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Social democracy as a force in contemporary britain

A decade ago, most people interested in politics associated the words social democracy with business-friendly governments, lower taxes, economic growth, high wages and low unemployment. Social democracy seemed to be the guardian of a new Gilded Age. It meant good times, a positive Third Way between capitalism and socialism. The reputation of social democracy has since been damaged. The phrase nowadays connotes things much less positive: Things were not always so grim for social democracy.

In Europe, North America and the Asia Pacific region, social democracy was once defined by its distinctively radical commitment to reducing social inequality caused by market failures. Especially in the decades before and after World War One, it stood proudly for the political enfranchisement of citizens, minimum wages, unemployment insurance and curbing the extremes of wealth and indigence.

It battled to empower middle-class and poor citizens with better education and health care, subsidised public transportation and affordable public pensions. Social democracy stood for what Claus Offe famously called de-commodification: In most countries of the world, the fortunes of social democracy have since slipped or disappeared, well beyond the political horizons of the present.

Yes, generalisations are risky; the troubles of social democracy are spread unevenly. There are still honest politicians who call themselves social democrats and stand for the old principles.

And there are instances where social democratic parties hang on and hang around by joining grand coalitions: Elsewhere, especially in countries now suffering the chill winds of austerity and economic stagnation and disaffection with cartel parties, social democrats look so lost and tired and broke that they are even forced to sell off or down-size their headquarters, which was the fate that befell the [Social Democratic Party of Japan] https: Social democracy was a rebel child of modern capitalism.

Born during the 1840swhen the neologism Sozialdemokratie first circulated among disaffected German-speaking craftsmen and workers, social democracy fed vigorously, like an evolutionary mutation, on the body of dynamic markets. It social democracy as a force in contemporary britain its fortunes to commercial and industrial expansion, which in turn produced skilled tradesmen, farm and factory workers, whose angry but hopeful sympathy for social democracy made possible the conversion of isolated pockets of social resistance into powerful mass movements protected by trade unions, political parties and governments committed to widening the franchise and building welfare state institutions.

Market failures deepened resentments among social democrats. They were sure that unbridled markets do not naturally lead to a happy world of Pareto efficiencywhere everybody benefits from efficiency gains engineered by capitalists.

Their most powerful charge was that free market competition produces chronic gaps between winners and losers and, eventually, a society defined by private splendour and public squalor. If Eduard Bernstein, Hjalmar Branting, Clement Attlee, Jawaharlal Nehru, Ben Chifley and other social democrats from last century were suddenly to reappear in our midst, they would not be surprised by the way practically all market-driven democracies are coming to resemble hour glass-shaped societies, in which the wealth of small numbers of extremely rich people has multiplied, the shrinking middle classes feel insecure and the ranks of the permanently poor and the precariat are swelling.

Consider the case of the United States, the richest capitalist market economy on the face of the earth: Or Britain, where at the social democracy as a force in contemporary britain of three decades of deregulated growth, 30 per cent of children live in poverty and a majority of middle class citizens reckon themselves vulnerable to unemployment, and to the humiliation joblessness brings.

Eight-hour day banner, Melbourne, 1856. Social democrats not only found obnoxious, and actively resisted, social inequality on this scale. They railed against the general dehumanising effects of treating people as commodities. Social democrats acknowledged the ingenuity and productive dynamism of markets. But they were sure that love and friendship, family life, public debate, conversation and the vote could not be bought with money, or somehow be manufactured by commodity production, exchange and consumption alone.

To reduce people to mere factors of production is to risk their death by market exposure. In the dark year of 1944, the Hungarian social democrat Karl Polanyi put the point in defiant words: The insistence that human beings are neither born nor bred as commodities proved to be far-reaching. It explains the conviction of Polanyi and other social democrats that decency would never spring automatically from capitalism, understood as a system that turns nature, people and things into commodities, exchanged through money.

Dignity had to be fought for politically, above all by weakening market forces and strengthening the hand of the commonweal against private profits, money and selfishness.

  1. The answers are naturally complicated. After the election of two Social Democrats to the Reichstag in 1871, the party grew in political strength until in 1912 it became the largest single party in voting strength, with 110 out of 397 seats in the Reichstag.
  2. They favour extra-parliamentary action and monitory democracy against the old model of electoral democracy in territorial state form.
  3. Why are social democratic parties still attached to state budget cutting within hourglass-shaped societies marked by widening gaps between rich and poor? Then there is a simpler, if less refined option.
  4. Signing party-sponsored petitions now seems so twentieth-century. Rosa Luxemburg centre addressing a meeting of the Second International, Stuttgart, 1907.

But more than a few social democrats went further. Chastened by the long depression that broke out during the 1870s, then by the catastrophes of the 1930s, they pointed out that unfettered markets are disastrously prone to collapse. Something more fundamental is at stake. The great moments of high drama, strife and luscious irony need not detain us here. They form part of a recorded history that includes the courageous struggles of the downtrodden to form co-operatives, friendly societies, free trade unions, social democratic parties and the fractious splits that gave birth to anarchism and Bolshevism.

The history of social democracy includes outbursts of nationalism and xenophobia and in Sweden experiments with eugenics. It also includes the re-launch of social democratic parties at the Frankfurt Declaration of the Socialist International 1951efforts to nationalise railways and heavy industry, and to socialise the provision of health care and formal education for all citizens.

