Social Democracy Without Social Democrats

Can the Left Recover?

By Neal Lawson

European social democrats have been engaged in serious efforts to rethink how the social democratic tradition must be transformed to meet the demands of the 21st century.

One of the online publications advocating this reappraisal in the United Kingdom is Compass, whose Neal Lawson recently posted a thought-provoking essay asking how one can have social democracy without social democrats. Though specifically addressing the UK, Lawson’s essay is relevant to the dilemmas of all social democrats/democratic socialists in the rest of Europe and North America.

You can read the full piece at http://www.compassonline.org.uk/publications/social-democracy-without-social-democrats/.  Here is a short excerpt. – Paul Garver

Labour has suffered another bad set of election results. But the failure of Labour is not the fault of the Corbynites or the Blairites. Social democracy is in crisis the world over: obliterated in Greece, failing in government in France and in retreat almost everywhere else. 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 interest 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 world 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 the planet. Democracy abounds but not in our two party farce of a system. This explains the rise of new parties and so many new on and off line 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 democrats as a political creed are, as yet and maybe for good, unable or unwilling to face up the challenges of the 21st century.

This essay seeks to understand the rise and fall of social democracy; to see it not as ‘the norm’ to be returned to when Labour wins the right number of seats with the right leaders, but as a temporary blip made possible by a particular alignment of forces after the Second World War. It then briefly describes the hostile terrain that has replaced the benign post war context that for a while made social democrats powerful. And it ends by outlining the four challenges social democrats must face if they are to have a future, the challenges of:

• Vision and a good society beyond turbo-consumption

• Globalisation and the need to tame capital beyond borders

• Culture and the need to let go and trust people

• Agency and the need to build new alliances for change

The key argument is this: we want and need a world that is deeply social and radically democratic but the practice of social democrats, their statism and tribalism, their urge to command and control, their emphasis on growth and their unwillingness to build new global institutions are at odds with a zeitgeist that demands pluralism, complexity, localisation and globalisations and a good society that is about much greater equality but is at odds with consumption without end. Today social democracy as a political practice cannot rise to the challenges of creating a social democratic world for the 21st century. So, can we have a social democracy without social democrats, indeed must we?

Neal Lawson is chair of the Good Society pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming. Paul Garver is a retired international union organizer and co-editor of DSA’s Talking Union blog.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

 

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