Culminating in the current economic crisis, neoliberal restructuring has led to growing social disintegration and increasing exclusion from societal participation. This indicates a profound social and a latent political crisis, as reflected by, partly tremendous, electoral gains of the extreme right in many European countries. Reawakening nationalisms and increasing xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia and sexism characterise present developments in European societies and undermine their democratic fundamentals. They challenge the present system of power and dominance and, in this way, show the urgency of a renewal of political economy.
The reformist perspective of renewal I will briefly sketch out in this contribution, though remaining within a capitalist framework, aims at comprehensive societal inclusion by minimising social divisions and hierarchies. Taking the existing order of society as its starting point, it offers a possible path of re-orientation for social democracy towards solidarity as a guiding principle of social order and, simultaneously, towards a profound democratisation of society. It describes a step-by-step restructuring of the regulatory framework of capitalism which relies on markets, but subordinates them to politics. Economic prosperity is not regarded as a goal of its own, but as a means to a good life, which involves provision for material as well as non-material needs. By non-material needs I refer, first of all, to self-determined free time, allowing to escape the ‘permanent economic tribunal’ of competition, economic success and fear of failure, offering time for oneself and for others – time for social relations – as a prerequisite of solidarity and political engagement, and finally opening life perspectives beyond market usability. I will focus on two closely related and intrinsically overlapping dimensions of renewal that seem, alongside with strict global regulation of financial markets (Tobin tax) and reforms of institutional representation (involvement of unemployed and precariously employed, transparency vis-a-vis growing informalisation of decision-making), crucial to me: socio-economic policies and economic knowledge and discourse.
Alongside broad public debate on the recognition of activities as work, a general and radical reduction of work hours and the equal distribution of gainful employment as well as unpaid care work might serve as starting points for a profound revision of wage-structures by re-valuating work according to societal necessities and for the establishment of minimum as well as maximum income levels. A step-by-step reduction of weekly work hours to 30 could be combined with wage adjustments based on solidarity, implying an increase of low wages and a decrease of wages above for example 3500 Euro. The redistribution of work between the genders, furthermore, involves extensive gender equality measures with regard to gainful employment, orientation towards gender parity in all occupations and continuous initiatives against gender stereotypes and sexism. Obligatory quotas with respect to all leading positions (from medium level upwards) in enterprises, public administration and politics certainly are important instruments in this context.
Furthermore, equal access to social security, especially health care, must be guaranteed to all permanent residents. And so does some basic income above the subsistence level – not conceptualised as an anti-poverty measure but as an element of a much broader emancipatory project aimed at overcoming existing dependencies and hierarchies, opening spaces for creativity, social and political engagement, new forms of economic exchange and, finally, more self-determination. In order to reduce the risks of raising gender disparities and further marginalising women in the labour market related to a basic income, once more, comprehensive gender equality measures and affordable public services with special regard to child care and care for the elderly must be extended.
Such measures of redistribution imply a profound restructuring of tax systems, in particular, increasing the taxation of wealth and capital in relation to labour and a general extension of progressive components as well as the reduction of regressive dimensions (excise tax) of taxation are top priorities. A basic reform of public revenues (including a financial reorganisation of social security systems by progressive taxation instead of regressive social insurance contributions) would also increase the financial means available for investment in specific integration policies, in particular with regard to access to (higher) education for marginalised groups.
Knowledge and Discourse
In this context, policies of knowledge play a key role. Neoliberalism has led to the far-reaching privatisation of the production of knowledge. By extending private universities and research institutes and as a result of the growing dependence of research on private funding, research topics were increasingly coupled to the interests of enterprises and market usability. This, therefore, fostered disciplinary orthodoxies marginalising alternative approaches, in particular in politically crucial disciplines like economics and the social sciences. If economic knowledge is to be pluralised and if the constrictions of the economic mainstream are to be overcome, the plurality of approaches has to be promoted, public funding has to be raised, and the conditions of generating knowledge have to be democratised. Within the field of economics, this would certainly lead to new definitions of key concepts like ‘market’, ‘competition’, ‘welfare’ or ‘need’, as well as of other crucial political terms that had been profoundly reinterpreted during the last decades in accordance with neoliberal principles and integrated into a neoliberal horizon of thought.
Social democracy must be aware that knowledge is discourse and that discourse produces meaning and hence reality. Therefore, social democracy should actively oppose the neoliberalisation of language by definitions, assignments and adoptions, by naming what is de-nominated and by broaching issues generally neglected. In this way, equality alongside with other core social democratic concepts like solidarity, justice, security, liberty or welfare must be regained. At the same time, they must not remain abstract principles, but their meaning and implications for individual lives must be made clear. Coupled with models of the self that question the economisation of life, public discourses must politicise fears and desires by making their cultural production and collective dimensions visible. They must offer life perspectives beyond economic success and consumption, based on self-determination, personal independence and solidarity – and pose the question of how to govern ourselves.