Seeking Progressive Resurgence: Not Without a Little Help from Our Friends

There has been much talk about the crisis of social democracy and the shortcomings of the progressive agenda as the key explanation. Without disputing the priority of designing the right programme, I’d like to stress another important factor: the collapse of communities.

Our societies are increasingly fragmented. Once large-scale communities make place for smaller groups of varying cohesiveness. Some of the new types of smaller communities that spring up may display high levels of internal solidarity, but they are often also insular and divorced from society at large.

This is a vast challenge for the overarching social vision of progressive politics, and it is also an electoral problem for social democracy in that its own communities are deconstructed.

There may be various reasons for supporting a party, but let us take a brief look at some of the reasons (which are not mutually exclusive) in a theoretical breakdown: 1) A voter weighs party performance and likely actions and measures them against her preferences; 2) a citizen based on her values, with little attention to what the party is likely to do or has done in the past; 3) the individual chooses based on the party that her peer group most closely identifies with; 4) some impulse or a sense of protest.

I don’t know whether groups 1) and 4) are both growing to the same degree (my subjective sense is that 4 is gaining considerably more strength), but 2 and especially 3 are definitely in decline.

There may be some benefits to this: if there are more voters who take their democratic responsibility seriously and conscientiously weigh their choice before casting a ballot, then that takes us closer to the democratic ideal.

But as long as voters don’t let themselves be taken for suckers, there is also a great benefit in cohesive communities influencing individual choices. The ruggedly individualist or small community-based societies each bring their own indisputable benefits, such as greater freedom and more individual responsibility. In many respects this development meshes especially well with a modern conservative/liberal vision of society, in which everyone assumes greater responsibility for herself.

The disintegration of macro communities (e.g. solidarity-based political community or working class), and their associated organisations (e.g. political parties (see especially tables 3 and 4), trade unions (page 6)) is fatal to any social democratic project. Without a sense of community the argument for social justice is much harder to make.

For conservatives it has some benefits – it is perfect backdrop for taking apart welfare systems – though it has some obvious disadvantages as well, witness the decline of traditional religious institutions. Still, many people clearly continue to crave both physical and idea/value-based virtual communities.

I’d argue that the sense of community that they convey, and the void that this efforts fills, is also one of the reasons why populists succeed. This is especially striking in Eastern Europe, where the post-communist left finds it hard to connect to its voters by stressing values, or to develop any sort of emotional tie with these voters by making them part of a community of shared values.

Given their historical legacy as successor organisations to parties that operated a dictatorial regime, this much is understandable: many of the classic left-wing values that sound well-meaning in the West – e.g. equality and solidarity – carry sinister, state propaganda overtones in this region. As a result, post-communists relied on stressing their competence rather than building progressive movements based on common values.

Once the competency argument fails on empirical grounds, as it did in Poland and Hungary, legitimacy and support for these parties take a significant hit, however.

Interestingly, the right in this region often has far less problems embracing – generally on a rhetorically level – at least some of the traditional left-wing slogans, especially a robust critique of globalised capitalism, which resonates well with the public. This is then combined with the most potent community-creator, nationalism, to produce strong right and extreme right populist parties.

While the collapse of the Hungarian and Polish left is obviously a multi-causal phenomenon, an important factor is that very few people feel as part of a left-wing community. Nationalism resonates strongly, however, and it benefits from being interlaced with some left-wing catchwords. It is no coincidence that Slovakia’s Smer, a rare example in the region of a successful left-wing populist party, is not a communist successor party and is also intensely nationalistic.

Still, though the problem is primarily pronounced in Eastern Europe, it is by no means exclusive to the region.

Even in victory, classic social democratic parties suffer ever new lows, but the phenomenon is not a social democratic one. Established parties in general no longer command the loyalty of large swaths of the electorate. Some of the losses suffered by the established parties merely result from voter realignment – which is a natural phenomenon in democratic politics. This is in part their own fault because they fail to convey an ideological commitment that voters recognise and embrace, but it is also a result of social processes beyond their control.

