- Interview by
- Loren Balhorn
Europe has been the site of a number of attempts to pull social democracy to the left in recent years. Some such examples inspired great hopes — but so far, at least, they have largely ended in disappointment.
Mattea Meyer and Cédric Wermuth hope to change that. These two young members of the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland (SP) have joined forces to succeed the current party president, Christian Levrat, at the party election on October 17. Both were previously leading activists in the country’s Young Socialists and belong to the left wing of the party. Their campaign has championed greater membership participation, a stronger orientation toward social movements and unions, and radical but realistic strategies to combat social inequality at home and the growing ecological crisis worldwide.
Politically speaking, there is little that separates them from left-wing icons such as Jeremy Corbyn or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But unlike their embattled comrades in the English-speaking world, Meyer and Wermuth will enter the election on October 17 without any real competition — and seem to enjoy broad support among the party. The two candidates spoke to Jacobin’s Loren Balhorn about their plans to revamp social democracy and how they think left-wing politics can win in parliament.
Elections for the copresidency of the Social Democratic Party of Switzerland will take place on October 17. You’re set to win an overwhelming majority. What would be your first official act?
The first thing we’ll do is talk to the people who currently play important roles in the party. We’ve been politically active for fifteen years but would still be acting in a new position. We want to hear where they see the future of the party, whether in terms of policy or organization.
We’ll be voting on the next bills in the National Council [lower house of parliament] in November. The so-called “corporate responsibility initiative” is particularly important to us. The idea is that in the future, corporations based in Switzerland will be liable for human rights violations and environmental destruction they commit abroad. This represents a significant part of our election program: social democracy must strengthen the internationalist dimension of its politics.
There’s also a second bill stipulating that Swiss pension funds and banks cannot invest in the business of war. A very broad mobilization has been going on for months, especially for the corporate responsibility initiative, and that makes me confident. I’ve never seen such a hotly contested vote, and the bourgeois parties are really scared that they will lose.
Your election program talks a lot about an Aufbruch, something like a “breakthrough,” for the Left, that you hope to achieve together with the party and its voters. What does that mean in concrete terms? After all, Switzerland’s political system doesn’t allow for traditional governing coalitions, like in Germany, for example.
What we mean by that is the Left has to provide answers that fit the times we live in. We want to design a program that brings together a response to the crisis of capitalism, the feminist, anti-racist, and environmental movements, and formulates a model for the twenty-first century, while improving people’s lives in a very concrete way.
Mattea especially has helped to organize some majorities in parliament in recent months that we ourselves were surprised by. For example, we introduced a new social security system for people over sixty who lost their jobs. But a breakthrough also has to mean getting more people interested in politics than before.
Sometimes it’s worth taking a look back at history. Social democracy had a decisive influence on Swiss politics in the twentieth century. It is thanks to the Social Democrats that we have a public pension, ensuring that nobody falls into abject poverty. We were at the forefront of the fight for women’s right to vote — which was not introduced in Switzerland until 1971 — and helped build the anti-nuclear movement as early as the 1970s and 1980s.
But then came a political backlash in the 1990s and 2000s. That’s the period we were politicized in. It was simply a matter of preventing the worst — a defensive struggle against neoliberalism run amok. But we didn’t manage to do much that was particularly progressive. By “breakthrough,” we mean: we finally have to go on the offensive again. And here, Social Democracy should play a leading role.
Switzerland is a rich country, with strikingly low unemployment and poverty rates. What exactly does the Left fight for in a place like that?
It is true that no one here has to live on the streets. But the pressure on the social welfare system, the last safety net, is enormous. In public debate, people are denounced and dehumanized as social parasites. People on welfare might not have to go hungry, but taking part in social life is practically impossible. For example, we have a system in which migrants and asylum seekers receive significantly lower social welfare payments.
Whatever benefits are available must be defended against attacks from the Right, but preventing the worst is not enough. The coronavirus crisis showed that there are tens of thousands of precariously employed and self-employed people in Switzerland who have no social or economic security. For example, they have no access to unemployment insurance, which offers more comprehensive benefits than social welfare. And I think that we’re now in a moment when we can get win majorities to expand these social benefits.
Swiss wages are very high compared to other European countries. But you have to remember that, at the end of the month, people still have to pay taxes, pension fund contributions, and their health insurance from those earnings. Health insurance in particular is financed in an extremely unfair manner — we all pay the same amount, no matter how high your income or other assets are. Moreover, rents have risen so explosively that in large cities you can easily pay 2,500 Swiss francs a month [$2,750] or more for a normal family apartment.
