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Labour Reads: ‘The Tragedy of Social Democracy’ by Sirvan Karimi

Labour Reads: ‘The Tragedy of Social Democracy’ by Sirvan Karimi

The Tragedy of Social Democracy
The Tragedy of Social Democracy

Howard A. Doughty, Local 560 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how ill-prepared the world has been to handle this outbreak. 

It demonstrated how unwilling and unable leaders of finance, commerce, and industry were to respond to their employees, their customers, and the governments that asked them to do such relatively simple things such as making a huge amount of personal protective equipment quickly. 

It revealed the worst of arrogant, incompetent, and unethical political leaders from Brasilia to Mar-a-Lago. It also opened people’s eyes to the crucial importance of the public sector and the severe limitations of the private sector in meeting human needs. 

Unfortunately, since all of us are suffering the economic, emotional, and too often actual medical consequences of this catastrophe – albeit to varying degrees – some say that this isn’t the time to think about politics. “Let’s pull together,” they say, and “delay finger-pointing until the new normal arrives.” Then, we can take stock and plan for a better future. Here’s the problem: by then it will be too late. The dominant powers are already planning – for their own good, not ours. 

Enter Sirvan Karimi, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration at York University. Actually, he has been around a while. The Tragedy of Social Democracy was published five years ago, but it coulda/shoulda been yesterday. 

That’s not immediately obvious since it discusses trends that were emerging in Europe almost 150 years ago, political struggles that took place almost 100 years ago, and more recent conflicts of ideology and interests that landed us in the “neoliberal” trap of the past 50 years. It does so efficiently and clearly. 

Karimi discusses the differences between “liberals” and “social democrats.” He discusses the problems of wit and will that have stymied both since about 1970. That’s when the global corporate sector started effectively opposing unions, social investment, social assistance, and environmental regulation. It tore away the relative equity and prosperity that followed World War II and replaced progress with the domination of the “one per cent” – privatization, a war on the public sector, and the public good. 

The “tragedy” that Karimi diagnoses is the seeming collapse of the progressive agenda that brought us Medicare, almost provided universal childcare, and showed signs of challenging climate change. He explores the roots of that failure and explains what’s needed if we are to regain momentum toward a healthier, happier, and better society. 

Karimi stresses the public policies most essential to progress and the political tactics needed to achieve them. He clarifies complex issues and shows what’s required if the promise of our society is to be fulfilled for us all. It’s an enlightening read. 


Sirvan Karimi, The Tragedy of Social Democracy. Halifax: Fernwood Publications. 2015, 105 pages. ISBN: 9781552667729