The New Statesman Essay - A philosophy that would not die

David Marquandrejoices at the stealthy resurgence of Europe's social democrats

The death notices had appeared in the newspapers, the mourners had assembled in the church, the eulogy was pronounced and the coffin carried to the graveside. Then, at the last moment, the corpse rose from the dead. The death of social democracy had been proclaimed by luminaries as various as Tony Benn, Ralf Dahrendorf, John Gray and Anthony Giddens. Unfortunately, no one told the voters of Europe.

With social democrats in power in most EU member states, this is the nearest thing to a social-democratic moment in European history. Communism is dead, fundamentalist left socialism discredited, the political right in retreat, even disarray. The European project, which has been symbiotically connected with social democracy from the beginning, has just made a huge step up; and most of the regimes that will decide how to exploit the opportunities are social democratic, or at any rate led by social democrats.

The implications are open to argument. Are Britain's Blairites social democrats? Yes, if you read their lips. No, if you watch their hands. Gerhard Schroder's vision of social democracy differs from Oskar Lafontaine's. The Italian PDS is not the French Socialist Party. Social democrats have always been revisionists. They have always had to modify their doctrines to take account of the latest mutations in an endlessly mutating capitalism. The capitalist renaissance of our time has transformed the political and intellectual debate and the social and economic terrain. Social democrats do not all respond in the same way; it would be astonishing if they did. Now, even more than in previous decades, it is wiser to think of social democracies than of social democracy.

Yet the social democracies of Europe have at least one thing in common. Everywhere, the social-democratic rebirth of the 1990s is a response to the capitalist rebirth that preceded it. The triumphalist neo-liberals of ten years ago, who assumed that the collapse of socialism would drag social democracy down with it, had forgotten their history. Just as the social, cultural and moral dislocation engendered by the brutal laissez-faire capitalism of early 19th-century Britain eventually provoked a counter-movement - which proceeded slowly, gradually and largely without benefit of theory - so now rampant capitalism has created a movement to subject market forces to human needs. This time, the reaction has been quicker. And the chief beneficiaries are social democrats.

But not necessarily for ever. The peoples of Europe turned to social democracy because it was there, the most obvious port in which to shelter from the neo-capitalist storm. If the shelter turns out to be illusory, if the growth of insecurity, inequality and alienation is not halted, reborn social democracy will have no claim on electoral loyalties. The German social-democratic pioneer, August Bebel, once described anti-Semitism as the "socialism of fools". Today, religious and ethnic fundamentalism, xenophobic nationalism, moral authoritarianism and the scapegoating of the vulnerable might be called the fool's social democracy. They, too, offer escape routes - deceptive and dangerous ones, no doubt, but still seductive - from the insecurity, injustices and tensions that are the hallmarks of unbridled capitalism.

Cultural tribalism is the other side of the coin of the global free market. The archaic collectivism of blood and soil is the unacknowledged half-brother of freebooting individualism. Tribal drumbeats sound more loudly in the former Soviet bloc and the third world than in North America and western Europe. But the moral majority in the US, the Europhobic nationalists who control the British gutter press, the National Front in France and the Italian neo-Fascists and Lombard League all dance to the same fundamentalist music as Serbian zealots in Kosovo, Hasidic zealots on the West Bank, Muslim zealots in Algeria and Hindu zealots in the Indian BJP.

It is true that, by the standards of past history, the political cultures and moral economies of present-day Europe are still remarkably tolerant and generous. But these qualities are legacies of the golden age of tamed welfare capitalism and expanding social citizenship. The moral capital accumulated in the golden age has been steadily run down in the past 20 years. The challenge for reborn social democracy is to renew that moral capital, to renew the social and economic foundations of the open society. If it succeeds, it will deserve as well of the present generation as the architects of the postwar settlement deserved of theirs.

Though Europe's reborn social democrats have to start from different points - contrast Britain and Germany, for example - it is not difficult to outline a common public philosophy for the 21st century, broadly social-democratic in economics and broadly social- liberal in politics. The classic social-democratic theme of market failure would be amplified and rephrased, and its connections with the equally classic social-democratic themes of common citizenship and resource redistribution would be re-emphasised. Markets fail; and their failures are systemic, not accidental. They have to be supplemented and regulated, and their outcomes corrected. The central state is not the only agency capable of doing this, but public power of some kind is indispensable.

The relationship between democratic self-government and the capitalist free market is not as easy and harmonious as western shock therapists imagined after the fall of communism and as the apologists for Tony Blair's Third Way still think. It is tense and problematic. As Hayek knew well, the promise of equal citizenship, which is fundamental to democracy, is inevitably in tension with the inequality that is no less fundamental to capitalism. Either democracy has to be tamed for the sake of capitalism, or capitalism has to be tamed for the sake of democracy. The capitalist market economy is a marvellous servant: that was why the mixed economies of the west outperformed their Soviet-bloc rivals. But for democrats it is an oppressive, at times vicious, master. The task is to return it to the servitude that the builders of the postwar mixed economy imposed on it, and from which it has now escaped.

