The Twilight of Social Democracy

The Twilight of Social Democracy

Academics flocked to a Paris conference in Tony Judt’s memory—but solutions to the growing anti-government absolutism he warned of were scarce.


In the introduction to his 2008 collection, Reappraisals, Tony Judt offered up a concise elegy both for European social democracy and its weaker, occasionally envious cousin, American liberalism: “For much of the second half of the twentieth century, it was widely accepted that the modern state could—and therefore should—perform the providential role; ideally, without intruding excessively upon the liberties of its subjects, but where intrusion was unavoidable, then in exchange for social benefits that could not otherwise be made universally available. In the course of the last third of the century, however, it became increasingly commonplace to treat the state not as the natural benefactor of first resort but as a source of economic inefficiency and social intrusion best excluded from citizens’ affairs whenever possible. When combined with the fall of Communism, and the accompanying discrediting of the socialist project in all its forms, this discounting of the state has become the default condition of public discourse in much of the developed world.”

One need only glance at the headlines—not only of American newspapers, where a Democratic president is in the process of dismantling some of the signal achievements of the welfare state, but all across the European continent—to see much of the same. Though taxation levels are at historic lows, “austerity” is in the driver’s seat regardless of whether the government in question considers itself to be of right or left.

It was therefore a propitious moment for liberal and social democratic thinkers from Europe and the United States to gather in late June in Paris at a symposium, organized in Judt’s memory, to consider what has gone wrong and where to go from here.

Of course, one could point to any number of problems that the left failed to anticipate and arguments it neglected to drive home when times were relatively flush. Today we are witnessing what former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once called the “hungry, rapacious wolf” of capitalism in decline, and with it what the German-American historian Fritz Stern aptly termed “a decline of civisme” on the part of both elites and the masses. This is true even where the welfare state remains strong. Muslim immigration has caused a crisis of identity for those nations whose magnificent socioeconomic achievements turn out to have rested on a foundation of a homogenous population base. People, it turns out, do not generally appreciate the opportunity to be forced to subsidize, through tax and transfer policies, the lifestyles of those they deem to be different from themselves. The French historian Pierre Rosanvallon noted that “it is here that the anti-immigration argument gets its force. On the left the view is one of nostalgia. An extremely weak response to a strong attack and it’s hard to see how it can survive the argument ‘the immigrants are stealing the welfare state.’” This story can be told almost anywhere in Europe and increasingly applies as well to the United States.

As much as I would like to, dear readers, I cannot offer any optimistic reading of where the left should turn to combat these ideas—at least not on the basis of the panels I attended in Paris. It should surprise no one that leftist intellectuals are more adept at identifying problems than at offering solutions. On one panel the French economist Thomas Piketty suggested a global tax on the extremely wealthy, which would be a fine idea if anyone had any clue how to force the extremely wealthy to accept it. The political philosopher Ronald Dworkin argued that the US education system needs to be infused anew with political ideas and arguments, as “ventilation” would expose the stupidity of contemporary conservative ideas. Again, my admiration for Dworkin’s philosophical work notwithstanding, I’ve rarely heard a less promising solution suggested to our current quandaries. One need only examine the controversy surrounding the content of Texas history textbooks to see that the forces of free-market absolutism, xenophobia and social reaction would likely loom at least as large in education as they do in our benighted political debates.

The sociologist Richard Sennett took a different tack. Leftists, he explained, should expect to lose when it comes to political battles. The problem is one of a lack of trust in elites. People do not believe that the programs politicians propose will stick or make any difference if they do, and they do not vote their own interests because all they see are the likely costs. As a consequence, he argues, we need to emphasize the “social” in social democracy and obsess less about electoral politics and more about civil society [see Sennett, “A Creditable Left,” in this issue]. The left needs to stop trying to win arguments and begin engaging people in politics. For as Saul Alinsky argued, getting people to participate in projects with people unlike themselves is itself a goal of social democracy. So the left needs to be less programmatic and more fluid, helping inarticulate people connect—not to make arguments, not to mobilize aggression, but in the name of “solidarity” for its own sake.

I dunno.

It so happens that the current president of the United States was also an Alinsky man once upon a time. But it was not Sennett’s Alinsky he embraced; rather, it was the one who believed “No one can negotiate without the power to compel negotiation. This is the function of the community organizer. Anything otherwise is wishful non-thinking.” The president told a journalist that while working as a South Side Chicago organizer, he learned that “the key to creating successful organizations was making sure people’s self-interest was met and not just basing it on pie-in-the-sky idealism.” His mentor in the job, Jerry Kellman, believed Obama wanted to synthesize “the Alinsky teaching on self-interest” with “Dr. King’s appeals to our mutuality.”

The present challenge for the American left is to make that fellow remember why he once believed this; the long-term challenge is to remember and believe in it ourselves.

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