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Utopia, Technology and Struggle. Ways out of the Crisis of Social Democracy

by Marc Saxer Saturday, Jun. 29, 2019 at 4:25 PM

The big question is still open. Must an emancipatory project aim at a changed distribution of incomes or is hedging capitalism through regulation and redistribution enough? In other words, is shifting to an eco-Keynesian path sufficient to create equal life chances?


By Marc Saxer

[This essay published in November 2013 (Neue Gesellschaft, Frankfurter Hefte NGFH) is translated abridged from the German on the Internet,]

The crisis of social democracy is connected with the shift of power between the market and the state. Conditions for success have worsened. To strengthen its will, social democracy must focus on its utopian project and find a balance between the universal mandate of social democracy and the particular interests of capital. The utopia of the Good Society will be the crucial resource for political-social democracy.

The current crisis of social democracy is a crisis of its will that extends to the roots of the social democratic project. Taming capitalism by social democracy was quite successful in the “Golden Age” of the postwar era. Today, in contrast, people do not trust taming anymore for reaching a vital balance.

An emancipatory project must change the structures and power relations of the political economy to create equal chances for everyone. Those with an interest in preserving the status quo oppose this. Thus an emancipatory project must mobilize the instruments of power to implement a progressive policy against the interests of those controlling capital, the means of production, ideology, and the means of force. Historically, the power of the workers’ movement was grounded on the capacity for mobilizing the masses. Election victories make possible social democratic parties that use the democratic state to produce greater equality for everyone.

Strikes and mass demonstrations enabled unions to negotiate on an equal basis with the capital side. But both arms of the workers’ movement, parties and unions, succeed less and less today in mobilizing the power resources to realize equal chances. Both political strategies only function restrictedly. The cause of weak implementation lies on one hand in fundamentally changed social presuppositions. The best strategies that require negotiating power and utilize the democratic state are undermined. In addition, social democracy has weakened itself politically through homemade errors.

External Causes of Weak Social-Democratic Implementation

The central change in framing conditions is the shift of power relations between democracy and capitalism. Fired by an ideology that demonized the state and glorified markets, the markets in all western democracies were unfettered and the social state was gutted with the wrecking ball. Four decades of neoliberal policy have led to an epochal shift in the distribution of income – the income distribution without state transfer payments – dividing societies and states. The inner instability of finance capitalism could not be ignored anymore and prevented a reversal. Multinational corporations and mega-banks distort the markets and the global financial streams are no longer controllable for nation-state democracies.

The marriage between capitalism and democracy seems to be dissolving. According to neoliberal theory, the market must have primacy over politics to create growth and prosperity. The state is degraded to the provider and repair shop of the markets. This thinking is summarized in Merkel’s formula “market-conforming democracy.” The “wrong” decision will either be repeated or prevented from the first (e.g. referendum in Greece) if the democratic sovereign disturbs this relation (Irish No to the EU treaty, the No of the US Congress to the bank bailout). Therefore, the hostile takeovers of the Greek and Italian governments by technocratic governors of financial market interests operate like a fire accelerator in undermining the legitimacy of representative democracies.

This development has dramatic consequences for social democracy. Firstly, a central instrument of creative social democrat power is eroded: the democratic nation state. Relying only on themselves, nation states cannot overcome global challenges from climate change and terrorism to the power of financial markets. However, the political response to the new global challenges – the formation of supra-state forms of governance – is not unproblematic. The technocratic machine in Brussels can easily serve the neoliberal ideology…

The shift of the balance of power between market and democracy worsens the social inequalities of power. Whoever controls the means of production and instruments of power is always a political actor. On the other hand, the socially weak must first organize to become actors. Political capital – organization and broad support – necessary to implement progressive policy must be amassed again and again. To realize progressive policy, a social democratic government must be able to mobilize majorities – even between elections. The disappearance of the social-democratic milieu makes this mobilization difficult…

Periodic elections are not enough. The strengthened right-wing in Europe is a warning that the lack of genuine democratic alternatives makes misanthropic alternatives popular. We must dare more democracy. The “rule of experts” could be upended by direct democracy and citizen participation.

How can fragmented and pluralist societies of the post-industrial age organize their political processes? The first experiments and e4xperiences point in a local, direct and participatory direction… What is lacking is the solidarity bond that could unite the diverse protest movements within and among societies into powerful agents of change. Correspondingly, protest movements mostly fizzle out after a short time without bringing about genuine changes in the social structures.

Social democracy faces a very fundamental problem: the erosion of its philosophical foundations. As a child of the enlightened rationalism, social democracy trusts the rational creativity of social relations. All modern institutions – the market, state and democracy – are built on the modern view of the person as an interest-based individual. However, the development of science and academia increasingly puts this idea in question. Psychologists show the power of drives and mass hysteria over our conduct, linguists the limits of our language and de-constructivists our ideological blinders.

Wars, crises and catastrophes prove that plans are often illusions and technological progress is always accompanied by losses. Taken together, these undermine trust in a technological approach to create a better society by means of rational control alone. Therefore, not surprisingly, “politically weary” persons increasingly identify technocratic thinking more as part of the problem than as part of the solution.