The history of social democracy also embraces big and bold thinking, romantic talk of the need to abolish alienation, to respect what Paul Lafargue called the right to be lazy, and the vision projected by his father-in-law Karl Marx of a post-capitalist society, in which women and men, freed from the shackles of the market, went hunting in the morning, fished in the afternoon and, after a good dinner, engaged others in frank political discussion.

Eduard Bernstein, a few months before his death, 1932. Robert Sennecke A strange feature of the history of social democracy is just how distant and detached these details now feel. Its parties have run out of steam; their loss of organising energy and political vision is palpable. Collaborators with finance capitalism then apologists of austerity, their Third Way has turned out to be a dead end. Gone are the flags, historic social democracy as a force in contemporary britain and bouquets of red roses.

Party leader intellectuals of the calibre of Social democracy as a force in contemporary britain Bernstein 1850 — 1932Rosa Luxemburg 1871 -1919Karl Renner 1870 - 1950 and Rudolf Hilferding 1877 - 1941 and C. Crosland 1918 - 1977 are a thing of the past. Loud calls for greater equality, social justice and public service have faded, into a choking silence.

Positive references to the Keynesian welfare state have disappeared. Within the dwindling ranks of committed social democrats, few now call themselves socialists Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are exceptionsor even social democrats. Most are party faithful, machine operators surrounded by media advisers, connoisseurs of governmental power geared to free markets.

Social democracy

Few make noise about tax avoidance by big business and the rich, the decay of public services or the weakening of trade unions. Rosa Luxemburg centre addressing a meeting of the Second International, Stuttgart, 1907. The Parliamentary Road The whole trend prompts two fundamental questions: Why did it happen? The answers are naturally complicated.

The trend was overdetermined by multiple intersecting forces, yet one thing is clear: There was more than enough gutlessness, certainly.

But social democrats were democrats. In choosing to tramp the parliamentary road, they understandably cut a path between two devilish options: Refusing these unpalatable options implied the duty to reconcile parliamentary democracy and capitalism. Businesses do the same thing, usually with more ruinous effects, which rebound on both government and society.

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Many social democrats concluded that serious meddling with market forces would result in political suicide. Others refused to beat around the bush. The Third Way anthem actually had two verses, the first for the market and the second against.

I once witnessed the fabulist Tony Blair reassure a gathering of trade unionists that he was against free market forces before moving on, two hours later, after a light lunch together, to tell a group of business executives exactly the opposite. The crisis of Atlantic-region capitalism since 2008 seems to have amplified the duplicity.

Many who call themselves social democrats do exactly the opposite of their forebears: The inability or unwillingness to see beyond the politics of blind dependency upon dysfunctional markets are now a source of great crisis within the social democratic parties of Austria, Ireland, the United Kingdom and a host of other countries.

The machinations of their own political machinery are not helping matters. The history of social democracy is usually told in terms of the struggle to form trade unions and political parties geared to winning office.

Public life had to get used to the language of social democracy.

Parliamentary government had to make way for working class parties. Thanks more often than not to social democracy, women won the right to vote; and whole capitalist economies were forced to become more civilised.

  1. It explains the conviction of Polanyi and other social democrats that decency would never spring automatically from capitalism, understood as a system that turns nature, people and things into commodities, exchanged through money.
  2. Bernstein, EduardEduard Bernstein, c.
  3. Learn More in these related Britannica articles. They certainly put pressure on those who still think of themselves as social democrats to come clean on many questions to do with money and markets.

Minimum wages, compulsory arbitration, government-supervised health care systems, public transport, basic state pensions and public service broadcasting: Yet the victories of social democracy had a high price, in that its preferred vehicle of change, the mass political party machine, soon fell under the spell of cliques and caucuses, backroom men, fixers and spinners.

When looking with a sober eye at the way social democratic parties are today run, a visitor from another era, or another planet, might easily conclude that those who control these parties would prefer to expel most of their remaining members.

The situation is worse, more tragic than Michels predicted. He feared that social democratic parties would become totalitarian proto-states within states.

Oligarchies they are, but oligarchies with a difference.

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Not only have they lost public support. They have become objects of widespread public suspicion or outright contempt. Membership of these parties has dipped dramatically. Accurate figures are hard to obtain.

Social democratic parties are notoriously secretive about their active membership lists. We do know that in 1950, the Norwegian Labour Party, one of the most successful in the world, had over 200,000 paid-up members; and that today its membership is barely one-quarter that figure. Much the same trend is evident within the British Labour Party, whose membership peaked in the early 1950s at over 1 million and is today less than half that figure.

The figures imply a profound waning of enthusiasm for social democracy in party form. Satirists might even say that its parties are waging a new political struggle: Australia is no exception; in global terms, the degenerative disease afflicting its social democracy establishment is actually trend-setting. The figures are everywhere markers of decline. Meanwhile, inside social democratic parties around the world, enthusiasms that fed battles for the universal franchise have long ago waned.

The advance of multi-media communications meanwhile has made it easier for the party to collar voters opportunistically, especially during elections.

Funding methods have changed as well.

Social democracy as a force in contemporary britain

The old strategy of recruiting members and extracting small donations from supporters has long been abandoned. When social democrats find themselves in office, generous parliamentary expenses and discretionary government funds go some way to plugging the remaining gaps, especially when targeted at marginal seats.

Then there is a simpler, if less refined option: