This is the slightly rewritten text of my address to the opening plenary session, ‘New Enlightenment Neue Aufklärung’, at the European Forum Alpbach, Alpbach, Austria, 28 August 2016.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Citizens and Citizenesses:
The disintegration of Europe that the world is witnessing, and in some quarters beginning to fear, no doubt has multiple causes and causers. One cause whose power to shape ultimate outcomes should not be underestimated is the felt decadence of democratic institutions. Many observers speak of a developing crisis of European democracy. While the headline phrase triggers my discomfort about unwarranted exaggeration, it plausibly captures a basic fact of contemporary European politics: the fact that the present-day paralysis of the spirit and institutions of democracy in the European region is bound up with the slow death of social democracy.
In the Austrian context, in the run-up to a bitterly contested presidential election, I’m aware that talk of the death of social democracy sounds straightforwardly a political statement. Understandably so, for once upon a time the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Austria (SDAPÖ) was among the most powerful, dynamic and forward-thinking party machines of the modern world. In striking contrast, today’s Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) is a sickly pale shadow of its former robust self. The decline of social democracy in Austria is palpable. Yet what I have to offer to you this afternoon is an analysis that aims to be less local and more far-reaching, an audit of social democracy that is at the same time conceptual and historical and concerned with global trends, a probe that equally pays attention to language, through which (I remind you in the village of Erwin Schrödinger) people form pictures of ‘reality’ and move through their world.
The theme of our European Forum Alpbach symposium on politics is the New Enlightenment (Neue Aufklärung) so here’s my opening conjecture: the language and ideal of social democracy has its roots in the 18th-century Enlightenment. Enlightenment: when people encounter the word, they think immediately of reason and rationality, a black swan moment when new mental energies flowed, when the early modern 18th-century world began to be turned upside down by fearless criticism of prejudice, pride and power.
The interpretation is unfortunately too simple. Truth is that the intellectual upheaval that came to be called the Enlightenment (the phrase was largely a 19th-century neologism, typically circulated by its enemies) was a much messier affair. Historians, philosophers and political thinkers have taught us to see this 18th-century upheaval in less Whiggish and sanguine ways. Most analysts of the so-called Enlightenment today prefer to view it as multiple enlightenments, as various intellectual and literary tendencies centred on many different themes, with positive and negative effects.
Consider, for example, how Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Michel Foucault long ago challenged us to see that the 18th-century fetish of ‘reason’, its will to know everything and to measure and master the world, fed the spirit of bureaucratic ‘unreason’, incarceration and totalitarian rule. Or think of Isaiah Berlin’s reminder that the opponents of Enlightenment, dubbed the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’, included thinkers, poets, painters and writers who plausibly championed pluralism and attacked the blind belief in scientific progress, in effect because they viewed the world as shaped not by the ‘laws of nature’, but by the contingencies of history.
My research on Thomas Paine and the eighteenth century (published as Tom Paine: A Political Life) tried to complicate matters by making the point that the Enlightenment also included champions of civil rights, social justice and democratic representation, rebels and radicals who were sharply aware of the miseries suffered by people ground down by modern institutions not of their own choosing. These dissenting rebels despised misery. Thanks to them, we could say, misery was given its proper name. Starvation and indignity, violence and powerlessness, were denounced as unnecessary blights on the face of the world. Misery was no longer regarded as God-given, or as part of the natural order of things (natura naturans). It was seen to be contingent, remediable, if necessary by means of revolutionary upheavals.
Social democracy was the offspring of this bold way of imagining a world freed from misery. Its fortunes were tied to the rise and expansion of modern industrial capitalism. Coined during the 1840s, the neologism Sozialdemokratie first circulated among disaffected German-speaking skilled craftsmen, farm and factory workers, whose support for social democracy made possible the conversion of isolated pockets of social resistance into powerful mass movements protected by trade unions, political parties and governments committed to widening the franchise and building welfare state institutions.
