Is social democracy already dead and like the proverbial headless chicken are we simply running round the yard on instinct before we topple over for good? If social democracy is still alive, it’s hard to know how or why. Let’s look at the evidence.
No social democratic party anywhere in the world is on the front foot. Sure, parties may find themselves in government – as they do in Denmark, Sweden, Germany and France, in their own right or as part of a coalition – but this happens by accident and tends to be down to the failures of the right. And in office, social democrats tend to follow austerity or austerity-lite measures. No social democratic party has a strident and confident set of intellectual and organisational ideas that propel a meaningful alternative political project. The future looks incredibly bleak. Why?
The reasons are not hard to find. Social democracy is a 19th century construct that achieved some successes in the 20th century but is hopelessly unprepared for the 21st. This is because all the forces that once made social democrats strong have disappeared. The collective experience of the war, the existence of a unified, organised and seemingly growing working class and the brooding presence of the Soviet Union – a threatening alternative to free markets that forced big concessions from employers who feared revolution happening in the West – all combined to ensure that capitalism momentarily made historic compromises with social democratic parties.
With hindsight, this ‘golden era’ should be viewed as a historic blip but social democrats have continued to mistake it as the norm. They then compound this error to devastating effect. Having lost their external sources of power, they focus almost entirely on electing ‘the right leaders’ who, they believe, will re-enact the ‘golden era’ from above. This is a technocratic politics devoid of movements, any understanding of historic context or the geo-politics that shapes the everyday actions of politicians and people alike. Social democrats are surfers without waves.
But time has not stood still. The 20th century underpinnings of social democracy have not just evaporated, but have been replaced by other hostile forces. Globalisation and individualisation act as pincers to further restrict the possibilities of any social democratic renewal. Globalisation – the flight of capital and the downward pressure on taxes and regulation it engenders – signals the death knell of socialism in one county. Meanwhile, individualism and the culture of turbo-consumption make social solidarity difficult to say the least. In such a world, not only have we thankfully lost the sense of deference that made much of the paternalistic social democracy of the last century possible, but the good life has become something to be purchased by the lone consumer and not collectively created by the citizen. The endless formation and reformation of our identities through competitive consumption destroys the very social fabric that social democracy needs to take root. Today, it would seem, there is no alternative.
The brief upturn in the electoral fortunes of social democrats in the mid 1990s around the third way, the new middle and Clintonism was won at the expense of the further erosion of an increasingly ignored electoral base. In the mistaken belief it had nowhere else to go, core support was traded for core values and reliance pinned on a dysfunctional financialised capitalism that backfired spectacularly in 2008 with social democrats caught with their fingers in the neo-liberal till.
This existential crisis of social democracy finds its ultimate expression in the continuing crisis of capitalism. If the historic goal of social democracy is to humanise capitalism, then the way in which public finances have been used to bail out the banks at the expense of the people who are capitalism’s victims, proves the paucity of the social democrat position.
Where the crisis hit hardest, the social democrats fell furthest and fastest. Today PASOK in Greece barely exists. The PSOE in Spain are fairing badly and have ben overtaken in the polls by Podemos – a party less than a year old! In Scotland, Labour faces replacement by nationalists. Everywhere else, social democrats struggle as populism and an anti-politics mood sweeps Europe.
All of this is obvious. But social democrats seem unable to do anything more than shrug and go back to the same orthodoxies. They push at the edges of fiscal and regulatory boundaries but never really break with the constraints of neo-liberalism. They act as if the same class divisions existed, still take their core voters for granted and behave as if the planet wasn’t finite. They vie for office, to pull leavers that have long since rusted and ceased up. The baggage of the past just seems too heavy to let go. Adopting Einstein’s definition of insanity – they do the same thing again and again and expect a different outcome.
So what is to be done? Social democrats are going to have to be brave – really brave – or face irrelevance at best, extinction at worse. There are three key challenges.
The first challenge is to redefine the meaning of the good society. Social democracy has focussed for too long on the material. Yes we want greater equality, but does that mean just more and more consumption in a race that can never be won? If the workers plasma TV can never be big enough then capitalism always wins. The the treadmill of competitive consumption simply undermines any hope for social solidarity as much as it wrecks the environment. Instead of more things we didn’t know we wanted, paid for with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t know, social democrats are going have to talk about more of other things – more time, public space, clean air, community and autonomy. This suggests a politics of working time limits, workplace democracy and ownership, a citizen’s income and stringent carbon controls.
The second challenge is a radical shift in terms of internationalism. If capitalism has gone beyond the nation, then social democracy has no option but to follow. It needs to regulate and control markets wherever they do damage to people or the planet. Yes this is difficult, and yes it means surrendering sovereignty. But power is empty if wielded at the national level when economic decisions are being made in other countries and on other continents. The politics of this would start at a European level around issues like a continent wide minimum wage and harmonised corporation tax rates.
The third challenge is cultural. Social democrats are going to have to let go. There is no place for elected vanguards, who do things to people and for them. Social democrats are going to have to know their new place as just one source of empowerment for citizens. Instead of pulling policy levers, the job is to create the platforms so that people can collectively change things for themselves. This is a more humble role, but essential and entirely possible in a networked society in which the internet has become the main nexus for human culture. Parties need to open up and out. They need to see themselves as simply part of much wider alliances for change, and not the sole repository of all wisdom and action. Parties are going to have to become really democratic, localising power and building platforms for collaboration around things like energy, loans and new media.
These challenges are huge and the scale of transformation enormous. Think of the sudden the fall of Kodak and the rise of Instagram. Can the challenges be met? We simply don’t know. While we mustn’t underestimate the scale of the transformation necessary to make social democracy relevant to the 21st century, neither should we underestimate our capacity for change. Decline is not inevitable. Energy is out there but social democrats are going to have to find out new ways to tap into it. Everything is down to the political decisions we make. A new political alliance can be built out of the resource poor and their time poor alter egos. But the clock is ticking and we have been warned.
Read also by Neal Lawson & Indra Adnan: New Times: How A Politics of Networks and Relationships can deliver a Good Society
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.