There are a lot of good ideas being generated among social-democratic thinkers these days and, although this article is going to be critical in many respects, of the current state of social-democracy in Europe, it is absolutely worth acknowledging the excellent work being done by progressive intellectuals on constructing a new European political economy.
The task facing social-democracy (and the European project) is, it must be acknowledged, massive and, in attempting to move forward, it must also be admitted that there is a certain exhaustion, a sense of the weight of history, that seems to have us all dragging our feet. Fear of repeating past mistakes, or being perceived to be doing so, is of particular concern for a movement that represents one of the oldest political traditions in Europe.
The current, rather timid, mind-set of social-democracy is therefore somewhat understandable but, to contradict a certain French philosopher; “to understand everything is not to excuse everything”. Social-democracy is well known as a pragmatic political tendency that avoids elaborate theories and, while this approach has arguably had its strengths at certain points in history, it is now rapidly becoming the Achilles heel of the movement, as a lack of clear thinking and analysis is frustrating the kinds of bold clear messages that social-democrats need to be transmitting to the European public.
The Cold War has been over now for over twenty years yet it seems like we still live, and think, under the long shadow cast by the Twentieth Century. Surely this far into the new millennium it is high time for a radical shift in thinking, especially for social-democrats because, of all the political movements that have survived the last two centuries, social-democracy has, arguably, been the most negatively influenced by the legacy of the Cold-War mind-set.
Social-democracy represented, throughout the Twentieth Century, a “third camp” standing against the theoretical and ideological dogmas of both Bolshevism and liberal capitalism. Yet, social-democrats, like virtually everyone else, became entangled in the intrigues of the Cold War and wound up pulled both right and left by the gravitational force of the two ideological poles that dominated the global thinking at that time. When the Cold War ended, liberals and conservatives moved quickly to announce not merely the death of Soviet-style communism but that of all variations of socialism. Social-democracy was caught unprepared and demoralised. Trapped in the push-and-pull of Cold-War assumptions about socialism and capitalism, social-democrats were too quick to let go of the socialist tradition (which, after all, is historically as much, if not more, the property of social-democracy as it ever was of the communists) and far too willing to accept unqualified and unjustified liberal assertions of the inevitability of capitalism.
The confusion on the Left triggered by the exhilarating events of 1989, however, should be long past by now. Even then, just after the wall had come down, it may be argued that it was not really capitalism that had won but, rather, democracy (however much the dominant discourse of those times attempted to conflate and confuse these two concepts). It may even be claimed, judging by the results of elections held throughout Europe after 1989, that the true victor seemed to be, specifically, social-democracy. Yet, the failure of social-democrats themselves to understand the difference between democracy and capitalism meant they were, in essence, defeated even in victory.
The 1990’s were a decade of social-democratic governments elected throughout Europe, however, these governments ultimately delivered the same kinds of neo-liberal policies as the Right. The result of the flirtations of social-democracy with neo-liberal “lite” policies has been a sharp decline in the credibility of the movement and, more dangerously, in politics as a whole. In many countries, social-democratic parties have lost votes and faced large-scale defections of members (a process observed at its nadir in Germany’s SPD) and the perceived absence of alternatives in politics, underscored by the perception that social-democracy had transitioned rightwards to become practically indistinguishable from its liberal and conservative rivals, has reinforced the growing cynicism and lack of enthusiasm among European electorates for formal politics as a whole. This, in light of history, should be setting off alarm bells and it is pretty clear that something needs to be done to regain confidence in politics once more. It will doubtlessly take time to re-establish the reputation of social-democracy as a force for progressive change but, realistically, it is highly doubtful that this can be achieved without first taking stock of the seriousness of the situation and embracing a fairly radical shift in direction and narrative.
The first sign of this shift should be a change in the language we use. For a start, we desperately need to stop talking about “decent capitalism”, “responsible capitalism” or any other formula involving the word “capitalism”. The ideological trap of accepting the TINA (There Is No Alternative) conceit cannot but imprison social-democracy in a fruitless, defensive discourse. Words matter because they all too often operate as semeiotic indicators that by-pass our own critical, rational thought processes leading us to believe we understand something whereas, in reality, we have failed to think deeply on its meaning at all[i]. We react emotionally to words such as “capitalism”, “socialism”, “democracy”, “terrorism”, “fascism” or “human rights” long before our conscious brain has analysed the embedded historical and ideological content behind these casual labels (which, of course, makes them so useful as mere rhetorical epithets).
Capitalism, used as a neutral or positive term, is for social-democrats, quite simply “enemy territory”. If social-democrats attempt to position themselves (especially in the current era which is not the 1970’s by any means) as “the people who do capitalism better” they will most likely fail. Why not instead try to reposition social-democracy as the “people who are serious about building and defending a democratic society”? This would have the advantage of refocusing attention on the fact that we live in societies not economies and that democracy ideally means participation, or at least the right to participation, by everyone in the discussion and process of shaping the society we live in.
