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What should social democrats believe?

A new vision for welfare.

Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images

It is a curious feature of current intellectual debate on the political centre left in Britain that so little of it reflects on the fundamental goals of modern social democracy. In part, this is because these goals are taken for granted: the Labour movement stands for equality, often expressed as social justice and a fairer society. This egalitarian commitment seems so foundational and instinctive that discussion tends to takes on a largely empirical and procedural hue, such as whether Labour was too tolerant in government of increased inequality at the top of society.

Consequentially, the content or meaning of equality is simply assumed, despite the manifold diversity of its expressions as an idea. As important, there is little discussion of how the normative ambition for greater equality should relate to other values that have resonance on the centre-left. For example, how might a commitment to equality need to be bolstered, or tempered, by demands for personal liberty, democratic self-government, the priority of human relationships, or the desire to protect and conserve things of value to people?

There is an array of ideological orientations that could emerge from the interactions among these different ideas. It might be argued that such ambitions are enemies of equality, or at least subordinate to it, and so should be rejected or downgraded. Alternatively, they might not be viewed as competitors to equality at all, but as goals that are incorporated within it, at least when properly understood and expressed. A converse contention might be that some or all or the political instincts laid out above constitute a profound challenge to the idea of equality, requiring it to be substantively modified, or even replaced as the guiding ambition for the centre-left. Such debates are not only relevant to the question of the type of society to which the contemporary left aspires. They also have purchase on the character of politics it advances and the kinds of methods it deploys in the service of its goals. Significantly, such wider questions of statecraft and political strategy have also been largely unexplored in recent years. And while the Labour party’s policy review is gathering pace, a firmer ideological stance would help to provide a framework for its policy orientation and a perspective on how its normative goals should be thought about in its plans for different areas of our national life. Indeed, without such clarity, there is a real danger that social democrats remain fundamentally directionless.

Whereas earlier periods of revisionism, particularly in the 1950s and the 1980s, saw extensive debates within the Labour party and across the wider left about core philosophical convictions and the means of achieving them, contemporary discussion has largely been confined to thinkers associated with "Blue Labour" and its twin critiques of left liberalism and Fabianism. Social democratic self-reflection has been far more limited. Unlike previous eras, when Labour leaderships have ridden wider intellectual currents, it is striking that much of what new thinking there has been has come from Ed Miliband himself, through themes such as "predistribution" and "responsible capitalism".

This is all the more surprising given that academic debates in the disciplines of political theory and political philosophy have flourished in recent years. In particular, lively arguments have taken place in Anglophone theory on the meaning of equality. The theory of equality has been shaken out of its post-Rawlsian introspection by powerful arguments from "relational" or "active" egalitarians, most notably the US political theorist Elizabeth Anderson, who contends that equality does not consist in an equal distribution of a particular good – whether income, capabilities or welfare – but in egalitarian social relations, that is, relationships of equal power, esteem and standing between citizens in society. This perspective problematises the predominant view on the centre-left that the core egalitarian task is to reduce inequalities of outcome (whether between rich and poor or "the rich and the rest") and, although it does not displace distributive concerns, it starts from the experience of existing injustices and real-world struggles against social hierarchies, rather than ideal theory. It may seem perverse in post-crash Britain to question a focus on income and wealth distributions. Surveys of public attitudes show considerable concern about inequality and widespread support for reducing the gap between rich and poor. Public opinion is hostile to the excesses of the financial sector and to the vastly inflated salaries and the bonus culture with which it is associated. There has perhaps never been a better time in recent years to get a hearing for redistributive policies, or for a broader challenge to the dominance of finance capitalism.

Yet a theoretical focus on abstract patterns of distribution tells us little about what constitutes a good life, or indeed how to achieve our goals. Such patterns are painted on blank canvasses, rather than drawn from real historical struggles against exploitation and oppression. Viewed through the spreadsheets of a Whitehall department, they can denude people of their own agency in overcoming injustice, turning the pursuit of equality into a set of transfers and transactions. And gains made in reducing arithmetic inequality by transactional means are likely to prove narrow and transient, vulnerable to retrenchment and repeal.

