The only alternative to social democracy is social democracyby David Lipsey / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Once upon a time the mark of a great political philosopher was consistency. He would discover his great idea (liberty for Mill, the social contract for Rousseau, the class war for Marx). There followed a lifetime of elucidation and refinement.
That was before post-modernism. Today consistency no longer counts. Indeed, if you look at the fashionable British political thinkers, what is most striking is how often they have changed their minds.
It is a moot point why this is so. Is it the fact of change itself? A philosophy of politics and society may fit reality when its progenitor is 20 or 30, only to be overtaken by change in politics and society by the time he is 40 or 50. Less charitably, the decline of consistency reflects the nature of the modern mind: restless, never satisfied, easily bored. The painstaking work of defending the broad initial edifice while adapting it in detail is not for such temperaments. Apostasy is their temptation, and it is encouraged by the fact that apostasy seems by far the best way to attract attention.
In the 1980s, the apostasy was one way-towards Thatcherism. Intellectuals such as the coterie around Marxism Today started off analysing the lady and ended by admiring her. Similarly, Labour-inclined lefties turned against their party. No organ of the capitalist press was complete without an intemperate piece by David Selbourne, a former Ruskin College lecturer, biting the hand which once fed him.
In the 1990s, the intellectual climate is starting to flow the other way. Those to whom the free market had seemed repository of all the virtues are beset by doubts. They worry at the apparent decline in national harmony and the civic virtues. They seek a society that is something more than economically successful. Some, such as David Willetts, sage, Tory MP and now minister, seek to cope through synthesis, proclaiming the compatibility of the free market with civic values. Others, such as John Gray, whose After Social Democracy has just been published by Demos, a post-modern think tank, go further.
Gray criticises the Willettian second wave of new right thinking which “seeks to buttress the institutions of the unfettered free market with restored forms of traditional family life” for failing to understand the “subversive dynamism” of the market forces that are dissolving them. He asks how “revolutionary changes in technology and the economy” can be reconciled with the “enduring human needs for security and for forms of common life.” Having started his odyssey as a free marketeer, he ends up a very unfree marketeer indeed, questioning, eventually, even the near-universal consensus among the thinking classes in favour of free trade.
What is his alternative? As every devoted follower of intellectual fashion knows, Gray’s alternative is community. But first, a point about style. Gray is a talented writer, but an abstract one. Mellifluous sentence follows mellifluous sentence. Evocative image succeeds evocative image. The “thump thump” of repetition of strongly-felt sentiment batters against the reader’s critical facility.
But an important question arises. Is this genuine abstraction-a reduction to its essence of underlying reality? Or is it an abstraction from a world of ivory tower imaginings, whose resemblance to 1990s Britain is largely coincidental?
The traditional strength of British political philosophy is that it combines abstract theory with real-world supporting fact: if you wish to argue the case for equality, you must report what is actually happening to the distribution of income. If you wish to argue against insecurity, you must demonstrate that it really has increased. If you wish to argue against public expenditure, you must record how big it is, and show why you believe it to be damaging. If you do not, those who are for you may remain for you, but those who are against you are unlikely to be converted.
At times, reading John Gray, you feel you are wrestling with blancmange. There’s lots to stimulate but nothing to chew on. You search in vain for half a dozen concrete, graspable, refutable propositions. And nowhere does this matter more than in Gray’s discussion of community.
For a start, there is an obvious difficulty with the notion of placing “community” at the centre of a modern political philosophy. What is a community? Once upon a time it could be taken as a synonym of “locality.” But increased mobility, faster transport and instant telecommunications have changed all that. There is, today, a greater reality to talking about, say, “the world scientific community,” than about the community in the London Borough of Islington. What was once a simple notion has become a complex, multi-faceted notion, which does not seem likely to be strong enough to bear the weight being placed upon it.
