Tony Judt and the Limits of Social Democracy

Tony Judt.  Ill Fares the Land.  The Penguin Press, 2010.  237 pp.  $25.95.

In December, the New York Review of Books transcribed an October 2009 speech delivered by the eminent historian Tony Judt at New York University under the title “What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?”  A major address by Judt on this topic would ordinarily be worth paying attention to regardless of the circumstances.  But the speech was infused with an additional urgency by the knowledge that he had recently been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis — Lou Gehrig’s disease — an incurable condition that will kill him sooner rather than later.  In liberal intellectual circles, the response to the speech was immediate and laudatory.  In response to popular demand, Judt has expanded his remarks into the short book called Ill Fares the Land, a sharply written polemic that seeks to explain the rise of neoliberalism and calls for a revitalized social democratic politics for the 21st century.

Judt starts out with a shot across the reader’s bow.  “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today,” he writes.  “For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose.  We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth.”  This sense of moral outrage pervades the book and shapes its narrative framework.

That narrative goes roughly like this.  From the late 19th century through the 1970s, Western societies became more egalitarian largely because of the efforts of socialists, the labor movement, and others who were appalled by the brutality of untrammeled capitalism to build political institutions that would protect the vast majority from the pervasive insecurities inflicted by decades of depression and war.  The crowning achievement of these efforts was the postwar establishment of social democratic regimes across Western Europe and the dominance of New Deal welfare liberalism in the United States.  However, as memories of war and depression faded and a new generation raised in the warm embrace of the welfare state chafed at its sometimes paternalistic restrictions, the social democratic consensus was broken and Thatcher, Reagan, and the neoliberal project they represented stepped into the breach.  The results: the displacement of the political by the economic, the fraying of social fabrics, and a delegitimation of the democratic state.  If this situation is to be reversed, the legitimacy of the state must be restored and government’s role in economic redistribution and regulation must be reestablished.

Most of us on the left would instinctually identify with this general argument, and indeed there is a great deal of truth in it.  There’s no doubt that the dismantling of postwar social democracy and its North American equivalent has been a personal disaster for millions of poor and working people across the West and a political disaster for the broad left, and that the delegitimation of the state has been an impediment to the revival of progressive politics.

However, Judt’s analysis of the sources of social democracy’s decline is incomplete.  For him, the rise of neoliberalism seems to be more the result of a crisis of faith in social democratic thinking, rather than the result of political and economic changes that began to take hold in the 1970s and undermined the viability of the postwar order.

Judt argues that “our problem is not what to do; it is how to talk about it.”  He traces the roots of this putatively discursive problem to the New Left: “The young radicals would never have described their purposes in such a way, but it was the distinction between praiseworthy private freedoms and irritating public constraints which most exercised their emotions.  And this very distinction, ironically, described the newly emerging Right as well,” unwittingly clearing the ground for the emerging neoliberal order.

There is certainly much to be said for this analysis.  The experience of recent decades has shown how easily the freedom to express oneself championed by the New Left generation has been transformed into the freedom to buy the commodities that symbolize supposedly alternative lifestyles (my residency near one of the more pseudo-bohemian precincts of Brooklyn reminds me of the horrible effects of this transformation daily).  Moreover, the Western left does seem largely unable to articulate a discursive framework that offers a coherent and comprehensive alternative to the neoliberal worldview.

But these problems ultimately stem from the fact that by the early 1970s, social democracy reached its political and economic limits.  The welfare state strengthened the position of organized labor, reducing corporate profits and increasing workers’ political power relative to capital.  Social democratic parties and trade unions began to formulate plans to encroach on capital’s control over the means of production; in Sweden the unions proposed the establishment of worker funds that would gradually take ownership of firms away from capitalists, elements of the British Labour Party pushed for more comprehensive forms of economic planning, and the Socialists under Francois Mitterrand moved to nationalize vast swaths of the French economy, including 90% of the country’s banks.  These political developments, coupled with the shocks wrought by inflation in commodity prices (especially oil) and a productivity slowdown, ruptured the underpinnings of the postwar order.  The crisis could have been resolved by either moving further toward socialism or by breaking radically toward neoliberalism.  As we are all painfully aware, the latter option won out.  The political and economic power of capital was restored, and the labor movement and left political formations were decimated.  We’ve lost the ability to talk about social democracy not simply because of a crisis of faith.  It’s because the institutions with the ability to articulate this discursive framework have been defeated (for now, at least).

This points to the fundamental limitation of social democracy, or “socialist capitalism” as Michael Harrington more accurately described it.  It’s a compromise between socialism and capitalism, but one that’s made on capitalism’s terms.  As Harrington pointed out decades ago in his book Socialism, “the fact is that as long as capitalism is capitalism it vitiates or subverts the efforts of socialists. . . .  In fact, capital fights back, it does not meekly accept the programming of social democratic ministers . . . economic power is political power, and as long as the basic relationships of the economy are left intact, they provide a base for the subversion of the democratic will.”

This doesn’t mean that social democracy is somehow bad — I’d give my right arm and possibly a couple of other vital organs if it would turn the United States into a social democratic country.  It just means that in spite of its many virtues — virtues that Judt is correct in celebrating — social democracy cannot be an end in itself but a way station toward a more fundamental transformation of society.

Chris Maisano is a member of the Young Democratic Socialists New York City chapter.  He studied at Rutgers and Drexel University and currently works as a librarian at a large public library branch in Brooklyn.  This article was first published by The Activist on 7 April 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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