The crisis of social democracy is closely connected to the shift in the balance of power between capitalism and democracy. Opportunity structures for technocratic as well as combative political approaches have deteriorated. To increase political assertiveness, social democracy needs to rediscover its utopian project to strike a balance between the universal mandate of democracy and the particular interests of capital. The utopia of the Good Society with full capabilities for all is a key resource for the political viability of social democracy.
The crisis of social democracy runs deeper than the ups and downs of the electoral cycle. First of all, it is a crisis of political assertiveness. The crisis goes all the way down to the roots of the social democratic project aiming at striking a balance between the universal mandate of democracy and the particular interests of capital. In the post-war ‘Golden Age’, social democracy quite successfully tamed capitalism. Today, many do not trust social democracy to even try.
In order to produce full capabilities for all, an emancipatory project needs to change the power structures of political economy. This will call to resistance those who have an interest in upholding the status quo. Thus, in order to advance progressive policies against the interests of those who control resources, ideology and coercion, any emancipatory project needs to be able to mobilise power. Historically, this power came from the ability of the labour movement to mobilise the masses. Electoral victories mandated social democratic parties to utilize the state in the production of full capabilities for all. Strikes and mass protests empowered trade unions to bargain collectively with the capital side. Both pillars of the labour movement, parties and unions, are today less and less able to mobilise these power resources.
The root causes for the lack of assertiveness lie in changing framework conditions which undermine both political strategies. However, social democracy has also inflicted self-harm to its political clout by abandoning its utopian project.
1. External causes for the lack of social democratic assertiveness
Shifting balance of power between democracy and capitalism
The key change to opportunity structures lies in the shifting balance of power between democracy and capitalism. Driven by an ideology which demonises the state and glorifies the market, in all Western democracies the welfare state has been demolished. Four decades of neoliberal policies have changed the primary distribution dramatically, divided societies, and weakened states. When the systemic instability of financial capitalism could no longer be ignored, it was too late for a U-turn. Not only have multilateral companies and mega banks distorted markets, the global financial flows are no longer controllable by democratic nation states.
The marriage between capitalism and democracy is coming to its end. Neoliberals believe that the markets must have primacy over the state to create wealth. Accordingly, the state is relegated to a service function for the market. Angela Merkel‘s ”market compliant democracy“ is exactly that: the reduction of politics to a repair shop for the economy. If the democratic sovereign has the audacity to disturb this relationship (e.g. the Irish refusal to ratify the EU treaty, or the US Congress failure to bail out the banks), the “flawed” decision will either be repeated or cancelled altogether (Greek referendum on austerity). Accordingly, the hostile takeover of the Greek and Italian governments by technocratic vice-regents acid-treats the legitimacy of representative democracy.
For social democracy this development has dramatic consequences. First, the key instrument of social democrat power, the nation state, has been eroded. Left to their own devices, nation states can no longer tackle global challenges, ranging from climate change to terrorism and financial markets running amok. However, global governance is not without problems either. Not only does the Brussels technocratic machine prove how easily it could be enlisted for the neoliberal cause. The shifting of competencies to the inter-governmental level also undermines the remaining capabilities of democratic nation states.
Second, the shift in the balance of power between capitalism and democracy deepens social asymmetries. Who controls the means of production and coercion is a political actor in its own right. The weak first have to organise to become a political actor. Accordingly, the political capital to enforce policies needs to be generated time and again. In other words: in order to implement progressive polices, a social democratic government needs to be able to mobilise the masses even in-between elections. The deterioration of social democratic milieus makes this mobilisation even harder. For a while, the dependency on a declining clientele could be compensated by the “Third Way” promise to be the socially just variant of capitalism. Tactical reasons may suggest abandoning the struggle over primary distribution. However, market friendly devaluation policies alienated traditional social democrats, while the elusive centrist voters treats social democracy as one interchangeable option amongst others, changing sides whenever the moods swings. Merkel’s Christian Democrats catered to this bourgeois longing for apolitical management, and succeeded to score an impressive victory by ”asymmetrical demobilisation“.
Classical instruments less effective in post-industrial societies
Post-industrial societies are atomized into a vast array of classes and subcultures coexisting in parallel discursive worlds. The so-called “precariat”, or those who are permanently excluded from social, economic, and cultural life, are not suited to be a political actor. Hence, “Class Warriors” are devoid of a historical subject. The classical instruments of class struggle – political parties and trade unions – are facing the heavy headwinds of change. Mass struggling to implement universal rules is a child of the industrial age. However, the bureaucratic apparatus and the working mode of these organisations are anathema to the individualist logic of post-industrial societies. The same is true for technocratic governance. Abstract universal rules seem alien to the particular life realities and plural identities. In the same vain, the top down approach favoured by exclusive “experts” commissions is less and less acceptable to politically mature citizens. Citizens take issue less with the concrete proposals but with the lack of participation in the decision making process. From “Indignados” to “Wutbürger“, from “Occupy” to new social movements, elections are no longer seen as a sufficient source of legitimacy. The emergence of a populist and xenophobic right should serve as a warning that a lack of real democratic alternatives makes extremist alternatives attractive. Hence, we must dare to embrace radical democracy. Direct democracy and citizen participation, however, are anathema for the ruling technocrats.
