The rebirth of social democracy

In 2006 Clive Hamilton wrote an obituary on the “Death of social democracy.” His view was that

sustained increases in living standards for the great bulk of working people have so transformed social conditions as to render social democracy redundant as a political ideology. (p.7)

Certainly, (nominal) social democrats such as Paul Keating, Helen Clark, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schroeder seemed to agree: their ‘Third Way’ economic policies had far more in common with the New Right than the Old Left.

Yet, the darkest hour for (real) social democrats was just before the dawn. By mid-2008, a financial crisis generally regarded as the worst since the 1930s had gripped the global economy. Intervention became essential, at least for the welfare of corporations, as taxpayers fronted with enormous bailouts for businesses (banks in particular) which were “too big to fail”. The economies of smaller European nations, which had wholehearted embraced the call to “enrichissez vous” at the expense of all else, were prostrate. The miracle of neoliberalism was shown to be nothing more than a brief mirage.

According to Tony Judt, the best possible response to this economic meltdown is the rebirth of social democracy.

Judt, a professor at New York University’s Remarque Institute, has written his book, Ill fares the land (2010), primarily for young people. He argues that, in the last 30 years, the concept of social democracy has been disappeared, and anyone growing up in that time is unlikely to have a clear idea of what it actually means, why it was so widespread, why it was so necessary and why it was so successful.

In addition, with American readers in mind, part of Judt’s intention is to recover the term ‘social democracy’ for an audience for whom ‘liberal’ means ‘left’ and dropping the word ‘socialist’ into conversation is tantamount to throwing a brick through a window.

Ill fares the land begins as follows:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. …

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.

We cannot go on living like this… (pp.1-2)

Drawing on the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (previously discussed on well sharp here) Judt describes the ‘way we live now’ in terms of the destructive consequences of growing inequality. In our “eviscerated society” (p.118), the era of redistribution, public ownership and “equalization” of 1945-1980 is forgotten; it seems that the last 30 years have convinced many people (English and Americans in particular, Judt suggests) that “increasing inequality … is a natural condition of life about which we can do little” (pp.21-22).

Furthermore, with the Right on the attack on all fronts, “social democrats and their liberal and Democratic fellows have been on the defensive for a generation, apologizing for their own policies and altogether unconvincing when it comes to criticizing those of those of their opponents” (p.179).

In trying to recover social democracy from this wreckage, Judt accepts that there is no longer a place for the old certainties of the “all-embracing theory of everything” (ie socialism founded on historical materialism). But, Judt argues, more than anything else right now, we need a moral framework for a meaningful existence:

We intuitively grasp the need for a sense of moral direction: it is not necessary to be familiar with Socrates to feel that the unexamined life is not worth much. … However, the idea of moderation ­– so familiar to generations of moralists –is difficult to articulate today. Big is not always better, more is not always desirable; but we are discouraged from expressing the thought.

One source of our confusion may be a blurring of the distinction between law and justice. In the US especially, so long as a practice is not illegal we find it hard to define its shortcomings…

What we lack is a moral narrative: an internally coherent account that ascribes purpose to our actions in a way that transcends them. (pp.180-1)

And so, Judt observes, any moral narrative of purposeful human existence must lead us to the first principles of social democracy:

Of all the competing and only partially reconcilable ends that we might seek, the reduction of inequality must come first. (p.184)

Undoubtedly, the ‘social question’ of inequality, which only a few years ago Clive Hamilton was suggesting had been swept away by increased living standards, is back with a vengeance:

It is the growing inequality in and between societies that generates so many social pathologies. Grotesquely unequal societies are also unstable societies. They generate internal division and, sooner or later, internal strife – usually with undemocratic outcomes. (p.235)

This rebirth of social democracy revives some more old questions. Certainly, in liberal societies, the desire for equality always stands in a tension with the desire for freedom. But French revolutionary sloganeers worked out – in principle – how to resolve that tension 200 years ago: liberté, egalité, fraternité. So, Judt writes:

for all its fatuity as a political objective, [fraternity] turns out to be the necessary condition of politics itself. The inculcation of a sense of common purpose and mutual dependence has long been regarded as the linchpin of any community…

It might be argued that after three decades of inculcated self-regard, young people … are now immune to such sensitivities. But I do not believe this is the case. The perennial desire of young people to do something ‘useful’ or ‘good’ speaks to an instinct that we have not succeeded in repressing. Not, however, for want of trying: why else have universities seen fit to establish ‘business schools’ for undergraduates? (pp.185-6)

How do we rebuild ‘fraternity’?  Part of the triumph of neoliberalism was in its ability to vilify the state as “the source of economic dysfunction” (p.200). However, the economic dysfunction of the past couple of years can only be attributed to an unregulated cult of wealth. So the restoration of social democracy to its place in politics means rehabilitating the role of the state:

We have freed ourselves of the mid-20th century assumption … that the state is likely to be the best solution to any given problem. We need now to liberate ourselves from the opposite notion: that the state is – by definition and always – the worst available option. (p.202)

Judt concludes that we have to “think the state” again. In other words we must also be willing to stand up for

the institutions, legislation, services and rights that we have inherited from the great age of 20th century reform. It is time to remind ourselves that all of these were utterly inconceivable as recently as 1929. We are the fortunate beneficiaries of a transformation whose scale and impact was unprecedented. (p.222)

There are things that the state can accomplish that no one person or group could do alone. (pp.204)

At the same time, we have to acknowledge that, in the past, “real harm was done and could still be done” (p.200) by the coercive, monolithic state. So while there is much to remember and recover from the world our forebears constructed, some things must be left behind too. A reborn social democracy must learn the lessons of its failures.

This is the point where Judt takes leave of us. He provides no easy answers as to how this renewal of social democracy should unfold. And that is fair enough: he writes for a generation that he hopes will rediscover social democracy; if it does so, it will remake it for itself and for its own times.


Tony Judt (2010) Ill fares the land. New York: Penguin. (Tony Judt’s lecture, “What is living and what is dead in social democracy?” given on October 19, 2009, is available here.)

Note added 15/8/2010. Tony Judt died on 6 August, aged 62. An obituary from the Guardian newspaper can be found here and a new essay by Judt, published as a tribute, can be found here.

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