In order to produce full capabilities for all, an emancipatory project needs to change the power structures of political economy. This will call to resistance those who have an interest in upholding the status quo. Thus, in order to advance progressive policies against the interests of those who control resources, ideology and coercion, any emancipatory project needs to be able to mobilise power. Historically, this power came from the ability of the labour movement to mobilise the masses.
Electoral victories mandated social democratic parties to utilize the state in the production of full capabilities for all. Strikes and mass protests empowered trade unions to bargain collectively with the capital side. Both pillars of the labour movement, parties and unions, are today less and less able to mobilise these power resources. The root causes for the lack of assertiveness lie in changing framework conditions which undermine both political strategies. However, social democracy has also inflicted self-harm to its political clout by abandoning its utopian project.
The marriage between capitalism and democracy is coming to its end. Neoliberals believe that the markets must have primacy over the state to create wealth. Accordingly, the state is relegated to a service function for the market. If the democratic sovereign has the audacity to disturb this relationship (e.g. the Irish refusal to ratify the EU treaty, or the US Congress failure to bail out the banks), the “flawed” decision will either be repeated or cancelled altogether (Greek referendum on austerity). Accordingly, the hostile takeover of the Greek and Italian governments by technocratic vice-regents acid-treats the legitimacy of representative democracy.
For social democracy this development has dramatic consequences. First, the key instrument of social democrat power, the nation state, has been eroded. Left to their own devices, nation states can no longer tackle global challenges, ranging from climate change to terrorism and financial markets running amok. However, global governance is not without problems either. Not only does the Brussels technocratic machine prove how easily it could be enlisted for the neoliberal cause. The shifting of competencies to the inter-governmental level also undermines the remaining capabilities of democratic nation states.
Second, the shift in the balance of power between capitalism and democracy deepens social asymmetries. Who controls the means of production and coercion is a political actor in its own right. The weak first have to organise to become a political actor. Accordingly, the political capital to enforce policies needs to be generated time and again. In other words: in order to implement progressive polices, a social democratic government needs to be able to mobilise the masses even in-between elections.
The deterioration of social democratic milieus makes this mobilisation even harder. For a while, the dependency on a declining clientele could be compensated by the “Third Way” promise to be the socially just variant of capitalism. Tactical reasons may suggest abandoning the struggle over primary distribution. However, market friendly devaluation policies alienated traditional social democrats, while the elusive centrist voters treats social democracy as one interchangeable option amongst others, changing sides whenever the moods swings.
However, the bureaucratic apparatus and the working mode of these organisations are anathema to the individualist logic of post-industrial societies. The same is true for technocratic governance. Abstract universal rules seem alien to the particular life realities and plural identities. In the same vain, the top down approach favoured by exclusive “experts” commissions is less and less acceptable to politically mature citizens. Citizens take issue less with the concrete proposals but with the lack of participation in the decision making process. From “Indignados” to “Wutbürger“, from “Occupy” to new social movements, elections are no longer seen as a sufficient source of legitimacy.
The emergence of a populist and xenophobic right should serve as a warning that a lack of real democratic alternatives makes extremist alternatives attractive. Hence, we must dare to embrace radical democracy. Direct democracy and citizen participation, however, are anathema for the ruling technocrats.
Yet, it is all but clear how pluralist and fragmented societies can organise their decision-making processes. Experiments may point out the trajectory: processes will become more local, participatory, reflexive and direct. However, new social movements either reject (Occupy, World Social Forum) or struggle (Pirates Parties, Indignados) to agree on common political platforms, and therefore remain in protest mode without the political will to change.
Fashionable approaches such as the multitude (Hardt/Negri) or “resistance by doing nothing” (Zizek) replace clear strategies for how to enforce change with some sort of voodoo belief in a deus ex machina. What is missing are the solidarity linkages which can bind together protest movements inside and outside national boundaries to form a powerful “change agent”. Accordingly, protest movements tend to evaporate after a short time without leaving much of a trace in the political economy.
However, social democracy faces an even more fundamental challenge: the erosion of its philosophical foundations. As a brain child of enlightened rationalism, social democracy trusts in the ability to shape social relations by rational interventions. All modern institutions – market, state and democracy – are built upon the Cartesian subject, from the homo economicus to the rational voter.
However, science is questioning this concept of man. Psychologists point to the power of other drivers over our behaviour, linguists to the limits of our language and constructivists to our ideological blinders. Wars and catastrophes are reminders that predictability is often an illusion and that technical progress can come with cost. Taken together, these developments undermine trust in the technocratic approach to shape a better world by rational policy interventions. Hence, it is not surprising that more and more people regard the technocratic approach not as part of the solution, but moreover as part of the problem.
Given this new balance of power, the traditional formula “As much market as possible, as much state as necessary“ is no longer viable. A broad societal debate over how to best respond to these seminal shifts has already begun. On the one side, the unleashing of capitalism is proof that this predator can never be tamed. However, what kind of society could replace capitalism is mostly left unanswered.
Others conclude from the very predominance of the economic the need to come to an arrangement to prevent even worse things from happening. Why appeasement would work given the current asymmetries of power is mostly left as an open question. Today, the key question is twofold: what kind of society does social democracy want to build? And, given the balance of power, could this vision be implemented? In social democratic debates, this twin challenge is widely ignored. Debates are mostly structured along the age-old cleavage between those who understand the political as struggle and those who interpret it as incremental changes.
