trouble. There are certainly differences, and exceptions to the rule: I hope a Greece led by George Papandreu will soon be one of them. However, most of our continent is nowadays governed by conservative leaders. The decline of the neoliberal Right does not seem to benefit progressive forces; on the contrary, in many European countries it seems to favour a populist, nationalist Right, sometimes openly reactionary and racist. And yet, while this happens in Europe, in the rest of the world it is the major progressive forces that are guiding the effort to open up a new perspective beyond the crisis, laying the basis for a new economic and political season. It is the Democrats in the US, and a wide range of other progressive forces, leaders and political parties, that are leading the big emerging countries, from India to Brazil and South Africa. And let me add that most of these political parties do not belong to the socialist culture and tradition, although they cooperate or have an ongoing dialogue with the Socialist International.
Why then it is right here, in Old Europe, that progressive forces seem to be facing the most difficult challenge? Why right in this part of the world where democratic values, social justice and individual liberties have seen their highest realization through the centuries? We seem to be witnessing the same polarization as in the 1930s, when faced with the great crisis and Depression, America chose the New Deal whereas the heart of Europe was taken over by nationalism, fascism and anti-Semitism. I obviously do not think that this tragedy could come about again today. However, there is a risk that our continent may head towards a pattern of decline that is not only economic, but also political, civic and cultural. The risk is that in the new world emerging from this crisis Europe may have less influence, and our culture and civilization a waning role.
A bright French sociologist, Dominique Moïsi, has described today’s world as split in three emotional camps : hope, throbbing in the great countries asserting themselves as the new protagonists of the international scenario; grudge, among the excluded and the losers; and fear, among the rich who are afraid to lose their privileges. Europe is by far the continent of fear. Fear of the aggressive competition of Asian economies, fear of immigrants upsetting our social order and perceived by the poorest as an enemy and a threat, now more than ever, in the midst of crisis and unemployment; fear of terrorism and Islam, which have exacerbated the impression of living in a fortress under siege, and the desire to turn to a strong and deeply rooted civic and religious identity.
The Right has built its strength on these fears: in many countries, it has presented itself to the weakest social classes as the only force which can protect people and uphold established interests and values.
In the second half of the Nineties, the great majority of Europeans turned to us, to the socialist and centre-left forces, to find answers and protection vis-à-vis the challenges of globalization; but, on the whole, we were not able to deliver a positive response to such wide-spread public demand. Faced with this challenge, European Socialists took different roads. Some countries and parties embraced the illusion that the effects of globalization could be restrained and that it was possible simply to defend the social structures embedded in the welfare state and in the century of socialdemocracy; while other parties and leaders enthusiastically embraced global capitalism, and innovated our vocabulary. They stopped speaking of employment, preferring to speak of employability; they replaced the word protection with opportunity; they set aside the word welfare and chose to speak of education. All of us – though not all to the same extent – have felt the influence of this innovation, mainly originated in the New Labour. Certainly this helped us win another term in government for socialist parties. Nevertheless, we did not succeed in repairing the growing social inequalities generated by the unfettered development of global capitalism; we basically appeared to be treading in the footsteps of neoliberal culture and are therefore included among the forces held accountable for the current crisis.
Faced with globalization, European socialism - both in its traditional components and in its most innovative sectors - has not managed to move beyond the scope of national reformism. More specifically, I believe that the great opportunity represented by the process of European political integration has not been fully grasped. The advent of the single currency called for a quantum leap: we should have harmonized development policies, fiscal and budget policies, research and innovation policies. We should have built a true social Europe, governing the challenge of immigration jointly, in a mutually supportive way. We should have enhanced the budget and powers of the European Union, opening the way to a “European reformism” capable of stepping beyond the limits of nation state experiences. This was the prospect suggested by Jacques Délors.
We shouldn’t forget that at that time 11 out of 15 EU countries were led by Socialists. We tried to point out a new way at the Lisbon European Council: a bold reformist program, but it was not sustained by strong institutions, appropriate resources and a clear political will.
The challenge of a global world lies precisely in the ability to govern processes at a supranational level. Europeans have the most advanced democratic form for the governance of globalization. It would be in the best interest primarily of socialists and progressives, to give value and strength to the Union institutions: the Right, after all, believes in the miraculous virtues of the market-place. But we too have been timid and self-restrained in using the EU potential strengths. It is no mere chance, that the decline in pro-European sentiment among European citizens, underlined by the outcome of the French, Dutch and Irish referendums, is accompanied by a fall in socialdemocratic influence in many big countries of our continent. For the Right things are easier. The Right we face today has an instrumental and reductive vision of Europe, linked to the self interests of each individual state. In their view, European institutions are nothing more than an arena for debate and compromise among governments. There is a strong return to nationalism. The Right provides simple, regressive solutions to the dismay of individuals in a “liquid society”, to the difficult challenge of living together with people of different races and backgrounds: the rediscovery of identity-based roots and local allegiance, the appeal to traditional values (God, fatherland, family), the political use of religion (the European Judaic-Christian tradition) divested of its quest for universality and reduced to Western religion in clash with other civilizations. The Right reacts to the malaise of workers and productive classes by feeding protectionist illusions and urging hostility against immigrants, or rebellion against any form of social solidarity (as in Italy between the rich North and the less developed South).
