The problem of social democracy.

AuthorMcIvor, Martin
PositionEditorial - Editorial

The disconnection of our political life from most people's everyday interactions and concerns, much worried over today, is not a new problem. It can be traced back to the very emergence of the modern state. Social democracy originated as an attempt to bridge the gap.

Marrying, in more or less coherent ways, traditions of republican radicalism with the new collective agencies being thrown up by the industrial revolution, the first social democratic parties emerged in the later nineteenth century in response to the traumatic social dislocations and unprecedented economic polarisation then underway. Early social democracy was clearly distinguished from progressive liberalism by its anchorage in trade union and cooperative movements; but stood out against other socialist or working class tendencies by its strategic focus on conquering political power for the purpose of bringing the economy under some kind of democratic social control. Only against such a background, it was understood, could we secure for every human being their rightful freedom and capacity to flourish.

But this attempt to articulate social movements with electoral and governmental projects was always unstable, and the history of social democracy since the nineteenth century has been a problematic one, riven by fissures and splits, tainted by ambivalence and compromise. Combining vision with incremental progress has never been easy. Social democracy's pragmatic alliances with the nation state and the capitalist economy have provoked compelling challenges from anti-imperialists, feminists, anti-racists, and environmentalists, and others who have exposed the ways in which social democracy can reproduce the pathologies of the society it sought to transform. For many it came to be identified with its absorption into shallow parliamentarism and deadening bureaucracy, and some of the most vibrant and creative political movements of the Cold War period defined themselves in opposition to it. And yet insofar as these currents sought to assert themselves as the democratic basis for a radically different kind of state, whose leverage over private power they still sought to harness, they could be seen as reproducing, or deepening, social democracy's original problematic.

Today actually existing social democracy stands accused of complicity with neoliberalism and neoconservatism, while the gains of its postwar 'Golden Age' seem at best to be eroding, at worst irrecoverably lost. And yet, as the contributors to this issue point out in various ways, the need to redistribute power and regain some kind of democratic collective control over our shared fate could not be more immediate. New economic inequalities are opening up, both within individual countries and internationally; spaces for community and care, and opportunities for shared experience, are...

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