Friday, August 01, 2008

The Future of Social Democracy

Any reflection on the future of social democracy must squarely face the fact that both of the most touted recent attempts to remake the democratic left--the Third Way and the Bolivarian Revolution-- are turning into dead ends. Although the Third Way was promoted by one of its chief architects, Anthony Giddens, as an approach that lies beyond both old-syle state welfarism and neoliberalism, in its principal real-world incarnation, the "New Labour" of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, neoliberal priorities have clearly predominated over espoused social democratic values. The most important upshot of New Labour's legacy is that it is post-Thatcherite in character, confirming Margaret Thatcher as the most important and influential British prime-minister of the past half-century, and only seriously departing from Thatcher in its foreign policy. Tony Blair's "Third Way" is really neoliberalism with a more human face; it has effectively turned a labour party into a liberal party.

Yesterday's surprise announcement by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez of the nationalization of a large Spanish-owned bank, which extends to the financial sector a policy of public ownership which Mr. Chávez initiated last year in the oil, telecommunications, electricity and steel-making industries, has been described by Chavez as "twenty-first century socialism". (Other examples of these 'new' ideas include import substitution, price controls and subsidies.) That is a misnomer. Although it is refreshing and uplifting to see an effort to mount a counter-hegemonic movement in Latin America, in terms of economic and political theory this "Bolivarian revolution" is definitely old wine in new bottles. The only reason it has "worked" is because oil revenues have given Venezuela the luxury of pursuing wasteful, inefficient and counter-productive policies that have often been tried in the past and are deservedly discredited.

If the liberal technorati of New Labour and the populist demogogues of Latin America's democratic left are equally misguided, what future is there for social democracy in a globalizing world, and more specifically what is the way forward for the NDP?

I agree with Herbert Kitschelt's analysis in The Transformation of European Social Democracy (1994) that the future of social democracy lies in replacing the privileging of organized labour with a broader alliance between social movements and organizations dedicated to human emancipation. In this new counter-hegemonic coalition labour would continue to be important, but only as one component along with feminist, environmental, anti-corporate globalization and human rights activists. In my view, such a reconfiguration is necessary, not only because of the steep and steady decline of traditional industrial union membership and the global decline of the industrial proletariat as the spearhead of social change, but because of the need to respond to the three great contradictions of our time.

First, the intersection between the global and the domestic: to what extent has globalization changed the frame of reference for democratic citizenship and constrained the capacity for democratic choices at the national and local level?

Second, the tension between an activated, post-materialist and increasingly plural citizenry and the growing constraints of neoliberal rules, policies and institutions: how can we give effect to our greater capacity and desire for active democratic citizenship at an individual level within existing economic, political and legal conditions?

Third, the contradiction between the triumph of liberal capitalism and its attendant externalities, market failures and collective action problems. In the context of Canada, this has meant focusing for example how best to respond to pollution, climate change, how best to reform or perfect the welfare state, how to improve our regulatory and taxation policies and how to bring the power of corporations under democratic control.

The NDP's structural reliance upon trade union organization and money will have to replaced with a looser voluntary association of groups that have a likeminded interest in resolving these contradictions in a manner that improves the condition of the structurally disadvantaged in our society and which responds to democratic values. If this cannot happen within a single restructured political party, perhaps it can be accomplished in part through electoral reform (PR), which would permit separate labour, environmental and other progressive groupings to both retain their separate identities and build effective coalitions.

In 1960 Stanley Knowles wrote in his book The New Party that he honoured the coalition of farmers, social gospel ministers, labour activists and socialists who formed the CCF in 1933, but that a new party which better included industrial unions and urban interests was needed in order for the movement for social progress to grow. In that same spirit, a revamping of the NDP is needed today in the context of declining industrial unionism and rising New Social Movements. It will be difficult to do this as long as the NDP is as dependent upon trade union money and organization as it currently is. Breaking out of this dependency may require a ban on corporate and trade union donations to political parties, as well as a measure of PR.

Ideally, this new Social Democratic Party or Democratic Citizens Party would come out of a merger with the Green Party, as well as having representation from all corners of civil society. I know, it ain't gonna happen, anytime soon. But that just means that you have good grounds for feeling pessimistic.


Ian said...

The future of democracy also lies in the protection of basic human rights. has some really interesting information about this. I suggest you check it out.

Mark Crawford said...

Good point. Theorists of social democratization from TH Marshall to Nicos Mouzelis sometimes speak of the need to spread rights "downwards" or "outwards" to include cultural and economic spheres and toward ever greater exclusivity.

Of course, Chavez and Castro have the excuse of having to ward off coup attempts, but restricting human freedom in the name of the revolution isn't what social democracy, or democratic socialism, are supposed to be about.