Neal Lawson is the latest in long line of leftwingers to look over the events of the last decade and wonder where it all went wrong. After all, the financial crisis was supposed to be a crisis for neo-liberalism, and a new dawn for social democracy.
Yet, as he rightly describes in the New Statesman, that is not how things have worked out:
“No social democratic party anywhere in the world is on the front foot. Sure, parties may find themselves in government – as they do in Denmark, Germany and France, in their own right or as part of a coalition – but this happens by accident and tends to be down to the failures of the right. And in office, social democrats tend to follow austerity or austerity-lite measures. No social democratic party has a strident and confident set of intellectual and organisational ideas that propel a meaningful alternative political project. The future looks incredibly bleak. Why?”
Lawson compares the subordinate role of social democracy in the 21st century with its “golden era” in previous century when “capitalism momentarily made historic compromises with social democratic parties.”
Conservatives and libertarians who think properly about these things will object that they don’t have much to celebrate either. Yet along with the continued survival of debt-ridden, bloated public sector bureaucracies, the reality is also one of growing inequality, overweening corporate power and the collapse of any realistic expectation that the centre-left might create an alternative economic order.
This is Lawson’s explanation for this state of affairs:
“Globalisation and individualisation act as pincers to further restrict the possibilities of any social democratic renewal. Globalisation – the flight of capital and the downward pressure on taxes and regulation it engenders – signals the death knell of socialism in one county. Meanwhile, individualism and the culture of turbo-consumption make social solidarity difficult to say the least… the good life has become something to be purchased by the lone consumer and not collectively created by the citizen. The endless formation and reformation of our identities through competitive consumption destroys the very social fabric that social democracy needs to take root…”
There are elements of truth here, but the argument that neo-liberalism is the reason why social democracy can’t beat neo-liberalism is a circular one.
It also ignores the possibility that the “social fabric that social democracy needs to take root” hasn’t just been damaged by economic liberalism, but by social liberalism too – in fact, social liberalism especially.
In particular, the weakening of the marriage-based nuclear family – made economically feasible by the welfare state and sometimes celebrated on the left as a form of liberation – has torn our social fabric to shreds. With the fundamental bonds between husband and wife, parent and child, lying broken all around them, social democrats wonder why they can’t get more elaborate forms of solidarity off the ground. But instead of acknowledging the catastrophe of family breakdown, they’d rather fret about such matters as ‘the patriarchy’ (tell that to the millions of children that grow up with little or no contact with their fathers).
As for the “endless formation and reformation of our identities”, consumerism certainly has had its part to play. But then so has uncontrolled mass immigration – which is itself a form of globalisation and, furthermore, one that has been encouraged to supply the cheap labour required to facilitate consumerism.
The mainstream left has been slow to even recognise these problems, let alone do anything about them. There’s a striking parallel here to the mainstream right, which has been similarly oblivious to the forces corrupting capitalism from within.
If the left is supposed to look to society and the state for progress, while the right looks to the market, then the supreme irony of modern politics is that both sides have neglected what they’re meant to care about most.