Market inequalities fuelled resentments among the supporters of social democracy. Their powerful charge was that ‘free market’ competition produces chronic gaps between winners and losers and, eventually, a society defined by private splendour and public squalor. If Eduard Bernstein, Karl Renner, Rosa Luxemburg, Clement Attlee, Jawaharlal Nehru or Bruno Kreisky were suddenly to reappear in our midst, they would not be surprised by the way practically all market-driven democracies are today coming to resemble hour glass-shaped societies. In these societies, as Thomas Piketty and other political economists explain, the wealth of small numbers of extremely rich people has multiplied, the shrinking middle classes feel insecure and the ranks of the permanently poor and the precariat are swelling – as in the United States, the richest capitalist market economy on the face of the earth, where 1% of households now own 38% of the national wealth; or in Britain, where at the end of three decades of deregulated growth, 30 per cent of children live in poverty; or in Austria, where at least 20% of citizens are now suffering money and dignity problems.
Social democrats of the 19th- and early-20th centuries found obnoxious, and actively resisted, social inequality on this scale. They railed against the general dehumanising effects of treating people as commodities. Social democrats acknowledged the technical prowess, productivity and dynamism of markets. But they were sure that love and friendship, family life, public freedoms and the vote could not be bought with money, or somehow be manufactured by commodity production, exchange and consumption. That was the whole point of their radical demands for a living wage, the abolition of child labour and Eight Hours Work, Eight Hours Recreation and Eight Hours Rest. In the dark year of 1944, the Hungarian social democrat Karl Polanyi put the point in defiant words: ‘To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment’, he wrote, ‘would result in the demolition of society’. His reasoning, traceable to the 18th-century Enlightenment, was that human beings are ‘fictitious commodities’. His conclusion: dignity through democracy had to be fought for politically, which at a minimum meant the weakening of market forces and strengthening the hand of the commonweal against private profits, money and selfishness.
More than a few social democrats went further, by pointing out, in opposition to Jean-Baptiste Say, Friedrich von Hayek and other liberal political economists, the reasons why unregulated markets are prone to collapse. Economists of recent decades have regularly described these failures as ‘externalities’, but their jargon is misleading. Something more fundamental is at stake. Free markets periodically cripple themselves, sometimes to the point of total breakdown, for instance because (a) they whip up socially disruptive storms of technical innovation (Joseph Schumpeter’s point) or because (b) as we know from recent bitter experience, unregulated markets generate bubbles whose inevitable bursting bring whole economies to their knees.
The social democratic critique of free market capitalism proved compelling for millions of people. But what exactly did social democracy mean to its champions and sympathisers? Winning parliamentary elections and controlling the levers of state power, certainly. Yet there was always some muddle over the meaning of the ‘social’ in social democracy; and there were frequent brawls about whether and how the taming of markets, which many called ‘democracy’ and ‘socialism’, could be achieved.
There is no time for me to recall the great moments of high drama, conceptual strife and contradictions, dark sides and luscious ironies that form part of a recorded history that includes courageous struggles of the downtrodden to form co-operatives, friendly societies, free trade unions, and to spread literacy and win the struggle for the universal franchise through social democratic parties. There were fractious splits that gave birth to anarchism and Bolshevism; and outbursts of nationalism and xenophobia and (in Sweden) experiments with eugenics. The history also includes the re-launch of social democratic parties at the Frankfurt Declaration of the Socialist International (1951), as well as efforts to nationalise railways and heavy industry, to socialise the provision of health care and formal education for all citizens. And the history of social democracy also embraces big and bold thinking, romantic talk of the need to abolish alienation, respect for what Paul Lafargue called the right to be lazy (le droit à la paresse), even the vision of a future communist society projected by his father-in-law Karl Marx, a society in which women and men, freed from the shackles of the market, went hunting in the morning, fished in the afternoon and, after a good dinner, engaged others in frank political discussion.