Yet, it is all but clear how pluralist and fragmented societies can organise their decision-making processes. Experiments may point out the trajectory: processes will become more local, participatory, reflexive and direct. However, new social movements either reject (Occupy, World Social Forum) or struggle (Pirates Parties, Indignados) to agree on common political platforms, and therefore remain in protest mode without the political will to change. Fashionable approaches such as the multitude (Hardt/Negri) or “resistance by doing nothing” (Zizek) replace clear strategies for how to enforce change with some sort of voodoo belief in a deus ex machina. What is missing are the solidarity linkages which can bind together protest movements inside and outside national boundaries to form a powerful “change agent”. Accordingly, protest movements tend to evaporate after a short time without leaving much of a trace in the political economy.
The philosophical foundation is eroding
However, social democracy faces an even more fundamental challenge: the erosion of its philosophical foundations. As a brain child of enlightened rationalism, social democracy trusts in the ability to shape social relations by rational interventions. All modern institutions – market, state and democracy – are built upon the Cartesian subject, from the homo economicus to the rational voter. However, science is questioning this concept of man. Psychologists point to the power of other drivers over our behaviour, linguists to the limits of our language and constructivists to our ideological blinders. Wars and catastrophes are reminders that predictability is often an illusion and that technical progress can come with cost. Taken together, these developments undermine trust in the technocratic approach to shape a better world by rational policy interventions. Hence, it is not surprising that more and more people regard the technocratic approach not as part of the solution, but moreover as part of the problem.
2. Home-made mistakes weaken the political clout of social democracy
Given this new balance of power, the traditional formula “As much market as possible, as much state as necessary“ is no longer viable. A broad societal debate over how to best respond to these seminal shifts has already begun. On the one side, the unleashing of capitalism is proof that this predator can never be tamed. However, what kind of society could replace capitalism is mostly left unanswered. Others conclude from the very predominance of the economic the need to come to an arrangement to prevent even worse things from happening. Why appeasement would work given the current asymmetries of power is mostly left as an open question. Today, the key question is twofold: what kind of society does social democracy want to build? And, given the balance of power, could this vision be implemented? In social democratic debates, this twin challenge is widely ignored. Debates are mostly structured along the age-old cleavage between those who understand the political as struggle and those who interpret it as incremental changes.
The “political as struggle” paradigm is rooted in the tradition of the Marxist class struggle. However, not only did the promised final victory of the proletariat never materialise, the proletariat itself has largely disappeared. Therefore, “strugglers” have adopted a Gramscian reading of the political as the permanent struggle between agonistic political projects over hegemony. Strugglers accuse technocrats of treason to the social democratic cause, and to administer the moribund remains to death. Thus, strugglers want to go back to the true gospel of an emancipatory project struggling for hegemony. Many would prefer to oppose the system from the fringes than to compromise on government. Against the background of asymmetries in power, it seems that this approach tends to overestimate the capacity of narrow coalitions to win discursive hegemony or even to implement progressive policies.
Trying to stay clear of political conflict, the technocratic approach to politics aims to utilize the state for incremental change. Scenario building, White Papers, and Five Year Plans are instruments of choice for those who understand the political as a bureaucratic process of planning, steering, implementation and evaluation. Sober technocrats appeal to those who wish to live their lives undisturbed by political passions. Hence, the social base of technocracy is the middle class, that hopes to restrain populist temptations with common sense policy management. This not a nonsense attitude as technocracy is also rooted in an utopian vision, namely the Enlightenment ideal of modernity: “progress can be achieved by rational means”. To technocrats, the strugglers are nothing but nation state romanticists who cannot understand how dramatically the balance of power has shifted in global financial capitalism. Hence, technocrats promote broad coalitions with liberals and conservatives to implement reform policies. This group, however, tends to overestimate the political leverage of national governments. Under the conditions of financial capitalism even elected governments first have to mobilise political capital to be able to enforce policies against the status quo alliance. How this permanent “bottom up pressure“ could be mobilised without offering any alternative vision is mostly left unaddressed.
This strategic schism has recently been mirrored by the public debate between Jürgen Habermas and Wolfgang Streeck. Starting from a similar scathing critique of the relationship between capitalism and democracy, Habermas pushes to flee forward by institutional engineering on the supra-national level, while Streeck urges to fight in the ruins of the nation state. Remarkably, while both go to great lengths in describing the asymmetries of power in global financial capitalism, little thought is spent on where the political leverage for these progressive initiatives should come from.
Instead of being paralysed by the alleged supremacy of capital, the starting point should be how to rebuild political clout for emancipatory projects. Given the financial, coercive and ideological power of the status quo coalition, the existential question must be: what are the power resources for an emancipatory project?
