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Friday, February 16, 2007

The Problem Of Social Democracy.
by Larry Gambone**

"One does not have to be extreme to be radical. One does not have to be dogmatic to be principled. "

I do not believe “one size fits all”. Any society with any pretense of being democratic will have a range of political opinions within it. This is the way it ought to be. Thus, along with populists, anarchists, greens and socialists, there are also social democrats. All well and fair. There is also another factor here that is of importance to those of us who seek greater freedom and equality within society. In a non-revolutionary situation, and I want you to remember this qualification, each of the different political groupings and ideologies plays its role in virtually an organic manner. Those who work at the base of society – the radicals, the anarchists and left-socialists – help to create the movements in the communities and work places that seek to transform the society. The parliamentary left - the greens and social democrats then take these ideas, adapt and then convert them into reforms. (1) We have seen this occur in the recent past with the environmental, women's and gay movements.

First problem – Social democracy is no longer playing its role. It is no longer a “legitimating” force or transmission belt for new ideas. In many ways it has ceased to play its role as parliamentary reformer at all. Or with the Blairites, even worse, becoming outright reactionary. I would like to see Social Democrats act like social democrats and not like the smiley-face wing of corporate capitalism. There are a wealth of new movements that could be drawn upon and they are being ignored. Such ideas growing out of these movements as direct democracy, consensus politics, subsidiary, decentralization, self-management, worker-cooperatives, critiques of the banking system, seriously attacking the problem of peak oil and global warming, all could be help re-vitalize social democracy, but so far they have been ignored. Some ideas of the older social democracy like the Meidner Plan deserve to be dusted off and applied.

Second Problem – And this applies mostly to the “Anglosphere,” is the failure of social democracy from the 1950's-on to maintain a mass media and an educational approach. What progressive media we now have came about almost exclusively through the radicals - “underground” and alternative papers, coop and campus radio, alternative video, Indymedia etc. It took the New Left radicals to promote labor history, to expose the crimes committed against Native People, the Doukhabors, and the racism against immigrants. Media and education are not frills. A population that lacks information is one that is open to right-wing propaganda. A working population that is unaware of its long history of suffering and struggle can be manipulated.

The roots of problem lie in 1950's “revisionism.” Nothing wrong with revisionism, everything ought to be reviewed from time-to-time, but the baby was thrown out with the bath.

The “revisionists” were “ ...those who believed that the capitalist system could be retained but simply needed adjustments and improvements such as the nationalization of large businesses, the implementation of social programs (public education, universal healthcare, etc.) and the (partial) redistribution of wealth through a welfare state and progressive taxation. Eventually, most social democratic parties have come to be dominated by the latter position and... have abandoned any real commitment to abolish capitalism. For instance, in 1959, the Social Democratic Party of Germany adopted the Godesberg Program which rejected class struggle ...”


The theories of this new social democracy were based upon a brief moment in history – the post-war prosperity and the social democratic consensus, a consensus that soon fell apart, a mere 15 years later. And when the consensus broke up they were left seemingly with no where to go and no ideas of how to challenge the new capitalist consensus of neoliberalism, other than, as is the case with Blair, pandering to it. Indeed, limited nationalization was dropped quite early on. Here lay a failure to understand that other forms of social ownership beside statist nationalization exist. (2)

Social democracy gave up on the notion of class and opted to become “a party for all the nation”. Now it was very true that the vulgar Marxist concept of class (workers only, and worker meant blue collar exclusively) needed chucking onto the garbage pile. But it was wrong to go to the other extreme and reject a class position entirely. Around the same time social democracy was getting de-classed, new sophisticated concepts of class were being developed, which could have been adopted. Concepts like Mill's Power Elite, Castoriadis and his concept of “order givers and order takers”, Andre Gortz and his white collar-professional New Working Class. The failure to adopt a sophisticated class perspective may well be the reason why social democracy abandoned its attempts at education and mass media. (Since class no longer matters, one should abandon class-based media and education and let the schools and newspapers handle it.)

Lacking a notion of transformation, social democracy thus abandoned hope and inspiration. Daily life was not to be changed. Society was only to be tinkered with. Little wonder a New Left arose! Lacking a realistic notion of societal structure, it held out its hand to a ruling class that has never “played fair”, and never will. The rulers saw such an opening as a weakness to be exploited. When indeed, have the media ever given the NDP a fair shake? When has a daily ever supported the NDP? When have the rulers not tried “salami tactics” (or worse) to take back our gains?

(1) Yes, there is the issue of cooption, but this is inevitable within a capitalist-dominated society
(2) Such as the stake-holder coop, invented by French syndicalists just after WW1 See the section, “A Neo-Proudhonist Program” in “Reform and Revolution” http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/worldwidemovements/reform.html

**Larry Gambone is the webmaster for: http://porkupineblog.blogspot.com/

"A blog devoted to my interests which include anarchism and social movements, history, archeology, and anything else I choose to write about."

Check his blog out!


Coyote said...


I just gotta react to this really excellent bit of analysis by yourself, and indicate my agreement with its main thrust: That one size does not fit all. (Somebody has to assist this really important discussion which you raise. :-)

Radicals of all socially progressive and green stripes have to be, and are going to be much a part of what drives the change over to a more aggressive populace, especially working class populace, very much needed in these times, and we are much generally up against being pushed out of the mix by social democrats mostly. (Consider Tyee.) Which is okay. There ain't little point whining about that, 'cause that's life and politics-, a minor bump on the road.

