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Getting the Left on Track

Michael McLoughlin

The Great Forgetting: The Past, Present and Future of Social Democracy and the Welfare State, by Jack Lawrence Luzkow, Manchester University Press, 236 pp, £17.99, ISBN: 978-0719096396

There is really no need to summarise the content of The Great Forgetting at the outset. The bulk of the book is a recasting of familiar (and well-researched) work on the development of modern capitalism, particularly in Western societies, and the huge gulfs of inequality and wealth which have become so pronounced recently. Insofar as this goes, it is a worthy addition to the work of Thomas Piketty, Will Hutton and Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level and shares the basic contemporary analysis of Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. So far so good. However whether it is just the title, or the focus on the lessons for those on the social democratic left, some may feel somewhat unfulfilled by this work as a robust tonic for progressive politics.

While the authors mentioned above form the basic sources for the analysis of our modern Western economy, one cannot help feeling Luzkow’s study is a solid transcription of work already done; in fact if you have read some or all of the above books you can really start about half way in. The dystopian tone too, though it may well be required given some of the subject matter, is still somewhat grating in an author presumably promising some optimism about the future. The philosophical background, featuring Adam Smith, JS Mill, JM Keynes and others is well constructed, but again is more of a good overview of well-known material, while not all of it – Keynes is an exception‑ seems to flow into the later pages.

The strongest section is the analysis of 1989 and its implications for the social democratic left. While he rightly distinguishing the social democratic and communist approaches he openly accepts that the collapse of communism had philosophical implications and was not some kind of distant irrelevance for those promoting social democracy. The core of the philosophical issue here is authoritarianism and the tendency of social democratic parties and advocates to accept quite an authoritarian approach to the state. Once more however, Luzkow does not seem to carry forward this analysis to the rest of the work. In fact in rounding on Francis Fukuyama and continually condemning the US he seems to give little place to the concepts of liberty or personal freedom as core values for social democrats after 1989. His effective condemnation of the “new left” in the late 1960s seems to point in the same direction: he views their libertarian streak as assisting those on the right.

Luzkow’s analysis and critique of the direction of the modern Western economy is well-rehearsed and well-researched and is significantly split in two, the postwar era, seen as something of a golden age, and then period from the 1970s, with the decline of Keynesianism and the rise of the new right. While he agrees that many aspects of a consensus-based welfare state are hard to reverse, he might have given more time to this subject. Is the modern capitalism that social democrats operate under the same as the one that existed when those parties were founded, in terms of the world of work, technology and society? Luzkow makes a strong, though passing, argument that many, and in particular the young, benefit from social democratic policies in health, education and housing yet reject the parties that brought those about. Arguably this should have been a core aspect of the book. It is a significant challenge to social democratic politics that it inevitably creates a successful and confident middle class, well-educated and discerning enough to make new political choices. The notion of organised trade unions and struggling for workers rights may he alien to many of these but they still must be a constituency for social democrats.

This brings us to the modern incarnations of social democratic or “progressive” politics epitomised for Luzkow by Blair, Clinton and Schröder, figures whose legacy he is roundly dismissive of. The level of detailed analysis is strong here even if the tone is somewhat polemical. Blair’s basic achievements, like the minimum wage, the new deal, inproved national insurance and devolution, cannot be ignored. While it was a dramatic change, and one that appals Luzkow, the determination to shift the social democratic left from a primary association with welfare to one with work (it is The Labour Party after all) was one that was felt necessary by many. While the impacts on equality of the 1990s social democratic experience maybe have been limited, one must insist that the leaders were at least asking the right question: how does one make traditional social democratic politics work in the modern world?

A particularly strong section of the book is the illustration of the role of universalism in the development of welfare states, particularly in Scandinavia. The notion that the middle class should have a stake in the welfare state is important, even though expensive today. Yet social democracy’s role and connection to a new, powerful and populous middle class is something that is absent from much of Luzkow’s analysis. Many of the book’s political prescriptions in fact are effectively mere assertion, assertion that things were good before and should be again. Where the challenges lie, however, are in the practice of politics and the task of convincing people, many of them middle class, that social democracy is still a worthy project. Here Luzkow has almost nothing to offer.

Recent events is Greece have unfortunately illustrated the difficulties of politics by assertion. Yet confronted with the harsh realities of power Syriza has in many ways embraced a more moderate social democratic approach. In Portugal, and perhaps Spain, a potential realignment of the social democratic left and the “new left” may be emerging, which could offer social democratic parties a way of tackling one of their biggest challenges, being seen as part of  the establishment.

The Great Forgetting suffers somewhat from the dominance in its analysis of the UK and the US. Germany, Sweden and other EU countries get a look in but making general judgments or drawing conclusions on the future of social democracy on the basis of the English-speaking world is a weak approach. There is, it is true, some analysis of Sweden, but almost nothing about politics beyond the EU and US. Some analysis of the experience of the Latin American left, in moving from a largely Marxist approach in the 1970s to a relatively successful social democratic approach in the 1990s might have been deemed worthy of consideration.

After pages of analysis backed up by good research, The Great Forgetting is short on solutions, particularly in the political space: asserting a new role for the state and a policy of higher taxation and spending is about the size of it. If this were so appealing social democratic parties would rule the world.

Keynes is seen as having the solutions to the left’s contemporary problems, but this is to a certain degree problematic. Luzkow accepts that Keynes was not a social democrat; the core of his approach was a counter-cyclical approach to economic management, which involved smoothing out the peaks and troughs of boom and bust. Many on the left advocate Keynes’s approach in recession today, that is inflate the economy through borrowing and public spending to stimulate demand and promote recovery. However this is only one half of the recipe. Keynesianism also involved saving and dampening down the economic cycle in good times (as Germany, under the Christian Democrats, has done).

In concluding, Luzkow does in some areas go some way in recognising the key challenges the social democratic left faces beyond just pushing for more state, more tax and more spend. He does accept the idea of raising the retirement age in response to growing pressures on the health and welfare budget accompanying increases in life expectancy; we could point to many on the social democratic left who would not. Here and in some other areas he embraces the idea of a reformed social democracy, though he has spent much time condemning Blair and Schröder for similar attempts to meet the challenge. He is far less forthcoming on issues of technology and the future of work, showing traces of Luddism and even favouring protectionism, but again he is not alone here.

1/12/2015

Michael McLoughlin is international secretary of the Irish Labour Party.

 

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