Friday, September 25, 2009

The nature of social democracy

Andrew Norton posted the question of why there were not any great social democratic thinkers. He was responding to a comment in an article by Tim Soutphommasane:
… social democracy has never had a political philosopher who has succeeded in offering a comprehensive articulation of principles.
… But social democrats arguably lack a political philosopher of the same stature as John Locke (classical liberalism), John Stuart Mill (progressive liberalism), Friedrich von Hayek (libertarianism), or Edmund Burke (conservatism).
The closest we get to an authoritative statement of social justice is the one offered by American philosopher John Rawls. Even then, his two major works, A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism, at best offer highly influential statements of an American Left-liberalism whose application elsewhere is limited by the vagaries of American constitutionalism.
The following is a more extended version of the comment I made on Andrew’s post.

Social democracy is a merging between liberalism and socialism. It starts with one strand of socialism taking on political liberalism (elections, Parliamentarianism, etc) in the later C19th, rejecting revolutionary politics. The “revisionism” of Eduard Bernstein represented the embracing of such politics within German social democracy. In places where the revolutionary tradition had little hold, it was natural for socialist and union activists to embrace a version of electoral politics: which is to say, in that context, a form of political liberalism, even if their mode of operation was generally more collectivist than that of the established political forces.

Then, at various times, forms of social liberalism (essentially, extending equality before the law to Jews, women, blacks, gays, etc; removing restrictions on aspects of personal life such as censorship, availability of contraception, etc) have been embraced by social democracy. As Andrew pointed out in reply, the focus in doing so has remained on equality. This seems correct to me: my point is not that social democracy is a form of liberalism, but that social democrats have increasingly adopted liberalism. (Since what the US nowadays calls 'liberalism' seems to be essentially politically cross-dressing social democracy, it also makes any differences between the two ever more minor.)

Since the mid 1950s, social democracy has taken on various aspects of economic liberalism (abandoning further nationalisation, later moving to deregulation and privatisation motivated by a concern to have an economically and financially sustainable welfare state). The idea of nationalizing the economy has been abandoned. The difficult issues now are how much nationalizing households is effective or needs to be retreated from.

Essentially, social democracy took on aspects of liberalism either because socialism did not have anything specifically useful or because of widening realisation that such socialism did not really work. The “romantics” have always claimed that each step is some sort of sell-out of socialism or social justice ideals. The reality is that brute experience has been driving policy in a liberalising direction is much less palatable. (Hence, for example, the denunciations of “neoliberal” policies.)

A case in point was listening to an ABC radio presenter give a very soft interview with Indian writer Arundhati Roy, who complained about the rise of Hindu nationalism, treatment of Indian Muslims and the growth of “neoliberal” policies. In the interview (really, mutual agreement) during the discussion of the last, neither the “Hindu rate of growth” or the Permit Raj warranted any mention. Yet the change in Indian policy cannot be understood without that context—especially relevant given Roy’s apparent nostalgia for the economic policies of the pre-1991 era.

To return to the original observation, if social democracy is a process of socialism retreating and liberalism advancing, an evolving merger of political traditions, it is hard to see how it could generate any great thinkers.

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