These concerns can be seen in debates about public attitudes to inequality. Attention is often drawn to the apparent contradiction between the fact that a majority of people agree that the gap between rich and poor is too wide but do not then support government action to redistribute incomes. By looking beyond abstract or arithmetic forms of equality, however, this result might not be so hard to explain. For instance, people are sceptical about the agency of the state, and understand that it is not just money that matters in making life go well. The reasons why people are in material need and the efforts they make to improve their situation are also widely thought to be relevant factors in determining desert.

Relational egalitarians argue that movements for greater equality have been most successful when grounded in social struggles and popular movements. This opens out their scope to embrace, alongside class inequality, the demands of a wider range of interests and actors, particularly new social movements concerned with advancing the position of women, ethnic minorities, LGBT groups and others. On each of these grounds and more, major advances have been made. Egalitarians have also learned to extend their strategies out to engage in civil society and wider popular culture, instead of restricting their scope to state action and legislative reform, vital as these remain. In these ways, they have achieved more durable advances than would be apparent from the recent history of changes to income and wealth distribution.

Instead of the equal distribution of a particular good, relational egalitarianism seeks equality in social relations: that is, a society in which people relate to each other as free and equal citizens and in which unjust social hierarchies of power, esteem and standing have been progressively overcome. It accordingly stresses active participation in achieving greater equality, the importance of social integration, a wide dispersion of power in the economy and society, and the necessity of a vibrant, alert and widely engaged democracy.

This is not to say that class inequalities simply disappear from view or that relational egalitarianism cannot embrace distributional concerns. If our starting point is that society is a cooperative endeavour between free and equal citizens, then wide disparities of income and wealth undermine the mutual recognition on which the commonality of citizenship depends. To protect the integrity of social cooperation, a line of sight between citizens is necessary, which gross material inequalities can make untenable. Constraints on the concentration of economic power are also required to stop these bleeding into the colonisation of political power. At the other end of the scale, individuals require a sufficient income to live free of stigma or shame, and should receive public services, such as education, that are distributed in such a way that each can fulfil their potential and enjoy equal standing with their peers. Market inequalities are necessary for economic efficiency and freedom of choice, but within ranges constrained by these factors. Relational egalitarianism therefore still furnishes strong grounds for reducing inequalities of income and wealth.

In general, as Anderson puts it, "a distribution is objectionable from an egalitarian point of view if it causes, embodies, or is a specific consequence of unjust social hierarchy". Yet she insists that: "The concern for equality cannot be reduced to concern about the distribution of a single good or expressed in a single simple formula … for its distribution. Social relations of equality are complex and require a complex response."

To rethink equality in these terms therefore offers the prospect of a richer politics conducted on wider sites of power.

In related vein, a broad grouping of thinkers has taken liberal and egalitarian theories to task on realist grounds. From a range of perspectives they contend, inter alia, that visions of ideal distributions or patterns in society are utopian and unrealisable, that conflict over values and interests is ineradicable, and that any social order is always a constellation formed from power struggles rather than reasoned consensus. They challenge standard accounts of what animates political engagement and argue that too often democratic and progressive forces privilege procedure and deliberation over passions, argument and the real stuff of politics, denuding themselves of energy and ideas, and cutting themselves off from political discourses that might have greater purchase on popular sentiments.

For obvious reasons, these currents of realist thinking may tip easily towards fatalism or accommodation to the status quo, and even to a "Machiavellian" machine politics. Many realists seek to temper the rhetoric and policy ambitions of reformers, to wean them off the bold claims that history and social science show will tend not be realised, leading to disappointment and frustration. There are obvious reasons in contemporary economic and social conditions for heeding such caution.