But we "radicals" have to have a better understanding of the big picture, because the risks are higher for us, than typically that displayed by the "official party" of Social Democracy in this country, which is the NDP. (With some even more right wingy SD elements in the Liberal Party and even The Greens. Though my read of the Greens is that they are an even more compromised mixed bag. My read.)

And what we have to understand, which doesn't mean that we have to lose ourselves in them, or allow them to efface or absorb our individualities, is that they, like us, are also part of the mix and the fight to transform society, with a very particular role to play. Not more or less important than our role, just "different". (Which does indeed lend itself, in their obsessive preoccupation with election to the ruling class parliamentary system, to being co-opted by that money driven and manipulated electoral process.)

So while, I think, radicals have to be out there and acting independently, agitating and challenging all the players to capitalism, including simple Social Democrats, for it is we, if we are loud, active, bold and influental enough, can move all the bastards along to more insightful policy positions and tactics too. Especially if they think there is a danger we are going to steal their audience and potential voters. Which we should attempt to do. :-)

In this way, we can potentially force them to compete with us, to the greater benefit of all society.(Though we do have to find a kind of co-operative balance too, at some point. When they are not off in total right field, as they are pretty much currently. Thinking Carol and thinking Jack.)

But even more important, we have to be out there educating people ourselves, helping to improve the popular level of political ideas understanding, driving discussion and debate, and eventually on the streets physically challenging "the system" and all these other players, like the NDP, like the Greens etc. etc. (No one else but us WILL do it.) Forcing them, the straighter, more timid, and wannabe in on the system reformers, to step up to the plate in new and bolder ways as well.

All that said, I think your article brings to this discussion a little better balance than I generally do, or at least seem to many, I'm sure. But it is largely a matter of style and appearance, because fundamentally I agree with you and think your central argument is rock solid.

One size really does NOT fit all.

lynn said...

Always extremely interesting to read your knowledgeable pieces, Larry.

Loved the line "Society was only to be tinkered with"...seems like old times, seems like present times...certainly we see this with the sudden "greening" of traditional party politics lately, where the real substance and level of committment is dust thin, threadbare, and where THEY slyly think they can just continually "tinker" with addressing global warming and get away with it, foolishly not realizing Nature holds all the cards in this deck.

I've been reading an article in the National Geographic about the curse of Nigerian oil where it says "with all the oil money coming in, the state doesn't need taxes from people. Rather than being a resource for the state, the people are impediments. There are no incentives anymore for the government to build schools or hospitals."

This is such familiar ground, worldwide, where there is a very small power loop, and the people have been pushed outside of it, have no way to access it, and are completely shut out. The money/power just goes round and round for the benefit of the few.

I much agree also, that "one size does not fit all" and that a demand for sameness and predictability, whether it be in our politics or in those conformist churches called shopping malls are specifically designed to erase all signs of independent thought and originality.

But at the same time, as you say social democrats are largely quite content now to stay within a capitalist system and by doing so, just feed the shark that capitalism is, and once again fuel that hunger and dependence on sameness and predictability....eventually into a frenzy where anything that attempts to slow its frenzied speed, anything connected to our very humanity is targeted.

The once little capitalist mud shark that seemed so smalltown harmless soon becomes a voracious Big White.

I do want to add one more thing just mainly if I write it out, maybe it won't bug me so much. Not that I care a lot about what Al Gore says or does but he is a good example of where the muddled left, I think, always gives its power away... and then proceeds to annihilate itself.

Gore is now supposedly praising Gordon Campbell's newly-hatched so-called "Green" policies...and this of course will get much coverage in the press...and believed by many. And this morning the once great CBC radio "allowed" Vaughn Palmer to do the same.

They forget this is the same premier that has permitted logging to become a superbug in our smalltowns...every hillside near us is being stripped... beautiful old growth forest and I hear the same, well much worse actually, is happening on Vancouver Island... and no doubt everywhere else in this province. Land is being removed covertly from the agricultural land reserves right and left. Over two thousand of our rivers are under the IPP threat, coal mining, oil exploration, TILMA...all are being set in motion behind close doors... our water and power rights all endangered now.

So why are these same "leaders" so easily fooled by mere words? Time and time again. James is continually flummoxed by Campbell and yet, really, he is the one that should be on the defensive...I mean, look at his record of public betrayals.

Gore, as a so-called leader on the global warming issue, should have actually called Campbell out on his record... exposed the hypocrisy of this pretend Road to Damascus turn around...said that when it comes to addressing global warming everything now depends on action not words. (But then that assumes that Gore cares enough to educate himself other than on a superficial level about what is actually happening outside of the US. Jimmy Carter, I think, would have done his research and would not have been so quick to praise.)

Maybe there is a pivotal role that needs to be played here. Maybe it is about that rampant superficial level of knowledge that has been made acceptable by a co-opted media..and where The Tyee, sadly I think has missed the boat and a great opportunity. It really was rare in the level of discusssion often found there... now it seems intent on undermining that very thing.

Maybe that is the part we must play as Coyote suggests: "Forcing them, the straighter, more timid, and wannabe in on the system reformers, to step up to the plate in new and bolder ways as well."

Here's to those new and bolder ways. We sure need them.

Must be raining, sorry for rambling on so. Think I mentioned everything but our cat. ;-)