This is an essay I wrote for a local newsletter. It’s fairly long and I thought about breaking it up across a few posts, but what the hell…
‘Social democracy’ means a lot of different things to different people, and its meanings have slipped around over the decades. Once upon a time it could be synonymous with socialism; nowadays it is a title claimed by the most moderate governments and some of the drippiest Third Way intellectuals of the ‘centre-left’. Further left, it still works as a rallying point for more radical energies. In the past, a definition of the social democratic project might have been something like ‘the project of reforming capitalism in the interests of the working class’. That is broad enough to cover a fair spectrum of radicalism, but still distinguishes it from liberal reform projects.
Nowadays, however, self-proclaimed social democrats are much more likely to speak for people in general, rather than a class, though perhaps with special reference to those from ‘socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds’, women, and ethnic minorities. Environmental concerns are likely to be central, with the likes of Clive Hamilton and David McKnight arguing explicitly against a preoccupation with ‘deprivation’ or class. It is now more difficult to draw a line between social democracy and liberalism. Though spectrum of radicalism remains, today’s social democrats might be defined broadly in terms of a desire to ‘restrain the market’, though often enough they are at pains to emphasise their understanding of the efficiency of the market in its proper place.
Our illustrious prime minister channels this rhetoric, writing in his February Monthly essay of “that particular brand of free-market fundamentalism, extreme capitalism and excessive greed which became the economic orthodoxy of our time.” [p.20] “Not for the first time in history,” he goes on to say,
the international challenge for social democrats is to save capitalism from itself: to recognise the great strengths of open, competitive markets while rejecting the extreme capitalism and unrestrained greed that have perverted so much of the global financial system in recent times… The second challenge for social democrats is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater… Social democracy’s continuing philosophical claim to political legitimacy is its capacity to balance the private and the public, profit and wages, the market and the state. That philosophy once again speaks with clarity and cogency to the challenges of our time. [pp. 20-21]
Whether Rudd can speak for social democracy is a question we’ll come back to. In any case, in that essay he gives a pretty good impression of a real social democrat. He, or whatever aide pulled the thing together, knew the buttons to push. And the fact that this stuff was said publicly by the prime minister seems to many a sign the the ideological wind has changed. If Rudd is a virtuosic opportunist – and that is a prerequisite for the job – until a few months before it had been more opportune for him to describe himself again and again as an ‘economic conservative’. But the global financial crisis apparently showed that economic rationalism, or neoliberalism, or whatever you want to call it, was rubbish. To quote the learned leader again:
The time has come, off the back of the current crisis, to proclaim that the great neo-liberal experiment of the past 30 years has failed, that the emperor has no clothes. Neo-liberalism, and the free-market fundamentalism it has produced, has been revealed as little more than personal greed dressed up as an economic philosophy… Others have argued that we are seeing a more fundamental regime change: the third in postwar history, starting with the Keynesian model, from the 1940s to the ’70s; the neo-liberal ascendancy, from 1978 to 2008; followed by a new regime, which is currently being shaped… [S]eismic changes are underway, fault lines yielding to fractures which in time may yield to even deeper tectonic shifts. Neither governments nor the peoples they represent any longer have confidence in an unregulated system of extreme capitalism. [pp. 25, 29]
That the ALP was in power for much of the period of ‘neoliberal ascendancy’ is inconvenient for Rudd’s claim that “the political home of neo-liberalism in Australia is, of course, the Liberal Party itself” [p. 27]. (Hawke and Keating, he claims, were ‘economic modernisers’, not neoliberals.) But it’s not necessarily a problem for the broader argument: social democrats who kept the faith through all those years in the wilderness can explain Labor’s apostasy in terms of its own ideological slide. Labor moved with the zeitgeist; partly because it was enthusiastically taken in, like Keating, and partly out of electoral necessity, because the media was taken in. Now the zeitgeist moves back. (more…)