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Analysis. The decision of PSOE to stay out of the confidence debate in parliament confirms a continental trend: The socialists have created a dangerous vacuum by swinging to the right and ignoring labor.

The paradigmatic abstention of the Spanish socialists

When the European policy framework as a whole is taken into account, the decision of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) to refrain from the confidence debate in Parliament is not so surprising. It concluded with the induction of a government led once again by the Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy. Although formally no socialist ministers will be appointed, it will be difficult for the PSOE to break free from the conservative policies that most probably will characterize the next government. It is a large de facto coalition.

Spanish social democracy is therefore preparing to walk the same narrow path that led to the practical dissolution of Greek socialism (in Spain a neologism was coined about it: pasokizacion), to the subordination of the SPD, to the austerity policies of the Merkel/Schauble duo and the “non victory.” In Italy, the common good Italy alliance paid dearly for the support given by its main shareholder to the great coalition of Mario Monti.

The rest of the European socialist forces have not given the best account of themselves, in terms of political and programmatic autonomy from neo-liberalism, when they are selected to govern in the wake of an alternative vote against conservative parties. Among these, Blair Labour Party, the Hollande presidency in France, and also the Ulivo governments in Italy or Zapatero’s experience in Spain.

Standing as an electoral alternative does not constitute in itself a guarantee against the risk of transformation, which can find indeed a sublimated deployment in bipartisanship, in the absence of clear programmatic alternatives and clean references in the practice of social conflict.

When the European Socialists have earned the government based on the mechanism of alternation, as well as in those cases when it is accessed through cohabitation with the conservative parties, the reasons given for their moderate behavior are always the same: “sense of responsibility,” the need to present itself as a “credible force” to “manage the change,” the “defense of institutions” against “populism.”

Among the parties that at least nominally refer to the labor movement, a functionalist vision of their role in the political scene has spread: The parties are like deputy organizations that “run” the democracy as agencies intended to provide personnel for the neoliberal governance and its multiple levels of administration. The case of the PSOE is paradigmatic: The socialist party has contributed the most to move Iberian democracy within the neoliberal governance schemes, with the adhesion of the Gonzalez governments to NATO and Maastricht, with the expression of a Secretary General of the Atlantic Alliance and the highest representatives of the European technocracy.

But democracy is not an automatic mechanism derailed only occasionally by mishaps (the “totalitarianism”). The 19th century liberal state was born everywhere as an oligarchic system, the clearinghouse of the interests of the ruling classes. Parties as bearers of autonomous interests of subordinate groups were disliked because they represented potential obstacles in the way of the people representing the nation’s general interest (i.e. the ruling classes).

The marriage between liberalism and democracy has produced by the irruption of the labor movement on the scene — the English Chartist movement, German social democracy, Italian socialism — which forced the traditional ruling groups, very at ease in oligarchic systems, to accept the challenge of pluralistic representation of conflicting interests. In the absence of this push from the bottom, or in the presence of its defeat, the oligarchic, or even the anti-democratic option, is always on the agenda of the elites, while the labor movement has helped to improve the quality of democracy and strengthening of pluralist institutions within the goal of unbalancing the dominant structures, walking this process on the legs of a solid anchor of social conflict.

Once again, the history of Spain falls fully in this dynamic framework. The democratic vitality of the Second Republic and then the transition cannot be explained with a sudden inspiration of traditional liberal oligarchies, but with the leading role assumed by popular movements and the ability to translate it into leftist democratic practices.

The parties heirs of the labor movement, or at least their majority wings, have forgotten this lesson, contributing, with their release from representation and from the practice of conflict, to their bureaucracy and the consequent functionalist conception of their own role, to make democracy sterile.

But it would be simplistic, as well as politically unproductive, just to cry betrayal, or to bask in the illusion that the yield of European Socialists to the reasons of the restoration automatically open political spaces intended to be filled by the forces of “the true left.” Because the risk, now before everyone’s eyes, is of an oligarchic closure of continental political systems, regardless of the electoral fortunes of social democracy.

The real challenge for the alternative forces in Spain, as well as in the rest of the continent, is to rebuild the frayed relationship between democracy and conflict: an overlap between the results of the first oligarchic drift of the former, and a lack of adequate policy for the latter, would generate dangerous results.