One of the first problems social-democratic programs run up against is the reality that both globalisation and Europeanisation have, in effect, weakened political (i.e. democratic) control over markets and privileged the economy over social and political factors. This is not some random, inevitable, freak event of history but the result of a conscious set of choices made by political actors, (including social-democrats themselves) but, like all political processes, it may be reversed or at least reconsidered. Part of the task of presenting an alternative to the current disaster in Europe, therefore, needs to be building support for change to the existing institutional arrangements of the EU.
The future of European social-democracy largely depends on the ability to kindle a degree of public enthusiasm for institutional change at the European level and this will demand the cultivation of a skilful, passionate narrative able to draw public attention towards issues often perceived as “dull” or “irrelevant”. Can talk of decent capitalism create this level of public enthusiasm? Apart from the argument that talk of “decent capitalism” is intrinsically problematic, excessively limiting and undesirable, it is fairly apparent that, without the institutional basis for implementing a regulatory framework, even the idea of “decent capitalism”, however moderate and “reasonable” it may seem, in fact, amounts to little more than a weakly optimistic pipe-dream.
Furthermore, it needs to be asked; what is this “capitalism” anyway? The term gets used constantly and by all parties. The centre-left talks of “decent capitalism”, while the centre-right merely uses the term in its unadorned simplicity without the need for qualifying adjectives, yet what is actually meant by this highly charged and loaded noun? There is seldom perceived much of a need to define it at all, as Left and Right alike have blithely accepted that “capitalism is all there is”. Capitalism, in one form or another, is accepted as the only viable economic system left to us. However, what if this assumption were ultimately nonsense? Fred Block, professor of sociology at Davis University, for example, questions, quite persuasively, the utility of talking about capitalism at all[ii].
Capitalism, rather like its 20th Century rival, communism, is a utopia (or a dystopia for many of us) that imagines a society based on a self-regulating market. The fact that this system causes crises and collapse whenever and wherever its ideologues attempt to impose it has still not heralded a general realisation that, rather like its much-discredited rival, communism, capitalism does not work in any version of reality. Part of the problem comes from the legacy of the Cold War mind-set where there were only two alternatives and now that communism has collapsed, we have no choice but to tolerate capitalism and hope for a more humanised version of it.
The story we have told ourselves is, however, wrong from the start. We are trapped, essentially, between the competing, yet complementary, narratives of Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayeck and the economistic world view promoted by them both. The truth however, has always been more complex than the shadow war waged between these two diametrically opposed, utopian ideologies would suggest. Historically, the complex space in between these extremes, neither of which have ever been realised as living societies, has been the natural habitat of social-democracy. Communists complained that the reformist efforts of social-democrats were merely prolonging the life of capitalism and delaying the ultimate triumph of socialism while liberals argued that social-democratic reforms were distorting market forces and would ultimately lead to totalitarianism. Yet, for all the denunciations from the Left and Right wings of the economistic world-view, social-democracy has arguably proved to be one of the most successful political experiments in history.
The Political Economy of Social-Democracy
The question begs to be asked: what if social-democracy were not just “capitalism with a human face” but rather a distinct political economy in its own right? What if, rather than according to Marx and Hayeck, we decided to read the Twentieth Century through the lens of Karl Polanyi?
According to Polanyi, capitalism could be understood as the attempt to impose a self-regulating market on society (an attempt, incidentally that was doomed to failure according to Polanyi). The destruction wreaked by such an attempt, however, would always arouse a defensive counter-movement as various groups in society sought to protect their values, traditions and lifestyles from the effects of marketization. As a socialist, Polanyi believed that the highest form this resistance could take was socialism, which he defined as “the tendency inherent in an industrial civilisation to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society”[iii]. Thus, we now have a theoretical paradigm in which the political (specifically democratic) understanding of society is set in opposition to the econocentric ideology of capitalism. Capitalism, if we choose to use the term at all, may therefore be seen as an anti-democratic attempt to impose the sovereignty of capital through the subtle substituton of market forces for political decision-making, whereas socialism (again, if we wish to use the term) may be understood as the attempt to subordinate the economy to the democratic will of society.
The Polanyian understanding has radical implications and, potentially enables social-democrats to fundamentally re-frame the terrain of political discourse. Rather than being trapped in the role of “political cry-babies” and “bleeding hearts” who try to “sugar-coat” the necessary pill of austerity to ensure the viability of the market project, social-democrats should reposition themselves as the political force serious about advancing and deepening democracy, not only in the formal, representative sense, but as a way of life that permeates society at all levels. In this way, social-democracy can create the kinds of arguments that enable it to seize the initiative and finally begin to put its neo-liberal rivals on the defensive.
Something like this understanding of social-democracy is, in fact, emerging. Martin Schulz, for example, who will hopefully be the next president of the EU, to a very large extent embodies the vision of social-democracy articulated here, as can be seen from his remarks and speeches in various forums and his impressive track-record as a passionate, dogged fighter for social justice. Social-democrats must live up to their name and be prepared to be seriously committed to a true socialisation of democracy. This means new institutions and it means being prepared to struggle, with passion and conviction, for a new kind of society. This does not necessarily entail the pursuit of ideological utopias but rather what a number of social-democrats have begun to call “a good society”. This is, it seems, an excellent choice of terms to sum up the goals of modern social-democracy.
