Futures for social democracy: renovating European social democracy.

AuthorClift, Ben

The 'end' of social democracy has been pronounced repeatedly, with varying degrees of conviction in recent decades (Dahrendorf, 1990; Giddens, 1994; Gray, 1996, 1998). Meanwhile, in 2007, both the French and Italian left have entered (yet another) phase of introspection, ideological redefinition and aggiornamiento. In both cases, the path of social democratisation is seen (by at least one major faction) as virtually synonymous with modernity and 'renewal'. This attests to the capacity for ideological innovation, and renovation, within social democracy.

How could so many erudite scholars pronouncing the death of social democracy so assertively over the last two decades ago have been so mistaken? The answer lies in how social democracy is conceived, and some hidden assumptions within these commentaries on the fortunes of the left in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. There is a tendency to identify social democracy firstly with a particular set of institutional 'means' (such as corporatism or nationalisation) and secondly with the policy paradigms within which those means were couched (such as 'planning' or 'Keynesianism'). The fortunes of social democracy are evaluated in terms of particular means through which, across the twentieth century in different national contexts, the political aspirations of social democracy have been channelled. This leads to detailed analysis of particular national configurations of institutions, policies and paradigms. These means-oriented approaches have generated much invaluable insight into the nature of social democracy and its historical, political and programmatic development. However, the lessons to draw from this means-based analysis of social democracy are not those which first leap off the page.

There is an elision within some of this analysis, assuming that because the political claims of social democracy were advanced through a particular set of policies or institutions, therefore social democracy is ultimately reducible to those elements. It 'follows' that the continuing viability of these institutions or policy approaches is a necessary condition if the enduring viability of social democracy. When the ideational and institutional conditions changed, eroding or undermining the coherence of social democratic programmatic settlements rooted in those ideas, institutions, and policies, this was diagnosed as terminal for social democracy as a political movement.

Yet this excessively static, indeed ahistorical conception misconstrues the relation between social democracy's programmatic goals and the means deployed in pursuit of social democratic ends. Fundamentally, it misunderstands the nature of social democracy and prematurely discounts its capacity for renewal (see Clift, 2003). This focus on means, almost to the exclusion of ends, explains the confidence in assigning social democracy to the rubbish bin of history. Nationalisation, planning, 'modernisation' and the Keynesian welfare state project coalesced into but one 'strategic amalgam' (see Pierson, 1995, 34) through which to pursue the politics of social democracy. That all elements of this approach no longer retain the same relevance should not surprise us. Nor should it lead us to write off social democracy as a spent force. Rather, the changed international economic and domestic political context requires us to look how social democratic goals are pursued today, and seek to trace the outline of a new 'strategic amalgam'--or amalgams.

The much missed Paul Hirst offered an ends-oriented definition of social democracy which identifies its core elements, 'minimising the cost of capitalism for individuals, either through growth and employment enhancing policies, and/or, through welfare state provision for the contingencies of unemployment, ill-health and old age'. Secondly, it 'attempts to tackle and reduce major and unjustifiable inequalities in power and wealth,' and thirdly it seeks to 'accomplish these objectives within the limits set by parliamentary democracy on the one hand, and private property and the market economy on the other' (Hirst, 1999, 87). This ends-oriented approach to social democracy does not tie itself to a particular set of 'corporatist' structures, but emphasises agency. It is both less static and also more conducive to the comparative analysis of social democracy. Restrictive definitions in terms of particular 'means' are prone to 'Swedocentrism', (1) which roots the definition of social democracy in the corporatist institutions characteristic of 'Northern' social democracy. (2) Focusing on ends facilitates comparative analysis of cases where particular institutional means deemed core to social democracy--such as corporatist bargaining institutions--do not exist in the prescribed form (such as France), or have diminished in import over time (such as the UK).

The ends--securing equality of outcome and opportunity, redistribution to the most needy in society, and facilitating the widest possible access to employment within society--can, in the broadest terms, be summarized as the attempt to reconcile social justice to economic efficiency. These ends have remained the same across time. The means, however, have evolved significantly.

Full employment, Keynesianism ... and New Labour

The importance of full employment as a core aim of social democracy, essential to social democrats making their peace with the capitalist economy should be underlined;

As long as capitalist crises could happen at any moment, whatever gains unions and social democratic parties might have achieved in the redistribution of incomes or the expansion of public services must have seemed extremely insecure. Indeed, the unions had been helpless during the Great Depression of the early 1930s, as the welfare state collapsed under the burden of mass unemployment. Social democrats could thus make their reluctant peace with capitalism only if they could also hope to avoid its recurrent crises or at least to dampen them sufficiently to assure the continuous economic growth that was necessary to maintain full employment and the expansion of public services. (Scharpf, 1991, 23) This is one of the reasons why the policy paradigm of Keynesianism has been identified so closely with social democracy (see Przeworski, 1985). Its role as a legitimating discourse was crucial to social democrats' perceived 'fitness to govern', justifying state intervention in the economy in a socially just direction in terms of economic efficiency. Keynesianism laid down a blueprint of how the economic regulatory potentialities of the nation state could be tailored to secure social democratic goal of full employment.

There are problems of diagnosis and prognosis with how the Keynesian policy paradigm is understood within the means-based examination of the health of social democracy. The characterisation of Keynesianism (like social democracy more broadly) is often static, generalising too widely (across time and space) from a particular historical contingent articulation of Keynesianism and social democracy. Sometimes, these accounts place emphasis on the wrong...

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