Tony Judt and the Limitations of Social Democracy
Source Dave Anderson
Date 10/05/27/20:51

from The Activist, magazine of Young Democratic Socialists (youth group of DSA)
Tony Judt and the Limitations of Social Democracy

Ill Fares the Land
by Tony Judt
The Penguin Press, 2010, 237 pp

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 delegitmation 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.

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