One crucial implication is that the public domain of citizenship and service should be safeguarded from invasion by the market domain of buying and selling. In the public domain, goods should not be treated as commodities or proxy commodities. The language of buyer and seller, producer and customer, does not belong in the public domain and nor do the practices that that language implies and legitimises. Doctors and nurses do not "sell" medical services; students are not "customers" of their teachers; policemen and policewomen do not "produce" public order. Neo-liberal attempts to force these relationships into a market mould - and still more the neo-liberal assumption that market relationships are the only important relationships outside the private sphere of family and friendship - undermine the service ethic, hollow out the institutions that embody it, corrode the trust relationships on which it depends and rob the notion of common citizenship of an important part of its meaning.

By the same token, wealth should be redefined to include well-being. One crucial component of well-being is the socialisation of risk and decommodification of welfare that lies at the heart of the European social model that the capitalist renaissance has put in jeopardy. Another is the social capital represented by a diverse, pluralistic civil society, culturally and ethnically heterogeneous and rich in intermediate institutions. A new social democracy would borrow heavily from the old Christian Democratic principle of subsidiarity - the principle that decisions should be taken on the lowest level of government appropriate to the issue concerned. Many of the policies needed to restore social capital - the regeneration of old industrial cities, for example - are best carried out by localities and regions. Others can be made effective only by the institutions of the European Union: for example, policies to curb the kind of social dumping implied by the neo-liberal (and new Labour) fetish of "flexible labour markets", to prevent exchange-rate instability and to discipline the financial markets.

As Lafontaine has realised, the only force that can countervail the sovereignty of the global market place, and protect the solidaristic values of European social (and, for that matter, Christian) democracy, is the sovereignty of a federal Europe. For social democrats, European federalism is not an optional extra. It is an indispensable part of any serious social-democratic project. But the European Union should not become an American-style melting pot. Part of the point is to safeguard the quintessential European values of variety and autonomy. European federalism must transfer authority and competence downwards to regions and localities as well as upwards to the Union; European citizenship must be multiple, not singular.

The greatest difficulties are intellectual - perhaps emotional, perhaps even spiritual - rather than practical. They have to do with a mind-set; with a nexus of implicit assumptions, held all the more tenaciously because they are rarely put into words and thereby opened up to challenge and debate. Thanks in part to the sheer longevity of the Thatcher-Major era, and in part to the pre-existing deformations of British capitalism and the British state, that mind-set is much more deeply entrenched in Britain - not least around Tony Blair's cabinet table - than in continental Europe.

Two of its aspects are specially pernicious. The first - a weird mixture of vulgar Marxism and bastard Cobdenism - might be called economism. This is the assumption that the economy is, in some mysterious sense, prior to society, that economic considerations should trump other considerations, that society should be tailored to fit the economy instead of the economy to fit society. That notion lay at the heart of the laissez-faire utopianism of the early 19th century. In a different guise, it helped to inspire the reverse utopianism of the central planners of the old Soviet Union. It has surfaced again among today's globalisation theorists - left as well as right. It echoes through the rhetoric of Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown, Bill Clinton and Robert Reich, just as it echoed through the rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Untamed capitalism will not be re-tamed until it is laid to rest.

Intertwined with economism is futurism - the notion, as fundamental to the Third-Wayers of the 1990s as it was to the Thatcherites of the 1980s, that we know what the future is going to be; that we have no choice but to embrace it; that those who have embraced it are entitled, by virtue of their superior insight, to lead the rest of us towards it; that, in Thatcher's famous phrase, "there is no alternative". This is a marvellous example of what Isaiah Berlin once called "theodicy". It is an attempt to justify what might otherwise appear to be evils by an appeal to a higher power - no longer God, but history. It offers us a route out of the painful realm of choice and moral argument, and into the comforting realm of necessity. It implies that change is an exogenous force, operating on mere human beings from the outside; that there is only one modern condition, which all rational people will recognise once it is pointed out to them; and that because of all this those who swim with the tide of history have no need to defend their decisions with moral arguments or to argue for their policies on moral grounds.

It also implies that the renascent capitalism of our times is the unique and unchallengeable embodiment of modernity; that resistance to it is futile; and that the most public policy can do is to help the society and economy to "adapt" to it. This is a modern version of the deterministic economic liberalism of 150 years ago and the equally deterministic Marxism of 100 years ago. For classical economic liberals and classical Marxists too, the global market place was the embodiment of an all-conquering modernity, to which only the sentimental and backward-looking would fail to bow down. The 19th-century determinists were wrong. I think their modern descendants will be wrong as well.

But that is not the chief objection to them. Much more important is that their whole approach negates the commitment to human autonomy that has always differentiated the social-democratic tradition from mechanistic Marxism on the one hand and High Tory traditionalism on the other.

The writer is the principal of Mansfield College, Oxford

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture