Saturday 2 January 2010

"What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?"

"What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?" is a speech by Tony Judt I came across via Concurring Opinions. While it's addressed to America, and is concerned with the lack of political space to properly discuss ideas outside the conservative box, it's also a great review of social democracy over the last century. As a short overview it's great at putting social democracy in context, and Judt delivers a good defense of its validity, even if it may not be as visionary or inspiring an ideological direction as some may hope for.

Examining the future of social democracy in Europe is fashionable (see Social Europe's blog, particularly the Ken Livingston video) after the defeat suffered by the centre-left in the European elections at a time when the economic project of the right had stalled globally. I'd encourage you to read the lecture, as it's very good at setting social democracy in a historical context, and it does help when thinking of the direction social democratic parties should take in the future.

Judt rightly observes that Europe is a place where social democracy has "won": there's been a consensus here for a long time over the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the state, and a political will to maintain a stable social order based on lower levels of income inequality. Though this has been eroded over the last two decades or so, such attitudes still remain and can be seen when the "European model" is invoked. This should be both comforting and discomforting to the left: it means that the basic set of assumptions they promise about society is largely accepted, but it also means it's harder to formulate what they stand for that's different and new. This challenge is made tougher by the left's adaptation and acceptance of the right's economic views, which has left the left far less able to adapt politically to the changes brought about by the recession than the right, as can be seen from the European elections.

"So long as the primary objective of social democrats was to convince voters that they were a respectable radical choice within the liberal polity, this defensive stance made sense. But today such rhetoric is incoherent. It is not by chance that a Christian Democrat like Angela Merkel can win an election in Germany against her Social Democratic opponents—even at the height of a financial crisis—with a set of policies that in all its important essentials resembles their own program.

Social democracy, in one form or another, is the prose of contemporary European politics. There are very few European politicians, and certainly fewer still in positions of influence, who would dissent from core social democratic assumptions about the duties of the state, however much they might differ as to their scope. Consequently, social democrats in today's Europe have nothing distinctive to offer: in France, for example, even their unreflective disposition to favor state ownership hardly distinguishes them from the Colbertian instincts of the Gaullist right. Social democracy needs to rethink its purposes.

The problem lies not in social democratic policies, but in the language in which they are couched. Since the authoritarian challenge from the left has lapsed, the emphasis upon "democracy" is largely redundant. We are all democrats today. But "social" still means something—arguably more now than some decades back when a role for the public sector was uncontentiously conceded by all sides. What, then, is distinctive about the "social" in the social democratic approach to politics?"

At the same time, what does the left stand for on the European stage? What does it propose that's different from the right? Environment, financial regulation... it's not enough to say that the left will govern better and with the vague promise to be more socially minded - the left must develop politics that go beyond the economy, and offer a better an more comprehensive vision of fairness and justice. If it can confidently promote a more socially just vision, and seem less beholden to the same political mindset of the right without been utopianistic, then the left can set about rebuilding itself as a coherent and positive movement. Of course, this is all easier said than done.


  1. Super lecture, as you said, thank you. I agree with your commentary, too. Certainly the view from France is that we are "all environmentalists now", we (ie all parties) hold to a basically similar set of policies on social affairs.

    Yet the Socialist Party here cannot get away from proposing more a more nannying role for the state (whilst being unclear as to how to pay for such). This leaves them looking, frankly, unfit to govern.

    The message has finally got home that France is living beyond its means, even if Sarkozy appears not to notice.

    Is a "new language" enough? What new vision is left to promote? A vision of a better managed budget would not sound convincing coming from the mouths of social democrats: yet that is probably the only different policy needed -and not only in France.

  2. A sounder budgetry policy would be a good start. It might be rooted in language, but it's also a change of attitude: social democratic parties need to not just be proud of their past achievements, but be able to project a coherent vision of gradual progress and change, linked with the idea of fairness, which would be able to sustain them into the future.