These answers are undoubtedly sustained by the strength of a brutal simplification of reality. They are basically delusions, bringing about a risk of mystification and violence; but they find their way among the most disadvantaged social groups, who feel more scared and less protected than others in the defence of their traditional achievements. Exposing this deceit, however, is not enough: unless Socialdemocracy and the Centre-Left are willing to restrain themselves to the representation of an enlightened and protected minority (teachers, civil servants, pensioners or the intellectual, educated and well-meaning bourgeoisie who live in areas where there are no immigrants or Roma at all).
Let me say something – and I hope I don’t sound too archaic. The primary problem for progressives today is to regain strong roots among the people: starting with our ability to interpret social conflict in its modern shapes, to represent the world of labour, and give voice to its best interests. Never as today has it been so clear that labour – and I mean not just manual labour, but also self-employed workers, and small businesses – has paid the highest price for the distorted development of the last 15 years, which has benefited financial income and speculation. True, protectionism would be a selfish and unsustainable answer to the difficulties of European productive systems, and also to the predicament of our workers; but the necessary opening of markets will work only if accompanied by an expansion of social and labour rights. We have experienced these last months the great lesson of a disaster caused by financial deregulation. Now let us try to prevent other pending disasters, caused by social or environmental deregulation.
The crisis has not been an accident due to the calculation mistakes or unscrupulous greed of a few bankers. It has underlined an utter lack of regulation and controls, which reflects a democratic deficit, due to the asymmetry between the ascent of a global economy and the weakness of international institutions, or the inadequacy of old nation states. In a progressive vision, the theme of democracy has regained a central place, as a crucial issue to re-establish a strong outreach to public opinion, in our countries. This is true at all levels: as industrial democracy in the workplaces; as democratic rights of consumers, savers and users; as democratic rights to participation, control and transparency. And as a democracy producing strong supranational institutions, able to orient development towards shared goals, not only in quantitative terms but also in terms of human advancement.
The second major theme we need to focus upon, in order to advance a progressive response to the current crisis, is equality. Throughout these years we have been somewhat shy to use this word; possibly influenced by our memories of the levelling egalitarianism of bureaucratic socialism. We have preferred to speak of equal opportunities. No doubt this is still correct; but at the same time, we need to revamp our engagement to greater fairness in the distribution of wealth. During these years intolerable inequalities have been created: not only between rich and poor countries but also within our societies. In Italy, for example, in the last 15 years, while labour revenues have basically stagnated, capital gains have grown by 44%. The recent OECD Report (December 2008), Growing unequal. Income distribution and poverty in OECD countries, shows that, despite a significant growth in global wealth, in recent years poverty and social inequality have also increased, in the vast majority of developed countries.
All this has not only brought about unfair societies; it has also has turned out to be one of the reasons of the economic crisis. Unequal distribution of wealth does not sustain internal market and consumption growth, it does not give value to labour, nor does it pay fair wages, and it reduces worker motivation, eventually leading to lower labour productivity. We need to rediscover and reward the great value of hard work, of the intelligence and efforts of working women and men. We need to value and reward labour and production, against the excesses of speculation and capital gains. Here are the motivations for a modern social conflict, in which the European centre-left must take a leading role, if it is to regain roots within society. At the same time, we must support innovation, after too many years of development based on the low wages in emerging countries, while the domination of Western finance in the world bred an inflow of wealth into our countries unsustained by any productive or innovative capacity. What we need is not only process innovation to gain competitive edge, but also product innovation, reorienting development towards green technologies, new energy sources in alternative to oil and coal, and biomedical research; just as the new Democratic Administration in the US has chosen to do, marking a great turning point in today’s world.
All this calls into question the European dimension and the European Union itself. Undoubtedly, only at this level can we attain the kind of change I have tried to outline, enabling our continent to stand up to the major changes which are sweeping the international scenario. So far, the decisions of the Union have not been up to what is required. Despite the momentum coming from the other side of the Ocean, European institutions, dominated as they are by conservative forces, have not had the courage to promote a high profile response to the crisis. They have chosen to rely on the individual decisions of each national government, to relax the bonds of European cohesion, instead of creating the conditions for a common effort. But let’s be frank: we are not witnessing a strong socialist answer, a strong socialist platform, a strong socialist initiative, either. And yet, this is the arena where a crucial challenge for the future of socialdemocracy in Europe can either be won or lost.
By way of conclusion, let me say that despite the many difficulties, I am not pessimistic about the future of European socialists.
Hard facts tell us that we are needed, that our values are needed – provided we have a courageous leadership, moving in the right direction:
1. Regaining roots among the people and among the workers.
2. Taking into our hands the flag of European political unity.
3. Having a world vision free of euro-centric arrogance, taking stock that we have a lot to learn from the progressive and democratic forces that are leading major processes of change in the United States, in India, in Brazil, in Africa.