Reformist social democracy has just two problems that result in its crisis. The first is that it’s heading in the wrong direction. The second is that it’s heading in the wrong direction in the wrong way. If this crisis is to be averted then we need to understand why the ends and means are wrong and establish a different set of goals and ways of achieving them – ones applicable to the tail end of the second decade of the 21st century.
To set out an alternative course and process to get there is not so difficult. Some ideas are offered below. Others are available. What is difficult, and could well be impossible, is the ability of social democrats to truly adapt or transform both their course and their culture. Instead of change, their stock response is to blame the media, poor communications or even the people, and go on doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. Even when some recognise the scale of the crisis, they shrug because meaningful change is more difficult to face than the prospect of electoral annihilation. If social democrats can’t or won’t transform themselves then it will be up to others to carry the torch for a society that is more equal, democratic and sustainable and to fight the lurch to the far right.
Let’s start by observing that the crisis is not tactical or cyclical but existential because it is cultural and structural. It can be witnessed most obviously and dramatically through the electoral decline of almost every social democratic party in Europe. The Dutch, French and Greek parties have or have almost been eradicated. The Germans, the Italians and even the Scandinavians and Nordics struggle for life. The Spanish are in office – just. The Scottish SNP can claim a social democratic mandate of sorts while the Portuguese are taking a more leftist course in a ‘progressive alliance’ government – but these are both small nations in particular circumstances. In the UK, Labour is being revived under Jeremy Corbyn and offers flashes of hope, but it is still in opposition and is at best level in the polls with the most incompetent right-wing government in living memory. Its ability to win and govern effectively, even given the boost of the UK majoritarian (first-past-the-post) voting system, looks like a daunting test. Even if Labour defies the odds and wins a majority it will be isolated in the world. So what is it about the means and ends that got social democracy into this mess and what are the alternatives?
Origins of crisis
To avert the crisis we must first understand the crisis. Let’s first address ends. The social democratic project is in essence focused on equality of material ends, that is, sufficient and fair redistribution of income and wealth. It is a fight within capitalism for a more just capitalism. Thus, it has too little to say about good work and virtually nothing to say about none-work. Everything is about the material. For the left the worker’s television screen, relative to the boss’s TV screen, cannot be big enough. We work to spend and if we can’t spend enough we borrow. It is a life designed to buy things we didn’t know we needed, to impress people we don’t know, with money we don’t have. Growth is deemed inexorable and good. The dignity of labour is deemed vital to give us meaning and identity and to build the class solidarity essential to the political success of the social democrats.
Its approach was brilliantly successful from the mid-decades of the last century through to the 1970s (‘les trentes glorieuses’) when it all started to break down. Everything that made social democracy feasible was undermined and weakened as technological and cultural forces shifted production away from big factories and nation states to diverse sites across the globe. The power of the working class eroded and with it the engine of social democracy stalled. Producer interest has now been trumped by consumer interest. Rampant individualism, actively egged on by neoliberal ideology, scraped away the institutional soil in which solidarity could be fostered. Life became a turbo-consumer war of all against all, in which the poor and the weak could only be humiliated as skivers and shirkers. The best that could be done was not a settlement between labour and capital but the accommodation of labour to capital.
Thus. the politics of the third way compounded the problem with a sugar rush of market-orientated reforms that eventually paved the way for even faster decline after the left was perceived as betraying itself and its people. To be clear, this is not really about the left leadership selling out, the wrong policies or the wrong communications – though they all matter – it is more about the structural and cultural weakness that has fatally undermined the morality and power of the left, making 20th century style social democracy impossible to enact in the 21st century.
The crisis of ends is being compounded. First, since at least 2008, the promise of materialism has been curtailed by austerity, in which many social democrats were complicit. But, second, in the type of globalization championed by a now hegemonic neoliberalism, in which people have felt a profound loss of control over their lives and communities. In part this is about the perceived or actual material effect of immigration on jobs and wages but is also about deep issues of identity, purpose, meaning and control. For instance, Brexit was for many in the UK, at least in part, about the reassertion of democratic control even if voters knew they would be materially worse off by leaving the EU. But social democrats can only see politics in terms of the economy, jobs and the social wage and are blindsided by these cultural shifts.
So, if not materialism, then what? The left must build its endgame around the simple observation that we don’t die wishing we owned more stuff but die longing for more time with the ones we love and doing the things we love. If we tried to build a good society around that simple but profound insight then we would start to champion issues such as time, care, compassion, leisure, beauty and art as the basis for political renewal. Of course, materialism matters but as a society morally and environmentally we have to know when enough is enough. Creative work would be a big factor in our lives but it would not be the dominant factor – especially in the light of the 4th industrial revolution with work becoming either more precarious or simply being displaced by technology.
Instead of fighting these cultural and technological changes, social democrats should be bending modernity to the historic values of solidarity and democracy and embracing the urgent need for sustainability – not least because climate change hits the poorest hardest. A shorter working week combined with a basic income and universal basic services would match the scale and ambition of the welfare and work reforms of the 20th century, ensuring we live as fully rounded human beings; workers yes, but active citizens too. The hope is that such an offer can and must become more seductive than an ultimately empty life of turbo-consumption. In the process we help solve not just the crisis of climate and solidarity, but the issue of agency for social democrats, by replenishing society’s soil through our active citizenship.
If these are the challenges of ends then what about means? The historical operating system of the left is that of the machine and the factory worker who carries out defined tasks. It translates into a politics that is similarly mechanical, in which the workers vote for leaders who then occupy the state and deliver the economic and social wage to ‘their voters’. It is a politics, at best, of worthy paternalism done to and for passive recipients of change through technocratic systems of command and control. But it is a deal that can no longer be delivered because societies are now too complex and economies too global. The good society was never going to be done to the people by politicians, only built by the people for the people – with the support of the state.
The emerging governing principle of the 21st century is that of collaborative action. The state still matters in this emerging networked world but increasingly not as a deliverer of the good society but as an enabler of the resources, spaces, legislation and regulations that allow us – the citizen nodes of the network – to build our own good society together. It means not just transforming old systems of representative democracy but embracing deliberative and direct democracy in politics, at work, in public services and our communities.
On the flatter ground of the 21st century where everyone is connected to everyone else, where we can all know, share, connect and build, the potential exists for people to become the collective agents of their own destiny. I say ‘potential’ because, while the technology of networks is conducive to a good society, there is no deterministic link. This is where politics comes in. It means ‘taking back control’ from the elites who are monopolizing and privatizing the powerful aggregating forces of the network society so as to ensure the public good trumps private interest. So, while we can and must fight many things, what we cannot fight is modernity and the cultural zeitgeist.
The old solid, linear, predictable modernity of the 20th century, the culture in which social democracy was created and reached its zenith, is fading fast in the rear view mirror. Like it, or not, the culture of today and tomorrow is increasingly fluid, liquid and contingent, a society that’s as unpredictable as it is complex. Social democrats cannot hope to command and control their way through the chaos – they can only build the cultures and practices for a future that is negotiated with others and not imposed on them. Social democrats must either learn to let go or learn to die as a political force.
Can social democrats adapt, survive and thrive? Time is running out. The long shadow of the 20th century is fading fast but clearly strong forces want to take us back to its worse moments – authoritarian populism. This ultimately is not about social democracy but what constellation or eco-system of ideas and forces can develop a feasible and desirable alternative to the strident populism of the right. Social democrats have just two choices – to change or get out of the way. The danger is that they will do neither.
This is an adaption of a talk given ‘On the Crisis of the Left’ to the Jihlava Documentary Film Festival in the Czech Republic on 28th October 2018.
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.