The New Social Democracy
Edited by Bryan Evans and Ingo Schmidt, published by AU Press. Guest speaker: Leo Panitch.
Offering a comparative look at social democratic experience since the Cold War, the volume examines countries where social democracy has long been an influential political force – Sweden, Germany, Britain, and Australia – while also considering the history of Canada’s NDP, the social democratic tradition in the United States, and the emergence of New Left parties in Germany and the province of Québec. Once marked by redistributive and egalitarian policy perspectives, social democracy has, the book argues, assumed a new role – that of a modernizing force advancing the neoliberal cause.
The contributions to this volume provide a comprehensive examination of a politics that has come to be identified as the “new” social democracy. What makes this historic political movement, with its origins in the late nineteenth century, “new” is the transformation that has occurred in its politics, policy, and ideology since the 1980s, but especially through the 1990s.
Of course, social democracy has reinvented itself before. Its original ideological roots, at least in Europe, were broadly Marxist, and its political base was the urban working class. In the postwar era, however, shaped by the Cold War and the brutalities of Stalinism, this heritage was largely jettisoned and replaced with a form of progressive Keynesianism and an increasingly heterodox political base that included a growing number of professionals. The social democracy we see today has now abandoned even that commitment to a mixed economy characterized by significant but not dominant public ownership and redistributive social and economic policies. What distinguishes the new social democracy is an embrace of its new “modern” role as a manager of neoliberal restructuring.
This transformation was noted by Michael Harrington (1986, 2), who warned that the social democratic Left in power had, in failing to understand the economic change underway in the 1980s, come to pursue the policies of the New Right. In this context, social democracy was “confronting a crisis of definition and political effectiveness” (Laxer 1996, 11). How would social democracy distinguish itself from explicitly neoliberal parties? Or could it? Of this period in the history of social democracy, Moschonas (2002, 229) writes:
The “new” social democracy has definitely not sprung up like some jack-in-the-box. . . . In a sense, the “third way” was already present as well, prior to its adoption by New Labour and theoretical formulation by Giddens. The new social democracy of the 1990s is the worthy, direct heir of 1980s social democracy. The continuity between them is manifest, and manifestly strong.
Indeed, as a result of the efforts of the “progressive modernizers,” for whom modernization “has too often meant deregulation and privatization,” social democracy is no longer what it used to be, argues Robert Taylor (2008). “Too many have sought to accommodate or embrace global capitalism,” he observes, “with varying degrees of enthusiasm. They continue to see the market as an overwhelming force for good.” Social democrats have, moreover, “too often argued that the only way forward is to abandon notions of equality and fraternity . . . and to weaken the state to the advantage of the forces of capital.”
Through the lens of seven cases — Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden, Germany, and Québec — this volume seeks to survey and document this turn from the postwar social democracy marked by redistributive and egalitarian policy perspectives to a new social democracy with a role as a “modernizing” force advancing neoliberalism. The contributions here present original insights into how and why this second refoundation of social democracy has occurred and why this is significant in political and policy terms.
The selection of these particular cases provides an interesting survey of social democracy. Represented in this sample are social democratic parties operating in rather different political and historical contexts. In Sweden, the Social Democratic Party has been the “natural governing party” for most of the past ninety years. Through the forty-four years from 1932 to 1976, it formed the government without interruption and constructed a comprehensive welfare state that is seen as an icon of the social democratic project. Germany, geographically proximate to Sweden, offers a very different story. Since the end of the Second World War, German social democracy has struggled to win national government. The Cold War and the loss of the social democratic–voting East as a result of partition profoundly shaped the electoral prospects and strategies of the social democrats there. And, today, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (spd) competes with the Left Party for working-class votes.
Britain’s Labour Party shares with the other two European cases a historical base in the working class. However, whereas the Swedish Social Democrats are the exemplars of redistributive social democracy, in the 1990s Britain’s Labour Party came to be the most notable expression of the “new” social democracy.
While less well known, Australia’s Labor Party (alp), like its British counterpart, also reinvented itself as a neoliberal modernizing party by implementing marketization and privatization policies while in government and distancing itself from its working-class and trade union base. In Canada, the New Democratic Party (ndp) has never formed government at a national level, but it has had policy influence at certain moments and significant electoral success in several provinces. But, like other social democratic parties, the ndp has transformed itself from a “protest movement” into a party as capable of managing neoliberalism as any of the capitalist parties. And in Québec, a new party, Québec Solidaire (qs), has emerged to give voice to community and anti-globalization activists and workers alienated by the Parti Québécois’s rightward drift. Perhaps because of its origins at a time of expanding neoliberalism, the qs remains deeply committed to redistributive social and economic policies but, at the same time, cannot be characterized as monolithically anti-capitalist. The qs is struggling in a space in which the question is whether it will reinvent Keynesian social democracy or move toward an anti-capitalist politics with a mass base, something that has yet to emerge in North America. And, finally, the United States is often held out as an example of American exceptionalism in that the social democratic movement is widely viewed as non-existent. This is, however, a gross misreading of the American political scene.
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