Towards the Renewal of Social Democracy

Global trade unions and social trade agreements are the foundations of a 21st century global social democracy.

The end of the Cold War and the attendant collapse of traditional political ideologies have introduced a period of acute uncertainty and disorientation. We are living in an age of transition in which the tectonic plates of the economic and social order that defined the post-war era are shifting. Much of this change is driven by the emergence of globalizing economic patterns that are producing integrated world markets. These patterns are generating wrenching social and economic dislocations in both the West and the developing world.

In large parts of the developing world the failure of the secular nationalist groups that secured independence from colonial rule to deliver either prosperity or democracy has produced a deeply reactionary response in the form of revolutionary Islamist movements seeking to establish a universal caliphate. In the West a significant part of the radical left has embraced these movements as agents of anti-imperialism. They have substituted the advocates of jihad for the working class as the vanguard of the revolution. In so doing they have exchanged a programme of class struggle for the politics of cultural identity and created a new socialism of fools. Not a small part of the liberal-left has indulged in a more nuanced version of this bizarre alliance.

The deep sense of instability unleashed by threatening economic changes has been skilfully exploited by the right in the service of xenophobia and racism. Immigrants are presented as a threat to social cohesion and security. Both the radical left and the xenophobic right converge on a fear of globalizing economic patterns and a retreat into protectionist solutions. This is, in effect, a Luddite response that seeks to deal with change by suppressing it. Dalliance with the romance of jihadist fantasies on the left and the rise of racist tribalism on the right are threatening the foundations of liberal democracy in Europe.

In the context of integrated global markets and capital mobility the traditional instruments that social-democratic governments have employed in the past to constrain the power of capital within the welfare state are no longer effective. National labour unions, corporate regulation, a redistributive tax system and extensive universal public services are increasingly difficult to sustain in an environment in which advanced digital technologies and free trade agreements permit companies to move production and investment to low wage economies in order to maximize profit. Labour enjoys no such mobility. Social-democratic governments are discarding their traditional role as agents of progressive reform. Instead they make do with pale efforts at ameliorating the devastation caused by the onslaught of the neo-liberal juggernaut in the public domain and in the work place. Third Way politics is, in general, little more than an attempt to soft-pedal the resigned embrace of neo-liberal economic policies by defeated social democrats as the latest word in progressive thinking.

In order to renew the social-democratic project it is necessary to reformulate it in international terms. Rather than opposing globalizing patterns, social democrats should seek to harness them for social benefit. An internationalized social democracy will seek to prevent the concentration of the new wealth generated by expanded trade in the hands of a small corporate elite. It will formulate global mechanisms for redistributing this wealth to workers and consumers in a way that counterbalances the power of international corporations.

One way to achieve this objective is to promote the creation of strong unions in the new industries emerging in developing countries. Organizing labour for effective collective bargaining in these industries will raise the standard of living in the countries in which they are taking root. This process will lead to the gradual convergence in living standards in the developing world and the West. It will also contribute to the democratization of the former.

Properly negotiated free trade agreements can provide a second important instrument for advancing a new international social-democratic programme. Such agreements will not simply open up markets to international competition. They will require the companies that enter these markets to contribute to the public services and social infrastructure of the countries from which they profit. They will impose fair labour laws, equitable taxation on profits and stringent environmental constraints as conditions for participating in the international market place that they define. Free trade agreements can also be used to cultivate democratic institutions and respect for human rights, as we have seen in the case of EU expansion in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. In order for free trade agreements to be instruments of progressive social change and regulation they must be negotiated by governments committed to a new international social-democratic agenda rather than by the representatives of corporate and financial interests.

Shalom Lappin is Professor of Computational Linguistics in the Department of Philosophy, King’s College, London

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