What matters to a society is less what it owns than what it is and how it uses its possessions. It is civilized in so far as its conduct is guided by a just appreciation of spiritual ends, in so far as it uses its material resources to promote the dignity and refinement of the individual human beings who compose it. (Tawney 1931)
The centre of the Dutch debate about social democratic basic values is the project of the Wiardi Beckman Foundation, ‘What is of Value’. An academic working group of the think tank of the PvdA has been engaged in discussions and publications since 2010. Local branches have been discussing the main themes and the Manifesto with the first results is scheduled for a 1 May 2012 publication. Here a brief overview.
The Dutch Labour Party operates in an extremely fragmented electoral field. In fact, while opposing a right wing government, it is squeezed between two forces of the centre-left: the progressive liberals and the Green Left, opting for more reforms of the welfare state, adapting to the demands of the post-Fordist, flexible knowledge-economy on the one hand, and the leftist Socialist Party, defending the basics of the post-war welfare state on the other. Some analysts even think that the left should organise itself in two parties: a conservative-left and a progressive-left camp. Moreover, the PvdA has lost credibility by adapting to the neo-liberal Zeitgeist and by its managerial habitus, not only in local, regional and national politics, but also in influential civil society organisations and institutions. Electoral defeats in 2002, 2006 and 2010 led to critical reports of party commissions. In 2005 a new basic values programme was adopted, focusing on Avishai Margalit’s decent society as a central concept. But in spite of these analyses, the Dutch Labour Party didn’t succeed in getting back the political initiative. Contested leadership, deplorable results in the polls and a lack of a distinct and distinctive profile, those were the attributes of the Dutch Labour Party in the past years of opposition.
A new initiative
After the 2010 elections the think tank of the PvdA, the Wiardi Beckman Foundation, took the initiative to start the project ‘Van Waarde’ (What is of Value?). A group of some twenty academics, researchers, and a couple of politicians set out to reposition the Labour Party, building upon the rich social-democratic tradition in the Netherlands, connecting the basic values to contemporary political issues and taking into account the fragmentation of the Dutch electorate. The group had a series of informal discussions in a former shipyard in the old centre of Amsterdam, exploring the most pressing issues and weak spots of the social-democratic movement. Following the first rounds of debate, the Beckman Foundation published five volumes about the central topics the working group has selected (see below). Local branches of the party have engaged in a lively discussion about these themes, giving feedback on the approach taken.
Parallel to these discussions, people from different backgrounds and social positions – in general those who have something to win in society – are interviewed in order to find out what their aspirations and dreams are, how they feel about their work, who their allies are when they want to get something done, and what barriers they encounter when trying to get ahead. The final manifesto will be partly based on their stories, but the interviews will also be published in a separate volume.
What is of value
We started out with a few basic questions: What do we value? What are the pressures on these values? And how can we realise our values in our society? The project has proceeded along four lines: rediscovering the rich social-democratic tradition, analysing the main forces at work in our society, identifying the social-democratic hardware – our basic values – and the software – crucial intermediary values. Our starting point was that social-democracy has not provided enough counterweight against the centrifugal and disruptive forces in our economy and society. Social-democracy will have to offer a new perspective of (collective) political action to realise our values in present day society. What is needed is a return to politics.
The politics of contemporary social-democracy has been largely narrowed down to the management in the (semi) public sector. Our quest for a new political élan can find inspiration in the intellectual roots of the movement, such as Marxism, Fabianism and the Arts and Craft movement, but also in the tradition of the red reverends and teachers, mutualism and cooperatives, cultural organisations and institutions, the experience of effective local and city-politics as well as different forms of self-organisation and collective action. The tradition is rich and offers a varied repertoire of ideas and strategies, adding up to what we call the social-democratic method.
Values under pressure
Basic trends in our economy (financialisation, dominance of shareholder-value, deregulation, risk shift to vulnerable groups of workers, growing inequalities), in the public sector (erosion of public and professional values, new managerialism, Weber’s ‘iron cage’), in our democracy (the diffusion of politics to business, expert groups and international fora, including the EU/EMU), in ideology (markets and individual responsibilities are centre stage) and new social cleavages and frictions (losers and winners of globalisation) have put our basic values under pressure. At the same time, they show the actual significance of the social-democratic hardware. There is an urgent need to re-embed capitalism (equality), to organise social cohesion (freedom in responsibility) and to balance solidarity with reciprocity. And to put limits to money, market, efficiency and profit motives in our society.
The social-democratic software
The project emphasises the significance of intermediary values or organising concepts that link basic values with everyday life experience and possible policy routes. Concepts that fit in the social-democratic tradition and can be applied to present-day issues. Some of these concepts are hard to translate, because they have very specific connotations. They have been the leading topics of the publications.
+ A secure living standard (‘bestaanszekerheid’), based on a sustainable economic growth model, and responding to the growing risks of unemployment, extreme flexibility, low wage contracts and the ‘self-employed’.
+ Good work based on the overwhelming importance of human capital in enterprises and public institutions as well as responding to the poor working conditions in some sectors, extreme short term profit pressure in companies, lack of respect at the work floor, and the deterioration of professionalism in the public sector.
+ Cultural socialisation and upheaval (‘verheffing’), based on the idea of emancipation, and responding to consistent inequalities in educational opportunities, scale disadvantages of educational institutions as well as a lack of (common) cultural orientation.
+ Bridging and bonding (‘binding’), based on community building and shared citizenship, responding to growing cleavages related to educational levels, income and world view.
+ Life cycle politics, based on new welfare state ‘quality of life’ arrangements, and responding to new risks such as the rush hour of life (creating space for family life), troublesome transitions in the labour market (strengthening capabilities) and rising life expectancy.
The project can be followed on www.wbs.nl, where most of the publications can be downloaded (in Dutch). The international component of the project is the Amsterdam Process, a cooperation of Policy Network, the Wiardi Beckman Foundation and FEPS.
This post is part of the ‘Basic Values Debate’ jointly organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Social Europe Journal. Read more on social democratic parties: ‘The Future of the SPD as a Catch-All Party’.