Most say that social democracy is dead, and that Labour has no message that can appeal to both the 52% and the 48%. But by taking UKIP’s narrative around independence and turning its on its head, Labour has an avenue to heal the fissure that has emerged in British politics. It must reboot the radical legacy left by the social democratic welfare state, that gave people a profound independence that hasn’t been matched in our modern era: independence from poverty, illness and unemployment. The Welfare State was created to stop us from submitting to poverty, and now we must not submit ourselves to a world run by corporations. If we don’t we are facing a future based on a tyranny of the minority where a handful of corporations are at the forefront of a post-human led economy and the majority becomes but a second thought. Many fear they are becoming the minority in their workplace and communities. It is only by renewing our commitment to intervention, collectivism and independence that Social Democrats can be heard again.
The creation of the Welfare State was a result of Clements Atlee’s social democracy, which was a combination of social liberalism and labourism, of Maynard Keynes and Keir Hardie. Before the formation of the welfare state the political economy of the Labour Party mainly consisted of neo-Marxian, Owenite or neo classical beliefs. These did not provide the answer to mass unemployment. It was with Social Liberalism that tackling chronic unemployment and introducing a comprehensive benefits system become a reality. Keynes with his General Theory provided the answer to the former and Beveridge with the Beveridge Report to the latter. This was not a departure from the Labour traditions of this country but a summation of their battles for universalism and recognition of the common people.
However, anarchist impulses both from the left and the right have been the main barrier to the interventionist state. In the first part of the 20th century it was the Radical Left’s scepticism towards the state by figures such as Henry Hyndman and James Maxton. Then in the latter part of the 20th century it was Anarcho-Capitalists or, as they call themselves today, Neo-liberals. Descending from Max Sterner this tendency hit the mainstream via Murray Rothbard and then Milton Friedman. The cult of anarcho-capitalism seized Britain with the rise of Margaret Thatcher. Rather than seeing the state as being inherently bourgeois, as Marx did, anarcho-capitalists view the state as being inherently totalitarian, and argue that only a society run by the will of the markets can produce freedom.
The fear of the 20th century has been the ‘Tyranny of the State’, from Trotskyism to Neo-Liberalism. However, it has been a lack of state intervention at key points in our history that has led to situations like the Crash in 1929 and the lost decade afterwards, the 1980’s when the changing nature of work demanded more State intervention rather than less, and finally the noughties when the State was needed to compensate for the effects of globalisation.
It is the fear of the state that propelled New Labour. Tony Blair bought into a Thatcherite analysis that blamed the social democratic State of the 70’s for economic decline. Blair broke the bond of social liberalism and collectivism that had kept social democracy together as a coalition. Instead New Labour interpreted social democracy as a bond between social liberalism and neo-liberalism; the introduction of the minimum wage and a toleration of a deregulated banking sector. They thought neo-liberalism was the price they had to pay for social liberalism.
But where New Labour and Attlee converge is in realising that for welfare to work everybody needs to buy into the project; from bankers to single mothers living on council estates. In every generation welfare must be redefined and we must reestablish our notion of fairness. People’s idea of fairness is defined by how they delineate two groups: the deserving and the underserving, or, in Marx’ terms, the Proletariat and the Lumpen Proletariat.
People don’t want blank cheque welfare, but deserved welfare. We cannot ignore this impulse. That is why there are targets and measurements: not because of a centralised state, but because people want them. They want to see the evidence that their child is making progress in school, or that the hospital they attend is reducing their waiting times. People in Britain are willing to invest in the betterment of others, if they can see the outcomes and if they feel they aren’t losing-out themselves.
The problem for social democrats is they let the agenda be dominated by neo-liberals who were set on destroying the fabric of the state and created the myth of the scrounger and the migrant who bleed the system dry. We must move beyond the New Labour settlement of measurement and create a co-operative approach to assessment
The reasons why many people feel such a disparity between their notion of the deserving and the undeserving at the moment is austerity, changes to the nature of work, and globalisation. We have been heading to a Post-Fordist economy since the 1970’s, and social democrats failed because they did not prepare for this transition.
We can’t stop technological progress; it’s going to happen. But what the state can do is create a humane transition to the next stage of work. I say ‘work’ because there are many on the left who think that work is over. Some even propose a form of “luxury communism” where we no longer have to work and are reliant on communally owned machines . Likewise, many believe that the introduction of the Universal Basic Income is the only way to deal with the changing nature of work.
There are several flaws to UBI. For example, it wouldn’t abolish means testing and if we are heading to a world of diminishing work how would you fund it? But the fundamental problem is that it gives up on work. Beveridge famously declared “The five giants on the road to reconstruction are Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness”. How would the UBI prevent idleness? UBI and “luxury communism’ leads us to a post-human-lead economy, where we become secondary to machines and corporations.
We must find a way for social democrats to put forward an optimistic message about the future, which counterbalances the fears many have. This is what was lacking from the Remain campaign and Hilary Clinton’s presidential bid: they were reactive campaigns about fear rather than hope.
Which part of society we fear changes from age to age. In the 19thCentury it was fear of the majority, which was brought on by the development of industrialisation and mass democracy. This is exemplified by De Tocqueville’s notion of the “tyranny of the majority”, and Marx’s notion of the lumpen proletariat. Both feared the mob but from different perspectives. In the 20th Century it was a fear of the State. Now in the 21st Century it’s the fear of the minority which is being propelled by populist movements around the globe, from Trump to Le Pen.
Again social democracy proffers an answer in the NHS. We need to find new collectivist projects that capture people’s aspirations in the 21st Century. Jeremy Gilbert in Red Pepper’s The World Transformed asserts that one reason Thatcher’s “Right to Buy” policy was embraced by working class communities was because council homes seemed, as Jeremy Gilbert put it, “bureaucratic and infantilising, while home ownership offered a route to autonomy and independence”. People need to feel that the end point of welfare is independence. The state needs to offer people financial independence and we can only do that by collectivist means, rent control, social housing, local energy independence, cooperatives in the workplace, jobs in a massive green new deal. But the private sector can have a role in delivering this new era of independence and collectivism if it’s regulated, not on their terms but those set by the state.
We need a state which is willing to take on pervasive corporations. The internet was set up to be the great liberator but is turning out to be the greatest centraliser of our age. We should not attack the state for being bloated but corporations who are heaving with the weight of pilfering all aspects of our lives. If we are not careful the corporation will supplant the state and there will no longer be accountability in our society.
The revolt of 2016 was not about a state that had become bloated and paternalistic but rather the state that had walked away from the stage. We must counter anarchist tendencies coming from left and right. Reject the notion that the state leads to servitude and dependency. Reject the notion that the market or the community alone can replace the state. We must not give up on human endeavour, on work and livelihood. We can rebuild our communities if we re-embrace the state. People feel they have lost control because they no longer have the protections and the independence the state once gave them. It is only social democracy that can bring back that independence.