And even if you try, Gray’s philosophy of community soon hits another difficulty. Just what kind of role is community expected to play? From one aspect, community is motherhood and apple pie. No one is against families, or against working together, or against mutual respect. Yet community has another aspect too. This was illustrated during a recent meeting at the Social Market Foundation to meet Amitai Etzioni, the world’s most eminent communitarian.
For half an hour, Etzioni addressed his audience in terms both soothing and persuasive. Communities were in trouble. Couples in marriages that work fight as much as couples in marriages that don’t work-they just fight better. If only schools taught values as well as the mechanics of sex. We must rebuild the moral infrastructure. Warm words flowed, like a better kind of rabbi in a better kind of synagogue.
But then one brave Brit raised a tough question. Are all communities good communities? Suddenly the good rabbi in Etzioni left the floor, and another Etzioni took his place. This was an angry Etzioni, a primitive Etzioni. His teeth were bare, his words incoherent with menace. And you could suddenly see what another kind of community under his leadership would be like: oppressive and dictatorial. Personally, I’d rather take my chances with the free market.
“Soft”communitarianism-Etzioni before the eruption-is hard to argue with. It says little more than that we want moral as well as economic values. Few civilised people would dispute that. But it is often the acceptable veneer for a much harder kind of communitarianism-one which is ultimately authoritarian. Fine, if people can be persuaded to stay married, but if not, they must be made to stay married; fine, if good communities emerge naturally, but if not, then leaders will have to show them the way. If you believe that man is naturally perfectable, this is not worrying because, in general, communities will find their own way to goodness. If you do not, you may find the communitarian manifesto rather less appealing.
Soft communitarianism is a desirable part of what comes after Thatcherism, but it is not enough. Hard communitarianism is enough, but it is not desirable. Where do we go from here?
There is one obvious answer: social democracy. Even Gray admits this. “We are nearly all social democrats now. In all parties, most of us have converged on a sensible and pragmatic middle ground,” he concedes. So why the title of this pamphlet? Why does he rule out social democracy reborn as the successor to Thatcherism? His answer lies in what he takes to be the exposed weaknesses of classic social democracy: classic social democracy depended on a strong majority Labour movement which no longer exists. Classic social democracy was a philosophy which embraced a strong, redistributive state; the state has been exposed as a defective instrument. Classic social democracy relied on a universal theory of social justice; this has broken down. Thus, classic social democracy can only be replaced by communitarianism which relies on “a local justice matching goods to social understandings, as these arise in particular cultures and the specific domains of activity they contain.”
See what I mean about blancmange? But in any case, Gray’s case against social democracy seems to rest on a mistake: he confuses contingent aspects of social democracy with the philosophy itself. Social democracy was once backed by the labour movement; this movement has declined; hence social democracy is doomed. Social democracy was once for big government; big government is discredited; hence social democracy is discredited.
Yet in truth, social democracy is a political philosophy whose potency does not depend on gaining the support of any particular social group. Nor does it need to embrace any particular means (for instance, big government) to its ends. Its appeal is to justice and equality. It can benefit from the addition of a bit of communitarianism, as Tony Blair’s speeches adequately demonstrate. Those of us who believe that social democracy still lives do not thereby mean that every single aspect of classic social democracy lives. We believe only that its fundamental values, duly translated to accommodate modern realities, can still form the basis of a viable alternative to new right philosophies.
Poor old social democracy, so battered, so misrepresented, so vulnerable to those soaring minds which require a single, simple political banner beneath which to gather! And yet rich old social democracy, ever adaptable, rooted in the realities of the human condition and responsive to the real life aspirations of the people to prosperity, freedom and the pursuit of happiness! At this point in our history, when the contradictions of the radical right are more apparent than ever, social democracy is ripe for a come-back, not only in electoral terms but as the intellectual tradition which animates parties and governments. Gray should realise that community, which currently preoccupies him, is merely a single aspect of a wider political revolution. “After social democracy” comes new social democracy, old values in new clothing, and it is with its supporters that men like Gray belong. After social democracy John Gray Demos ?5.95