Homemade Errors of Social Democracy

The Godesberg compromise formula “As much market as possible and as much state as necessary” is too simplistic in view of the new hierarchy of power between the market and the state. A broad social debate analyzing the shifts and their consequences has long been underway. For some, the new unfettering of capitalism is the proof that taming the beast of prey can never succeed. But how capitalism can be overcome and what society should replace it are mostly left open. Others see the necessity to prevent the new superiority of the economic as a worse development. Whether and how far curbing the economic can succeed given the hierarchy of power are often not discussed. The twofold question is raised today: What society is consistent with social democracy? How can its vision be realized in light of the new power relations? These challenges are largely ignored in the social-democratic crisis debate…

The technocratic understanding of politics relies on the gradual change of conditions with the help of the state without political battles. Politics is understood as a program of long-term planning, rational control and efficient implementation from the state-socialist Five-Year plans to the neoliberal bureaucracies of the European Union. The social basis of this thinking lies in the middle class that wants to organize its life undisturbed by the passions of political mobilization. From this perspective, practical technocratic procedures are the best guarantee for opposing a long-term public interest orientation to the populist aberrations. Helmut Schmidt once summarized this view in a formula: “Whoever has visions should see a doctor.” In truth, the technocratic understanding of politics is also rooted in a vision, namely the enlightened ideal of the modern age: “Progress is rationally organized.”

To technocrats, fighters are naïve nation-state romantics who do not understand how dramatically the hierarchy of power has shifted in global finance capitalism. Therefore, many technocrats regard a Great Coalition as the best constellation for carrying out concrete politics with a large majority in view of the pressing problems. Others consider a position in the political middle through a social-liberal coalition as strategically sensible. The political possibilities of nation-state governments are often estimated very optimistically. That elected democratic governments must first accumulate political capital under the conditions of finance capitalism to prevail against the status quo alliance is ignored. How the permanent mobilization of “pressure from below” can succeed without offering an alternative political vision remains open.

Utopia as a Power Resource

The “technocrats” and the “fighters” sit in the same boat more than ever today despite or on account of their opposite instincts… Discourse-sovereignty is necessary to prevail against the forces of the status quo. Interpretation power can only be gained when programs are joined in a narrative with hope for a better society. Political communication remains ineffective when it only refers to technical questions and their possible solutions. The “fighters” must recognize that only broad social coalitions can mobilize the necessary power resources to carry out a progressive politics under the existing hierarchy of power. Elections are no longer everything. Given the rule relations, the social struggles remain hopeless without gaining a democratic mandate…

Social democracy should reflect on its own successful history. Social democrats always act powerfully when mobilizing their political capital and combining their rational engagement in a political project. This combination needs a common goal. The bridge between the two approaches lies in the utopia. Utopia describes a better tomorrow, the Good Society with full and equal life chances for everyone. Utopias are a focal point, something desirable and worthwhile on which many can agree and unite and are not detailed descriptions of a real future. How much of the utopia is realized at the end is not important. The conviction of people that a utopia is attainable is enough for motivation. Utopias are the normative compass, the orientation for positive organization.

Only the vision of a better society enables citizens to judge whether concrete politics is aiming in the right direction. The utopian compass legitimates progressive projects while elections alone are not sufficient as a source of legitmation. Progressive politics needs justification. Whoever demands progress must answer the question: progress where and for what?

But utopia is more than a compass. Utopia is a crucial prerequisite of progressive politics. Progressive politics cannot prevail against the inertia of the status quo without mobilization strength. People cannot be powerful in large numbers without passionate belief in a common vision.

The positive vision of a better world takes away the paralyzing fear of the collapse of the old order – only when enough people believe another life is possible. Only under the shared vision of a better tomorrow can actors with different interests unite in solidarity. Only the common bond of utopia can unite social forces in solidarity beyond social or national borders. Belief in a better tomorrow gives people courage to fight today. This will to struggle here and now for a better tomorrow is the central power resource of emancipatory projects.

Thus, the crisis of social democracy is rooted in the abandonment of a vision beyond the pure market society. To become politically viable again, social democracy needs a positive vision of a post-capitalist world, the formulation of a new social-democratic utopia. So, the Friedrich Ebert foundation collaborates in the Good Society project in Europe and supports the model Economy of Tomorrow in Asia. The normative vision of this utopia is a Good Society with equal chances for everyone. The political and economic systems must be changed so they serve this goal. This requires a change in direction to socially just sustainable and dynamic growth.

Let us drive the Economy of Tomorrow model through developing all talents, fair incomes, stable financial markets, equalized balance of payments, sustainable social and natural foundations of life, Green innovation and the uncoupling of productivity and resource consumption. A scientifically grounded model is necessary but not sufficient. Strong pictures and narratives are vital to gain the power of social interpretation. Lastly, discursive alliances must be formed that struggle together for the necessary change of course. But this can only succeed through concrete political projects casting bridges between the different worlds of experience and discourse.

Fight: Authenticity creates Trust

All this is not possible without conflict. The big question is still open. Must an emancipatory project aim at a changed distribution of incomes or is hedging capitalism through regulation and redistribution enough? In other words, is shifting to an eco-Keynesian path sufficient to create equal life chances for everyone? Conversely, is the strength of progressive movements enough to fight for a moderate change of course?

Only the passionate conflict over these principal questions can establish new trust in the actors of a progressive politics. Only the confidence in the seriousness of the actors gives utopia credibility or trustworthiness. Only a credible utopia as a shared bond can bring together today’s different protest movements into a political project. Only this can mobilize the power resources necessary for a change of direction to the Good Society.

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