A Slow Death
A strange but striking feature of the history of social democracy is just how distant and worn out this language now feels. The slow death of social democracy during the past several decades has the quality of an unfolding political tragedy; it certainly signals the decline and disappearance of the spirit and substance of the old Enlightenment. Yes, there is a Grosse Koalition in Germany, and a red-green government led by Stefan Löfven in Sweden. But almost everywhere social democratic political parties and organisations have run out of steam; their loss of organising energy and political imagination is palpable. Collaborators with financial capitalism (Jürgen Kocka) then double-speak apologists of austerity, their Third Way has turned out to be a dead end.
Gone are the flags, historic speeches and bouquets of red roses. Party leader intellectuals of the calibre of Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932), Rudolf Hilferding (1877-1941) and C.A.R. Crosland (1918-1977) are figures of a distant past. Today’s party leaders who still dare to call themselves social democrats are by comparison intellectual pygmies. Loud calls for greater equality, social justice and public service have faded, often into choking silence. Positive references to the Keynesian welfare state have disappeared. As if to prove that social democracy was just an intermezzo between capitalism and more capitalism, these leaders speak of budgetary restraint, triple ‘A’ ratings, ‘renewed growth’ and ‘competition’, public-private partnerships, ‘stakeholders’ and ‘business partners’.
Sometimes the duplicity induces pain. I once witnessed the fabulist Tony Blair reassure a gathering of trade unionists that he was against free market forces before moving on, two hours later, after a light lunch together, to tell a group of business executives exactly the opposite. The crisis of Atlantic-region capitalism since 2008 seems to have amplified the duplicity. Within the dwindling ranks of committed social democrats, few now call themselves socialists (Alexis Tsipras and Jeremy Corbyn are exceptions), or even social democrats. Most leaders are party faithful, machine men and women surrounded by media advisers, connoisseurs of governmental power geared to free markets. Few make noise about tax avoidance by big business and the rich, the decay of public services, the weakening of trade unions, or rising inequality. All of them, usually without knowing it, are blind apologists of the drift towards a new form of financial capitalism protected by what I have elsewhere called ‘banking states’ that have lost control over money supply, so that in most democratic countries over 95% of the ‘broad money’ supply is now in the hands of private banks and credit institutions.
Ladies and gentlemen: social democracy failed to understand, let alone regulate, this new historical type of capitalism, whose near-breakdown in 2007/2008 has damaged the lives of millions of people in Europe and elsewhere. But the disintegration of social democracy has been overdetermined by other, multiple forces. Among the most important are these entangled trends, here summarised in the briefest form:
● Membership of social democratic parties has dipped dramatically. Although accurate figures are hard to obtain – these parties are notoriously secretive about their active membership lists - we know that in 1950 the Norwegian Labour Party, one of the most successful in the world, had over 200,000 paid-up members; and that today its membership is barely one-quarter that figure. Much the same trend is evident within the British Labour Party, whose membership peaked in the early 1950s at over 1 million and is today less than half that figure. Helped by the recent £3 special offer registration, total membership of the Labour Party is now around 370,000 – less than the 400,000 figure recorded at the 1997 general election. During Blair’s years of leadership alone, membership declined steadily every year from 405,000 to 166,000. When it is considered that during the post-1945 period, the size of the electorate in most countries has been steadily increasing (by 20% between 1964 and 2005 in Britain alone) the proportion of people who are no longer members of social democratic parties is far more substantial than even the raw numbers suggest. The figures imply a profound waning of enthusiasm for social democracy in party form. Satirists might even say that its parties are waging a new political struggle: the struggle for self-effacement.
