Saturday, January 25, 2020

The Rise and Fall (and Rise?) of Social Democracy

Sheri Berman, one of our leading scholars of the history of the left, has a thought-provoking article in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, "Can Social Democrats Save the World (Again)?" The first part of the article is a well-considered, crisp summary of the history of the left in the 20th century. She differentiates between social democracy, democratic socialism and communism in the process of explaining how the postwar social democratic moment came about and why it was so productive.
She argues that social democracy once again must come to the rescue. Missing from the the article is any consideration of how the actually-existing left today might possibly be reconfigured or mobilized o achieve this goal.. Admittedly that's a hard one--especially since those parties still sporting the label "social democratic" seem to be a bit of a mess. And Berman summarily dismisses today's democratic socialists as being too fixated on replacing capitalism, rather than reforming and reshaping it to work better for ordinary people. This seems too sharp a judgement to me, just like her distinction between democratic socialists and social democrats historically seems overstated.
At any rate, food for thought.
"The decline of the social democratic order brought a return of precisely the problems it had been designed to address: Economic inequality and insecurity increased, social divisions and conflicts grew, faith in democracy declined, and extremism spread. As these problems returned, so too did a backlash against the system viewed as responsible for them. Given that communism had been discredited by its violence, authoritarianism, and inefficiency, the contemporary backlash against capitalism has returned to the themes and arguments of democratic socialism instead.
Today, as in the past, democratic socialists argue that capitalism is inherently unjust, unstable, and unable to be reconciled with democracy. As the German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, perhaps the most forceful of capitalism’s contemporary critics, put it, “disequilibrium and instability” are the “rule rather than the exception” in capitalist societies. There is a “basic underlying tension” between capitalism and democracy—and it is “utopian” to assume they can be reconciled.
Given capitalism’s inherently destabilizing effects, democratic socialists deny the feasibility of fundamentally reforming it, calling instead for its abolition. As in the past, democratic socialists’ goal, as prominent advocates like Bhaskar Sunkara proclaim, is socialism, not social democracy or a new New Deal, since in their view it is only once capitalism is transcended that healthy societies and democracies are possible.....
Today, as in the past, democratic socialists see only capitalism’s flaws and are once again calling for its abolition, while many on the right see only capitalism’s benefits and are once again supporting policies that have led these benefits to be distributed narrowly and unjustly and have undermined social and political stability.
It took the tragedies of the interwar years and World War II to get an earlier generation of European and American politicians and citizens to appreciate the dangers of capitalism, the fragility of democracy, and the need to compromise to ensure the compatibility and sustainability of both. This social democratic compromise undergirded the West’s greatest period of success. Some of the policies associated with this order ran out of steam during the late 20th century, but its basic goal—promoting capitalism’s upsides while protecting citizens from its downsides—remains as crucial as ever.
The world is nowhere near the situation it faced in the 1930s and 1940s, but the warning signs are clear. One can only hope it will not take another tragedy to make people across the political spectrum recognize the advantages of a social democratic solution to our contemporary crisis."
FOREIGNPOLICY.COM
Communism and democratic socialism won’t heal today’s political divisions. But social democracy—which helped ward off extremism following World War II—could.

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