How social democracy lost the future

Social democracy is in crisis. Again. After British Labour’s loss in the Hartlepool by-election, a renewed round of soul-searching and factional infighting has been unleashed. Tony Blair has returned, uninvited, to the fray, pronouncing that nothing less than the total deconstruction and reconstruction of the party will do. A New New Labour, perhaps?

On the continent, the historic bastions of the creed are in decline. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been displaced by the Greens as the primary centre-left party in the polls. Social democracy may no longer even be a thing in France. And even those social-democratic parties which remain in government are facing an erosion in voting support and pincer movements from green parties and right-wing populists. Positive examples of flourishing social democratic regimes, such as the Ardern Labour Government in New Zealand, are few and far between.

The most common explanations of social democracy’s contemporary malaise focus on the structural transformations within capitalism which have eroded its traditional blue-collar support base, enervated the welfare state, and atomised the labour force, stymying the construction of a collective identity. 

But structural factors alone do not explain social democracy’s decline. There has been a loss of something else: a loss of identity, a loss of imaginative energy, a loss of ideological coherence and daring. A recent poll found that only 38% of British responders believe Labour presents a vision of the future – compared to 52% for the Conservatives. How does Labour, a self-proclaimed party of social change, engender less faith in its plans for the future than the party whose name means to conserve?

To put it starkly: social democracy has lost the future.

This is in contrast to social democracy’s foundation, and its ‘golden age’ following the Second World War. Then, the creed’s identity, political tactics, and social mission all derived from its claims upon the future – and faith that a new social order was not just necessary, but possible.

Before the Enlightenment, it was rare for the ‘future’ to be conceived in western political thought as a time that could be actively shaped by active intervention, largely due to the circularity of Christian temporality. But as the German conceptual historian Reinhart Koselleck tracked, with the Enlightenment and sudden ruptures such as the French Revolution, the future was transformed in the political imagination into a site of active creation: a possible utopia.

Social democrats were inheritors of this tradition, and forged their own visions of utopia. The Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote in his epic two-volume Principles of Hope of the differentiation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries between two types of utopic thought: ‘abstract utopias’ and ‘concrete utopias’. While abstract utopias were little more than hopeful yearnings, concrete utopias were imagined states that were intended to be summoned into being through political praxis. These imaginings were pivotal to the socialist movement, the political embodiment of hope for a better tomorrow.

Concrete utopias were integral to the formation of social democracy’s identity and its subsequent political mobilisation. Historian of the creed, Geoff Eley, noted that the historic mission of social democracy was to make ‘democracy social’ – that is, to expand democratic decision-making through all the interconnected realms of social, political, and economic life. This was the essence of social democracy’s concrete utopia.

In this future, workers, and their toil, would no longer be commodified – chained to the whims of market forces. The essential humanity of the working person would be asserted and labour would gain agency and control over its own condition. Nationalisation and greater state-spending were a means to this end: the decommodification of labour and liberation of productive capacities. Hence, the frequent invocation of the need to control the ‘means of production, distribution, and exchange’. By staking this claim over the economic relations of society, it was believed, labour would be decommodified, and all other aspects of workers’ lives would flourish in a state of ‘universal, harmonious perfection’, or so pledged the SPD’s 1891 Erfut Program.

Debates over the mission and purpose, as well as strategy, of social democracy were conducted on the field of temporality. The great revisionist debate that wracked the SPD, for instance, was prompted by Eduard Bernstein’s insistence on immediate action over grand claims for future transformation: ‘what is usually termed the final goal of socialism is nothing to me, the movement is everything’. This was roundly condemned by the leading party intellectual Karl Kautsky who defended the mission of the SPD as the claiming of the future for the working class.

British Labour, which had been a laggard in its party formation and ideological coherence, reinvented itself for a (relatively) modern polity through such an ideological projection. In 1918, party secretary Arthur Henderson engineered the structural change to transform Labour – previously a conglomeration of affiliate organisations – into a cohesive party of potential government. This was prompted by the expansion of the franchise, but also the new spate of imagining of what the post-war world might entail.

Labour’s vision for change was captured in the National Executive’s pamphlet Labour and the New Social Order, and summarised in the famous Clause IV of its new constitution. Clause IV pledged Labour to secure for workers ‘the full fruits of their industry’ through ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ incorporating ‘the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.’

This was a concrete utopia, a programmatic encapsulation of the movement’s aspirations, intended to actively summon the future into being through political mobilisation. Like other social-democratic statements of intent, it functioned as a lodestar, pointing north, even when the vicissitudes of the moment demanded sideways movement, or even retreat. This premonitory politics defined party identity, sustained the faithful in times of trial, and justified their efforts in times of loss.

And there was plenty of loss. Between the wars, social-democratic parties most often found themselves disbarred from power, scrambling to understand accelerating capitalist crisis, and, on the continent, frequently under attack from mobilised Fascist movements. So it was the post-war era in which the first social-democratic experiment in realising a new vision of the future was conducted.

