While we’re waiting for Jonah to pronounce, Sheri Berman, whose arguments about 1930s social democrats and fascists is the issue of debate, has a piece in Dissent that I’d like to respond to. Sheri argues that the current crisis is a major opportunity for the left, but that it is hampered in its ability to respond because of internecine arguments over whether we should try to reform capitalism, or get rid of it altogether. She singles out Michael Harrington as her main exemplar of a leftist whose failure to appreciate the benefits of capitalism led him to irrelevance and political near-incoherence.
While I think that Harrington’s legacy is more complicated than Sheri’s essay suggests (see the discussion of Harrington’s involvement in policy making in this reappraisal of The Other America by David Glenn), a bit of broad-brush generalization is perfectly fine in an essay of this kind. What I want to push back on is something different. I don’t think that the “incomplete victory” of social democracy over Harrington style democratic socialism “has constrained the left’s ability to respond to political challenges” as Sheri suggests. Instead (and I say this as a social democrat) I think that the fault lies in social democracy itself.
European style social democracy used to have a positive (if also somewhat vague) vision of social and economic transformation. Karl Polanyi, who is clearly one of Sheri’s most important influences, is a nice case in point – he foresaw a future in which the obsolete market mentality would be replaced, and human beings would subordinate the market to society again. They’ve lost this – there is little sense among social democrats today that politics can do more than mitigate the excesses of the market around the edges. And indeed, the sense I get from Sheri’s essay is of a kind of social democracy that runs along behind the market, always trying to catch up but never succeeding, because it has to stop again and again to pick up the broken pieces that the market leaves behind.
Sheri recognizes this, I think, when she suggests that social democrats could do with a little bit of Harrington’s idealism. But I don’t see how this idealism can be grafted onto social democracy without a more radical sense of transformative possibilities than Sheri’s essay suggests is possible. Nor do I know where this sense of transformative possibilities might emerge from. One of the many good things about Sheri’s work on social democracy is that it always tries to locate ideas in concrete situations, pointing to the actors that are propounding them, paying particular attention to political parties. But Europe’s formerly great social democratic parties are exhausted, with the possible exception of the Swedes (who are merely comfortable and set in their ways). French social democrats have been trapped in a bitter and ideologically empty set of personality disputes for well over a decade. German social democrats are stuck in a coalition with the right, where they vacillate incoherently between trying to become a credible election opponent for their putative colleagues and trying to stop Die Linke from gobbling their remaining support base. The British Labour party … well we don’t need to go there, do we.
It may well be, as Sheri suggests, that the time is ripe for social democracy. But I fail to see any social democratic actors out there who are ideologically prepared (let alone politically organized) enough to take advantage of these opportunities. Hence, we’re seeing what might be described as parodic social democracy – many of the organizational forms of social democracy (temporary stimuli, nationalization of major chunks of the economy) being undertaken by right leaning and centrist administrations as stop-gap measures to save capitalism and markets, rather than to subordinate them to broader social and democratic needs. If I had to lay bets, I’d be putting my money on opportunistic statist right-wingers like Sarkozy (and yes, Bill Emmott, how is that working out for you?) making out like bandits rather than on a social democratic resurgence.