John Quiggan (author of Zombie Economics [Princeton UP, 2012] and a regular blogger on the best blog in the universe, Crooked Timber), recently decided to jettison the name “social democracy” as a description of his political position. Here is his complete post on that decision:
“As I mentioned a while ago, in the years that I’ve been blogging, I’ve described my political perspective as “social-democratic”. In earlier years, I mostly used “democratic socialist”. My reason for the switch was that, in a market liberal/neoliberal era, the term “socialist” had become a statement of aspiration without any concrete meaning or any serious prospect of realisation. By contrast, “social democracy” represented the Keynesian welfare state I was defending against market liberal “reform”.
In the decade since the Global Financial Crisis, things have changed. Socialism still describes an aspiration, rather than a concrete political program, but an aspiration to a better society is what we need now as a positive response to the evident failure of neoliberalism.
On the other side of the ledger, nominally social democratic parties nearly all failed the test of the crisis, accepting to a greater or lesser degree to the politics of austerity. Some, like PASOK in Greece, have paid the price in full. Others, like Labor in Australia, are finally showing some spine. In practice, though, social democracy has come to stand, at best, for technocratic managerialism, and at worst for capitulation to the demands of financial capital.
So, I’ve changed the description of this blog’s perspective to socialist. I haven’t however, adopted the formulation “democratic socialist” which was used, in the 20th century, to emphasise a rejection of the Stalinist claim to have produced “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. That’s no longer necessary.
As has been true for most of the history of the modern world, the only serious threat to democracy is now coming from the right. So, it’s important to defend democracy as well as advancing the case for socialism.”
This is more sparse and more cryptic than one would have wished, but it does speak to one of my obsessions: why isn’t social democracy, which seems to have the best track record of actually delivering (particularly in Scandinavia, but elsewhere in Europe as well) general prosperity, equitably distributed, along with robust civil liberties and a functioning safety net, the preferred position on the left in 2018? Social democracy has had demonstrable, on the ground, successes—which is more than can be said for any of the left’s other alternative programs. And neoliberalism, recognizing that fact, has devoted most of its energies to discrediting and dismantling the gains social democracy made from 1900 on. The neoliberals know where the greatest threat to their hegemony lies.
So: to abandon social democracy seems to me to let the neoliberals win. They set out to drive it from the field—and the left is folding up its tents and ceding the field to our new overlords. We will console ourselves with vicious attacks on center-left politicians like the Clintons and hasten to the highlands of a pure “socialism” that is even more vague than it is pure.
Obviously, I think the left should be doubling down on social democracy, on fighting to protect and/or restore what social democracy put in place in the 1945 to 1970 period, while also offering an extension of social democratic policies (universal health care, progressive tax rates, strict regulation of financial and other markets, government thumb on the scale to insure a balance of power between labor and capital when negotiating conditions of employment etc.). There is good evidence that these things work; capital’s hatred of them is just one parcel of that evidence.
Yet: Quiggan’s post gives me pause on three counts.
- I take very seriously the fact that social democracy, as a rallying cry and as a program, seems to hold no appeal for young left leaners. Let’s say “young” means anyone under 45. It just doesn’t resonate. Again, that may be just a symptom of how successful the neoliberal smear campaign has been, but that doesn’t change the fact on the ground that clamoring for social democracy is not going to galvanize the left today.
- More substantially, of course, Quiggan’s assertion is that social democracy has discredited itself (no matter what discrediting neoliberalism engineered) by acquiescing in the austerity policies imposed after 2008. Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist, but all his policies are recognizably social democratic. He pretty much wants to enact “the second bill of rights” that FDR proposed in his 1944 State of the Union address. Perhaps today’s “socialist” is just yesterday’s “social democrat” coming to us under a new, more fashionable, name. We would have to get some fleshing out of what “socialism” is meant to convey in order to answer that question. Old wine in new bottles? It would be a classic case of claiming that those who call themselves “social democrats” have sold out, are no longer really worthy of the name because they didn’t stand up for social democracy in the aftermath of 2008, so we are going to walk away, cede them the name, call ourselves socialists, and fight for what they betrayed. The left (and the right) fractures in this way all the time.
- The true substantial nub, however, remains where it always has been in the debate between social democrats and socialists: can a leftist politics tolerate the existence of a capitalist market? Is regulation good enough, supplemented by declaring certain crucial things—like health care and transportation—“public goods” whose supply cannot be entrusted to the market? Or is the capitalist market so antithetical to equality, justice, and democracy that it must be dismantled in favor of a different way of organizing economic production and consumption? Socialism, as I understand it, always thought the market—even a regulated market—was unable to deliver a society or a polity that could deliver socialism’s goals. There could be—and should be—no compromise with markets. Whereas social democracy was all about forging such a compromise.
What Quiggan tells us—and I certainly agree—is that the social democrats caved in, for whatever reason (threats of capital flight or total market collapse or the sheer corruption of political elites in cahoots with the rich), to capital’s demands following 2008—and gave away most of the store. The issue, of course, is whether, when push comes to shove, social democracy will always cave, that capital always holds the cards that allow it to blackmail the politicians into doing capital’s bidding. That is the conclusion socialists reach: social democracy is no bulwark against capital’s depredations—and never can be. And so we need something completely different.
If that is claim, then the socialists need to step up to the plate. What do they propose? And how do they propose to get there? These are familiar, time-worn questions—greatly complicated if the soi-disant socialist also proclaims strict fidelity to democracy. What democratic pathways can be mobilized to get from here (neoliberalism) to there (socialism)?
2 thoughts on “What’s In a Name?”
This is a nice discussion. On point 2, I’ve made the point that, in operational terms, socialism basically means “social democracy with a spine”.
On point 3, the critical issue is, I think, the response to a crisis like the GFC. The correct response was to use it to roll capitalism back, for example, through nationalising the financial system. The actual response of liberal and social democratic parties was to bail capitalism out at the expense of their own supporters. That’s not to say there’s no room for compromise, but that the ultimate vision should be one of a transformed society that is no longer capitalist in the way in which the term is used today. Of course, that’s exactly what the social democratic creators of the Keynesian welfare state sought to achieve and made much progress towards.