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Better economic policies alone will not revive the centre-left

Sheri Berman - 16 July 2014

Better economic policies are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for revival. Successful social democracy has always relied on a strong dose of communitarianism

Historically, capitalism was the reason for the modern left’s existence.  It was in reaction to capitalism that the socialist movement first emerged: widespread anger with the dramatic inequality, social dislocation and atomisation generated by capitalism fed the popularity of left parties throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.   However, when capitalism’s greatest crisis since the Great Depression hit Europe several years ago, there was no upsurge in support for the left.  The reason for this is clear: the social democratic left did not, for the most part, have anything distinctive or convincing to offer citizens looking for a way to understand and respond to the crisis.  In the years preceding the crisis, the best much of the European left had to offer economically was a kinder, gentler version of the economic policies and prescriptions peddled by the right.  Serious thinking about capitalism is long overdue on the left.

Instead, over the past decades the left has been dominated by at least three different groups.  The first is a loud and active anti-globalisation left that sees capitalism as a curse to both the developed and developing world.  This group isn’t interested in reforming capitalism, but rather in attacking it.  It sometimes correctly identifies real problems with the reigning economic order—rising inequality, environmental destruction, cultural homogenisation - but has little positive to offer in its place.  Such criticisms may be helpful in mobilising discontent, but without realistic plans for improving the current situation, such critiques tend to do little more than whip up the already angry and frustrated. 

Another part of the left, bereft of any convincing or innovative ideas about capitalism, has been reduced to defending the gains of the past, even when they no longer make sense in the present.  There should be nothing more depressing to someone interested in a vibrant future for the left than watching left parties defend welfare states that protect labour market insiders while keeping young people, women and others out of the labour force; patronage policies that support political supporters while draining national treasuries; or programs to support inefficient industries, to name but a few.  Such policies are economic and political dead-ends and leave the left (correctly) vulnerable to the charge that its only goal is protecting an ever-smaller section of society from the pressures and challenges the rest are left to face without government support. 

And finally, another part of the left was primarily focused on the cultural or identity issues that came to the fore in the 1960s.  This group has been helpful in advancing the cause of individual emancipation during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, but this shift by a part of the left to what some scholars have called the “politics of recognition” (as opposed to the “politics of redistribution”) has had severe downsides for the left as well.  Not only has it driven many intellectuals from a focus on economic issues, it has fragmented the left in a way that has made it even more difficult for it to win elections and come up with coherent and powerful political narratives.  Too often those on this part of the left stress the primacy of racial, religious, or sexual identity over class or even national identity and denigrate those worried about the rapidly changing nature of their of societies.  This has served to hinder a more productive leftist engagement with social issues and driven many working class citizens to the nationalist and xenophobic right. 

The left is long overdue, in short, for a dramatic self-evaluation; all three of the groups or tendencies mentioned above need to be avoided by social democrats.  Economically, the “5-75-20 society” article gets important things right, most importantly that the left needs to focus on helping citizens adjust to change rather than avoiding it.  In particular, a recognition that the left most go beyond “compensatory redistributon” and offer policies that correct and improve the functioning of markets (“predistribution”) is critical ‒ for creating healthier political economies as well as a social democratic movement that is pro-active rather than defensive.  

However, when it comes to the social challenges facing the left and European societies more generally, the “5-75-20 society” article falls short: the idea that social democrats should downplay or even ignore the “dividing line” between ‘cosmopolitans’ and ‘communitarians’ strikes me as misguided and probably counter-productive.  Instead, the social changes of the past decade must be addressed head-on.  The most obvious challenge here is immigration, which has profoundly impacted social democracy’s ability to build a winning progressive coalition, something the “5-75-20 society” article correctly focuses on. 

As we in the United States unfortunately know, it is very difficult to create social solidarity and a willingness to pay taxes and share risks in a country composed of a wide variety of groups with different traditions, cultures, and even histories.  Unfortunately, perhaps, people are generally much more willing to help those with whom they can easily identify, at least partially because they can imagine themselves having similar problems.   Asking people to help solve the problems of people they feel a kinship towards is one thing, asking them to help solve what they fundamentally see as “somebody else’s problem” is much more difficult.  In addition to an appreciation of the market’s upside and downsides, successful social democracy has always relied on a strong dose of communitarianism and this second leg has weakened as the first strengthened during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.  Ignoring this, or assuming it can be overcome merely with better, pro-active economic policies is a recipe for disaster; better economic policies are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a re-vivification of the social democratic left.

Instead, social democracy must figure out a way to pair better economic policies with better social policies.  Here too the left has fallen behind, until recently responding to the challenge of diversity either by ignoring it or, especially among the intellectual left, via “multiculturalism” and “identity politics,” neither of which has stemmed social conflict or electoral flight, especially on the part of the working class.  This is not merely a matter of dealing with the “bottom 20 %” (which the left cannot and should not ignore in any case), but of addressing head-on issues that concern the vast majority of citizens ‒ most prominently migration and Europeanisation, but also changing social roles and values. 

It is social democracy’s role, in other words, to help citizens deal with difficult and disconcerting social as well as economic change.  If the democratic left does not do this, it leaves citizens’ fears and insecurities to be exploited by others.  Just as social democrats stand in between an economic right that sees no problem with capitalism, and an economic left that sees all problems stemming from it, so too must social democracy stand between a right that wants to turn back the clock to an imaginary past and a left that views any discontent with social change, no matter how rapid and disconcerting, as potentially fascist.  Too many analysts sympathetic to the left ignore the relationship between social change and the possibilities for political and economic innovation. 

The “5-75-20 society” article makes an excellent case for why a pro-active social democracy focused on pre-distribution and the vast majority of society left insecure by global capitalism can recapture political power.  What it does not fully grapple with are the domestic social/demographic changes and European-level developments that have made implementing and selling this solution much more difficult.  Unfortunately, if the left doesn’t deal with these issues, economic and political success is likely to prove elusive.

Sheri Berman is professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University

This articles forms part of a series of responses to the Policy Network essay The Politics of the 5-75-20 Society

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Party Politics, Government and Elections .

Tags: 5-75-20 Society , Social Democracy , Sheri Berman , The Primacy of Politics , Cosmopolitan , Communitarian , Identity , Multiculturalism , Immigration , Welfare State , Centre-Left , Policy Network , Electoral Coalitions , Culture Wars

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