Scratch the skin of any social democrat and s/he bleeds equality. Because of structural weakness we water the concept down into social justice or fairness or we try and dress equality up with more complex ideas like ‘capabilities’.
The problem is that we aren’t getting it, indeed we’re moving further away from it. The great convergence of the post-WW2 decades has been replaced by the great divergence as we return to an era of huge private wealth for the few and public and private/public squalor for the many. The Gini coefficient is out of the bottle and will not return any time soon.
The stock response of social democrats is to enact the same policies and expect a better outcome as in: this time it’ll be different. Set targets, dictate more from the centre, get up earlier and go to bed later. It isn’t working. If we want a more equal society then we have to adopt new ideas and strategies. Here are few key ideas for debate:
- Stop being a movement of resistance and start becoming a movement of transformation. Social democrats and trade unions were created to resist/combat/overcome the inequality caused by unregulated capitalism. For a while regulation worked but only while the working class was unified and strong. Today globalisation and financialisation fatally undermine the old ways of doing social democracy and achieving equality. Instead of resisting from a position of structural weakness, we must seize the moment to offer this tired society a new society – a different way of being and doing. It’s time to propose a good society and not just oppose a bad one.
- This is the moment for a paradigm shift. We are ripe for such a transformation: 1945, 1979 and now! Capitalism is at the very least morally wounded. Another cash lurks. That doesn’t inevitably mean socialism as we saw to our cost after 2008 – the crisis could even get worse. But it’s a moment of possibility. At the same time the networked society is emerging and gives us some of the tools to confront neo-liberalism and to build a more equal and democratic society through the flatter interconnections that now fill our lives. Again, it’s not inevitable. It has to be fought for. Politics is essential. But a durable good society was never going to be built via 20th century hierarchies; it could be created through the egalitarian and democratic spirit of the networked society.
- We must embrace the idea of abundance and lives of significance. The social democratic psyche is twisted by the notion of scarcity – of there never being enough. If this is the popular mood then a Hobbesian ‘war of all against all‘ is inevitable. While we must ensure everyone has the wherewithal to live in comfort (a basic income anyone?), we have to resist a life of turbo-consumption that destroys solidarity as much as the planet. What’s the point of a bigger TV screen if your kids cannot breathe and flood water is seeping under the door? In a digital world we can have all the information and connection we need virtually for free. If technology gives us more time to care, create, learn, play and innovate then good – as long as the spoils of productivity are shared. Our vision of the future must be more compelling and seductive than that of the right-wing and tap into deep desires for what it means to be truly human and free. Few die wishing they owned more stuff. We die wishing we had more time to do the things we love and be with the people we love. If we consume less, then we can consume more equally. Let’s use that insight to build a good society.
- Recognize that means always shape ends. We cannot end poverty in the old ways of administering from the top down – however well meant. The state has a key role to play but we cannot just reproduce inequalities of power. Social democrats must be humbler and recognize our role is to build power with others, not lord it over them. We start with a belief in the best in people – and build systems of social security on that basis – so no humiliation, means-testing, no talk of scroungers.
- Admit that change is complex. The Fordist society of the 20th century meant that the machine metaphor for economics, politics and society could work – at least for a while. But today, in our interconnected and global world, things are more contradictory and chaotic. The answer to the problem is in part electing a social democratic government but bigger, broader and deeper alliance are going to be required. Inequality is now so closely linked to climate change that a red/green alliance is essential. If it is to be collaborative and succeed in a networked society then it will have to be open and liberal: A future not imposed by us but negotiated with everyone. Social democracy might be the biggest tent – but only within a campsite shared by other parties, groups and ideas – a rich and diverse eco-system of alliances and blocs that can and must work together to make society more equal, not just for a while but for good. There are many things we must fight – inequality and climate change above all – but what we cannot fight is the Zeitgeist. That spirit is open, enquiring and more than anything collaborative. This is how we must be too.
We are all born amazingly different and each of us deserves the best and equal chance to make most of all the talents, hopes and dreams we have. Life can be nasty, brutal and short. Or it can be long and fulfilling. Social democrats can bend modernity to our values of solidarity and equality – but only if we do the only thing we really can change: ourselves.
This is the latest in a series on inequality in Europe sponsored by SE, the Hans-Böckler-Stiftung and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung
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Neal Lawson is the executive director of Compass but writes here in a personal capacity. He was editor of The Causes and Cures of Brexit, has helped convene conversations and publications for many years on Europe and the Good Society and was the spokesperson for the Progressive Alliance in the 2017 UK general election.