Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tony Judt on the Future of Social Democracy

Tony Judt is a European by birth and by education. When he prepared a talk and an article on the subject: What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy, it was striking that he used European terms of reference even though he has directly addressing an American audience. He used the terms “social democracy” and “welfare state” unabashedly—even proudly. Most people in this country would consider the term “social democracy” to be an oxymoron, assuming they knew the meaning of the term. Similarly, the term “welfare state” conjures up the image of handouts to people too lazy to work. Perhaps Judt wanted to jolt progressives (those in this country who might be social democrats if they lived in Europe) out of the morbid depression in which they seem to find themselves. His message to them is that it was the social democrats and the welfare state on the left that saved both Europe and the U.S. from existential threats caused by the excesses of the right, and that while history doesn’t precisely repeat itself, one should be prepared for a reprise.

These comments are based on the version that appeared in the New York Review of Books.

The moment of existential threat for Europe was the Second World War and the Soviet threat that came with the beginnings of the cold war. For the United States it was the Great Depression. While the War was not as great a threat, it was a turning point for society. Consider this passage from Judt’s book Postwar. The sentiment here would apply also to the Unites States trying to emerge from the Great Depression.
“But faith in the state was at least as marked in poor lands as in rich ones—perhaps more so, since in such places only the state could offer hope or salvation to the mass of the population. And in the aftermath of depression, occupation and civil war, the state—as an agent of welfare security and fairness—was a vital source of community and social cohesion. Many commentators today are disposed to see state-ownership and state-dependency as the European problem, and salvation-from-above as the illusion of the age. But for the generation of 1945 some workable balance between political freedoms and the rational, equitable distributive function of the administrative state seemed the only sensible route out of the abyss.”
So—in times of crisis people have a need for community and social cohesion, and the state, as society’s representative, must provide deliverance from need. In this the states were remarkably successful.
“The welfare state had remarkable achievements to its credit. In some countries it was social democratic, grounded in an ambitious program of socialist legislation; in others—Great Britain, for example—it amounted to a series of pragmatic policies aimed at alleviating disadvantage and reducing extremes of wealth and indigence. The common theme and universal accomplishment of the neo-Keynesian governments of the postwar era was their remarkable success in curbing inequality. If you compare the gap separating rich and poor, whether by income or assets, in all continental European countries along with Great Britain and the US, you will see that it shrinks dramatically in the generation following 1945.”

“With greater equality there came other benefits. Over time, the fear of a return to extremist politics—the politics of desperation, the politics of envy, the politics of insecurity—abated. The Western industrialized world entered a halcyon era of prosperous security: a bubble, perhaps, but a comforting bubble in which most people did far better than they could ever have hoped in the past and had good reason to anticipate the future with confidence.”
Prosperity tends to breed ungrateful children.
“The paradox of the welfare state, and indeed of all the social democratic (and Christian Democratic) states of Europe, was quite simply that their success would over time undermine their appeal. The generation that remembered the 1930s was understandably the most committed to preserving institutions and systems of taxation, social service, and public provision that they saw as bulwarks against a return to the horrors of the past. But their successors—even in Sweden—began to forget why they had sought such security in the first place.”
In this country the loudest opponents of any federal government activity are those whose parents and grandparents were starving during the ‘30s until the government came in and provided them with electricity, fresh water, food, and jobs. No good turn goes unpunished.

Judt sees a constant and intentional erosion of the concept of a nation as a community and as a society. He quotes Margaret Thatcher as the exemplification of this trend.
“This process was well described by one of its greatest modern practitioners: Margaret Thatcher reportedly asserted that “there is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women and families.” But if there is no such thing as society, merely individuals and the “night watchman” state—overseeing from afar activities in which it plays no part—then what will bind us together? We already accept the existence of private police forces, private mail services, private agencies provisioning the state in war, and much else besides. We have “privatized” precisely those responsibilities that the modern state laboriously took upon itself in the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”
Judt fears that we are returning to a condition that has already been proven to be unstable.
“What, then, will serve as a buffer between citizens and the state? Surely not “society,” hard pressed to survive the evisceration of the public domain. For the state is not about to wither away. Even if we strip it of all its service attributes, it will still be with us—if only as a force for control and repression. Between state and individuals there would then be no intermediate institutions or allegiances: nothing would remain of the spider’s web of reciprocal services and obligations that bind citizens to one another via the public space they collectively occupy. All that would be left is private persons and corporations seeking competitively to hijack the state for their own advantage.”

“The consequences are no more attractive today than they were before the modern state arose. Indeed, the impetus to state-building as we have known it derived quite explicitly from the understanding that no collection of individuals can survive long without shared purposes and common institutions.”
Judt believes that the excesses and the destructive ideology of the right are leading us into a new age of insecurity and uncertainty.
“The last such era, memorably analyzed by Keynes in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), followed decades of prosperity and progress and a dramatic increase in the internationalization of life: “globalization” in all but name. As Keynes describes it, the commercial economy had spread around the world. Trade and communication were accelerating at an unprecedented rate. Before 1914, it was widely asserted that the logic of peaceful economic exchange would triumph over national self-interest. No one expected all this to come to an abrupt end. But it did.”

“We too have lived through an era of stability, certainty, and the illusion of indefinite economic improvement. But all that is now behind us. For the foreseeable future we shall be as economically insecure as we are culturally uncertain. We are assuredly less confident of our collective purposes, our environmental well-being, or our personal safety than at any time since World War II. We have no idea what sort of world our children will inherit, but we can no longer delude ourselves into supposing that it must resemble our own in reassuring ways.”
What does Judt believe to be the course of action for social democrats and progressives?
“We must revisit the ways in which our grandparents’ generation responded to comparable challenges and threats. Social democracy in Europe, the New Deal, and the Great Society here in the US were explicit responses to the insecurities and inequities of the age. Few in the West are old enough to know just what it means to watch our world collapse. We find it hard to conceive of a complete breakdown of liberal institutions, an utter disintegration of the democratic consensus. But it was just such a breakdown that elicited the Keynes–Hayek debate and from which the Keynesian consensus and the social democratic compromise were born: the consensus and the compromise in which we grew up and whose appeal has been obscured by its very success.”

“If social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear. Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past. The first task of radical dissenters today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them.”

“The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains. The rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.”
I am not sure that fear is the most effective message, but Judt is certainly correct in stating that progressives need to acquire a voice and a message. “I am against government spending,” may not make any sense, but it is a definite message. I cannot think of an equivalent rallying cry from the left. One must admit that it is difficult to become passionate about maintaining the status quo, which is much of what is sought by the left, but times are changing and an appropriate message is needed.

Progressives tried selling healthcare legislation based on the concept of helping the needy. It turned out that in this country even the needy don’t worry about the needy. The message would have to convince people that a strong society with a responsive government is the best way to protect individual freedoms. Providing an introduction to plutocracies and their history might prove useful.

Perhaps progressives will be saved by the excesses of their opponents. Dumb political policies tend to attract dumb politicians. The right has accumulated an amazing assortment of fools, knaves, and nincompoops to carry out its mission. The anti-union initiatives may have been one of several overreaches. We shall see.

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