Futures for social democracy: social democracy beyond productivism.

AuthorFitzpatrick, Tony
PositionFeatures - Essay

In recent years the political weather has turned quite wintry for social democratic politics. The European-wide electoral successes and political energies of 1996 to 2001 seem distant. But amid conservative revivals, recriminations and uncertainties about the future there are, within theoretical debates, several gaps in the clouds.

For example, interest in 'assets' connects to earlier, underexploited discussions about stakeholding. These concepts relate to familiar emphases on homeownership, education and business loans, yet they also invoke fundamental goals of egalitarian justice and economic democracy (Standing, 2006).(1) We have become used to hearing that equality is complex, that inclusive citizenship is about 'doing' rather than just 'being'. Perhaps. Yet we have risked forgetting two important points. Firstly, the height of social floors is inseparable from that of social ceilings. Inequality matters because status matters and status is always positional, dependent upon comparisons to those with whom we share social space. The relative value of my wealth alters in relation to yours. Secondly, lifetime resources count. Yes, poverty is also biographical, transitional, dynamic and diverse, but class remains important. In flexible labour markets revolving doors spin quicker and with severer consequences for some more than for others. Class is not a 'background' that a meritocracy will dispel but an atmosphere which surrounds us and, once inhaled, something that we surround, shaping our habits, capabilities and interactions. Its continued relevance also means social democrats cannot run away forever from the issue of social ownership. At its best the debate about assets reminds us of these points.

The interest in wellbeing, happiness and quality of life is also encouraging, though it has the potential to misfire. Wellbeing partially implies the fulfilment of reasonable expectations. If expectations are too high then disappointment will usually result, as when we buy the illusion that consumption and aspiration alone will bring prosperity. But if expectations are too low then we might attain only an artificial form of wellbeing. The happy slave may be content, but is still a slave. Achieving a 'goldilocks' medium of reasonable expectations is not easy. It calls for a set of social relationships in which we see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. This does not mean abandoning the principle of autonomy but recognising the extent to which it is enmeshed within social interdependencies. In place of the 'expressive self' of the 1960s and 1970s, or the 'possessive self' of the 1980s and 1990s, we need a concept of the 'relational self'. Nor should wellbeing crowd out liberal notions of impartial universalism and rights, therefore. If it is to avoid being repressive any notion of the common good must involve considerable freedom for individuals to set and pursue their own version of the good. This requires conducive social environments and a realisation that the capacity to live with disappointment, risk and loss is essential. The pursuit of happiness is as valuable as happiness itself; wellbeing cannot be engineered because it implies the (sometimes unpromising) struggle for fulfilment. Moreover, those social environments require that any politics of wellbeing accompany a political economics of social justice. Counselling the poor to be happy with their poverty can only hasten the dimming of the sociological imagination and the hypocrisy of an insecure society constantly demanding signs of normality from the 'anti-social underclass' to whom it attributes its problems. Without social justice the wellbeing agenda can easily be occupied by conservatives content to ignore socioeconomic causes.

We will return to some of these points below. In the remainder of this essay I want to explore at greater length two further debates which also offer the prospect of better weather ahead.

Setting the scene

I am going to outline what I shall call 'post-productivist social democracy'.(2) Social democrats have long sought a capitalism that generates at least as much affluence as free markets without the latter's inequalities. This has involved harnessing the productive capacities of capitalism while instituting fairer systems of distribution. Advocates of the 'Third Way' or 'New Social Democracy' have formulated a 'new productivism' that follows the same logic but which embraces privatisation and deregulation, private funding and provision, capital mobility and public sector markets to an extent unimaginable to previous generations. New Labour can proclaim some achievements. It contributed to a decade of steady growth, restoring Labour's reputation for economic competence, and rendered public investment, anti-poverty strategies and modest redistribution relatively pain-free.

There has been a downside, however. If you tell people that the public sector is sclerotic then why should they give you credit for any improvements in their lives? And progress in social justice has often accompanied the 'othering' of those seen as problem populations (Lister, 2005). The continuing benefits of social justice have not been promoted, perhaps deliberately. For every advance the 'socially irresponsible' still seem to lurk outside, waiting to steal your taxes and blight your neighbourhood. Crime levels have generally fallen but fear of crime has not followed suit. Clinton's mantra ('It's the economy, stupid') seems hopelessly antiquated; 'what do we do now?' would seem a more appropriate refrain for our age. Foreign holidays, second...

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