Social democracy is generally defined as a system of political thought which seeks to have the government involved in many spheres of activity in society so as to bring about good social outcomes. It differs from socialism in that there is no necessity felt in social democracy for the government to control every aspect of the economy, only those that are felt to have to be controlled in order to bring about those said outcomes.
There is a commitment in social democracy to social equality, otherwise you might as well leave society to own devices (as does (neo)-liberalism). (Conservatism often intervenes to push society towards inequity).
The other thing to mention about social democracy, however, is that it is almost nowhere practised currently. It was the programme of the British Labour Party from the 1940s to the 70s, the Australian Labor Party in the same period, and other similar parties in the English-speaking world in that period. However, as the 1980s approached neo-liberalism in its unholy alliance with conservatism began to take over the political spectrum; the corporate masters spoke, the tolerance they had extended to social democracy between the Second World War and the 1970s was withdrawn. Why this is is an interesting question, the assumption has been that the corporate world saw greater social equality produced by social democracy as tending to increase the market for its products, but by the 1970s had grown impatient with this model and returned to a more traditional, pre WW2, model of building a less equal society where a smaller circle of privileged people participated in greater advantage and boosted consumption that way.
My own view is that the corporate world of that time was, unconsciously or not, recognising the limits to growth and realising that the general prosperity desired by social democracy was just not possible, especially when all the people of the world, including the ‘3rd World’, and not just the poorer people of the first world, were considered. They were preparing for a future in which prosperity was shared by a much smaller circle of people, and because the compliances necessary for these social arrangements were going to be ugly, and increasingly ugly as time went on, so the material rewards had to be significant.
The neo-liberal argument that prosperity has increased more quickly since the 1980s, since the social democratic programme was abandoned, is contradicted by the following observations:
- wealth has increased, both within western countries and across the world, but social inequality has increased, and the position of a social underclass, both within western countries and across the world, has solidified;
- the ecological limits of human economic activity have been exceeded from the 1980s onwards.
And this indeed is problem with social democracy, despite its attractive features—its commitment to social equality, its commitment to state-sponsorship of large parts of the social fabric (as opposed to the madness of privatisation)—it still remains committed to unsustainable growth. Gareth Evans, Foreign Minister under the Australian Labor governments of the 1980s and 90s once said words the effect that as a social democrat he was committed to running the economy as fast as possible in order for there to be more wealth to share around. The irony of this, besides its ecological impossibility in the long-term, is that it postpones equality into the future, until more economic growth has occurred, and some more, and some more....
So even where social democracy does still exist, as in the Scandinavian countries, other European countries, and few places elsewhere in the world such as Kerala state in India, or Costa Rica, it is not immune from the dramas and contradictions of later modernity.
However, the worst thing about social democracy, despite, as I have described, its almost complete abeyance in English-speaking countries, is that where green movements have emerged, they have, as it were, usurped the space of social democratic movements. For example, recently, an Australian political commentator stated that the Australian Greens were similar to ‘an ordinary European social democratic party’. This was meant as a compliment, but apart from the commitment to the decencies of social living such as equality, justice and ‘a fair-go’, which other parties seem to have lost sight of, or never entertained in the first place, the entanglement of the Greens with Social Democracy is not a positive thing.
The problem is that the Australian Greens don’t seem to the have grasped the problem of economic growth and are still sharing in the delusion that if we can carry out a few cosmetic changes all will be well. Symptomatic of this is what I call aesthetic green politics. The Australian green movement first rose to prominence in the 1980s with a series of campaigns over ‘wilderness’ areas, such as opposing the raising of the water level in Tasmania’s Lake Pedder for a hydro-electric scheme. Don’t get me wrong, there was no reason then or now for this, and it was a piece of stupid environmental vandalism, as with old-growth forest logging &c &c.
The problem was that the green argument seemed to be, ‘here is a piece of wilderness that we should preserve (using the economic surplus from our other activities)’, instead of ‘let’s run society sustainably so that no-one would ever contemplate such ridiculous hydro schemes, and so that every part of the environment, not such the pretty bits, is respected’.
Specifically this type of green social democracy has not made the important realisation that, arguably, business already has, and which has been the constant theme of these posts: widespread growth as usual (material growth coupled with population growth) cannot continue. A good example of this is George Monbiot, a UK green writer, who has grasped the ecocidal trajectory of global society, but because he cannot recognise population as a problem, and a lower population as a solution, is forced into all sorts of strange cohabitations, such as recommending nuclear power.
Business wants to continue both of these types of growth for a smaller number of people, but what it will do with the superfluous bodies is difficult to tell, other than it won’t have regard for niceties such as human rights. I am convinced that the way forward is for a slower economic growth or a steady state economy, with a declining population (declining by consent rather than coercion). The legacy of social democracy can show us how to create a society where the difficulty of transition to sustainability is shared equally, and where it is managed rationally by democratic institutions. However, social democracy as such, including green social social democracy, is a historical relic.
Next week: practical political action