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Reflections on the Social Democratic Tradition

The Broadbent Institute and Douglas-Coldwell Foundation have just published a paper of mine as part of a larger project on social democratic renewal, The paper is mainly retrospective, and touches on social democracy as an approach to economic policy.

Comments are most welcome.

The link is here:

http://www.broadbentinstitute.ca/reflections_on_the_social_democratic_tradition

1.0 Executive Summary:

The purpose of this paper is to provide a political history, overview and critical evaluation of the social democratic tradition in Western politics with some reference to the Canadian experience. It serves as a starting point for the Broadbent Institute’s new initiative exploring social democratic renewal in Canada, a project that will feature essays from a wide range of left perspectives on the future of social democracy in this critical moment of upheaval, inequality and erosion in democracies around the globe.

The term social democracy designates both a social and political movement and a distinctive political theory that developed in opposition to liberal capitalism in the second half of the nineteenth century. As used here, the term social democracy means the full extension of democratic principles to both the social and economic sphere and overlaps closely with the concept of democratic socialism, which denotes building a different kind of economy. Social democracy is about more than capitalism plus a welfare state, and very much remains a goal rather than a reality.

The historical roots of social democracy lie in the movements of the industrial working class and the ideas of socialist opponents of liberal capitalism. Social democracy thus has a more tangential and more recent relationship to feminism, anti-racism, the environmental movement and struggles for the recognition of disability rights and indigenous rights. Social democratic renewal is very much about building deeper linkages to other social movements promoting equality and recognition of differences other than those based upon social class.

Part 1 of this paper explores the relationship between social democracy and the rise of social citizenship and the recognition of economic and social rights. While social democrats can take a great deal of credit for the (temporary and contested) transformation of liberal capitalism into the Keynesian welfare state, this was not exclusively a social democratic achievement. Moreover, social democrats advanced a distinctive view of the welfare state with rights to education, health and welfare based upon citizenship as opposed to much more narrowly targeted and residual social programs. Social democrats also supported strong labour movements as a key foundation for equality and economic democracy.

The social democratic tradition has recognized that inequality of both condition and opportunity is rooted in the concentrated ownership of private capital and in the fact that the logic of capital accumulation limits the workings of political democracy. Until well into the post-war period, economic democracy in the sense of social ownership and regulation of private capital was very much on the social democratic agenda.

Part 2 of the paper looks at the historical development of the social democratic political movement from the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century until the Golden Age of the immediate post-war years. Prior to the First World War, the expansion of labour and democratic rights led to increased political representation and socialists had to come to terms with the fact that capitalism was capable of both advancing working-class living standards and implementing social reforms, contrary to the tenets of orthodox Marxism. Socialism came to be seen by some reformists as a goal to be achieved gradually through the political institutions of liberal democracy, as opposed to a moment of transition. The division between democratic and revolutionary socialists became explicit after the Bolshevik Revolution, but democratic socialists retained a vision of a post-capitalist economy. The Great Depression and a divided left kept democratic socialism mainly on the sidelines in the 1930s, with the exception of Swedish social democracy, which promoted Keynesian policies and the expansion of the welfare state.

Part 3 of the paper examines social democracy from the heyday of the Keynesian welfare state to the Great Recession. The post-war period saw the implementation of many social democratic policies and a significant decrease in economic and social inequality alongside full employment and strong economic growth. This seemingly confirmed that capitalism could coexist with the recognition of labour and economic and social rights, leading many to reject socialism in the sense of social ownership as an ultimate goal. This shift also took place against the backdrop of the rise of a skilled middle class, the decline of the traditional industrial working class, the mass entry of women into the workforce and, perhaps, a more individualist political culture. The heyday of social democracy was also marked by the rise of the new social movements and a new left calling for fundamental change, including the pursuit of less material goals than traditional social democracy. The emergence of stagflation (high inflation combined with rising unemployment) in the 1970s set the stage for the return of more market orthodoxy (free-market liberalism, or neoliberalism), including the attack on full employment, government regulation, the labour movement and the welfare state by the political Right. Democratic socialists saw greater socialization of private investment and a major role for public investment as the means to maintain economic growth and full employment, but many social democrats increasingly embraced neo-liberal ideas, albeit with an emphasis on maintaining past advances and maintaining equality of opportunity.

The final section of the paper very briefly summarizes current prospects for social democracy at a time when neoliberalism has clearly failed to deliver shared economic and social progress. The key elements of an alternative economic and social agenda exist, including an emphasis on new forms of social ownership, the importance of public investment, and the central importance of environmental transition. A renewed social democracy will also mean building a broad social movement for change in close alliance with other movements including feminist and anti-racist.

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