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State • Social Democracy • Technology

Political parties in a flatter world

Neal Lawson - 11 March 2014

In a flatter world the state and the party still matter – but more as capacity builders and platform providers

European social democracy remains in a deep crisis. The German Grand Coalition merely masks the failure of the SPD to do anything other than bounce like a dead cat from its previous low. In office the Danish and the French struggle. In opposition no party is creating a sense of excitement about its future. PASOKisation is the ghost on the shoulder of every social democratic party across the continent (the fall from grace of the Greek centre-left party, currently polling on 4-7%, down from 44% in 2009).

The crisis is structural not cyclical. Social democracy – in everyway a creed of the 20th century – is looking past its sell by date in the 21st century. The world of the centre, of the bureaucracy, of elites, of managerialism is crumbling and giving way to a world that is beyond any party to control.   In part, the turn to neo-liberalism was a reaction to the already evident limits of a statist social democracy from the 1970s onwards. But markets that are too free – just like states that are too remote – can be equally frustrating to a public that feels the complexity of the new world emerging around them.

It is in this interregnum that Uffe Elbaek, the Danish politician, and me have published The Bridge. Its an essay that tries to find hope for social democrats in dark times – a huge prize – but it comes at a huge cost -  the jettisoning of old ways of behaving and being. At best the jury is out on whether the social democratic family of Europe is up for the challenge. It might well be a bridge too far?

For the challenge is deep and profound – it is to stop thinking of social democracy as the process by which we social democrats do things for people and to people. Instead it requires a more humble approach to politics – leadership as platform and capacity building so that people, together, can do things for themselves.

Vast technological changes are sweeping through our lives. Just as social democrats originally rode the wave of mechanization, if they are to thrive and not just survive today they must ride the wave of digitisation and social media. Marx helped us to understand the link between the economic base and the social superstructure. Today, in an era of social media, we can deduce that the social superstructure is bound to be flatter. The world will be many to many and therefore more horizontal and no longer one to many and therefore vertical.  

This can work in our favour.  On these flatter planes the values of democracy and equality can resonate in ways that were impossible in the Fordist structures of the last century. Thus we arrive at maybe a unique moment – the unity of means and ends.  We fight with democracy and participation and we fight for democracy and participation. A good society was always desirable – now it feels feasible.

Cynics and pessimists abound. The technology is not our friend apparently.  We are not saying it is – but it can be. And it’s a reality – we face up to it and bend it to our beliefs  – or face the consequences.  

In this flatter world the state and the party still matter – but more as capacity builders and platform providers. As social democrats we want to see an equality of power through the redistributive legitimacy of the state. And the role of the party is to bridge the state and the new civil society movements and institutions bubbling up in a world in which protests and alterative can be organised at the press of a few buttons.

Security and freedom will always be collectively derived. But the manner of collective provision will be very different in the 21st century compared to the 20th.

The decline of social democracy is not inevitable.  Ultimately of course it is all about politics.  Our ability to inspire with a vision, to lead, to join up and scale up. Social democrats who go on doing the same thing – but expect a different outcome deserve their fate. But the people who need a better life don’t.  Yes we need to know what about our culture and lives should be preserved.  “Science and technology revolutionise our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response” wrote Arthur M. Schlesinger, the adviser to John Kennedy.  But social democracy has always been a creed of modernity – in tune with the times and the zeitgeist.

Just as it did in the 1940s, 1960s and 1990s the modern left needs to assert itself again with a confident and purposeful grasp of the future. Today there is a unique opportunity to do so.

Neal Lawson is Chair of Compass.
This is a contribution to the Policy Network and Barrow Cadbury Trust project on ‘Understanding the Populist Signal'.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: Neal Lawson , Opinion , Pasok , SPD , Social Democracy , Progressive , Centre-left , Centre-right , Left , Right , Far-left , Far-right , Radical-left , Radical-right , Conservatives , Market liberals , Mainstream , Liberal Democrats , Lib-Dems , Lib Dem , Labour Party , Labour , Lab , Individualism , Responsibility , Society , Community , Welfare , prosocial , Citizens , Law , Political Trust , Morality , Citizenship , Trust , Tax , Welfare , Civic Duty , Capitalism , Arthur M. Schlesinger , John Kennedy , Uffe Elbaek

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