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Social justice • Third way • Labour

After social democracy?

Anthony Painter - 24 May 2012

Socially divided, economically stressed electorates are unlikely to have much tolerance for traditional social democratic approaches to pursuing social justice

The democratic left has constantly evolved and adapted. Just as evolution in the biological world is not visible to the naked eye, it usually can’t be seen in the political world either. In part, this is because it is deliberately hidden – freaks of political nature don’t tend to thrive. The question for our times is the degree to which another metamorphosis may now be taking place, albeit out of sight. And when we get to the other side will the new species, the new organism, be traditional social democracy in form?

We have seen the left shed old forms consistently over the last century or so. Accompanying the spread of mass industry and consumerism, left wing movements and parties first discarded revolutionary Marxism, then socialism and now the suitability of social democracy for a post-crash, austerity age is in some doubt. In the UK context, revolutionary Marxism was shed relatively quickly and parliamentary socialism was pursued. This came to an end in the post-war war boom.

Tony Crosland published The future of socialism in 1956. It argued that Keynesianism had resolved the abundance issue, what was now necessary was the reduction of inequality through the redistribution of abundant resources and that would give us time to enjoy public art, the café society and concentrate on the quality of life over making ends meet. This marked a historical turning point only matched in terms of significance by Labour turning away from pacifism in the 1930s.

Crosland’s big lie was the title of the book. He was ditching not rescuing socialism. He was replacing it with what we now recognise as post-war social democracy. The German SPD did a similar thing at Bad Godesberg in 1959 – they ditched socialism in the name of socialism. Even a few decades later, the Labour party revised its constitution but still maintained it was a ‘democratic socialist’ party - which it wasn’t. Socialism is an alternative economic system to capitalism and mutually exclusive. You can’t be both at the same time - unless you are a politician or political activist that is.

Then came New Labour. Electorally formidable for a period of time, New Labour’s argument was that the decay of the first pillar of Croslandism – a productive, corporatist economy - did not matter. It could do ‘socialism’ without that by accepting redistribution (covertly) and celebrating cosmopolitanism. It was Cool Britannia mixed with Fabian gradualism pursued through the central state. The political bible of the New Labour time was Anthony Giddens’ The Third Way.

The first thing to say about The Third Way is that it is much maligned and normally unfairly so. It is a much better work than its reputation suggests. It fairly accurately analyses the decline of industrial society. It spots the rise of individualism. An active civil society is seen as just as critical as a more activist state – Big Society Conservatism followed in its footsteps. Giddens advocates a Tobin Tax and a compulsory deposit with central banks for inward investors to sort out real from speculative investment. Environmental risk is clearly outlined.

The Third Way has significant flaws also. Its cosmopolitanism blinded it to cultural resistance to change. It asserts the need for a mixed economy but is empty in terms of the specifics – a major oversight. Early New Labour took much of it on board other than the elements that would require intervention in the market. The Third Way in political practice was less radical than The Third Way in theory.

Giddens subtitled the book ‘the renewal of social democracy’. In some senses it was. Equally, it had begun to move away from social democracy also. It wasn’t a big lie like Crosland’s but it was only two-thirds true. Social democracy as a bringing together of different classes in a bargain – a truce – on the foundation of a mixed economy with large scale industry at its core was weakening. The social and economic bases of traditional social democracy were crumbling but the building was still standing – just.

Then came the crash - a failure of neo-liberalism but we were all neo-liberals by then. Putting that rather inconvenient fact to one side, social democracy has been seen as the natural alternative by the left (with a tweak here and a tweak there). History is neither teleological nor cyclical. It turned out that electorates had a rather different idea, as did the financial markets. So here we are – stuck. At least the left is winning elections again. Despite the rhetoric of change or of cutting slightly less vigourously, this is not the restorationist project we are being sold.

The social and economic bases of social democracy – a mass industrial economy with a strong class consciousness – no longer pervade. Society and the economy have moved on. It does not seem as if the centre-left has moved on, however. For now, the battle against head-banging austerity will hide this basic fact. It will emerge soon enough and then the left will have to confront the reality of the post-industrial world - in most countries at least.
In the new Policy Network volume After the Third Way, Olaf Cramme and Patrick Diamond face up to this fact. In Diamond’s ‘From fatalism to fraternity’ he picks up some of the critical ways in which this adaptation to new circumstances will be necessary. He rightly points to the need for new economic institutions and a different, more social, notion of state power. Competitive markets are in our collective interest. But so are countervailing institutions which raise skills, distribute opportunity, finance new businesses and protect wages. In the post-war world, unions were critical institutions. If they can no longer exert significant economic power then what institutions can? This is the new terrain of the centre-left.

Will this be 'social democracy'? We can call it that but the risk is that, in doing so, we revert to old habits of trying to simply use the redistributive bureaucracy of the central state to promote justice. Socially divided, economically stressed electorates are unlikely to have much tolerance for this approach to pursuing social justice. Even if they do, it has financial and economic limits as we have seen. Instead, why not break free of the intellectual and political constraints of traditional social democracy? Greater social justice will depend on the left’s ability to challenge its traditional ends and the means that flow from them. The techniques we have been following only take us so far.

Never has the Right seemed so ideologically weak: more deregulation, less tax, no vision. After many decades, they are finally on the run. Their analysis is crashing down around them. Cramme and Diamond’s volume asks the right questions and proposes many of the right solutions. The question is at what stage does adaptable and evolutionary change result in a new organism? It is not certain that we are there yet but it is looking increasingly like the left might have to be. Social justice depends on it.

Anthony Painter’s Left without a future? Social justice after the crash is published in July by Arcadia Books

After the Third Way: The Future of Social Democracy in Europe is published by I.B Tauris

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

Tags: Social Democracy , Centre-Left , Labour , New Labour , The Third Way , Anthony Giddens , Left without a future? , The Future of Socialism , Anthony Crosland , social democracy , social justice , Anthony Painter , Olaf Cramme , Patrick Diamond

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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