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Social democracy: in crisis the world over

The crisis of social democracy is closely linked to that of capitalism. How should it respond to the sharp reminder that the interests of capital and labour are not identical?

Social democracy is in crisis the world over. From Sweden to Germany, from Britain to the Netherlands and from Australia to Canada and New Zealand - just at the moment that the neo-liberal hegemony falters, social democrats find their legs too are buckling.  There are two profound reasons.

First many parties of social democracy were profoundly linked to the crisis of capitalism. Social democracy is the organised political response to the negative social effects of capitalism. It is the political formation that allows certain groups of people to more effectively struggle against free markets and those who benefit economically from them.  One of the main problems of latterday social democracy, especially as practiced by New Labour in Britain, was that it stopped trying to struggle because struggle only meant you lost elections.  The capitalist tiger could not be tamed, just ridden. So they convinced themselves that economic efficiency and social justice could go hand in hand. In a warped continuation of Anthony Crosland’s revisionist programme the game was now just about distributing the proceeds of growth. The social lamb could lie down with the capitalist lion. The crash was of course the wake up call on that decade and its half wild-goose chase and a sharp reminder that the interests of capital and labour are not identical.

Resurrecting a meaningful left political economy is a necessary but far from sufficient step in any renewal of social democracy. It has had to junk its own core operating assumption - that the game and the goal was control of the state through a singular party, and that through such control social democracy could be ushered in from above. As the central dictum of this Parliamentary Leninism goes. ‘Socialism is what Labour governments do’.

Again social democracy in Britain is the litmus test of the futility of this politics. In thirteen years New Labour, with the blessing of a largely strong economy (albeit one built on the quicksand of debt and a house price bubble), huge majorities, and a pretty useless opposition – did get some good things  as well as some bad things done. (We all have our little list...) But what it proved beyond doubt is that the days of social democracy constructed by an elected elite, by a small group in a single political party, are over.

At its core it simply endorses the politics of elitism. The people can’t be trusted and need to be led by a pure vanguard who know what is best for them.  A chosen few are the only people capable of making change happen. Unless and until social democrats decisively shake off this cultural baggage, the prospects for any transformative change to our nations are negligible.

So what does a post-Leninist left look like? It’s not that hard to imagine. It is a political formation which respects more than anything the principles and practice of democracy. It shifts democracy from being a means to an end (grabbing state power) to being an end in itself. It sees democracy as the only tool the left has to re-engage in the struggle with capital. Through democracy, we decide as a society when, where and how capitalism operates.

Politics, through such a democratic prism, stops being about reaching an end point and starts being a never-ending journey. Socialism stops being what social democratic governments do and starts being what people do. It is based on the recognition that change happens not by force but through argument, engagement, debate and discourse. It is the politics of the campsite; of clear identities but shared values. It is about winning allies, forging partnerships, coalitions and alliances.  It is a war of manoeuver not a war of position.  It is Aesop’s sun not Aesop's wind.

The century of the centre is over. Centrifugal forces have become centripetal. The all-seeing, all-knowing hierarchy has had its day. What was linear, straight, and mechanical has given way to what is fluid, liquid, plural and complex. The politics of one leader, one party and one state cannot hope to survive in this context.

This cultural shift is essential for the left. The planet burns and the poor get poorer.  These two crises combine to create a third ­- that of democracy itself.  For what is the point of politics if it doesn’t put right the big things that are wrong with our world?  The struggle for equality, sustainability and therefore democracy are no longer singular campaigns but will only be solved together ­as a joint narrative, programme and movement for change. Vanguardism failed even in the era of mass society. The vanguard is hopelessly positioned today to control, because there is no one to command. Lenin believed that you could force history. You can. But you can’t force all of the people all of the time. Meaningful and sustained change happens because of the people ­not against them.  The challenge of social democracy is to retain an ideological stance but to practice it through pluralistic means. 

About the author

Neal Lawson is Chair of the pressure group Compass and has written many pamphlets for the organisation on the themes of democracy and equality. He was author in 2009 of All Consuming (Penguin) and was co-editor in 2001 of the Progressive Century. He serves on the Boards of UK Feminista and the AV Referendum Campaign.  He is a Contributing Managing Editor of the quarterly journal Renewal and writes for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He appears regularly on radio and TV.  He was previously a trade union researcher, an adviser to Gordon Brown, and a communications consultant. 


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