The “political as struggle” paradigm is rooted in the tradition of the Marxist class struggle. However, not only did the promised final victory of the proletariat never materialise, the proletariat itself has largely disappeared. Therefore, “strugglers” have adopted a Gramscian reading of the political as the permanent struggle between agonistic political projects over hegemony.
Strugglers accuse technocrats of treason to the social democratic cause, and to administer the moribund remains to death. Thus, strugglers want to go back to the true gospel of an emancipatory project struggling for hegemony. Many would prefer to oppose the system from the fringes than to compromise on government. Against the background of asymmetries in power, it seems that this approach tends to overestimate the capacity of narrow coalitions to win discursive hegemony or even to implement progressive policies.
Trying to stay clear of political conflict, the technocratic approach to politics aims to utilize the state for incremental change. Scenario building, White Papers, and Five Year Plans are instruments of choice for those who understand the political as a bureaucratic process of planning, steering, implementation and evaluation. Sober technocrats appeal to those who wish to live their lives undisturbed by political passions.
Hence, the social base of technocracy is the middle class, that hopes to restrain populist temptations with common sense policy management. This not a nonsense attitude as technocracy is also rooted in an utopian vision, namely the Enlightenment ideal of modernity: “progress can be achieved by rational means”.
To technocrats, the strugglers are nothing but nation state romanticists who cannot understand how dramatically the balance of power has shifted in global financial capitalism. Hence, technocrats promote broad coalitions with liberals and conservatives to implement reform policies. This group, however, tends to overestimate the political leverage of national governments. Under the conditions of financial capitalism even elected governments first have to mobilise political capital to be able to enforce policies against the status quo alliance. How this permanent “bottom up pressure“ could be mobilised without offering any alternative vision is mostly left unaddressed.
Reform minded technocrats need to understand that only the ability to mobilise can create the political capital which makes them political actors in their own right. More so, discourse hegemony is needed to prevail against the status quo forces. Discourse hegemony, however, can only be won by embedding policies into hopeful narratives of a Good Society.
Political communication fails if it is reduced to technical details. Progressives have too long focused on technical arguments, and left the realm of emotions, images, and dreams to the right. Humans tend to wrap meaning into narratives. Obsessed with the rationality of the logos, we have forgotten that we need myths to provide us with a moral and metaphysical compass. Humans make sense of the chaotic world by rooting phenomena in emotions, experiences and intuitions.
Hence, (mythical) narratives are a natural way of finding meaning in the world. This is exactly what discursive power means: the ability to align the way people think, talk, and act by offering them meaning in the form of narratives.
Fighters, on the other hand, have to acknowledge that given the asymmetries in the balance of power, only broad societal coalitions can mobilise the leverage to enforce the implementation of progressive policies. Even if elections are no longer the only game in town – without an electoral mandate, progressive struggles would be doomed. Hence, to dig yourself in at the left fringe is counterproductive.
To master the balancing act between growing challenges and shrinking capabilities, social democracy needs to rethink its own success story. Social democrats could always act assertively if the mobilisation of political capital and its spending could be combined in a political project. This combination can only be found under a common goal.
To bridge these two approaches, a utopia is needed. Utopia describes a better tomorrow, a Good Society with full capabilities for all. Utopias are not detailed descriptions of a realistic future but a guiding star, something to aspire to, on which many can agree. Utopia provides a normative compass which can provide guidance for policy-makers and orientation for citizens. Only a vision of a Good Society enables citizens to make an informed judgement on whether a policy path leads into the right or wrong direction. The utopian compass legitimizes progressive projects where winning elections is no longer enough.
That is why it is not essential if utopia is realised or not. Utopia allows imagining a different world beyond the reality seemingly set in stone. By agreeing on a common vision for the future, people can come together despite their immediate interests. The promise of realistic change gives people a sense of agency.
When people join their forces in a community, a powerful sense of awakening will create momentum for change. Utopia can link together isolated struggles across social or national borders in solidarity. The faith in a better tomorrow energises people to fight for it here and now. The hope for a better tomorrow gives people the courage to take on institutions which existed for hundreds of years and to rebuild the world from the ground. Vision, hope, faith, courage, solidarity and unity are key sources of power for emancipatory projects.
Consequently, any hegemony aims to suspend this source of power. Hegemonic discourses deny the possibility of change and often ridicule or outcast alternative visions of the future. After the collapse of communist regimes, “The End of History” narrative discouraged even progressives to believe that a socialist utopia is possible. Without any utopia, social democrats gave up some of their primary sources of power and set out to negotiate “pragmatic policies”. Taking on a superior opponent on his own turf this was a struggle social democrats could not win. In other words, the crisis of social democracy is rooted in the surrender of any vision beyond the market society.
To regain the political initiative, social democracy needs a positive vision of a post-capitalist world. The construction of a new social democratic utopia is already under way. The normative vision of this utopia is a Good Society with full capabilities for all. In order to produce the conditions for the Good Society, the economic and political systems need to be changed. A shift in the development path towards socially just, sustainable and green dynamic growth is needed.
The Economy of Tomorrow development model is driven by the inclusion of all talents, fair incomes, stable financial markets, balanced current accounts, sustainable natural and social environments, green innovation and the decoupling of productivity from resources. Such an academically sound model is necessary but not sufficient. These policy recommendations need to be translated into powerful images and narratives with a view to win discourse hegemony.
Discursive alliances need to be formed to struggle together for the shift in the development path. These potential alliances can only be activated by concrete political projects which will allow building bridges between discourse communities.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Researcher at ''De Montfort University''
Photo-: Guylain Gustave Moke