● Social democratic parties were among the slowest to react to the upheavals effected by the digital, globally networked communications revolution that began during the 1960s. The harnessing of big data through networked campaigning techniques by these parties has often been resisted, or ignored. Striking is the contrast with the powerful social democratic parties of the late 19th century. They stood for universal public literacy and published influential newspapers, books, pamphlets and best-selling utopian novels and literary fantasies such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1888). Social democracy was once a powerful symbol of democratic openness and communicative empowerment. Today it symbolises sound bites and media grabs, the avoidance of bad news. The old class struggles have been replaced by phrase struggles;
● Social democratic parties have shown limited awareness of the emergence, since the 1940s, of monitory democracy. This is a new historical form of democracy in which free and fair elections and parliaments are of declining importance, certainly when compared with the rising importance of the public monitoring and restraint - humbling – of arbitrary power by means of a multitude of newly-invented watchdog institutions such as citizens’ assemblies, teach-ins, public forums, activist courts, environmental networks and WikiLeaks, to name just a few innovations;
● Gripped by a territorial state mentality and confined to nation state barracks, social democratic parties have underestimated the agenda-setting and blackmail and veto effects of cross-border chains of organised corporate and governmental power. Operating within the boundaries of territorial states, social democratic parties and governments have consequently been weakened and victimised by what Albert Einstein dubbed ‘spooky action at a distance’: cross-border butterfly effects, arbitrage pressures and quantum tunnels, all of which have greatly complicated the politics of wealth and income redistribution;
● The rise of the People’s Republic of China as an economic great power on the global power stage has had two ironic effects: it has weakened an important part of the social support base of social democracy (industrial manufacturing, trade unions, workers) and established a viable ‘socialist’ alternative to capitalism in social democratic form: one party state capitalism legitimated by locally-made forms of democratic rule; and
● The long-term silence of social democrats about environmental degradation has accelerated the death of social democracy. We have entered an age of gradually rising public awareness of the destructive effects of the modern human will to dominate our biosphere, of the bad habit of treating nature, just as Africans or indigenous peoples were once treated, as commodities, as objects of production, profit and other selfishly human ends.
This last-mentioned development needs some elaboration. For more than half a generation, beginning with works such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), green thinkers, scientists, journalists, politicians and social movement activists have been pointing out that the whole social democratic tradition is implicated deeply in the spoliation of our planet. They note that social democracy was the Janus face of free-market capitalism: both stood for the human domination of nature. Hence they call for a new politics with green qualities, a new democratic enlightenment that poses a fundamental challenge to both the style and substance of the old social democracy, or what remains of it.
The New Democratic Enlightenment
What is this new democratic enlightenment? It has multiple features, especially a strong sense of the complexity and indeterminacy of things and processes in our world. It displays resistance to wilful simplification, and opposition to all ideologies, including populism. There is preference for extra-parliamentary civic action and monitory democracy against the old model of electoral democracy in territorial state form. The Neue Aufklärung features sympathy for a rich repertoire of new political tactics practised in a variety of local and cross-border settings: citizen science networks, Barcelona-style municipalismo, bio-regional assemblies, green political parties (the first in the world was the United Tasmania Group), earth watch summits and the skilful staging of non-violent media events (Greenpeace originally called them ‘mind bombs’).
The new democratic enlightenment is marked by an earthy cosmopolitanism. It displays a deep sensitivity to the global interdependence of peoples and their ecosystems. There is support for new post-carbon energy regimes and opposition to fossil-fuelled growth and habitat destruction. There is also acute awareness of the opportunities and dangers posed by marketisation of the most intimate areas of everyday life, for instance fertility outsourcing, data harvesting, nanotechnologies, stem cell research and humanoid robots. The new enlightenment has a clear understanding of the golden rule that whoever has the gold rules. It displays strong awareness that market control of daily life, civil society and political institutions has negative social and political consequences, unless checked by open public debate, political resistance, public regulation and the positive redistribution of wealth, for instance through a basic citizens’ income. Especially striking is the new enlightenment’s call for the ‘de-commodification’ (Claus Offe) of the biosphere, in effect, the replacement of social democracy’s will to dominate nature and its innocent attachment to History with a more prudent sense of ‘deep time’ aware of the fragile complexity of the biosphere and its multiple rhythms.
The new democratic enlightenment is opposed to the old social democratic metaphysics of economic progress, and the machismo of its favoured imagery of warrior male bodies gathered at the gates of pits, docks and factories, singing hymns to industrial growth, under smoke-stained skies. The new enlightenment issues a warning: that unless we human beings change our ways with the world in which we dwell things may turn out badly – very badly indeed. Its overall attitude to the world is precautionary: whether we know it or not, it is said, we humans are now deciding which evolutionary pathway awaits us, including the possibility that we are trapped in an extinction event of our own making.