3. Rebuild political clout with the utopia as a source of power
Despite or maybe even because of their contrary instincts, strugglers and technocrats are sitting in the same boat. Even if – a big if – it should be possible to again win elections, an electoral mandate will no longer provide enough legitimacy to enforce the implementation of progressive policies. Reform minded technocrats need to understand that only the ability to mobilise can create the political capital which makes them political actors in their own right. More so, discourse hegemony is needed to prevail against the status quo forces. Discourse hegemony, however, can only be won by embedding policies into hopeful narratives of a Good Society. Political communication fails if it is reduced to technical details. Progressives have too long focused on technical arguments, and left the realm of emotions, images, and dreams to the right. Humans tend to wrap meaning into narratives. Obsessed with the rationality of the logos, we have forgotten that we need myths to provide us with a moral and metaphysical compass. Humans make sense of the chaotic world by rooting phenomena in emotions, experiences and intuitions. Hence, (mythical) narratives are a natural way of finding meaning in the world. This is exactly what discursive power means: the ability to align the way people think, talk, and act by offering them meaning in the form of narratives.
Fighters, on the other hand, have to acknowledge that given the asymmetries in the balance of power, only broad societal coalitions can mobilise the leverage to enforce the implementation of progressive policies. Even if elections are no longer the only game in town – without an electoral mandate, progressive struggles would be doomed. Hence, to dig yourself in at the left fringe is counterproductive.
To master the balancing act between growing challenges and shrinking capabilities, social democracy needs to rethink its own success story. Social democrats could always act assertively if the mobilisation of political capital and its spending could be combined in a political project. This combination can only be found under a common goal.
To bridge these two approaches, a utopia is needed. Utopia describes a better tomorrow, a Good Society with full capabilities for all. Utopias are not detailed descriptions of a realistic future but a guiding star, something to aspire to, on which many can agree. Utopia provides a normative compass which can provide guidance for policy-makers and orientation for citizens. Only a vision of a Good Society enables citizens to make an informed judgement on whether a policy path leads into the right or wrong direction. The utopian compass legitimizes progressive projects where winning elections is no longer enough. This is even more true for progressive projects, as those who call for “progress” must be able to answer the question: “progress with what goal?”
Yet, utopia is more than a compass. Utopia is a key energy source for progressive projects. Without the ability to mobilise, progressive policy makers cannot prevail against the forces of status quo. Without passionate faith in a common vision, people do not come together in great numbers. Only a positive vision for a better world can mend the paralysing fear of the end of the world as we know it. Only if enough people believe that a better life is possible, they are willing to struggle for change. Only on a common platform, actors with differing interests can join forces.
That is why it is not essential if utopia is realised or not. Utopia allows imagining a different world beyond the reality seemingly set in stone. By agreeing on a common vision for the future, people can come together despite their immediate interests. The promise of realistic change gives people a sense of agency. When people join their forces in a community, a powerful sense of awakening will create momentum for change. Utopia can link together isolated struggles across social or national borders in solidarity. The faith in a better tomorrow energises people to fight for it here and now. The hope for a better tomorrow gives people the courage to take on institutions which existed for hundreds of years and to rebuild the world from the ground. Vision, hope, faith, courage, solidarity and unity are key sources of power for emancipatory projects.
Consequently, any hegemony aims to suspend this source of power. Hegemonic discourses deny the possibility of change and often ridicule or outcast alternative visions of the future. After the collapse of communist regimes, “The End of History” narrative discouraged even progressives to believe that a socialist utopia is possible. Without any utopia, social democrats gave up some of their primary sources of power and set out to negotiate “pragmatic policies”. Taking on a superior opponent on his own turf this was a struggle social democrats could not win. In other words, the crisis of social democracy is rooted in the surrender of any vision beyond the market society.
To regain the political initiative, social democracy needs a positive vision of a post-capitalist world. The construction of a new social democratic utopia is already under way. The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung contributes to the Good Society project in Europe and to the Economy of Tomorrow project in Asia. The normative vision of this utopia is a Good Society with full capabilities for all. In order to produce the conditions for the Good Society, the economic and political systems need to be changed. A shift in the development path towards socially just, sustainable and green dynamic growth is needed. The Economy of Tomorrow development model is driven by the inclusion of all talents, fair incomes, stable financial markets, balanced current accounts, sustainable natural and social environments, green innovation and the decoupling of productivity from resources. Such an academically sound model is necessary but not sufficient. These policy recommendations need to be translated into powerful images and narratives with a view to win discourse hegemony. Discursive alliances need to be formed to struggle together for the shift in the development path. These potential alliances can only be activated by concrete political projects which will allow building bridges between discourse communities.
Let’s Argue! Authenticity builds trust
This cannot happen without controversy. The key question remains unanswered: must an emancipatory project aim at changing the primary distribution of income and wealth, or can it settle for some regulation and redistribution? In other words: is a shift to an Eco-Keynesian path enough to produce full capabilities for all? Or is the power of progressive movements insufficient to enforce even a moderate shift in the political economy?
Only passionate debates over these questions can build new trust in progressive actors. And only trust in the sincerity of actors gives credibility to utopia. Without any realistic utopia, it will not be possible to combine isolated struggles together in a broad societal coalition. And only a broad societal coalition can mobilise the power resources needed to shift the development path towards a Good Society with full capabilities for all.