English historian Tony Judt has a powerful essay in the latest New York Review of Books which is a must-read for anyone interested in the future of the Left. Titled What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy? it starts out considering the old question why there is no socialism in America and then takes the reader through a history of social democracy in twentieth century political thought, ending with a call to action that should stir even the most jaded Labour heart.
He frames the twentieth century’s contest of ideas around Hayek and Keynes. And then charts the rise of the post-war welfare state. Its great success, here in New Zealand and in the US, the UK and everywhere it was tried, was the reduction in social and economic inequality. The great paradox of the welfare state was that its success undermined its own appeal. The generation that remembered the 1930s was the most committed to hanging on to progressive taxation, strong public institutions, and universal social services. Those who came later began to forget why they had sought such security in the first place. Remember NZ in the 1980s anyone?
The next three decades saw the rise of neo-liberalism, a reassertion of the Right, which set about the conquest of the political high ground in every western society and the dismantling of the institutions of the post-war social democratic compromise. Read it and weep: the flattening of tax scales, winding back of social assistance, privatisation of the functions of the state. And no big surprise, the return of high levels of inequality.
There is a great discussion of privatisation in which he contrasts the British approach to the railways with that taken by the Italians and the French. In 1996, the year before the UK privatised rail, they boasted the lowest public subsidy of rail in Europe per capita (9 pounds). The French subsidy was 21 pounds, the Italian 33; a differential reflected in the quality of the service and the state of the infrastructure.
The French and the Italians have long treated their railways as a social provision. Running a train to a remote region, however cost-ineffective, sustains local communities. It reduces environmental damage by providing an alternative to road transport. The railway station and the service it provides are thus a symptom and symbol of society as a shared aspiration.
Judt isn’t sentimental about social democracy. It was after all, the era’s belated response to the dilemmas of capitalism, and as he points out our problems are rather different. He thinks we are entering a new age of uncertainty, with climate change and the volatility of our globalised world economy posing a threat to peace and prosperity of comparative scale to the ones faced by our forebears in the early years of the twentieth century. The challenges might be different but we should look to the ways our grandparents’ generation responded. Social democracy, the New Deal in the US, and the first Labour Government’s reforms here in New Zealand were direct responses to the insecurities and injustices of the time.
The task of the Left says Judt is to remind people of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them. If social democracy has a future it is as a ‘social democracy of fear’ – the fear of what we have to lose. The Right on the other hand has inherited the modernist totalitarian impulse to destroy in the name of a universal project.
A social democracy of fear is something to fight for. To abandon the labours of a century is to betray those who came before us as well as generations yet to come. It would be pleasing – but misleading – to report that social democracy, or something like it, represents the future that we would paint for ourselves in an ideal world. It does not even represent the ideal past. But among the options available to us in the present, it is better than anything else at hand.
Looking back on 2009, we in Labour have done a fair bit of fighting to defend the gains of the past: opposing regressive tax cuts, cuts to education, health and ACC, and the privatisation of prisons. We’ve outed Key as the leader of a do-nothing government content to sit on its hands while tens of thousands of Kiwis are thrown out of work. We’ve put inequality back on Labour’s agenda, and signalled that ending child poverty will lie at the heart of the next Labour Government’s agenda.
And I like to think that we have revealed a few of the green shoots of a new social democratic politics. First, we defended an emissions trading scheme that actually could have reduced the economy’s long term reliance on carbon. It will come back. Second, we signalled an end to the 1984 consensus on monetary policy, that will I hope lead to an economic policy focused on Kiwi firms, jobs and economic resilience. Third, in opposing the Government’s corporate stitch-up of the Auckland super city, but supporting the Royal Commission’s vision, we have recognised the possibility of strong regional government as the driver of democratic progressive change in our biggest city. Fourth, Labour’s advocacy on open source software and social media hints at the possibilities for new technology to open up more inclusive and democratic political engagement.
Tony Judt’s essay is a great read. It is based on a lecture he gave at New York University on October 19 which you can watch here. A year ago Judt was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a neuro-degenerative disorder. He is now a quadraplegic and can only breathe with the aid of a machine. It didn’t stop him getting up in front of an audience and delivering a 90 minute tour de force.