Redefining social democracy

A society based on turbo consumption breaks any social bonds of solidarity and empathy because it is, by definition, egotistical and competitive.

Social democracy is in crisis the world over: obliterated in Greece, failing in government in France, and in retreat almost everywhere else. Almost nowhere are social democrats ideologically, programmatically, or organisationally on the front foot. The crisis isn’t cyclical but existential, rooted in profound cultural and technological shifts that scorch the earth for all social democratic parties.

Social democracy, the belief that one party in one nation, largely through the state, can create a settlement that favours the interests of labour over capital, is dying as a political practice. It is set to join the ranks of ‘communism’ as a political term of only historic relevance.

But here is the issue: a country that is both social and democratic is more urgently needed than ever. From food banks to floods, the case for the social taking priority over the private has rarely been more necessary or obvious. And everywhere, people are looking for new answers and new ways of realising both their joint and shared humanity and the survival of their nation.

Changed realities

Democracy abounds, but not in our two-party farce of a system. This explains the rise of new parties and so many new online and offline movements. The frustration is this: we want a way of living that is deeply social and radically democratic, but social democracy as a political practice and social democracy as a political creed are, as yet and maybe for good, unable or unwilling to face up to the challenges of the 21st century.

The practice of social democracy, its statism and tribalism, its urge to command and control, its emphasis on growth, and its unwillingness to build new institutions are at odds with a zeitgeist that demands pluralism, complexity, localisation, and a good society that is about much greater equality but is at odds with consumption without end. Social democracy as a political practice must rise to the challenges of creating a social democratic country for the 21st century.

Social democrats are the product of the national and industrial forces of the last century, which have been replaced in turn by global and post-industrial forces totally inimical to them. They are in retreat, not because their leaders aren’t up to the job or because the media is nasty to them, but because the material and cultural conditions they enjoyed in their mid-20th century heyday have been replaced by forces and a culture that tear up the roots of their creed.

The working class had given social democracy both cultural and organisational heft. It formed a class for itself. In other words, it was conscious of its circumstances and its needs. This working class not only gave Labour votes and money but also a bureaucratic and technocratic system of governance. Social democracy would be ushered in through a managerial state.

Today, that is all history, and social democracy has to redefine itself as it operates on new terrain. An electoral dominance is still possible, but only if it has the right leaders and the right policies. Both matter, but leaders are like surfers; they need a wave beneath them to propel them forward. One must ensure that the engine of social democracy does not die since a new range of forces are emerging that are inimical to the social democratic project.

A global approach

Social democratic politics cannot remain avowedly national. Today, the traders and the bond markets rule over the politicians. This separation of politics from power places severe limits on what social democrats can do, even if they win elections. While social democrats carried on believing and behaving as if the post-war settlement was set in stone, the neo-liberals set about successfully dismantling every aspect of that settlement. In particular, it would use the state to erode the places and spaces in which the common good could take root. Privatisation wasn’t just meant for old industries but for our minds, as our identities as individualistic consumers are shaped for a life in which we buy things we didn’t know we needed with money and don’t have to impress people we don’t know.

In turn, this turbo consumption has a huge impact on the environment. Today we are on the brink of runaway climate change, yet social democrats cannot continue promising a politics of more — more material wealth for ‘its people’. For social democrats, the worker’s flat-screen TV can never be big enough if the boss’ is even bigger. As such, they must start being aware of the national limits to growth. Lately, they try to square the circle by talking of ‘green growth’, but this is a fig leaf that tries to permit more consumption when the planet simply can’t take it.

At the same time, a society based on turbo consumption breaks any social bonds of solidarity and empathy because it is, by definition, egotistical and competitive. Turbo consumerism kills the common good and, with it, the hopes of social democrats. Work and life are becoming less predictable and more open. The digital revolution, social media, and the shift to a networked society are now revolutionising the way we see, think and act. The world has become plural, complex, dispersed, and diverse.

Challenges

Social democracy cannot afford to be stuck in a top-down, statist, and centre-out mindset. To date, the whole premise of the offer remains: you elect a social democratic government, it does things to you and for you, and you are in turn grateful and therefore vote for them again. The party is simply a vote-harvesting machine in a political system of endless delivery. It is a creed that cannot share or even tolerate other parties because they stand in the way of its control of the state and therefore its ability to act. Everyone who is not for this project is, by definition, against it.

But social democracy is unlikely to be the political agent that can blend fear and hope into a new political settlement unless it can change dramatically. To do this, there are four main challenges.

1. The first challenge is to value post-material quality of life issues and not just the material and quantity of consumption.

2. The second challenge is to regulate and control markets wherever they do damage to people.

3. The third challenge is cultural. Social democracy must really let go and stop seeing itself as the sole voice of progress.

4. The fourth and most important challenge is to forge an alliance of classes, forces, and movements that will build and sustain the transformation to a good society.

This is the art of politics.

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Frans Camilleri
Frans Camilleri
1 month ago

A pungent analysis, as is typical from Dr Said. Social democracy is in crisis, all the more because its response to neo-liberalism was to try to jump eagerly on the bandwagon. The latest example is the British Labour Party. It started by drafting a programme of big changes but has progressively u-turned on most even before it is elected, in the search for a big majority. Social democracy cannot win if it is run by cowards and unprincipled people