THE CHARMS AND LIMITS OF A SEDUCTIVE SOCIAL DEMOCRACY
The Social Democratic left is a left I fundamentally respect. Whilst many Marxists and Anarchists would scoff and sneer at these “bourgeois collaborators” the fact is that substantively, the British people as well as many millions internationally owe their live to social democracy.
There are working class areas in Britain which are literally built on the Attlee legacy of a social provision which facilitated and expanded social mobility to heights that were previously unparalleled in Britain. Beyond social aspects, economically there can be no doubt that Attlee fundamentally altered the pivot about the class struggle and its dialectical fulcrum turned. Labour finally had a proud voice with which it could articulate itself through a strong union movement and public ownership- indicative of Attlee limiting the exploitation that the British proletariat were exposed to (as seen by high wage increases and a general decline in inequality within Britain). I could devote an entire article simply to the gains Attlee afforded many communities in this country but many more people have done this. Indeed- it was not Attlee the sole crusader against the excesses of capitalist business cycles. The fact is that coming out of the Great Depression, in that old Kondratievien fashion a new form of capitalism formed; relatively labour-friendly, relatively equal and relatively socially mobile. This sort of structure is today often lauded by Liberals as some Utopian dream and there is indeed a lot we owe to it- as shown by the Roosevelt administration in the US (The character of FDR is very problematic however - at least in certain aspects he afforded some short-term benefits to Labour).
However, a caution should be assured before one fetishises social democracy. Whilst class antagonisms persist in a system characterised by private ownership over the means of production the fact is that social democracy will inherently tend toward crises. If anything- because social democracy makes the antagonisms more volatile- such a crisis is likely to be brutal in nature in order to properly suppress labour. Indeed, certain constraints such as demand push inflation show how social democracy still has its roots in capitalist contradiction which always manifest itself as a crisis. Social democracy fundamentally never deals with contradiction but rather delays manifestation- as further seen in similar banking reforms (such as the much-desired Glass-Steagall Act) which, whilst undeniably preventing banking collapse for a good 40 years failed to be sustainable and thus collapsed (hence Bretton Woods falling apart). Both such examples, in terms of wages and banking show how social democracy will delay crises without eliminating it.
The problem with social democracy in essence is its sustainability. If it’s not rolled back or pressured by capital it will still allow for crises which neoliberals utilise for dramatic structural reforms, often leading to brutal disciplining of Labour. Kalecki identified this presciently, acknowledging that class-power would assert itself and doom labour if the “power of the sack” became less intimidating. Herein lies another reason why social democracy will tend toward crisis- it makes class relations far more volatile as capital becomes unprofitable and aggravated- couple this with inflation and the business model becomes untenable. 1979 demonstrates this entirely in showing how Labour’s strength was destroyed by a harsh doctrine of neoliberal flexilisation. The fact is that the evidence lies all over the global North. Despite the “golden age of capitalism” as the social democratic era was dubbed during the mid 20th century- most such schemes were rolled back by the 21st century and the remnants of social democracy lie all around us.
However, beyond the unsustainability of social democracy we also have to address its core. Is it the society the left should be demanding. Whilst the allure of Germany, Norway or Denmark can appear more attractive with its worker representation, reduced inequalities and social provision than the neoliberal US and UK- where financialisation and a wage repression are the order of the day- we need to acknowledge its drawbacks. Social democracy still extracts value from Labour, it still commodifies the proletariat, it still maintains a system which is fundamentally at odds with human freedom.
The fact is that despite the thanks we owe social democracy- it is by no means perfect. A stepping stone to a more equal society? Yes. But an ends in itself is no sustainable plan for the left to adopt.