Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life is an exceptional collection of cultural criticism. As I read it over the Christmas period, I couldn’t think of another writer better able to synthesise so many disparate sources into an overarching argument about our times. The whole book, with its theme of hauntology, had me thinking about ways in which the left interacts with time, and its obsession with its own ghosts. A brief glance at any left-leaning Twitter beef will demonstrate that, given sufficient time, the probability of the political preferences of the dead being invoked tends to 1.
“Would Clement Attlee support Corbyn?”
“Would Christopher Hitchens have backed Trump or Clinton?”
“Would George Orwell have supported HS2?”
These kinds of discussions are perhaps interesting dinner party thought experiments but they betray the way in which certain big beasts of the past are allowed to haunt modern thinking. Take Attlee: his socialism cannot be divorced from his conservative upbringing and the context of the poverty of early 20th century Imperial Britain. His supposed support or distaste for Corbynism is so abstract as to be rendered entirely pointless. You can’t decouple politics from time and, in any case, a constituency of ghosts never swung an election.
The history of successful left-leaning projects is one of reconciling aims with the common senses of the time. New Labour was explicit about its relationship with the common sense of the day. Key figures from that project would frequently point to their essential broad continuity with elements of Thatcherism as a sign of economic competence. It is equally true of the social democracy of the post-war consensus that it justified itself with reference to the existing establishment common sense of its time – namely the role of central planning in the war and the popularity of the Beveridge report.
It is certainly imprecise to generalise about the period following the Second World War and culminating in Thatcher’s election as if there were not noteworthy distinctions within the era itself. Regardless, this period can broadly be referred to as the period in which the dominant system of governance was that of a Fordist post-war social democracy. New Labour was an attempt to reconcile social democracy with the new times following both the collapse of the post-war settlement and the end of communism. This was social democracy operating within a globalised neoliberal framework.
To identify that both projects were compromises with the thinking of their time is not to say that both projects were not improvements on their respective era’s conservative alternatives. They were, and quite markedly. However, they inevitably operated within the limits imposed externally. These realities were defined by complex interactions between electoral constituencies, productive forces and economic, cultural and structural factors. This is not to argue that nothing can be learnt from the history of previous left leaning projects – but now is not then. The externalities are different. The problems of today are not the problems of yesterday. This is not an argument for jettisoning history. History is important, because it provides both positive and negative examples that will be vital in constructing the new. This is an argument for justifying choices in the now as opposed to basing our decisions on the preferences of ghosts.
21st Century Social Democracy must distinguish itself from Fordist Social Democracy and Neoliberal Social Democracy through an understanding of where both ultimately came unstuck. My contention is that their failure was about a failure to redistribute power. The former saw a greater role for the state than we now take for granted but power remained centralised and concentrated. The latter hoped to redistribute the profits of a private sector operating within free markets, but it did not challenge the essential structures of that free market system. For all its many achievements, Fordist Social Democracy was static and statist. It was unlikely to ever survive globalisation or the information age. In contrast, the atomised, insecure, nothing-is-solid abstraction of the neoliberal era has given us a world in which labour relations are weak and power is concentrated with capital: a world of insecurity, rising stress and increasing loneliness.
To attempt to construct a 21st Century Social Democracy, then, we must identify the desirable elements of its predecessors: a relatively generous welfare state, active industrial strategy, public service investment, redistribution of wealth and progress on liberation issues. But we must also acknowledge undesirable aspects: concentration of power, paternalism, complicity in imperialism and insufficient scepticism of financial markets. Meanwhile, we have to examine what is different about our times: globalisation, new technology and looming environmental catastrophe.
As I have argued previously, the central premise of my thinking on this is that power needs to be redistributed at the same time as wealth. State investment in both public services and infrastructure is clearly central to any social democratic agenda. Nationalisation must be part of this but nationalisation is a pointless transfer of power from one set of elites to another if it is not done with a purpose. This purpose must be either so that the state can take control of an industry for the purposes of pursuing what must be a much more radical environmental agenda or so that the state can give power, directly, back to citizens. Hillsborough, Orgreave, Jimmy Savile and countless other examples all show the danger of institutions where power is concentrated and transparency is minimal. A Social Democracy that puts an emphasis on Democracy is what our times require: measures to encourage cooperative startups, transition towards worker ownership of large sections of the economy and municipalisation of local services all must form part of this. It is an agenda that strikes a chord with the times. The green shoots of such an agenda are beginning with initiatives such as the Preston Model, Labour’s recent Alternative Models of Ownership report and subsequent policies surrounding employee share ownership.
These developments are reasons for optimism but these are certainly not times for complacency. These are times where people feel they have lost control and where life, work and everything else is directionless and lacks solidity. These are times where authoritarians style themselves as defenders of democracy. This is a sham and only by truly championing a more all-encompassing democratic agenda can social democracy begin to resist that. We are currently experiencing a very dangerous moment where everything could quite easily fall to pieces. Social Democracy is vital in this moment because it understands implicitly that politics is always transitory – it is the process between the present and what follows. To save the future, we need to be able to move beyond projects of the past and form one of now.