Beyond the Sunday Rhetoric of Social Democratic Basic Values

We have entered an age of fear. Insecurity is once again an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Insecurity born of terrorism, but also, and more insidiously, fear of  the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of our daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have also lost control, to forces beyond their reach.

In his intellectual testament Ill Fares the Land, Tony Judt gave this alarming statement. He added:

We have entered an age of insecurity – economic insecurity, physical insecurity, political insecurity. The fact that we are largely unaware of this is small comfort: few in 1914 predicted the utter collapse of their world and the economic and political catastrophes that followed. Insecurity breeds fear. And fear – fear of change, fear of decline, fear of strangers and an unfamiliar world – is corroding the trust and interdependence on which civil societies rest.

The Social Cleavage in Societies

We are experiencing an alarming shortcut between elites and non-elites. In the process of adaptation to the New Global World Order, there has been a fundamental breakdown of communication between elites and the general population. The pressures of adaptation to the new globalised world are particularly directed towards those who do not fit into the new international knowledge based economy, the unskilled and the low-skilled. The overall discourse of adaptation and competitive adjustment has a strong bias against the lower middle class and non-academic professionals. This bias is one of the root causes for populist resentment and revolt. Policy and political elites are selling and producing insecurity and uncertainty, instead of showing security and stable leadership in a world of flux.

Unease and distrust in contemporary European society must be located at more levels than merely that of the welfare state reform. We are experiencing a shift right across the board: the magic of the post-war period seems to be all used up. The post-war ideal of European unification, the post-war welfare state model and the post-Holocaust tolerance for the foreigner; they all seem to be eroding and under pressure. The overall process of internationalisation (neoliberal globalisation, mass immigration, European integration) is producing a gap of trust and representation between elites and population around questions of social justice and ‘belonging’, i.e. cultural and national identity.

There are some who dismiss the discontent electorates, one-dimensionally and straightforward, as xenophobic nationalists, as frightened enemies of the open society, as people who turn their back on the future, as deniers of the new global and diverse future world order. But these critics are of the mark. There is a great danger involved when a cosmopolitan post-national elite carelessly argues away nation state democracy and national identity, just at the moment that the nation state is for many a last straw of identification to cling to, a beacon of trust in a world in flux.

A casual cosmopolitan reaction also painfully denies the strong polarising forces to which society is currently subjected and which have very different results for different groups. It denies the extremely weak socio-cultural and political climate in Europe, which is reflected by the pan-European rise of the populist (radical) right and left-wing ‘protectionism’. At stake is the crisis of trust and political representation and the new sociological fault line in today’s European society between so-called globalisation winners and globalisation losers.

Europe suffers, with retardation, from an immigration-trauma. While in many countries migration supports the economy and contributes to wealth and welfare, it also leads to serious problems of deprivation and marginalisation. Unemployment, early school leaving, poverty, crime, segregation: these are the symptoms of failing integration. They provoke fierce reactions. In nearly all European countries populist anti-immigration parties enter the political arena, in many cases quite successfully. A popular revolt against diversity and the multicultural society is rising. It threatens core social and cultural achievements of social democracy. Countering it (not least by addressing head on its deep-rooted causes) is one of the most pressing challenges for European social democratic parties.

The biggest risk for contemporary society is an unprecedented cleavage between higher educated and lower educated, between cosmopolitan and nationalistic or libertarian and authoritarian orientations, between those who embrace the future and those who fear the future, people who believe that the new world holds nothing good in store for them. This split is representing the fragmentation within our middle class society at large, as a result of the strong forces of globalisation, mass migration, individualisation and the post-industrial knowledge based economy. Research in many countries is demonstrating this cleavage between those who are able to connect internationally, and those who cannot connect  internationally, between national, local citizens and non-bound international oriented citizens. In the literature, a distinction has already been made between ‘multilingual mobiles’ and ‘single language, localised immobiles’.

Reinventing the Volkspartei

In this respect, the problems of the post-war Volksparteien, the mainstream parties of the middle, are a pars pro toto, a mirror for what’s happening in society at large. The pressures of division and fragmentation on the people’s parties are the pressures within society. What may fundamentally be under attack is the social cohesion or social fabric of our societies. What could be under attack is the European social model, defined as the solidaristic welfare-coalition, the connector between privileged and underprivileged, between lower and higher middle class.

The point is, that Europe faces a dangerous populist revolt against the good society of both the neoliberal business community and progressive academic professionals. The revolt of populism is to a certain extent ‘produced’ by the economic and cultural elites. They advocate, without much historical or sociological reflection, their ‘brave new world’ of the bright, well-educated, entrepreneurial and highly mobile. Their TINA-project is creating fear and resentment under non-elites. The deterministic image of a future world of globalisation, open borders, free flows of people, lifelong-learning in the knowledge-based society is a nightmare world for non-elites, the ’losers of globalisation’.

In the elite narrative, sizable parts of the middle and working class are being confronted with economic and psychological degradation. Theirs is no longer the future. They feel alienated, dispossessed and downgraded, because the society in which they felt comfortable, in which they had their respected place and which has been part of their social identity is being pushed aside by new realities. To what extent can the ideology of ’globalism’, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism can be reconciled with the heritage of national democracy and welfare state communitarism? To what extent can a uniform global culture of neoliberal and hedonistic capitalism be reconciled with the rich cultural diversity of the world?

Contrary to the gospel of the postmodern, cosmopolitan pundits who advocate the self-abolition of the nation state in favour of new geopolitical power centres, unstable and disrupting undercurrents in European society require prudence in (the frantic discourse on) permanent modernisation and innovation. I once referred to this as ’the pornography of change’. But it also requires a revaluation of nation state democracy as a forum for restoration of trust, as an anchor in uncertain times, as a source of social cohesion between the less and the better educated, between migrants and non-migrants. A restoration of trust between politicians and citizens will have to take place first and foremost at the national level – the only tested legitimate arena for democracy – as will the creation of a harmonious multi-ethnic society. European integration should facilitate and protect these processes, not sabotage or destroy them.

Precondition for regaining political trust is also the renewal or even reinvention of the Volkspartei, as a bridge between the winners and losers of the new world trends. This new Volkspartei will possibly emerge from coalition-building encompassing other political parties, as well as civil society-actors (from churches to trade unions, from social networks to socially engaged businesses and entrepreneurs), and should design a new deal between the privileged and the less privileged: a pact of socio-economic security and cultural openness, forging a new idea of progress based also on a sensibility for cultural and identity politics (because the big discontent and unhappiness in affluent welfare democracies is to a serious extent about community, social cohesion and security: post-materialist problems of social psychology and well-being).

It is importnat to force and restore the divide between left and right in politics – to design alternative scenarios of adaptation to the new world trends in order to fight the dangerous populist cleavage between the (false entity of) the establishment and the (false entity of) people. Indeed, we must be tough on populism and tough on the causes of populism.

This post is part of the ‘Basic Values Debate’ jointly organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Social Europe Journal. Read more on the future of the state: ‘The Task of the State and its Responsibilities for the Future’.