Monty Python and the threat to social democracy

22nd September, 2010 12:10 pm

Monty Python Black KnightThe Labour movement column

By Anthony Painter

Rather like the indefatigable Black Knight in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, social democracy seems blissfully unaware that it faces an existential threat. German SPD hits 20%. A mere flesh wound! British Labour party in second worst electoral performance for almost a century. ‘Tis but a scratch! Swedish social democrats crash to second consecutive defeat and worst result since universal suffrage was introduced. Call it a draw!

The Dutch PvDA, the Australian Labor Party, and Obama’s Democrats, while not in quite such a desperate state, all are struggling in their own ways. This was meant to be a new dawn not a series of embarrassing defeats. The Austrian economists had finally been staked, the Washington Consensus was dead, neo-liberalism had failed, and Keynes was born again. The post-war social democratic halcyon was about to return. Instead, the left is lying prostrate with the electorate, the media, and it’s adversaries marching past it, clacking coconut shells, and declaring that it’s mad.

Left wing publications tend to bemoan a ‘lack of leadership’ and the right focuses on thorny issues like immigration or taxes or the big state or welfare dependency. The implication is that if there was ‘leadership’ or if these parties were nasty to immigrants, dismantled the welfare state and slashed taxes then all would be well. They would also be conservatives so what would the point of that be?

Actually, these things are just tactical adjustments which would not restore the left to its post war hegemony. There is a very simple reason. After the war there were three conditions in place that don’t exist now. Firstly, there had been a catastrophic war and great depression just before it (and for the talk of depression we’ve come nowhere near this time in terms of the social impact.) And secondly, there was a identifiable programme of welfare expansion, domestic economies shielded from the full force of international capital flows, and the provision of universal public services. No such programmatic clarity exists.

Finally, there were social movements underpinning a social democratic alternative – not just through electoral politics but in workplaces also. Unions were powerful and able to counterbalance owners and managers. In the UK, manufacturing was then over a third of employment whereas now it is 10%. Union power is far more prevalent in the public sector than the private sector as employment is dispersed and disjointed. Millions of public sector workers are about to find out that their power is not that great.

Collective institutions generate the social values of empathy, solidarity, and pooled risk on which major social democratic reform depends. The reason that so many have such a downer on immigrants, welfare recipients and, yes, the public sector who aren’t seen as having suffered as much as others is the absence of these strong collective institutions. The Daily Mail is only part of the story.

The left’s world isn’t the world as is. Our internally and externally divided nations are riven by suspicion and resentment. People feel that they bear the burden while others enjoy the free ride. This sentiment leaves those on welfare and those working in the public sector as sitting ducks. They don’t have the political voice. George Osborne knows it and strikes the vulnerable suspecting that the political price will be low. He could well be right whatever the immediate polls are saying (they said similar things after elections in 1979, 1970 and 1951.)

So the choice is two-fold. Either the left can play retail politics and just be prepared to swallow its deep values from time to time in exchange for fleeting electoral success. The election victories will be on the terms of others and any substantive gains will quickly be reversed as we are now seeing in the UK. There is another way. Perhaps social democracy is an idea for the industrial age. Maybe it can’t function without a large, structured, and homogenous working class. It may be that it took a wrong turn somewhere and just became about the big state and big unionism. Perhaps rather than a renewed social democracy, the left needs something which is simultaneously more radical and more realistic if it is to advance justice. It needs to build an argument and set of institutions for the less industrial age.

What elements might such a new left manifest? Primarily it will refuse to accept a separation of democracy and the economy. People are only empowered if they are empowered in the world of work. Without that, forget ever institutionalising further social justice.

Secondly, power matters. The greatest steps are unaided. Let’s remove the stabilisers and be ready to catch people if they fall – real democracy, real ownership of assets, public services that identify and respond to individual and community needs.

Finally, we need new collective institutions. There are broad swathes of modern life where people are alone when they face common challenges – how to skill themselves for the modern market, how to ensure that they can articulate their needs and be heard, how to join with others to change their communities or their workplace, how to leave the world of welfare, and how to ensure that they can build an asset base on which their family’s and their own opportunity and security rests. These institutions may be new unions, or guilds, or mutuals, or employee-own enterprises, or community institutions, or newly engaged public services.

And the more you think about these three elements – a new democratic market, individual empowerment, and new collective institutions – they pose many different and more radical questions than parties of the left have been capable of asking in anything more than a rhetorical sense. Social democracy’s truths were assumed to be self-evident. Rather than inalienable truth we watched as so many joined the realm of the alienated – in or out of employment. Social democracy has increasingly become a programme of statist redistribution that has run its political course. Our unequal and distressed societies will be left untouched – with disastrous social and economic consequences – without a new and individually empowering mission for the left.

The risk is that unless deeper thinking and institution building takes place then parties of the left will simply be brands or relics. There has been much talk of whether Labour is stuck in 1992, 1983, the 1930s or beyond. Actually the challenge is completely different. It’s to remember the original mission: to free people by giving them the capability to cooperate in building a flourishing life for all. The ideology was designed to fit the mission in the social context that the country faced. The mission is unchanged. New arguments and institutions are needed if justice is to be advanced in the situation that the left actually faces. Get it wrong and the fate will be that of the plucky yet ridiculous Black Knight.

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