Social democrats need to reassert the protective power of the state – this time through global institutions.
Ten years ago Gerhard Schröder declared that: ‘economic policy is neither left not right. It is either good or bad’. Today we can conclude that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Then, eleven out of fifteen governments of the European Union were run by socialists. Now – in election after election, in country after country – the left has been elbowed out of state power. The crucial point, though, is that such changes of the guard have ceased to matter.
In the course of the last decade, social democratic parties have presided over an ‘economic policy’ consisting of the privatisation of gains and the nationalisation of losses; they have run states preoccupied with deregulation, privatisation and individualisation. It is no wonder that voters have come to associate social democrats with the neoliberal policy of dismantling the communal frameworks of existential security, leaving individual men and women to manage their fates on their own, from their individual and mostly scarce and inadequate resources. There is now next to nothing to distinguish between the ‘left’ the ‘right’, in economic, or any other, policy.
In recent years to be on the ‘left’ has come to signal an intention to be more thorough than the ‘right’ in carrying out the agenda of the right, and better at protecting such undertakings from the backlash inevitably caused by their dire social consequences. It was Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ that laid institutional foundations under Margaret Thatcher’s inchoate ideas about there being no such thing as society, ‘only individuals and families’. It was the French Socialist Party that did most work on the dismantling of the French social state. And in East-Central Europe it is the ‘post-communist’ parties, renamed as ‘social democrats’ (wary as they are of being accused of lingering devotion to their communist past), that are the most enthusiastic and vociferous advocates – and most consistent practitioners – of unlimited freedom for the rich and the leaving of the poor to their own care.
Previously, the distinctive mark of social democracy was the belief that it is the duty of a community to protect all its members against the powerful forces that they are unable to resist as individuals. And people’s hopes were pinned on the modern state for the carrying out of this task – a state powerful enough to force economic interests to respect the political will of the nation and the ethical principles of the national community. But nation-states are no longer sovereign in any aspects of common life on their own territory. Genuine powers – the powers that decide the range of life options and life chances available for most of our contemporaries – have evaporated from the nation-state into the global space. Politics, however, has remained local, and is no longer able to reach the powerful, let alone constrain them. We now have power freed from political supervision in the global space, and politics without power in the local space.
The big question is whether any political force is capable of stemming the tides of globalisation – of capital, trade, finance, industry, criminality, drugs and weapon trafficking, terrorism, and the migration of the victims of all these forces – while having at their disposal solely the means of a single state … Well, they can try – as North Korea has done, or China, or Burma, or Cuba, or Kyrgyzstan – but the consequences for their residents are too well-known not to be resented by most of them.
It is no longer possible to construct a ‘social state’ that guarantees existential security to all its members within the framework of the nation-state. Globally produced problems can be only solved globally. The only thinkable solution to the globally generated tide of existential insecurity is to match the powers of the already globalised forces with the powers of politics, popular representation, law, jurisdiction; in other words, there is a need for the remarriage of power and politics – currently divorced – but this time at the global, planetary, all-humanity level. True, the odds seem stacked against such an endeavour; but the odds have always been weighted against social democratic visions of good society – and who recently has managed better than social democrats in the pursuit of their goals against apparently overwhelming odds (recently renamed ‘public opinion polls’)?
In the third century of its history, social democracy is facing a challenge that requires it to reconstitute itself as a planetary political force, and to strive to tame and constrain the global powers that are dedicated to dismantling the social and ethical conquests it made in its first two centuries.