Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

Reinventing Social Democracy for the 21st Century

Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

Reinventing Social Democracy for the 21st Century

Article excerpt

It is a great honour to deliver the third annual Wheelwright lecture, and I am deeply grateful to the faculty, students, and alumnae of the Political Economy Department at the University of Sydney who have made this event possible. The extended political economy struggle at the University of Sydney is truly an inspiration for all of us who recognize how important it is to challenge the global hegemony of neo-classical economics. But I need to say at the outset that my talk puts me in the uneasy and humbling position of delivering 'coals to Newcastle'. I am visiting from the United States where the social democratic tradition has been very weak and I am delivering a message about that tradition in a place, Australia, with a rich social democratic history. But such paradoxes can be productive; visitors from abroad can sometimes remind people of things that they already know.

Why Social Democracy?

Antonio Gramsci's famous slogan was 'Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.' But the context in which he offered this advice could not have been more different than our own. In the years after World War I, revolutionary and utopian visions had a deep hold on the popular imagination in many countries--empowering radical movements of the left and of the right, including the Italian fascists who sought to silence Gramsci by imprisoning him. But in our time, the utopian imagination has shrivelled and almost disappeared; our era is dominated by dystopian visions of environmental collapse or descent into barbarism. Despite intensifying economic austerity in many places, revolutionary alternatives are few and far between.

For that reason, I think it is appropriate and necessary to reverse Gramsci's injunction. Today, what we need is: 'Optimism of the intellect, pragmatism of the will.' It is urgent that we have much more systematic thinking about how we can transform our societies by considering what Erik Wright (2010) calls 'real utopias'--schemes for improvement that are actually feasible. And by 'pragmatism of the will,' I mean that both activists and intellectuals must be alert to the consequences--both intended and unintended--of our actions. This means cultivating a critical perspective on our own practices and a willingness to adapt new strategies and new approaches as circumstances change.

In this spirit, I want to make an argument today for reviving and renovating the tradition of social democracy. But let me hasten to say that I am very critical of what many take to be key parts of that tradition--particularly its technocratic and centralizing tendencies. I am arguing for a decentralized and bottom up version of social democracy that actively embraces environmentalism, feminism, and the empowerment of minority communities.

Let me start by making some of my premises explicit. I believe that Marx and many of his followers got one thing terribly wrong--this is the idea that changing ownership of the means of production is the indispensable key to radical social change. We have seen from the Soviet experience that eliminating capitalist property failed to usher in a broader process of emancipation. Instead of 'the primacy of property relations' that Marxism emphasizes, I would propose 'the primacy of politics'--the belief that the key to radical social change is to use democratic politics and the power of the state to challenge and reduce the inequalities of income, wealth, and power that result from the unequal ownership of property.

There are two distinct problems with the Marxist formulation. The first is that it imagines that transforming property relations would produce irreversible gains in demolishing class hierarchies. It basically ignores the possibility that new axes of inequality and hierarchy could emerge as new groups sought to entrench their positions of privilege and power.

The alternative focus on the primacy of politics assumes that such new inegalitarian challenges will inevitably emerge, but it also identifies a mechanism--a strong set of democratic institutions and values--that could be mobilized to blunt those challenges. …

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