Social Democracy Without Social Democrats?

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Compass’ own Neal Lawson writes an extended publication that asks; can we have social democracy without social democracy? You can read the full piece here or see below for an excerpt. Please let us know what you think by leaving your comments, or alternatively if you are interested in writing an extended response for our ‘Member’s Thoughts’ blog series, drop us a line at 

Labour has suffered another bad set of election results. But the failure of Labour is not the fault of the Corbynites or the Blairites. Social democracy is in crisis the world over: obliterated in Greece, failing in government in France and in retreat almost everywhere else. Nowhere are social democrats ideologically, programmatically or organisationally on the front foot. The crisis isn’t cyclical but existential, rooted in profound cultural and technological shifts that scorch the earth for all social democratic parties. Social democracy, the belief that one party, in one nation, largely through the state can create a settlement that favours the interest of labour over capital, is dying as a political practice. It is set to join the ranks of ‘communism’ as a political term of only historic relevance.

But here is the issue. A world that is both social and democratic is more urgently needed than ever. From food banks to floods, the case for the social taking priority over the private has rarely been more necessary or obvious. And everywhere people are looking for new answers and new ways of realising both their joint and shared humanity and the survival of the planet. Democracy abounds but not in our two party farce of a system. This explains the rise of new parties and so many new on and off line movements. The frustration is this: we want a way of living that is deeply social and radically democratic, but social democracy as a political practice and social democrats as a political creed are, as yet and maybe for good, unable or unwilling to face up the challenges of the 21st century.

This short essay seeks to understand the rise and fall of social democracy; to see it not as ‘the norm’ to be returned to when Labour wins the right number of seats with the right leaders, but as a temporary blip made possible by a particular alignment of forces after the Second World War. It then briefly describes the hostile terrain that has replaced the benign post war context that for a while made social democrats powerful. And it ends by outlining the four challenges social democrats must face if they are to have a future, the challenges of:

• Vision and a good society beyond turbo-consumption

• Globalisation and the need to tame capital beyond borders

• Culture and the need to let go and trust people

• Agency and the need to build new alliances for change

A cultural reference point for the existential challenge facing social democrats comes at the end of the film The Truman Show. Steadily though the film, Truman begins to suspect that the world is not as he was taught. Eventually, he sets out on his little boat to find out what actually lies beyond the horizon. The show’s producers whip up a fake storm to try and force him back to his safe but unreal life. Truman though presses on until eventually he hits the walls of the gigantic set, Social democracy without social democrats? 4 which had been the totality of his artificial life up until that moment. Outside a new world, a real world, awaits him. Social democrats need the courage and ambition to go beyond the old ways of thinking and working, to help invent a new future. Or face steady decline and eventual oblivion. Because unlike Truman there is no safe harbour to return to. Old voting allegiances and habits will keep some social democratic parties afloat for the time being. When the right fail badly they might even find themselves in office – but nowhere near real power to keep neo-liberalism at bay, let alone to transform society. These will be the best moments for social democrats in a slide they are already on towards irrelevance.

The key argument is this: we want and need a world that is deeply social and radically democratic but the practice of social democrats, their statism and tribalism, their urge to command and control, their emphasis on growth and their unwillingness to build new global institutions are at odds with a zeitgeist that demands pluralism, complexity, localisation and globalisations and a good society that is about much greater equality but is at odds with consumption without end. Today social democracy as a political practice cannot rise to the challenges of creating a social democratic world for the 21st century. So, can we have a social democracy without social democrats, indeed must we?

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  1. Posted by Rowena Godfrey

    Am offended by your very first sentence. “Labour has suffered another bad set of election results”. This is just not true. Makes me realise Compass is not for me. Thinking in the labour party is definitely moving leftwards and against neoliberalism but you seem to think that this isn’t happening as a general movement. Your prejudice in that first sentence means I haven’t bothered to read any further. I have been finding more and more in the emails you send me that I can no longer identify with your stance and am seriously thinking of unsubscribing to your website. A shame! Best wishes

  2. Posted by david marquand

    This is very good stuff. I agree with almost all of it. But I think the piece misses two important points: first, the debate (quite powerful in Italy, for example) about ‘glocalism’; Daniel Bell said ages ago that the nation state is too small for the big things and too big for the small things. Essentially, Neal is saying the same thing. But the tough question is how to operationalize that insight in practice. Secondly, I think we need to recognise, more than Compass has done so far, that the politics of ideology and interest is everywhere under threat from the politics of ethnicity. Scots are not voting for the SNP because it’s social democratic or progressive, but because they are Scots and want to govern themselves instead of being governed from London. In Northern Ireland two rival ethnic groups share power. In Wales things are more complicated, partly because the Welsh equivalent of the SNP, Plaid Cymru (the ‘party of Wales’) is sometimes wrongly seen as a party of and for Welsh speakers. England, and still more London, are odd-men out. But they are not the UK!