Recently I was at a party where I got into an argument with a fellow lefty about why Europe has gone from being the place that inspires liberals & lefties to say, “why can’t we be like them?” to Austerity ‘R Us. He gave a typical US lefty answer: the European strategy of incrementalism, of gradually trying to tame & transform capitalism, had lost its radical edge and had become more and more focused on an being a good steward of the status quo rather than trying to build a more just society. I think he’s wrong. European Social Democracy didn’t stall because it was too incrementalist. It stalled because their incrementalism stopped at the border.
There’s a lot you can do in one country to improve the lives of the people who live there. But sooner or later you’re going to bump up against the limits set by our global economy. Either everybody else is going to rise up, or you’re going to get dragged down.
As European Social Democrats and radicals rebuilt their countries after World War II, they didn’t completely neglect the rest of the world. Through the UN and nonprofits, they spent modest sums of money on helping the global poor. And some expressed their solidarity with the downtrodden and Third World revolutionaries. But as export-oriented manufacturing spread –first to Japan and Mexico, then South Korea, and China and Vietnam and elsewhere – they didn’t use their considerable economic and political power to increase their fellow workers’ wages & power on the job.
Europeans had three weapons at their disposal. First, they could use their clout to increase the power of autonomous, democratic unions in the Second and Third Worlds, including helping to pay for a ton of organizers (like factory workers, organizer pay was a lot cheaper overseas than in Europe). By building strong global alliances between First World and Second and Third World unions and building strong European public support for workers’ struggles overseas, they could’ve tilted the odds in favor of Third World union organizing.
Second, as Europe recovered from World War II it became an enormously influential export market. If Second World corporations wanted to be players in this market, they had to play by Europe’s rules – and those rules could have required ever increasing standards for Second World worker pay & power. And if European social Democrats used their market clout to raise the bar globally, American progressives would have undoubtedly joined in, creating more than enough market pressure to change the game in the Second World.
Finally, as European corporations build up their presence overseas, European unionists and consumers could have pressured them to help raise standards overseas. In many European countries, unions used to have an anonymous amount of influence over the corporations in key industries, including in some cases having seats on the board. They also had the power of public opinion. There’s no reason they couldn’t have aggressively used that power, not only in pushing these corporations to act as progressively abroad as they did at home but also to push aggressively to create ever-increasing global standards in these industries (i.e., Stacking the Deck in Favor of the Good Guys).
None of this would’ve changed the global economy overnight. But over the long haul this kind of global incrementalism could’ve radically transformed the game. It would mean a better life for millions of people around the globe and given them a real say in shaping their destinies. It would have radically slowed down the loss of European manufacturing jobs. And it would’ve made it harder for big corporations and the rich to play countries against one another and to push for austerity.
It’s not surprising that European progressives didn’t follow this path. Nationalism is a very, very powerful force; it’s a hell of a lot easier to say “workers of the world unite” than to actually live it. The Small Is Beautiful strain running throughout progressivism also made many lefties suspicious of operating at the kind of scale would take to pull this off. It was way, way out of their comfort zone. And following this path would’ve required European progressives to let go of their version of the racist “noble savage” myth; it was a lot easier to romanticize El Salvador peasants then it was to really connect with a worker in a South Korea auto plant.
Progressives in European social democracies did face hard limits. But it wasn’t the limit of incrementalism that did them in.