It would be rather easy to accurately forecast the future of Greek social democracy if it had a visible past. However, even though in Greece we had social democrats amongst our politicians -like Kostas Simitis- can we really claim to have had social democracy?
An indicative sign of this confusion is that in Greece the vast majority both of citizens and, unfortunately, of politicians as well imagine social democracy as the party of the Centre that represents the opposition to Conservatism and the Left.
These stereotypes turn the Party of the European democratic Left into a spineless Centre. And there is more to it than that. Social democracy is viewed as the party of meritocracy and the “worthy ones” rather than the party of equality and “equals”.
Piketty argues that modern social democracy has turned into a Brahmin Left. This is his explanation for the defeat or decline of its ranks, especially in Scandinavia, Germany and Central Europe, to slightly below or just over 20%. In Greece, it gained just over 10% of the votes, a figure that does not inspire enthusiasm. Yet Iberian social democracy is still standing strong. Why is that? Because while Brahmin northern social democracy abandoned the working classes and the value of equality for the sake of wealth allocation to those who are “worthy” and “meritocracy”, in Spain and Portugal, priority was given to the quality of labour, its protection and, of course, the level of people’s wages.
In the rest of Europe, they felt that focusing on the working classes undermined the common thread of the two poles (social democracy and the Centre-Right), which after 1980, turned into what we call “trickle-down economics” with the theory of “the worthy” at its core. In other words, favouring the wealthy – especially those in the stockbroking sector or with income generated from it – so that more wealth is accumulated at the top levels and from there starts to trickle down to the bottom. This would happen automatically as far as the Centre-Right is concerned, or in an organised and scheduled manner, in the case of social democracy, but the priority of accumulating wealth at a top level was not disputed by either of them.
Others argue that its downfall is due to the fact that it embraced identity issues but forgot about social inequalities. The second part of the argument above is correct. Social democracy did indeed forget the issue of the various existing inequalities. Yet the first part of the argument is wrong. It was not social democracy’s focus on identities’ issues that led it to lose so much of its appeal and impact. This was due to the fact that it too became a party that prioritises wealth accumulation and only after that is achieved does it look for ways to redistribute it. On the contrary, up until then, the position of social democracy – and this may come as a big surprise to some young social democrats – was that redistribution (in the form of the welfare state) was a prerequisite for economic growth and production.
Is any of the above relevant to PASOK-KINAL, which with 11.9% of the votes is the representative of Greek social democracy? Yes, although only to a limited extent. The party’s main concern is how it will overtake SYRIZA P.S. My concern is that even if this does happen, nothing will change as a result, in terms of the Centre-Right’s dominance in the country. A country in which, as surveys show, the majority of the people embrace Centre-Left values but vote for parties of the Centre-Right. In a research conducted by the Eteron think tank entitled “An Insight into the Minds of Voters: Ideologies, Stances, Positions”, which was conducted a few months prior to the last two elections (more specifically in March 2023), 36% of citizens said that the ideological current/party that “could ensure a better future for Greece and its citizens” is the Centre-Left, while the respective percentage for the Centre-Right/Right was limited to 31%.
The June election results were the complete opposite: 41% voted for Nea Dimokratia (ND) and 30% was the aggregate for both SYRIZA and PASOK. Why was this the case? Because both played Mr Mitsotakis’ game, namely that of the theory of “the worthy” and meritocracy (PASOK did that more so than SYRIZA). Hence both are competing with Mr Mitsotakis on who promises the biggest tax cuts, instead of who proposes equality ensuring policies in the workplace, as well as in Education and Healthcare. As long as the debate does not change its focus, all that will remain at stake for PASOK-KINAL and SYRIZA P.S. will be the second place, that of the Official Opposition.
The Greek party system has another distinctive characteristic. While after 2010 it seemed to follow the path of other European party systems, whose major priority is their fluidity, it then started to acquire characteristics of what I call “unipolar pluralism”. On the one hand there is a very powerful party pillar, representing a conservative liberalism, and on the other, two smaller parties, one left-wing and one belonging to the centre-left, which are very far from it, and the image is completed by small but highly toxic for Greece’s political and social life, far-right formations. Against this background, the question becomes whether social democracy, whatever it may be, and the radical Left, whatever that may be, can each separately challenge the political and ideological dominance of the conservative-liberalism expressed by Mr Mitsotakis? Everything indicates that this is impossible, at least in the current political and ideological context.
The only way to counter this unipolar pluralism of conservative liberalism is to establish the opposing pole of progressive liberalism. Otherwise, as long as the debate seems to revolve around the conflict between pro-European forces and populists, the real contradictions in Greek society become incredibly distorted and the work of Mr Mitsotakis on the one hand, and of far-right non-inclusive populism on the other becomes easier. A return to the opposing sides of progressive liberalism and conservative liberalism is essential for the victory of the democratic forces against those of far-right obscurantism.
For this to happen, both sides -namely the Centre-Left and the Left- must understand that despite their great differences and the even greater “enmities” of the past, their organic if not organisational unity is the only way to re-establish a strong bipolar system of democratic forces. It is the only way for the dominance of the centre-left values that appears to exist in most public opinion surveys, to also prevail at a political level. But for this to happen, both must refocus on the issues of equality and not on those concerning the “worthy”. In other words, they should stop seeing “the forces that promote major reforms on the basis of the principles of meritocracy” as progressive, thus presenting the maxims of conservative liberalism as principles of social democracy and progressive liberalism. This is very far from being true.