The role of ideas in a revival of social democracy: the case of the Australian Labor Party.

Author:Battin, Tim
Position:ESSAY

Is it simplistic--or clarifying--to ask: what are the categories of impediments to a social democratic future? Arguably, the obstacles to civilisation's struggle to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society (to use Polanyi's definition of social democracy) fall into one of five categories. In the first place, there is the question of whether a set of economic and social policies capable of subordinating the self-regulating market to democratic practices is technically feasible. Putting aside the other obstacles about to receive mention, can the policies themselves work? Second, there is an electoral, or demographic, question to be asked: based on an objective understanding of who stands to gain, is the number of citizens standing to benefit from a radical restructure and redistribution sufficient to sustain an electoral majority? Is it any more difficult in contemporary circumstances to stitch together an electoral majority coalition in favour of social democracy than it was in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s? Better still, if the majority is possible, are the demographics of this majority such that it may be sustained for a time to allow social democratic policies to be bedded down and made popular? Third, and closely related to this societal factor, there is the perennial question of class structure, the traditional concern of the left. If a social democratic mix of economic and social policies were to have intrinsic merit, and if the number of citizens standing to gain from such a program were well in the majority, what does the class structure of any given society suggest about the likely success or otherwise of such a programme? Is the class structure--and the material interests represented by this structure--such that a technically viable mix of social and economic policies benefitting the greater number is still doomed to political failure, or is the outlook more sanguine? And fourth, closely attached to the class structure, a society's institutions tend to mirror past struggle and activity. Depending on the institutional layout of a particular society, progressive politics can be thwarted or enhanced (Dow, 2010). The scope of this article does not allow an analysis of all these factors, though they are touched on where pertinent. The primary task is to focus on the one remaining hurdle not yet mentioned.

Neglected by political scholars on the left, although somewhat taken up in recent years (e.g. Berman, 2006; 2011; Schmidt, 2008; Palley, 2012; Mirowski, 2013), is the role of ideas. For a time, writers such as Peter Hall (1989; 1994) were almost lone figures (1) in putting the case that a left politics needed to be more acutely focused on the power of ideas themselves if the political prospects of a left party or coalition of parties were to be viable. It is an important question because so many of the various arguments against social democracy (whether by those who are hostile to it or those more sympathetic but sceptical) touch on political economic ideas about what is possible. One need only consider the changing complexion of the globalisation literature in the last twenty years--a development not principally reflecting changes in real conditions over that time but rather a better reading of the situation (Piven, 1995; Glyn, 1998; 2006; Weiss, 1998; 1999; 2003; Boreham, Dow and Leet, 1999; Saul, 2005)--to appreciate that ideas themselves are powerful entities. To claim as much is not to argue that ideas are more important than any of the other factors usually considered by progressive intellectuals to be essential to left political strategies. However, in arguing that the power of ideas is a necessary (though insufficient) ingredient in the combination of factors holding out some prospect of social democratic success, we might allow for the possibility that the relative autonomy of ideas has been overlooked. To put all this another way, to what extent have nominal social democrats been hoodwinked by the power of ideas inimical to social democracy? The central theme of this article is that, not for the first time in history, an ideational component is capable of providing a circuit breaker in the present impasse.

Opportunities lost

The irony of the present period, at least in liberal market societies, is that we could be considering the future of social democracy with significant sobriety at the same time as the economic and social conditions all but dictate an electoral embrace of quite a radical social democratic programme. Juxtaposing the supposed exhaustion of social democracy at precisely the time social and economic conditions shout out for social democratic revival carries an incongruity worth noting. The irony deepens when it is realised that parties and groups of the right seem to appreciate this more than parties of the nominal left. The ferocity with which climate change denialism is discharged is the clearest indication that the right knows more than anyone that global warming will require a radically collectivist solution (2).

In short, social democratic parties have lost their intellectual confidence since the onset of the neo-liberal era. It is true the economic environment for left-wing programmes changed at some point in the 1970s and 1980s, but the precise nature of this change has generally been misunderstood and its extent overstated; in any case, the abandonment of socialist ideas and policies by nominal social democratic parties is a bigger shift than the change in the environment. One way to illustrate this proposition is to cite an example of the recent Australian revival of a policy programme abandoned in the 1970s, overt Keynesian fiscal stimulus (3).

As the effects of the global economic crisis were becoming more apparent in 2008, circumstances afforded the Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, an opportunity to initiate a debate about the neo-liberal record and social democratic alternatives. Judged against the standards of politicians' writing, Rudd's essay (Rudd, 2009) was regarded by many as a thoughtful and serious contribution to the body politic. Given Rudd's apparent level of awareness, then, it is all the more significant that a momentous occasion was squandered. An authentic social democratic party presiding over essentially sound economic conditions could only dream of a crisis seen over 2008 to 2010. The crisis was real, and rather than relying on the phenomenon of a fabricated crisis, or natural disasters, to introduce ersatz solutions, as neo-liberal governments have done for more than three decades (Klein, 2007), a social democratic party could have seized the opportunity of an actual crisis...

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