In any case, it is highly problematic for social democracy, for reasons beyond its electoral troubles. All else being equal, voters who feel as part of a community are more likely to support a programme that is geared towards strengthening this community and its institutions.

Populist nationalism can of course serve as a cheap surrogate for a community grounded in progressive values, but such a community will by its nature be exclusive, intolerant and illiberal.

To counter this, progressive politics must find ways to reinvigorate its own political community as well as the social community at large. Of course that’s easily said. But the process can’t start without some substantial thinking devoted to these issues.

These are issues that are too self-involved (strengthening the base) or too grandiose (strengthening society) to receive much attention at the political level, but academia, media and think tanks ought to treat them as crucial questions.

Currently, the evolution of party politics points towards the inevitability of a strong professional elite working directly with loosely aligned voters rather than relying on the earlier intermediary functions of large party organisations, whose sustenance has become too costly and cumbersome. It may turn out that this is an inevitable process, but that does not mean that it should be taken for granted already.

If progressive politics can’t reinvigorate its own political community, it is arguably ill-suited for undertaking the daunting task of strengthening social cohesion and solidarity.


  1. says

    This is a fascinating piece, Gabor. Sociology has historically been possessed by the transition from ‘mechanical’ to ‘organic’ solidarity (Durkheim), from ‘Gemeinschaft’ to ‘Gesellschaft’ (the Weberian tradition), with the respective pessimistic implications of social anomie or of individuals trapped in an ‘iron cage’ of bureaucracy. Marx ‘solved’ this problem more positively with his expectation of an increasingly enlarged and homegenised Proletariat but this did not recognise the challenges Gramsci appreciated of the emergence of the ‘individualistic concept of society’ (which he welcomed) and the fact that politics had to be conceived as an ‘autonomous science’.

    In this context, the task is, arguably, to engender new, affiliative, identifications to replace ascriptive communities of fate. That is to say, as old working-class loyalties based on residence and workplace–particularly where combined, like in the mining industry–have atrophied, in the context of mass individual mobility and the replacement of industrial by ‘informational’ capitalism, new solidarities need to be institutionally engendered. And the huge growth of non-governmental organisations in capitalist societies in recent decades (albeit more awkwardly in post-Stalinist societies), with very high membership rates (including in trade unions as well as more modern social movements) and of voluntary activism particularly in the Nordic countries, does foster such a sense of a commonality of purpose–dependent too on universal welfare states based on progressive taxation–while not flattening social diversity.

    Now, there are counter-tendencies there–towards the Greenpeace type of passive-donation membership. But the rise of social media is hugely important here too in resolving the co-ordination dilemmas large-scale NGOs would previously have faced. Avaaz has grown at astronomic speed and mobilised millions in successful campaigns across the globe.

    Left parties have to react to this in two ways. First, they have to recognise that there is no longer a ‘one class, one party’ sense of political monopolisation–that the progressive spectrum will be inherently pluralistic, including liberals, feminists and greens and a flotilla of progressive parties of which social democrats can seek to be the leading ship in consensual coalitions. Secondly, they have to ensure they are more than simply mediatised electoral forces organised around presidential leaders. On the contrary, they have to reinvent themselves as internally diverse, networked and porous institutions, simultaneously attractive and responsive to new members who want to have a real say and be part of meaningful political projects, rather than simply cannon-fodder for leafleting and canvassing at election times.

    What social democrats ultimately seek to do is transform workers into citizens. This cannot be done by creating new communities of fate–given such communities are always defined over and against others, as nationalist and populist parties seek to ensure. It can be done by engendering institutional relationships through which *fellow* citizens are socialised and given collective democratic political expression. The (re-elected) Norwegian progressive coalition, with its general language of ‘collective solutions’ and, in particular, its inspiring response to the Utoya massacre, provides the best example we have.

    • Gabor Gyori says

      Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment, Robin. You’ve fleshed out some of the ideas I am struggling with considerably more elegantly than I did or could have done. I particularly agree that – in addition to the main point of generating affiliative identifications – the left has to become accustomed to greater internal diversity. In fact, in and of itself it’s a good thing, as long as the common themes work and unite.

