In a few weeks we will “celebrate” the fifth anniversary of the Lehmann-crash. Since then we have lived through five years of crises in Europe and the world. So the task for political parties today seems clear and simple: We need to solve the crises, we need to get our economies going, we need to create jobs – especially for the young.
But for Social Democracy and Labour there is another task, as there is another dimension of the crisis: Inequality had grown before the crisis and this process has speeded up even more during the crisis. Thus we need to keep society together, when it’s about to fall apart between the cynicism of transnational economic elites on one side and populist nationalism embraced by the victims of the crisis on the other side.
Keeping our societies together will only be possible though if we have a vision. A vision of a better society. A vision that goes beyond everyday politics, but is connected to people’s everyday lifes and experiences. A vision that challenges the post-democratic powers of multinational corporations and huge financial players. Players that have disconnected themselves from society.
We need a vision that starts from the needs of our societies and defines the role of both state and markets from these needs – not the other way around. In old-style socialism the state was defining the needs of individual citizens, especially so of course in the Soviet version of socialism. In a more subtle way – but no less effective – the market has done the same in the neo-liberal age. It was no longer the Lenin-poster that set the tone, but the Prada-poster. It was no longer the 5-year-plan that made workers work longer and harder but the quarterly-report to the shareholders.
The dichotomy of state and market has been shaping the political debate for far too long. For me the core of the Good Society approach to the rethinking of social democracy is overcoming this dichotomy. The Good Society does not talk about state and market in the first place. It talks about individual needs, aspirations and dreams – but also about the collective preconditions for fulfilling these needs, reaching these aspirations and – in the best case – living these dreams.
It talks about jointly created and fairly distributed wealth; about local communities worth living in; about security; about good education for all; about a clean environment. All this can only be provided collectively.
The Good Society is about democracy – not only as a political system, but as a principle of society; a principle that goes far beyond election days. It does not stop at the factory door nor at the TV stations. It is a principle that encourages debates in universities, about the local government’s budget, about huge infrastructure projects and not least inside political parties.
We need a debate not about going back to “Old Labour” but about finding new ways to create a more democratic, more equal and more sustainable model of society. Therefore a new economic paradigm is necessary, too. The current model has not been sustainable but has been going through circles of severe crises that shook our societies. A new model has to aim at being sustainable in four dimensions: Economic sustainability of the “real economy” instead of short-termism driven by financial markets. Long-term fiscal stability instead of short-sighted austerity. Social sustainability through a more equal primary distribution of wealth (“pre-distribution”). Ecological sustainability by de-linking growth from consumption of resources.
Only if we can offer a convincing vision that goes beyond neo-liberal-mainstream thinking as well as boring old-style party politics Social Democracy and Labour might win majorities again. Social democratic parties have to change to be able to mobilize those citizens, who have turned their back on politics because they do not expect anything from it and feel detached.
So let’s rethink the idea of political leaders single-handedly solving all the problems. Let’s bring politics back to the people by knocking at their doors. By talking directly to them. By asking them about their concerns.
We have to convince our voters – especially working families – in traditional as well as new and – sometimes – precarious jobs, not to turn their backs on politics but to get involved: In trade unions, in social movements, in local democracy and citizen’s platforms and finally in elections.
We have to convince our people that their voice matters. Social Democracy and Labour have to put all efforts into earning the trust of the people again; trust in the ability that things really can be changed for the better. After decades of neo-liberal hegemony an alternative approach is still feasible. The current inequality of wealth and power is not un-changeable. A Good Society is possible.
This article is based on a speech at a conference of the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation’s London Office in July 2013. The author is the Head of the Policy & Strategy Department of the German Social Democratic Party. He writes in a personal capacity.