The Role of Ideas in a Revival of Social Democracy: The Case of the Australian Labor Party

By Battin, Tim | Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics, July 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Role of Ideas in a Revival of Social Democracy: The Case of the Australian Labor Party


Battin, Tim, Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics


The recent history of the Australian Labor Party shows that the neglect of social democratic ideas opens the door to the reassertion of neo-liberal orthodoxy.

Is it simplistic - or clarifying - to ask: what are the categories of impediments to a social democratic future? Arguably, the obstacles to civilisation's struggle to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society (to use Polanyi's definition of social democracy) fall into one of five categories. In the first place, there is the question of whether a set of economic and social policies capable of subordinating the self-regulating market to democratic practices is technically feasible. Putting aside the other obstacles about to receive mention, can the policies themselves work? Second, there is an electoral, or demographic, question to be asked: based on an objective understanding of who stands to gain, is the number of citizens standing to benefit from a radical restructure and redistribution sufficient to sustain an electoral majority? Is it any more difficult in contemporary circumstances to stitch together an electoral majority coalition in favour of social democracy than it was in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s? Better still, if the majority is possible, are the demographics of this majority such that it may be sustained for a time to allow social democratic policies to be bedded down and made popular? Third, and closely related to this societal factor, there is the perennial question of class structure, the traditional concern of the left. If a social democratic mix of economic and social policies were to have intrinsic merit, and if the number of citizens standing to gain from such a program were well in the majority, what does the class structure of any given society suggest about the likely success or otherwise of such a programme? Is the class structure - and the material interests represented by this structure - such that a technically viable mix of social and economic policies benefitting the greater number is still doomed to political failure, or is the outlook more sanguine? And fourth, closely attached to the class structure, a society's institutions tend to mirror past struggle and activity. Depending on the institutional layout of a particular society, progressive politics can be thwarted or enhanced (Dow, 2010). The scope of this article does not allow an analysis of all these factors, though they are touched on where pertinent. The primary task is to focus on the one remaining hurdle not yet mentioned.

Neglected by political scholars on the left, although somewhat taken up in recent years (e.g. Berman, 2006; 2011; Schmidt, 2008; Palley, 2012; Mirowski, 2013), is the role of ideas. For a time, writers such as Peter Hall (1989; 1994) were almost lone figures (1) in putting the case that a left politics needed to be more acutely focused on the power of ideas themselves if the political prospects of a left party or coalition of parties were to be viable. It is an important question because so many of the various arguments against social democracy (whether by those who are hostile to it or those more sympathetic but sceptical) touch on political economic ideas about what is possible. One need only consider the changing complexion of the globalisation literature in the last twenty years - a development not principally reflecting changes in real conditions over that time but rather a better reading of the situation (Piven, 1995; Glyn, 1998; 2006; Weiss, 1998; 1999; 2003; Boreham, Dow and Leet, 1999; Saul, 2005) - to appreciate that ideas themselves are powerful entities. To claim as much is not to argue that ideas are more important than any of the other factors usually considered by progressive intellectuals to be essential to left political strategies. However, in arguing that the power of ideas is a necessary (though insufficient) ingredient in the combination of factors holding out some prospect of social democratic success, we might allow for the possibility that the relative autonomy of ideas has been overlooked. …

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