Social rights, the forgotten aspect of liberal democracy

30 December 2016 /

The current global context leaves little room for optimism. After the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, all eyes are turned to the 2017 French election – fearing the Front National’s accession to power. Distrust towards the political establishment and globalization is often presented as the reason for this shift towards the far-right side of the political spectrum. It misses the broader dynamic behind such a phenomenon: a backlash against liberal democracy for setting aside social rights.

 © Occupy Sandy (
© Occupy Sandy (

The Janus-faced democracy

Prior to analyzing the relationship between the lack of social rights and populism, it is fundamental to understand the essence of democracy. It is not a well-defined concept:  there is not a single definition of what democracy is or ought to be. The trade-off between liberty and equality (De Tocqueville, 1981) embodies the tension between two competing ideal-types of democracies. On the one hand, there are the proponents of liberal democracy: those believe that democracy is mainly about liberty. In that case, democracy is understood as a social pact in which the State ensures political and civil rights. As a result, its role is minimal, particularly when it comes to the management of the economy. On the other hand, there are the proponents of the social democracy: they advocate for a democracy that has for objective to protect citizens’ social rights – that is, all the rights that concern their well-being. In that case, democracy is understood as a social pact in which the State not only ensures the respect for political and civil rights, but also social rights. It is a system in which the State has more comprehensive competences (Delwit 2013). The consensus on the aforementioned trade-off is rather unstable, and has varied a lot over time.

From liberal democracy to social democracy

While concerns for social rights were present within the political elite since the 19th century, it is only after World War II that a growing consensus arose on the importance of a full-fledged Welfare State for the good-functioning of democracy. This consensus stemmed from the broadly accepted discourse that the rise of inequalities fueled nationalism, which in turn, led to the bloodiest war of all time. By imposing sanctions on Germany after World War I, the treaty of Versaille undermined the economic development much needed to rebuild the country. Yet, as a State is no more than the embodiment of the people, those sanctions affected most and foremost the people themselves. Not surprisingly, all this made it all the easier for the Nazis to win the 1933 election. The people were suffering, and the Nazis offered a rationale,  the stab-in-the-back myth, and a scapegoat to explain their suffering while proposing to restore the national economy. In other words, the violation of social rights was a breeding ground for anti-democratic movements.

It is only after World War II that a consensus was set on the importance of full-fledged Welfare State in the good-functioning of democracy.

Therefore, after World War II, an emphasis was put on the importance of the social aspect of democracy. Rather than settling for a basic scope of social rights limited to certain groups of the population: the elderly, the disabled and the sick (Castel 1995, 29), social rights were expanded on the basis of an insurance logic. Every citizen had to be insured against potential negative life events such as a lack of remuneration due to sudden unemplotment or sickness. Social rights expanded also in the realm of labour law. Minimum wages and fair work conditions soon became basic social rights (Delwit 2013). The results of such policies were a resorption of social inequalities between poor and rich.

Back to liberal democracy

The consensus around social protection weakened during the economic depression of the seventies symbolized by its two oil shocks. It was a time of double-digit inflation during which the Keynesian paradigm – pumping money in the economy during period of economic crisis – was questioned for its inability to adapt to the new context. A shift occurred from the Keynesian economic model to neoliberalism, marking the return to liberal democracy. From that time onwards, neoliberal policies have included: exclusion from social protection, massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services (Monbiot 2016).

 The consensus around social protection weakened during the economic depression of the seventies symbolized by its two oil shocks.

After four decades of such a regime, economic growth has remained low. Yet, the costs of those neoliberal policies and reforms were not borne by everyone equally but mostly by the lower and middle classes. Among those who have a stable job, many face increasing difficulties to make the ends meet (Allen 2016). There has been a loss in term of purchasing power: the prices of essential goods such as housing have become unaffordable for many (Collinson 2016). Among those who do not enjoy a stable job, that is an expanding range of the population, not only do they have to deal with their decreasing purchasing power but also have to cope with precarious employment and live with a constant social bashing for being part of the societal and economical problem (Monbiot 2016). The standards of living of both the former and the latter have decreased. In contrast, the upper class, that benefited from neoliberal policies such as tax cuts, reaped most of the benefits of this period. As a result, social inequalities have surged,  again. For instance, ” in 2010, the top 10% of European best-paid workers obtained 25.5% of total wages, while the lower half of workers got less than 30%” (ILO 2016).

Political backlash against liberal democracy

The resentment against the political establishment and globalisation is the result of a social dissatisfaction towards the current state of democracy – its liberal form. This dissatisfaction, however, appears to have been left aside by the political elite since, even by the left-wing parties. The latter which are supposed to protect those most in need seem to agree on the necessity of a neoliberal governance (Chakrabortty 2016) or at least have no choice than to accept it. This was particularly conspicuous in France during Hollande’s term or, more recently, it can be illustrated by the Greek Syriza party’s acceptance of auterity measures. As a result, a part of the deceived electorate turns towards more extreme political figures who offer alternative solutions.

The resentment against the political establishment and globalisation is a result of a social dissatisfaction towards the current state of democracy – its liberal form.

To conclude, remarks are twofold. First, the good functioning of democracy is closely linked to economic and social policies. Politicians, when designing those policies, should bear this in mind. By taking into account only economic objectives – and forgetting about social rights by the same token –, they set the ground for populist movements. Second, stemming from the first point, liberal democracy might be an elusive objective as its liberal nature results in the undermining of democracy during times of economic stagnation.

Marin Capelle is a student at the Institut d’étude européenne.

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