But there is radical potential in these forms of realism too. Like relational egalitarians, realists draw attention to the actual rather than ideal worlds of political and social relations, helping to ground politics in everyday concerns and practices. They argue against the assumption of end states that can be realised to "order society" and overcome its antagonisms. This helps to broaden the canvas of politics and the potential scope of political action, while challenging the state-centrism of much centre-left thinking. It enables political action to reach into the public arguments that take shape around culture, identity and valued public goods, without seeking either to channel these arguments into privileged forms of political expression or to expunge them from procedural deliberation. As the theorist Bonnie Honig puts it:

"…[I]t is around [public things] that equality and liberty and justice take shape. When they become mere procedural values, or when the form they take has to do with targets or indicators, they become shapeless and unrewarding values. They can only do work that makes us value them if they are situated in the material life of citizens or residents together." Realists are also attentive to systematic concentrations of power. Accordingly, they give substantial weight to how the rules of the game in a democracy are configured and to the ways in which the realm of democratic politics can be expanded, rather than closed down by technocratic or market imperatives. Erring towards the view that powerful interests and forces will always be at work at different sites of power – whether in the state, market or community – draws renewed attention to questions of political inequality, democratic accountability, and whether the norms governing different realms of public life can prevent the domination that results from concentrations of power. Conversely, many realists also argue against attempts to depoliticise public goods through privatisation or new public managerialism, and thereby seek to widen the scope of politics and challenge the subordination of democracy to market imperatives. Paradoxically, therefore, realist politics may offer a richer, more varied and innovative palette of options than more apparently ambitious traditional forms of egalitarianism.

A non-trivial coda to this section is that a realist sensibility also enables social democrats to engage on the territory of history and tradition, and the more complex and shifting terrain of identity politics. Strong conservative impulses exist in contemporary electorates to cherish and preserve things of value, and these are taking on new and unexpected forms of political expression. Hostility to immigration is their most obvious manifestation; in the UK context specifically, the rise in English political identity is another. This is currently given voice in predominantly right-wing and Eurosceptic terms, but it is capable of expression within more self-consciously progressive forms. Although immigration remains troubling for the centre-left, it should not prevent critical engagement with these claims to identity recognition, particularly by politically marginalised sections of the working class. Englishness is culturally and politically diverse and therefore contestable. It could be seen at work in the movement to defend ancient forests and woodlands from being sold off in 2010, and it is visible in many contemporary cultural forms.10 But it is yet to find political expression – beyond isolated speeches by committed politicians – on the mainstream centre-left.

Both relational egalitarianism and realist political theories have intersected with the revival in recent decades of civic republican political thinking, at the heart of which is a conception of liberty as non-domination and freedom from the arbitrary exercise of power by others. This democratic republican or "neo-Roman" theory of freedom prizes the self-government of citizens who enjoy property ownership, civil liberties and rights to participate on equal terms in democratic rule. Historians and political theorists writing in this tradition continue to exercise considerable academic influence, but to date their political impact has been more marginal. Nonetheless, they hold particular promise for social democrats in some key areas of current concern, such as political reform, the governance of firms and employee rights, and the future of the welfare state, where issues of concentrated power, domination and dependency have all come to the fore.

In office, the Labour party embraced elements of civic republican thinking at the margins of its programme, chiefly in respect of so-called "asset based welfare". This was an approach that sought to endow individuals with property stakes of their own, whether through expanded access to home ownership, private pensions and savings pots, or universal entitlements for children to newly created child trust funds. These asset holdings were intended not just to share wealth more equitably but to promote the independence of citizens from exclusive reliance on market earnings or state transfers. In Jeffersonian fashion, they would enlarge the population with small ownership stakes, promoting the virtues of thrift and responsibility and reducing the scope for dependence on the vagaries of market risk or public bureaucracy. They were intended not to supplant but to supplement core entitlements to social security and public service provision, widening the realms in which individuals could shape their own lives, free of domination by others.

