Moving on from the analysis of social democracy’s plight, the future of social democratic politics in Europe was the focus of attention for many contributors to the Good Society Debate. Changes to the general approach of social democracy appeared necessary to some authors. Stefan Berger of Manchester University for instance stressed the need for a new utopian social democratic vision, the value of which has been questioned due to the mantra of pragmatism in the 1990s and 2000s. “In the early 1990s utopia was as dead as communism, and social democracy was in deep crisis. In many countries in Europe it underwent an often painful transition process, involving changes in leadership and changes in programmatic orientation. The latter usually included a partial endorsement of the liberal market economics that had seemed so successful in sweeping everything before it in the neo-conservative era of the 1980s. It also involved high doses of pragmatism: social democracy was redefined as that which worked.” Berger further stressed the continued relevance of an international utopia for our times: “Utopias were necessary in the nineteenth century – for thinking outside the box, thinking about alternatives to a system of untrammelled greed. And who could deny that the contemporary world is also in dire need of utopias, to enable us to think about alternatives to a system that is about to condemn humankind to oblivion.”
The importance of democratic multi-level internationalism was also emphasised by many authors. Referring to the European Union, Stefan Collignon (St. Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa) argued that “modern social democratic policy must be European if it seeks to correct the inequality created by the single market, and if it wishes to ensure that the losers of Europeanisation can live an emancipated and dignified life in the European Union. Modern social democratic policy must find the means to make sure that fairness and justice can be re-established in the European single market, and find ways of redistributing the gains generated by European integration across the borders of the nation state through a new model of solidarity. But it is not enough for European social democracy merely to demand the creation of a social Europe. It must also conquer the instruments by which a social Europe can be created.”
Authors such as Mary Kaldor of the London School of Economics (LSE) and Zygmunt Bauman (Universities of Leeds and Warsaw) argued that the necessary instruments to achieve social democratic politics Collignon referred to must also be created on a global level: “Globally produced problems can be only solved globally. The only thinkable solution to the globally generated tide of existential insecurity is to match the powers of the already globalised forces with the powers of politics, popular representation, law, jurisdiction; in other words, there is a need for the remarriage of power and politics – currently divorced – but this time at the global, planetary, all-humanity level.” (Bauman)
On the basis of the need to change the social democratic approach to become truly internationalist and integrate an utopian vision, more concrete policy issues were addressed by a variety of authors. Three areas seemed to be of particular importance: inequality, the green economy and the reform of capitalism.
It was widely criticised (see for instance David Clark, Lorenzo Marsili and Niccolo Milanese) that the crucial question of inequality has taken a backseat in recent years and that social policy – with mixed success – was targeted at poverty reduction at the very bottom of society. Under the veil of this mission, general inequality in many countries has further widened – also under social democratic leadership. Philip Golub and Noelle Burgi (University of Paris) therefore called for the reinvention of the politics of equality: “The first step in this direction must be to restore the legitimacy of the notion of equality, and the essential link between equality, fairness and liberty, and between freedom and social justice. Equality, which entails the notion of rights, is of course understood here as the right of all individuals who are members of a democratic polity to equal universal access to public services such as health, education, energy, infrastructure, etc. Needless to say, in order to guarantee social and democratic outcomes, the principle of access requires in turn the conception and implementation of appropriate distributive policies, the explicit aim of which must be to prevent the reproduction of class structures and social stratifications.”
Another often referred to policy area was environmentally sustainable growth (see for instance David Ritter). Margot Wallstrom (former Vice-President of the European Commission) underlined the importance of linking the economic recovery with green policies when she argued that “we believe that a socially and ecologically sustainable society can create new opportunities for economic growth, employment creation, social protection and a cohesive society. Climate change policies should be considered as opportunities to realise a triple dividend – protect the environment and boost economic growth and employment creation at the same time. Countering global warming is, as a matter of fact, maybe the only option if we wish to get our economy back on track and ensure a viable economic system. ‘Going green’ is thus a win-win strategy!”
Unsurprisingly, the reform of capitalism was also a key debating point. The discourse addressed the issues of a fairer tax system (Will Straw), the rebalancing of the mixed economy (Tapio Bergholm and Jaakko Kiander), a new socially sustainable strategy for growth (Paolo Borioni) and the reaction to the financial crisis. Duncan Weldon, who is a partner in a fund management firm, for instance argued in favour of a rebalancing of finance capitalism and the ‘real economy’: “‘Finance capitalism’ represents the subordination of production (and hence much employment) to the pursuit of money profits in financial markets through trading in stocks, bonds and other instruments. This can lead to the ‘real’ economy being starved of the investment it needs. One of the largest drivers of the current recession is a collapse in investment levels – at least partially driven by the failure of finance capitalists to supply credit. We are now in a perverse situation whereby banks that were for a decade prepared to lend for consumption and speculation on property and financial instruments are currently not prepared to lend for the financing of the necessary rebalancing of economies towards greener, sustainable growth.” This topic also linked the Good Society Debate with the wider discussion about “socially useless” activities of financial institutions and how to deal with these business models in the future.
Apart from policy issues, the debate generated also many articles that focused on institutional questions. Here two areas were of particular importance: First, organisational issues of social democratic parties and their societal reach and second the future role of the state (see for instance Karin Roth and Attila Agh). As the state has seen a political revival as the insurer of last resort, there was a vivid debate about how this momentum could be used for a more positive concept of state interventionism for progressive purposes. This debate is of course linked to the above-mentioned discourse about the need for a true internationalism with multi-level governance.
In terms of party organisations, the strengthening of democracy, links to NGOs but also a serious opening up to new media were recurring themes (see for instance Niels Annen). The damage inflicted on the traditional labour movement alliance with trade unions in particular was an often-mentioned aspect. Dimitris Tsarouhas of Bilkent University in Ankara underlined the continuous strategic importance of this link and called for a renewal of this alliance when he wrote: “What is remarkable about the party-union link is how much it has been underestimated by social democrats themselves. The ‘golden age’ was made possible by many different components, but one of them was certainly successful party-union links: these were instrumental in forging governmental coalitions that enhanced women’s rights, gave employees a say in the workplace and secured safe work conditions for employees. Even today, and despite all the changes that the link has gone through, unions continue to form the backbone of the progressive movement in a number of countries.”
This text is part of a more comprehensive summary paper of the Good Society Debate. Click here to download the full paper.