Social-democrats have always been reformists. Social-democracy is not about overthrowing existing structures in some kind of violent act of revolution. This does not, however, mean that social-democrats are not radical. At its core, social-democracy has always harboured a deeply transformative potential, albeit not towards some kind of pre-conceived utopia but always in the pursuit of “a good society”. Moreover, historically, we have always known, more-or-less, the features of this “good society”; a society where individuals are free, and supported by well-developed, democratic and transparent social, political and economic structures to develop to their fullest potential, where everyone enjoys equality of rights, opportunities and standards of living with their fellows, and nobody is subject to exploitation, discrimination or intolerance on any economic, social or political grounds.
Is such an ideal really so utopian? Given how far our movement has come and the great achievements and successes of our past there is really no reason for pessimism but the times we live in call for boldness and vision not “business-as-usual” or a slightly nicer version of the same. We need to change our way of thinking and reflect this in our way of speaking. Let’s stop defending “capitalism” and start talking more of democracy. Let’s go further and even stop talking about a “market economy”.
It is true that social-democrats have pretty much universally accepted the utility of markets but, nonetheless, markets still need to be kept in their place. There is a subtle, but important difference between a “market economy” and “an economy which uses markets”. Moreover, within our movement there needs to be more discussion on which areas of society and the economy need to be protected from market forces for the sake of defending our values of equity, equality and participation. Of course, having recognised the importance of the political and the necessity of advancing and deepening democracy, social-democrats will need to engage in a forceful, strategic program of institutional reform at the European level to create the, currently non-existent, structures to practically enable social-democratic changes to the European political-economy to take place.
Programmatically, good ideas are emerging and excellent practical measures to institute a new political economy are being developed within our movement. There is much reason for optimism but there are challenges that should not be underestimated. When the Pope is prepared to denounce the evils of capitalism from the Vatican it is embarrassing that the socialist movement timorously hesitates to do so. Free markets lead to unfree people and the ruination of nature. Indeed, the proverbial elephant in the room when it comes to modern capitalism is the looming environmental crisis that threatens to make our piddling concerns over the fate of the Euro as significant as the squabbles of two fools over who gets the comfiest chair on the deck of the Titanic.
We do need to question and revise our economic goals and assumptions and recognise that the capitalist mentality of endless growth goes against all the logic of nature and its imposition of limits on all its systems. Sustainability needs to be more than a slogan but something social-democrats are prepared to bravely explore and develop into a politicised, tangible reality. Doing this will require more than a passing nod to greenwash-type palliatives.
Furthermore, we also need to reject and forcefully attack the nonsensical “common-sense” idea that capitalism is about “freedom” whereas socialism (or social-democracy) “inhibits freedom for the sake of equality”. It takes very little reflection to realise that true freedom is totally dependent on a significant degree of equality, just as equality is fundamentally predicated on freedom.
To illustrate this point: freedom without equality ends up a grotesque lie, equivalent to the observation of Émile Zola that the law forbids rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges. Without equality, there is no means of exercising formal freedoms. Likewise, equality without freedom can only ever amount to the equality of prison inmates who resemble each other in the misery of their condition. Yet, in a prison (or a Soviet-type state) this “equality” must be enforced by guardians or commissars who are empowered to do so, thus, there can be, in this case, no true equality at all. True equality can emerge only under conditions of freedom just as freedom can only be meaningfully enjoyed when it is available equally to all.
Social-democracy is perhaps the only political tradition which can claim a history of pursuing both freedom and equality as part of its most fundamental values and raison d’être. The future success of social-democracy lies in how well it learns to speak to the human heart and imagination. Once upon a time, socialists were renowned as dreamers and story-tellers rather than policy-wonks and say-anything-to-get-elected spin-doctors. It’s about time we re-learned the art of inspiration through a political narrative capable of capturing the public imagination, if only because this story was based on the finest, most beautiful values of humanity. These may still, even now, be summarised in the old French revolutionary slogan of “liberty, equality and fraternity” which, somehow, still manages to express everything most essential about a “good society”.
[i] Considerable work has been carried out on the importance of language in politics by the neuroscientist George Lakoff and, in a highly parallel manner, Drew Westen. See the following publications:
Lakoff, George: The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century Politics with an 18th-Century Brain, Penguin, NY 2008.
Westen, Drew: The Political Brain: the Role of Emotion in Understanding the Fate of the Nation Public Affairs, NY 2007.
[ii] Block, Fred. 2012. “Varieties of What? Should We Still be Using the Concept of Capitalism.” Political Power and Social Theory, vol. 23.
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[iii] Polanyi Karl (2001 (1944) The Great Transformation, The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Boston, Beacon Press p. 242.