Post-war social democrats drew upon the ideas and imaginings of the previous decades to calibrate political programmes intending to use the power of the state, backed up by the mobilised social power of their constituency, to actively craft what was to come.

‘Let Us Face the Future’, extolled Labour’s famed 1945 manifesto. It captured the spirit of the times. Within its pages, the manifesto pledged that after the devastation of war, it would ‘win the Peace for the People’ through its extensive plan to forge a future starkly differentiated from the inequities of the past. Nationalisation of key industries was perceived as a fundamental means to create this new order – embedding public ownership in Britain’s economic life, as had long been dreamed of by Labour loyalists and union stalwarts.

The most substantive act in the decommodification of labour, social democracy’s historic aim, was the pursuit of full employment. Full employment mitigated the power of employers, with the lack of a reserve army of labour strengthening the hand of employees and their unions. Across the world, a push to strengthen collective bargaining regimes (and in Germany, codetermination) ensured mechanisms through which the workers’ collective strength could be asserted. This often led to confrontations with employers over the managerial prerogative, and insinuated the worker role in the managing of workplace relations.

Nowhere were such social democratic programmes perfectly and completely implemented – this is the simple reality of political change in democratic systems. But across the span of the immediate post-war years the social-democratic party family was in accord about certain fundamentals as to what the future should look like. And in the process of trying to actively create these futures, social democracy fundamentally reshaped the prevailing governing consensus.

As the post-war decades wore on, however, economic growth and technological change saw a transformation of western capitalism. Social democrats went from outsiders seeking to capture state power to transform the status quo, to pillars of the establishment. The immediate pressures of government and the temporal timescape of electoral politics reduced the horizons of the centre left’s ambition. In Britain, on the cusp of power in 1963, Labour leader Harold Wilson promised the renewal of British industrial life through the ‘white heat of technology’. But his tenure in office was largely spent managing balance-of-payment crises.

In Germany, Willy Brandt brought the SPD to lead a post-war government for the first time in 1969. The government engaged in long-term tripartite planning, invested in the welfare state and in expanding education, accelerated, ‘social market’ reforms, and made moves to expand codetermination. But all these expanded the bounds of the established consensus in Germany – they did not fundamentally alter it.

Social democrats had adapted themselves to the temporality and timescapes of the post-war consensus – a consensus, that by the early 1970s, was starting to fray. By this point, sclerotic growth rates had become regularised and endemic, productivity was generally declining, and high rates of inflation become a feature of developed economies. Bretton Woods collapsed alongside the rise of a new tide of financialisation and accelerated trade of Eurodollars. Social democrats did not have a coherent and compelling solution for these transformative developments and were preoccupied with stabilising the besieged order – not in schemes for its overhaul.

This contrasted starkly with the energy and enthusiasm with which the forces of neoliberalism and the ‘New Right’ presented themselves as prophets of a new order. The policy proscriptions embraced by neoliberals were not inevitable, they were the conscious choices made by political and corporate elites who were determined to recalibrate the balance of power between labour and capital. Central to the neoliberal agenda was a reassertion of the managerial prerogative and the undermining of collective bargaining. In effect, it was a project to recommodify labour.

Alongside the economic changes wrought through the neoliberal ascendancy came a transformation in political temporality. History ended. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War signalled the end of the old utopias. Politics came to reflect the chronic short-termism of the business cycle. The ‘future’ was transformed across the West, becoming little more than the social relations of the present projected forward through time.

Modernisation projects emerged within social-democratic parties, proselytising for an enthusiastic embrace of this new temporality, imposing clear dividing lines between social democracy’s past, present, and future. British Labour’s defeat in 1979 amid the imposition of the new neoliberal orthodoxy spurred modernisers who wished to fully embrace the opportunities, and by association adhere to the restraints, of the liberalising consensus. These projects were most fully realised in Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’. Under Blair, Labour no longer looked to the party’s past as a source of strategic direction or even direct inspiration, with Clause IV unceremoniously discarded in 1995.

Blair spun the story of New Labour as one of inevitability – modernisation of the party reflected the realities of a new economy which had fundamentally transformed Britain. New Labour did not identify the future as a site of potentiality to be actively created through the mechanisms of government. The future was, instead, the purview of the market. Reflecting the broader presentism of the ‘end of history’, New Labour limited the scope of its ambition. If the established order was to be enduring, then what was the point of imagining alternatives that would challenge the dominant assumptions of the governing consensus?

This temporal shift was not limited to the Anglosphere. In post-unification Germany a group of modernisers set upon a recognisably similar (though with its own distinctive inflections) project in the SPD. Gerhard Schröeder was the most recognisable figure in the push to ‘modernise’ the party. In 1998 the SPD came to national office in a Red-Green coalition with Schröeder as Chancellor. Schröeder accepted victory with the less-than-historic statement that ‘we don’t want to do everything different, we just want to do many things better’.