Unfortunately, this strand of thinking never found its way into the core intellectual frameworks of "third way" social democracy, and when the global financial crisis erupted, state-sponsored asset accumulation, particularly in the US sub-prime mortgage market, rapidly became identified (however erroneously) as one of the chief culprits. For all its progressive intentions, asset-based welfare got blown away with the bursting bubbles of the housing market and the unwinding of easy credit. In the UK, the Coalition government’s austerity measures took an axe to fledging stakeholder programmes like the child trust fund, while faith in private pension provision has been left staggering by mis-selling scandals and disappointing returns.

Nonetheless, the core insights of the civic republican tradition – particularly its understanding of liberty as non-domination and freedom from the coercive exercise of power by others – remain important resources for the contemporary centre-left. In particular, they furnish intellectual tools and a political language for a critique of "dependency" that can uncouple the concept from its dominant articulation within conservative discourses. For example, a republican conception of freedom facilitates an acknowledgment that in highly centralised political systems, with relatively weak forms of local or personal accountability, the welfare state is capable of exerting power that is experienced as arbitrary and excessive. Recent UK welfare reforms have thrown this insight into sharp relief: thousands of people now suffer repeated benefit sanctions and prolonged periods without an income, often for the most minor infractions of job search requirements. At the same time, others are denied eligibility to disability benefits on the basis of often poorly evidenced and arbitrary decision-making by assessors employed by private contractors. These are not the necessary consequences of active labour market policies that prioritise employment and impose conditions of the receipt of benefits. Instead, they flow from inflexible policies, driven by target or profit motives, in a system marked by major power imbalances. Rather than liberating people from dependency, it often traps them in deeper states of powerlessness. Thousands have become supplicants at food banks, appellants at tribunals and applicants to payday lenders. It is no exaggeration to say that current welfare reforms are creating new forms of dependency and social insecurity on a grand scale.

Civic republicanism also asserts the importance of the workplace as a site of power, and draws attention to the forms of dependency and coercion experienced by employees who are denied decent working conditions and paid wages on which they cannot reasonably live, often while suffering routine denigration in their daily working lives. The many workers forced to take jobs on "zero-hours" contracts exemplify these contemporary deprivations of liberty, but the experience of dependency and powerlessness at work shapes the existence of millions of people in an economy rich in low-skilled service labour. Here, contemporary conservatism is rendered largely silent by its myopia – deliberate or otherwise – towards imbalances and abuses of power at work. It is therefore fruitful – indeed necessary – territory for Labour to recover and recolonise.

Very schematically, we can summarise the ways in which these different strands of recent political theory – relational egalitarian, realist and republican – can help us to reform and enrich the central aspirations of the contemporary centre-left. On this account, the central goal of equality is reconceived, not abandoned, and it is brought into new relationships with concerns for democracy, freedom from domination and the expression of identity, along the following key dimensions:

1. Distribution of power: replacing an instinctive preference for scale and the central state with a commitment to spreading power, to counter the dangers of its concentrations in the state, market and society, but also to mobilise the benefits of people getting together and working things out for themselves.

2. Human agency: countering the tendency towards paternalism and its suspicion of individual action with a commitment to personal freedom and mutual responsibilities, as necessary conditions for human flourishing, but also as the route to more effective, meaningful and lasting change.

3. Democratic control: replacing unease about the messiness, contingency and variability of democracy with a commitment to render power accountable, to recognise the importance of winning consent to legitimise action, and to ensure politics is driven by the concerns of ordinary people not elites or vested interests.

4. Social relations: challenging a focus on abstract metrics of material equality with a commitment to valuing the expressive and cultural dimensions of life, recognising that one’s position in society only makes sense in relation to others, and improving everyday experience over the pursuit of abstract utopia.

What then might a modernised social democracy – committed to this refashioned form of equality that emerges from this engagement with recent political theory – look like?