The economic successes of the last thirty years have been deeply unequally distributed. Especially in terms of assets, Switzerland is very uneven; in terms of income, we have only felt the trend in recent years. People are now feeling the pressure in their working lives, and there are fights that we have to lead for the distribution of this wealth.
In Switzerland, much of what is publicly organized in Germany is still private. For example, we have relatively few daycare centers, and in rural areas, sometimes none at all. Where I live, two children in childcare for two days per week costs about 25,000 Swiss francs, unless you receive subsidies. My partner and I can afford it because we both earn a good living, but for many people, it is not affordable.
We have a massive need for care workers. You have the same problem in Germany. We need tens of thousands of additional nurses, who are usually employed under conditions that have eroded in recent years. These are the battles we have to fight.
What we did manage to do in Switzerland, especially the SP and the unions, was to prevent deregulation of the labor market and privatization of the welfare state for the most part. We’ve been able to greatly expand the system of so-called “flanking measures” (including generally binding collective labor agreements and systematic wage controls) through political means; we now have the highest level of wage control in all of Europe. This is why there is no low-wage sector in Switzerland, as can be found in our European neighbors. We still essentially have a monopoly over basic infrastructure. Electricity, water, health care, and education are still very much state regulated and operated.
Cédric, you published a book called Die Service-public-Revolution with Beat Ringger a few months ago. In it, you argue for an expansion of the Swiss model in order to reorganize the social division of labor more justly. What does this concept stand for, and how can a parliamentary left guarantee that such a transformation will not be reversed in the next crisis?
The “Service public” is a very Swiss term that became particularly relevant in the 1990s when the question arose as to whether Switzerland would adopt the European economic model on the road to liberalizing public services. It was particularly the unions and the French-speaking left that opposed this. The concept of “Service public” goes beyond basic services and refers to public infrastructures in a broader sense, including education, for example.
In our book, we formulate a strategy for social transformation. The SP already called for a “socio-ecological economic democracy” in its program as early as 2010, but it was relatively difficult to make the concept of economic democracy understandable using this term. Die Service-public-Revolution tries to show that it is the logic of capitalism itself that blocks us politically, and moreover, that people have always resisted it, traces of which can be found in our public services, for example. There is a great potential for resistance in these public services, from retirement funds to cooperative banks and the question of how childcare should be organized.
During the coronavirus crisis, we suddenly had a debate in Switzerland about social solidarity and the public sector’s ability to act. Within forty-eight hours, the largest rescue package Switzerland has ever seen was mobilized for industry. Why can’t we do something like that when it comes to social services or the climate crisis?
We think that the Swiss model could easily include things that could serve as a model for a European left. As I said, basic infrastructure in this country is still mostly organized at the municipal level, and the labor market is heavily controlled. These represent models that could be expanded beyond Switzerland’s national borders for a Europe based on solidarity.
The idea of the book is not new: we’re looking for those elusive “non-reformist reforms.” We make a whole range of proposals, from financial services to public transport, where we can and should initiate a social transformation.
By the way, these projects are also more than capable of gaining majority support. People realize that these things improves our lives, not the supposed “free market.” Solidarity in everyday life and reliable state services have carried us through the coronavirus crisis, while the free market ensured that mask prices were driven up.
In your program, you call for the Swiss financial center in Zurich to become a global role model of social and ecological sustainability. Shouldn’t the Left instead be asking whether we need financial centers to begin with?
Sure, but the question is, how do we get there? We won’t be able to build an alternative to the financial system overnight. So instead, we’re restricting the financial center to such an extent that it is only allowed to finance what advances a solidarity-based and ecological society. This means that the financial industry will automatically lose its social significance. I think that is the realistic strategy for Switzerland.
Moreover, from an international perspective, the Swiss financial center is an important and powerful lever with which we can exert influence. A ban on climate-harming investments would be much more effective than banning plastic shopping bags. What we want to do here is to hold the banks accountable and address their major role in environmental destruction.
The fight against the absolutely untenable role of the Swiss financial center in international financial capitalism has been a constitutive element of the Left in Switzerland at least since the 1970s, such as our campaign against banking secrecy. But anyone who questions the Swiss financial center is still considered a traitor to the country. It’s like saying that we want to abolish the automotive industry in Germany.
There have been a number of successful local minimum-wage initiatives in Switzerland in recent years. I was surprised to find little about them in your program.