This inability to imagine an alternate future framed the policy-decisions made by social democrats, limiting the horizons of the possible. This in turn has had a deleterious effect on social democracy itself. The infamous ‘Agenda 2010’ welfare reforms implemented by Schröeder’s second government were indicative of these processes. Agenda 2010 included aggressive liberalisation in healthcare, welfare, and industrial relations, and the institution of a punitive regime towards job seekers and the unemployed that seemed to break with Germany’s traditional compact.

Agenda 2010 was the adaptation to the new temporality, enforcing its rules and strictures on the traditional constituency of the SPD. The party could not imagine state-driven long-term alternative economic futures that could replace the crumbling model, so, instead, it forced the vulnerable to adapt to the prerogatives of the governing orthodoxy. Voters left the party in droves. They are yet to return. The party has no clear strategy to either get them back, or build a new electoral coalition.

And so here we are, in a moment of extraordinary crisis where so many of the existing assumptions of economics and politics has been overturned, social democrats appear listless and uncertain. After the Global Financial Crisis in 2007 to 2008, social democrats offered mild ameliorations to the worst effects of the downturn. Gordon Brown was even able to save the world. But overwhelmingly parties of the creed were too ensconced in the temporality of the established order to propose that a different future was possible. Even where critique of the system was clear, as Ed Miliband recently observed of his own leadership, the solutions proposed were too modest to for the scale of the challenge.

The Corbyn interregnum demonstrated the potential for this temporality to be shifted. Corbyn’s tenure will be the subject of internal civil war for decades to come. Corbyn’s leadership came to an inglorious end after the 2019 ‘Brexit’ election, and was marred by the appalling mishandling of antisemitism within Labour’s ranks by the leader and his office. No account of Corbyn’s leadership can ignore these substantial problems.

But nor should the possibilities that were revealed during his unexpected period at the reins be written out of the story – even if Corbyn was not the leader to grasp them.

The highpoint of the Corbyn project was the 2017 general election. Though Labour did not win office, its overturning of a twenty-point polling deficit was a considerable feat. Labour’s campaign reduced the Conservative Party to a minority in Westminster, and achieved its highest increase in its vote share at one election since 1945.

In this campaign, Labour provided a vivid picture of a possible future. Inscribed in the party manifesto was a pledge to overturn austerity, re-invest in communities, strengthen the bargaining position of labour, and commit to green energy. This was a repudiation of neoliberalism that came without compromise, emblazoned with a catchy slogan that epitomised a new mood: ‘For the many not the few’.

Labour’s 2017 election campaign matched genuine social grievance with a positive programme for change. It did not retreat to the certainties of the past, but drew on a history of protest and reform to propose the possibility of a different society, one that could be actively created through mass political participation. Though this proposal had its own problems (and was not given a mandate) it did assemble a forward-looking electoral coalition eager for a genuine alternative they could believe in – including many younger voters, who are notoriously difficult to mobilise.

Social democracy’s challenge in this age of precarity and social disconnect is to build a new electoral coalition of labouring people: whether they work in traditional industries or new sections of the economy. The ‘traditional’ working class, it is often assumed, has been displaced by the service economy and the rise of new layers of professionals. But this conflates the working class as a whole with one specific segment of that class: blue-collar labourers.

But the working class is, and has always been, far more diverse and multifaceted than this. COVID-19 has made clear this reality. Essential workers are now recognised: nurses, cleaners, retail workers, truck drivers, and many more. Nurses are tertiary educated. Their collars are white. They are highly skilled. Yet their work is collective, directed by management, and they labour for a wage rather than direct returns on investment in capital. They are well-organised and highly unionised. They are workers.

Social democracy emerged as a mass movement in the late nineteenth century, at a time when labour was commodified, markets unrestrained, wealth inequality growing. It was a movement toward greater agency by working people – to control their own lives – rather than be dictated to by the whims of capital or disconnected political elites.

While the working class itself has changed drastically since that time, as has the structure of capitalism, variants of all these elements can be identified today – including within developed economies. Social democracy’s historic mission was to draw together labouring people to strive for greater agency and control. To assert their humanity. To reconstruct the social, economic, and political order. To empower them to act to better their own lot. This is its mission still.

We can see echoes of this project in the Ardern government’s proposal to introduce new sectoral bargaining agreements that would rebalance labour and capital by enshrining guaranteed minimums across industries and allowing workers to bargain across industrial sectors. We can even see the possibility of this change in recent moves by the (not social democratic) Biden administration, such as its establishment of a “Worker Organizing and Empowerment” taskforce with the explicit goal of increasing union membership and strengthening labour’s bargaining power. Such moves seek not just to redistribute budget balance sheets, but social power.

Working people today, whatever their industry or field, need a reinvigoration of collective identity through the exertion of social power. It is the task of social democracy to devise and pursue the agendas necessary for them to have it, and through this, to construct a new electoral coalition capable of not just returning to office, but transforming the social order.

Social democracy cannot retreat from the past – but must draw on it to project a compelling, believable, and realisable vision of the social order it wishes to construct. It needs to go back to the future.

Liam Byrne is a Melbourne-based political historian and member of the Australian Labor Party.