First, it would retain its historic insistence on the universality of citizenship and common political endeavour, arguing for majoritarian economic and social policies against those which tolerate political inequality, target welfare regimes on narrow social groups and roll back employment rights and protections. But it would pursue more differentiated and plural ambitions to tackle a wider range of social injustices than a focus on income inequality would suggest, and it would accordingly give greater weight than in the past to the creation and maintenance of institutions – whether in the economy or public sphere – than compensatory income transfers (albeit that the latter will remain important in key areas, such as family policy). From new sectoral wage-setting arrangements to state investment banks in the economy, to children centres, the NHS and social care enterprises in the public sector, institutions provide spaces in which human relationships can flourish, new ideas and practices can be incubated, and power can be dispersed. They provide bulwarks against the vagaries of the market and the excesses of public bureaucracy and are likely to prove more durable and resilient in the face of fiscal retrenchment.

Second, it would practise new forms of democratic politics, giving greater priority to the agency and engagement of individuals and communities than for the most part has been true of Labour in power. A point of convergence in much recent political theory has been on the importance of active citizenship: whether to challenge concentrations of power in the state or market, protect ‘public things’, or disrupt unjust social hierarchies. For modern social democrats, this entails recovering radical – and, it should be said, liberal – traditions of democratic organisation and empowerment that lost out to central planning in the post-war period and the ‘new public management’ model in the post-Thatcher era, while also contesting blocks of power vested in party structures and their associated networks of political patronage. The pursuit of equality must be considered an active endeavour, not a transactional one in which the beneficiaries are passive recipients. Consistent with this democratic egalitarian imperative, modern social democracy must also develop new strategies for tackling political inequality: sealing off political power from plutocratic dominance, changing the rules of the game to establish new checks and balances to centralised power and protect civil liberties, and rolling back the effective (self-) disenfranchisement of large swathes of young and working-class voters. Third, in light of a more active understanding of equality, it would pursue a different form of statecraft to the New Labour emphasis on the "delivery state". It would be more resolutely devolutionary, empowering English cities and counties with greater resources and responsibilities, and restricting central targets and directions to a limited range of key ambitions. It would embrace a wider range of participants in the state, welcoming, for example, new providers of free schools and academies (subject in this instance to the usual tests of effective accountability, equal access and minimum standards).

Rejecting an overly individualistic and rootless version of social mobility, the desire to ensure routes into elite institutions, such as Oxbridge, are open to those with talent from all backgrounds would be matched by a concern with whether elites go on to serve the common good (building on innovations like Teach First which have had a major impact on the graduate recruitment market). Devolutionary impulses would reach beyond the local or city state into civil society, so that voluntary and community groups have a firmly established place in the landscape, rather than serving merely as adjuncts to large private sector providers of commissioned services. And, in tight fiscal conditions, innovation would take centre stage, serving to drive up productivity on constrained budgets.

Fourth, social democrats would be more self-consciously political in pursuit of their goals, eschewing some (if not all) of the preference for legallyenshrined social policy targets that characterised the New Labour project.

Instead, greater weight would be placed on building durable coalitions of support for political ambitions, widening the ground on which to advance their policies and drawing energy from new social movements. Driven by ideological rethinking and future fiscal limits towards a so-called "predistribution" agenda, Labour is already opening up – albeit tentatively – new territory in economic policy for fresh ideas and practical coalitions. It should extend that logic more widely into social policy and political reform, thinking through how it can gain the popular support it currently lacks for tackling poverty, reforming the welfare state, and creating more integrated communities. In each of these areas, it has to find ways of converting political weakness into strength, anchoring its ambitions in new institutions, identities and practices, and in political alliances that are oriented towards the future, not given to defence of the crumbling bastions of the past. A final note of pragmatism is in order here, however. A realist politics would caution against claiming too much, too soon, or with advancing the values of radicalism, change and modernity in ways that are insensitive to the importance widely placed on continuity, history and stability. More practically, in contrast to its predecessors, today’s Labour party lacks the muscle of an organised working class and the strength of collectivist patriotic sentiment. It rests instead on a fractured voting base, with limited fiscal room for manoeuvre, and faces the headwinds of stagnant living standards. It political opponents are emboldened, its allies uncertain. In these conditions, any economic and social settlement must be built patiently if it is to be built at all.