The starting position in Switzerland is different. In 1992, Switzerland decided against joining the European Economic Area, the EEA. After that there was the so-called “bilateral path,” bilateral agreements between the EU and Switzerland. Within the framework of this bilateral path, the Swiss trade unions enforced the so-called “flanking measures,” meaning that the wage system is jointly controlled and regulated by the trade unions, capital, and the state.
This goes much further than the minimum wage, because these collective agreements not only set minimum wages, but also all wage levels and social security entitlements above and beyond them. For example, in the construction industry we were able to reduce the retirement age from sixty-five to sixty — a unique occurrence in Europe. Because of this development, the debate on the minimum wage has lost some of its importance. However, there is a trend going on right now. The canton of Geneva just introduced a local minimum wage, which, if I’m not mistaken, is the fourth canton to do so.
You advocate Swiss participation in the EU’s “European Green Deal,” which has been strongly criticized by the European left and others as far too little. Shouldn’t Switzerland, like all wealthy countries, be doing a lot more?
We’re the only party in Switzerland that says: when we say climate justice, we mean climate as a class issue. It’s about rebuilding our society so that those who are actually responsible for climate change are held accountable. The richest 10 percent in industrialized societies cause as many emissions as the lower half of society. Of course, the EU’s Green Deal is not enough in this sense. But a few years ago, even that seemed unlikely. I think we should start there. The Swiss financial center is the global administrator of the climate catastrophe. It causes more than twenty times more climate damage than the entire Swiss population combined. That’s why this is a central issue for us.
We’re dealing with humanity’s greatest threat. We must take every step, no matter how small, to stop the crisis. That includes the Green Deal, even if it does not go far enough. But that doesn’t absolve us from fundamental criticism.
“System change, not climate change” is the popular slogan today, and for good reason. There are groups who say that everyone is equally responsible and has to pitch in. This is the answer of the powerful to the climate protests. But even in the green movement, there are those who say that only people who live vegan and have never seen an airplane from the inside are helping to avert the climate crisis. I don’t think that’s very effective.
The Greens are more strongly represented in the National Council than ever before, and it’s often suggested that they represent your closest political allies. Yet we know from Germany and Austria what direction Green parties can take. Do you think that the Swiss Greens can be a reliable partner for progressive change?
The Greens were our closest allies even before the election. We agree on 95 percent of the issues we vote on here in Parliament. I think it is rather our histories that are different. The SP has a 130-year history and comes from the labor movement. The Greens have a history of thirty, forty years and come from the environmental movement. That attracts different people.
But additionally, the answers are partly different. The Greens are perceived incredibly strongly as a monothematic party, even more so than in Germany or Austria. The competencies ascribed to the Greens are exclusively in the environmental field. The SP has a much broader base.
Generally speaking, the national parties in Switzerland are more like federations, and with the Greens, it’s even more extreme. I come from a canton where the Greens are certainly to the right of us, but at the national level, the Greens are practically in agreement on all issues. There is no comparison with the situation in Germany.
Had we done this interview a year ago, our point of departure would’ve been quite different: Jeremy Corbyn still led the Labour Party, and Bernie Sanders was still in the running to take on Donald Trump as the Democratic presidential nominee. Since then, this moment of left-wing, social-democratic awakening seems to have waned for the time being — except, apparently, in Switzerland. What have you learned from this experience?
Bernie Sanders was the first in the United States to combine the work of parliamentary and social mobilization, because he understood that this was the only to change the balance of power in the long run. He was obviously right. This lesson is important. Basically, Sanders was trying to bring together a new political subject for progressive politics, from the working class to Black Lives Matter. This is certainly the way forward.
If, five or six years ago, someone had claimed that Sanders would come close to changing politics in the United States, no one would have believed it. We shouldn’t pretend that it was all a failure. Sanders and Corbyn have shown that you can achieve something with these strategies.
Besides, we shouldn’t forget: he’s forcing Joe Biden to the left.
We’ll see about that.
Yeah, sure. But they have managed to at least shift people’s thinking, which had moved to the right in recent years, to the left, and that’s something that should not be underestimated.
We also have to distinguish between Corbyn and Sanders. Sanders was not a lost fight — not to mention the fact that he inspired a new generation with the young people around Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others. Corbyn, on the other hand, can be called a catastrophe, because he tried to do the right thing, but he made serious tactical mistakes and maybe was the wrong person for the job.
The great danger is that Labour will draw the wrong conclusion from this and say, “Never again will we adopt a left-socialist program, never again will we bring together a traditional trade union movement with new social movements, and instead go back to a conservative, right-social-democratic strategy.” This is more devastating and dangerous than what happened in the United States.