Most people who engage with contemporary politics will be familiar with the theory of Social Democracy. This is the ideology which is today espoused by the likes of Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders. It was first founded by Hungarian emigrant Karl Polanyi in the 1930s. The point on which Polanyi made his case for the idea was that, unregulated free market capitalism is not only immoral but impractical. This is a fair statement, which socialists of all varieties would by no means disagree with. However, the social democratic ideology rested on this idea, has numerous problems with it. The version of socialism offered by it, simply suggests subjecting capitalism to some humane limits and regulations, through an elected government. The problem here is that social democracy fails to address any of the problems that capitalism is based upon: Hierarchical ownership of the means of production, endless growth, the exploitation of a workforce. Rather, it subjects the need for protest, down entirely to the platforms of reformist candidates like Bernie Sanders. This is not to say that we should reject reforms completely. Indeed, as a Libertarian Socialist, I am more than happy to stand up for the ideas such as a universal health care system free at the point of use, strong Labour unions and less corrupt government. This is true of even the most militant Anarchists and Communists. However, we should show caution when social democrats boldly declare that they have got the answer to all our problems. This blog post will look at the problems of social democracy from a libertarian socialist perspective.
Is the Welfare State Sustainable?
As mentioned above, I think that social democracy is somewhat antithetical to the achievement of true socialism, as it simply argues for the introduction of programmes such as stronger unions and public services, which partly but never fully de-commodify labour. As such, it is also lacking in terms of desirability. The question we should be asking then is, if we achieved a social democratic society, like the one envisioned by Jeremy Corbyn, would we be able to stay there?
Go to the policy page on any website of a social democratic party and you will find at least one policy, focussing on putting people into work and creating jobs. In fact, it is entirely possible to argue that putting the unemployed back to work would be beneficial for capitalists, in that it would lead to faster growth and more profits. However, what stops full employment from happening, is not economic worries but political worries. In a situation of low unemployment, where businesses are subjected to regulation, workers become less and less afraid of their boss sacking them, as such they begin to demand more and more from capitalists. As unions strengthen and strikes grow, workers begin to question not just pay and working conditions, but capitalism itself. This leaves the long term sustainability of social democracy, as well as the ideology that capitalists and workers should work together for the common good, extremely undermined.
At this point, one of two things can happen. With enough organisation, workers can essentially seize hold of the means of production. On the other hand, by using a series of brutal methods such as attacks on unions by the police, and the moving of money overseas in order to break the power of the working class, it is entirely possible for capitalists to cause a relapse into neoliberalism. In this situation, as a result of their ideology of class compromise (and their enthusiasm for a large police force), it would be plausible for social democratic governments themselves, to act against the interests of the workers by ordering the breaking of protests and strikes. Indeed, the rightward turn of the 1980s, led by Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the US, was a response to this kind of crisis, one which involved a restoration of capitalist power, rather than a leap into socialism. The failures of France’s Mitterrand government and the Rehn Meidner plan in Sweden, provide similar examples of the limits of social democracy.
How do Social Democrats Intend to Make the Welfare State Sustainable?
So as it stands, the social democratic programme is not sustainable, in that the absence of as much workplace discipline and the strengthening of the working class, tends highly towards class conflict. So if social democratic candidates are inevitably concerned with maintaining power (which let’s face it, they are), then what are the ways in which social democracy can be made sustainable?
Social democracy can be made sustainable, but only through subverting its promise of socialism. The fear of your boss sacking you is obviously not as present in a social democratic society as it is in a free market society, but the same principle of disciplinary power can be used in numerous ways. To give an example of this, we can look to Lyndon Johnson’s expansion of the welfare state in the 1960s, as part of his Great Society Scheme. While Johnson’s regime expanded access to things like health care and income support, a coinciding ‘war on crime’ subjected the poor and ethnic minorities to increased surveillance and police violence. This can be justified in a social democratic society under the mantra of ‘increased funding for our public services’. What this means is that, without social democracy, workers are disciplined by things such the threat of being fired and having their pay cut. Social democratic governments and the mild de - commodification of labour however, creates dangers for capitalists, as it enhances the ability of workers to make demands of businesses and the government. As such, for Social Democrats, means of discipline such as police repression, drug wars and mass incarceration, can serve as alternative methods to discipline people, in the absence of complete capitalist domination.
Some may look at struggles against the police and mass surveillance as contrary to the socialist cause, after all aren’t the police a public service staffed by ordinary people? However, for the reasons I have just explained, struggles against police oppression are not contradictory to the movement for socialism, but entirely necessary for it. They attack the apparatus that maintains and defends, whatever regime of capital accumulation is in place.
For social democrats it is possible for both capitalists and the working class to coexist in a system where capitalists still make lots of money, but where workers are afforded a degree of freedom. This idea has contributed to the defeat of the left in the 1980s, and at numerous other times throughout history. The alternative argument espoused by Marxists and Anarchists, is that class struggle is not a side effect of capitalism but a vital part of it. In the short term, the social democratic vision seems perfect for making social progress. However, we need to question whether this system is sustainable and moral, and if not we need to ask ourselves the question, what comes after it?