Friday, February 23, 2007

The Problem Of Social Democracy.

One does not have to be extreme to be radical. One does not have to be dogmatic to be principled.

I do not believe “one size fits all”. Any society with any pretense of being democratic will have a range of political opinions within it. This is the way it ought to be. Thus, along with populists, anarchists, greens and socialists, there are also social democrats. All well and fair. There is also another factor here that is of importance to those of us who seek greater freedom and equality within society. In a non-revolutionary situation, and I want you to remember this qualification, each of the different political groupings and ideologies plays its role in virtually an organic manner. Those who work at the base of society – the radicals, the anarchists and left-socialists – help to create the movements in the communities and work places that seek to transform the society. The parliamentary left - the greens and social democrats then take these ideas, adapt and then convert them into reforms. (1) We have seen this occur in the recent past with the environmental, women's and gay movements.

First problem – Social democracy is no longer playing its role. It is no longer a “legitimating” force or transmission belt for new ideas. In many ways it has ceased to play its role as parliamentary reformer at all. Or with the Blairites, even worse, becoming outright reactionary. I would like to see Social Democrats act like social democrats and not like the smiley-face wing of corporate capitalism. There are a wealth of new movements that could be drawn upon and they are being ignored. (2) Such ideas growing out of these movements as direct democracy, consensus politics, subsidiary, decentralization, self-management, worker-cooperatives, critiques of the banking system, seriously attacking the problem of peak oil and global warming, all could be help re-vitalize social democracy, but so far they have been ignored. (3) Some ideas of the older social democracy like the Meidner Plan deserve to be dusted off and applied.

Second Problem – And this applies mostly to the “Anglosphere,” is the failure of social democracy from the 1950's-on to maintain a mass media and an educational approach. What progressive media we now have came about almost exclusively through the radicals - “underground” and alternative papers, coop and campus radio, alternative video, Indymedia etc. It took the New Left radicals to promote labor history, to expose the crimes committed against Native People, the Doukhabors, and the racism against immigrants. Media and education are not frills. A population that lacks information is one that is open to right-wing propaganda. A working population that is unaware of its long history of suffering and struggle can be manipulated.

The roots of problem lie in 1950's “revisionism.” Nothing wrong with revisionism, everything ought to be reviewed from time-to-time, but the baby was thrown out with the bath.

The “revisionists” were “ ...those who believed that the capitalist system could be retained but simply needed adjustments and improvements such as the nationalization of large businesses, the implementation of social programs (public education, universal healthcare, etc.) and the (partial) redistribution of wealth through a welfare state and progressive taxation. Eventually, most social democratic parties have come to be dominated by the latter position and... have abandoned any real commitment to abolish capitalism. For instance, in 1959, the Social Democratic Party of Germany adopted the Godesberg Program which rejected class struggle ...”

The theories of this new social democracy were based upon a brief moment in history – the post-war prosperity and the social democratic consensus, a consensus that soon fell apart, a mere 15 years later. And when the consensus broke up they were left seemingly with no where to go and no ideas of how to challenge the new capitalist consensus of neoliberalism, other than, as is the case with Blair, pandering to it. Indeed, limited nationalization was dropped quite early on. Here lay a failure to understand that other forms of social ownership beside statist nationalization exist. (4)

Social democracy gave up on the notion of class and opted to become “a party for all the nation”. Now it was very true that the vulgar Marxist concept of class (workers only, and worker meant blue collar exclusively) needed chucking onto the garbage pile. But it was wrong to go to the other extreme and reject a class position entirely. Around the same time social democracy was getting de-classed, new sophisticated concepts of class were being developed, which could have been adopted. Concepts like Mill's Power Elite, Castoriadis and his concept of “order givers and order takers”, Andre Gortz and his white collar-professional New Working Class. The failure to adopt a sophisticated class perspective may well be the reason why social democracy abandoned its attempts at education and mass media. (Since class no longer matters, one should abandon class-based media and education and let the schools and newspapers handle it.)

Lacking a notion of transformation, social democracy thus abandoned hope and inspiration. Daily life was not to be changed. Society was only to be tinkered with. Little wonder a New Left arose! Lacking a realistic notion of societal structure, it held out its hand to a ruling class that has never “played fair”, and never will. The rulers saw such an opening as a weakness to be exploited. When indeed, have the media ever given the NDP a fair shake? When has a daily ever supported the NDP? When have the rulers not tried “salami tactics” (or worse) to take back our gains?

Note. A slightly different version of this essay appeared in the blog Freedom of

(1) NDP members recognize this, for example Des Morton once described that role as “a conveyor belt of ideas to the political system...” Gerry Caplan, What's Left?, p.97 The post-War social contract... was really forced on the political and business establishment by the CCF's [predecessor of the NDP] popularity and the growing strength of the industrial union movement. Caplan, p. 99

(2)For some the very best evidence that the... [NDP] has become irrelevant is the degree to which the... new mass movement against Globalization ignore the Part... [they]... don't hate the NDP. They just don't think about it at all. Chris Watson , What's Left?, p. 115. ...two of the great dilemmas that have affected the NDP over the past 30 years. The first is the disconnect between the party and Canada's social movements... the strength of the early CCF came from its strong base in the socio-economic movements of Saskatchewan – the cooperatives and credit unions, the farmers organizations and women's groups etc. David Langille, What's Left?, p. 38 It should be pointed out that the New Politics Initiative of Jim Stanford and Svend Robinson did call for taking ideas from the new movements, but they were largely ignored by the party establishment.

(3) The NDP's Pierre Ducasse has promoted worker coops, mutualism and the social economy. But the party establishment? No takers! See Pierre's web site excellent ECODEMA

(4) Such as the stake-holder coop, invented by French syndicalists just after WW1 See the section, “A Neo-Proudhonist Program” in “Reform and Revolution”


Blogger The JF said...

Very interesting post, there's a lot of good ideas for rejuvenating social democracy in here.

I think my personal biggest disappointment with social democracy right now is actually that void of media presence, that mobilization from the grassroots-- in Canada especially, it feels so empty to be a social democrat. Where are the ideas? Where's the dynamism? It's dead. The only dynamism left in this country, in terms of parties, is actually from the Conservatives, and then the Greens. The Liberals regularly simulate "renewal" and so forth, but nothing new ever comes out of that.

I do have to add that I believe in capitalism, but I don't think this prevents me from wanting to make it so that in essence, everybody is a capital owner of fairly similar level, that positive change and liberation comes from this and that there are rules in society to prevent the accumulation of power in a series of individuals or a specific group (like the upper classes) which could limit the freedom of the less well off.

7:52 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Fantastic post Larry. This explains why the NDP has lost its status as the party of the little guy and why the Conservatives now seem to be the party of the rural and worker votes.

They've been suckered into the system.

Maybe the NDP could take this kind of advice, and that of Pierre, and change and rejuvenate. I am not, sadly, optimistic and that is why I am now an anarchist

10:48 AM  
Blogger Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

The NDP really should show some decency and hold a funeral for its sorry self. The corpse of main street Canadian democratic socialism has been rotting for decades and it stinks. It repells people.

The NDP is like a dead stinky corpse at a closed window winter house party wondering why everyone is keeping their distance and not inviting him outside to smoke their dope with him.

Does no one in the NDP know how to strike a match?

3:32 PM  
Blogger Werner said...

I think there is a great deal of good info here and perhaps the basis for a pamphlet or two ...or at least a discussion subject on COA. Something along the lines of "Social Democracy without social democrats" or "anarchism and the welfare state" kind of a thing.

9:59 PM  
Blogger The 4am Philosopher said...

Good post and good points.

4:05 PM  

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