It is worth asking whether these themes of the new enlightenment are evidence of a black swan moment in global affairs? Are they proof that we are living through the beginning of a large phase transformation analogous to the last decades of the 18th century, when the rough-and-tumble resistance to the miseries produced by market-driven industrial capitalism slowly but surely morphed into a highly disciplined workers’ movement receptive to the siren calls of social democracy?
It is impossible to know with utter certainty whether these are the right questions, or whether our times are like that. Only the historians of the future will be able to tell us, yet it should be noted that many champions of the new enlightenment are now convinced that a tipping point has indeed been reached. Their sense of alternative possibilities (Robert Musil’s Möglichkeitsinne) is strong. In effect, the new enlightenment is an exercise in democracy ‘dreaming itself’. It demands that democracy be taken seriously and self-reflexively redefined as monitory democracy. It insists that the point is not only to change the world, but also to interpret it in new ways, through new languages, to grasp that so many things of our times are too strange to be thought, to see that although democracy is never fully realisable, that it is always the ‘democracy to come’ (Jacques Derrida), it is nevertheless still the most powerful earthly weapon available for humbling the powerful and taming their arrogant and foolish will to power.
But where does this new enlightenment leave social democracy? What is the relationship between the first and second enlightenments? Thinking social democrats will reply to such questions by emphasising the flexibility of their creed, the capacity of their originally 19th-century standpoint to adapt to 21st-century circumstances. I have friends and colleagues who are adamant that it’s much too early to bid farewell to social democracy. They reject the charge that it is a worn-out ideology whose moments of triumph belong to the past, or that it is a mournful lament for the achievements of bygone days (Tony Judt).
These social democrats admit that the goal of re-building social solidarity among citizens through civil society and government action has been damaged by market-produced inequality and fudged agendas designed to win votes from business, the rich and right-wing political competitors. These thinking social democrats know that the old slogans and sense of time of social democracy are exhausted. They admit to being impressed by the media-savvy initiatives and staged détournement of civic networks such as M-15, Amnesty International and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, whose actions aim to put a stop to the violence of states, armies and gangs, but also to corporate misconduct and market injustices and miseries in cross-border settings. These thinking social democrats then play the ace card in their pack: they reiterate the importance of ‘complex equality’ (Michael Walzer) as the core value of their creed. These social democrats aim to retrieve its most fruitful old ‘wish image’ (Wunschbild) to deal politically with the new problems of our time. They are sure that the old topic of misery, inequality, capitalism and democracy deserves to be revived. In a recent lecture in Firenze, along these lines, Jürgen Kocka, one of Germany’s most influential social democratic intellectuals, expressed this point well. The new ‘financialised’ capitalism, he noted, is ‘becoming more and more market radical, more mobile, unsteady and breathless’. His conclusion is defiant: ‘capitalism is not democratic and democracy not capitalistic’.
Ladies and gentlemen: you will no doubt be asking after the chances of practical success of the new enlightenment, this new dreaming of democracy. In Europe and elsewhere, how viable is the hope that red and green can be mixed, you will ask? Can the result be more than bland shades of neutral brown? Might the old and new be combined into a powerful force for an enlightened politics of democratic equality against the power of money and markets and their ruination of our biosphere? Time will tell whether the proposed metamorphosis I’ve sketched can happen successfully. As things stand, only one thing can safely be said. If the new enlightenment happened then it would confirm an old political axiom famously outlined by the English designer, poet and socialist William Morris (1834 - 1896): when enlightened people fight for liberty, equality and democracy, he noted, the battles and wars they lose typically inspire others to carry on their fight. When they do that, in much-changed circumstances, he noted, they need to experiment with new languages, and use new and improved means, fuelled by new hopes and new sensibilities. Shouldn’t a new enlightenment, a second enlightenment that is less intellectually arrogant and more democratically powerful than its predecessor, heed this wise advice?
Authors: John Keane, Professor of Politics, University of Sydney