      I’ve one more empirical point regarding NGOs. Indeed, in parallel with the collapse of traditional communities membership in civic organisations has veritably exploded over the last decades, so – outside my region – some of the indicators are very encouraging. Many of these organisations even have a substantial policy impact, though they are arguably less relevant for party politics than traditional organisations (especially unions) are, or rather used to be.

      There are two problems with this otherwise great development. For one, the vast number of organisations and their impressive memberships disguise enormous fluctuations and weak attachments. People become nominal members (i.e. the passive-donation type membership you mention), but there is no engagement in terms of real activity or real personal commitment. So while this is a positive development, its depth and impact is difficult to discern.

      Moreover, it obviously fails to translate into a political identity, a growth in the demand for social justice or solidarity or a sense of overarching community. The left clearly needs to make a sense of this panoply of small civic communities, but it is crucial note that this surge of civic activism has gone hand in hand with a decline in the popular need for progressive policies and probably also with the shrinking of an overarching progressive political community. Which is to say that whatever this surge of activism means, it is largely incapable of providing large-scale progressive political answers to problems of redistributions, opportunity, etc.

  2. Alan Wild says

    A very important response and a reminder that social solidarity has a context which can work against it and fragment co-ordinated responses by working people.

    The context is one of fragmentation – I saw a title in a library by Mignone called ‘The Fragmented Society, which referred to Italy. Italy of course is the society which has the longest history of financialisation from the Genoese
    global capitalist supremacy of 1567 – 1628 part of a longer period which saw the Florentine working class fragmented in the financial supremacy of the Medici. The Genoese bankers financed the unification of Italy in the 19th century and probably funded Mussolini as well.

    An unchallenged financial elite will seek to continue processes of the infeudation of its assets in convenient locations.The alienation of the state due to the financialisation crisis results in the re-emergence of the ‘cavalry society’ – an indolent class of rentiers who loll at ease within gated estates and occasionally ride , polo and prancing spanish horses, talking down to people on the way ( Cameron’s squalid little quasi – feudalist dystopia in West Oxford, full of Murdoch cronies). It is metaphorical to a degree of course but they like Cameron, claim unique skills in co-ordinating the social order – through ‘niceness’ – focus group ‘skills’ as hegemony.

    The question then is how do we proceed? What ideas are available to critique these matters?

    I suggest: Transaction Cost Economics with its focus on the costs of co-ordination and information. Networks and accountable hierarchies are more efficient than markets. For markets the costs include lawyers and the contracting processes which enrich them and suborn democratic accountability, as in Gove’s marketisation of British education

    We need to learn from other experiences of fragmentation and I suggest construction as a model of the effects of fragmentation. We need to go hard at the problem of Tacit Knowledge raised by Hayek ( see Strategies for a new left by Hilary Wainwright). WE all have Tacit Knowledge and not just businessmen. Michael Polanyi’s Tacit Dimension – a complete sell out to capitalist power also has important lessons.

    WE need to revisit studies of innovation initiated by working people – Tavistock Studies of Coal mining in GB from the 1940s – the 1960s are critical and relate to tacit knowledge. Other sources of ideas include the methodologies of Total Quality Management and the investment of workforces with statistical skills by Japanese
    companies ( Strategies for Learning by Robert E Cole) plus concepts of Learning Organisation and Knowledge Management – whose knowledge are they seeking to manage and appropriate and infeudate as property rights?

    We need to revive the experience of shop steward movements (Citizen Engineers by James Hinton for the 2nd war) going back to the Ist war ( Branko Pribicevic – The shop stewards movement and workers control). Finally, there is the new text on the Entrepreneurial State – public employees as concerned, active, innovative citizens who failed to appropriate their own creativity as public intellectual property and had it sold from underneath their feet on the grounds of their bureaucratic mediocrity.

    I have gone on for too long but wished to throw some ideas into the SEJ pot for reflection.