[Social Europe] The Good Society Debate

The Good Society Debate

A Summary  +  building the good society – Edición 27/02

I. Introduction
The Good Society Debate, which was hosted on the website of Social Europe
Journal in cooperation with Soundings Journal, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung
and Compass was the first of its kind. Our intention was to use the
opportunities easily accessible new media provide to bring together thinkers
from all over Europe (and beyond). The future of European social democracy,
with the Cruddas-Nahles paper ‘Building the Good Society’ as point of
reference, was the guiding topic of the debate and the series of election
defeats for social democratic parties in most European countries provided the
political background.
When we conceived the idea of the debate, we were hoping to get 40
contributors together. In the end it was 90 people who contributed, many of
which took the initiative and contacted us to offer their contribution as the
debate progressed. We had more than 22,000 visitors who viewed more than
51,000 pages over the course of the debate. This is a remarkable result given
the very specialist nature of the discourse. These statistics clearly show that
there was a strong desire amongst left-of-centre academics, politicians and
activists to openly debate the current state of social democracy in Europe and
that there were many more who took an interest in our deliberations, from
Tasmania in the South to Alaska in the North.
Such a long and broad debate invariably presents a lot of different viewpoints
and it was sometimes hard to keep up with the reading due to the number of
articles published each day. For this reason, we will attempt to present a
thematic summary of the debate in this paper. Such a summary necessarily
omits many arguments. We will nevertheless try to present recurring themes
and points of analysis as well as elaborate some initial lessons from the
debate. The Good Society Debate was of course only a starting point. A lot of
more detailed work still needs to be done.
II. The Social Democratic Crisis
Many authors took the opportunity of the debate to discuss the origins of the
social democratic crisis in Europe and two questions in particular: First, why
did the economic crisis not benefit social democrats but seemed to have had
the opposite effect? And second – partially related to the first question – why
do social democrats lose so many elections?
Regarding the first question, the British MP Denis McShane pointed out that it
was simply wrong to assume that an economic crisis would naturally benefit
the centre-left. McShane argued that “when citizens are scared for their jobs
and salaries, or the future of their children, they vote defensively and stay with
PES President Poul Nyrup Rasmussen stressed, with a view on the European
elections, that “the biggest vote winner in 2009 has been without a doubt the
‘sofa’ party. It is apathy that has topped the polls across almost the whole
European Union – 57 per cent of Europe’s 375 million citizens did not turn up
to vote in June.” Rasmussen further referred to the rise of extremist parties as
one of the reasons for the poor social democratic election showings and gave
the gloomy prediction that the crisis “will reveal the gaping chasm between
right-wing rhetoric and reality. Necessary investments to raise educational
levels, cut unemployment and build a strong and sustainable economy will not
take place. Loud denouncements of financial excesses will not compel
conservatives to fight for financial reform in the EU and the G20. The truth is
that, under conservative leadership, people will end up paying the costs of the
crisis three times over. First, through picking up the bill for bank and company
bailouts; then through losses in their jobs and livelihoods; and finally through
stealth cuts and public under-investment, which will undermine our well-being
and long-term growth potential.”
Other commentators did not refer to external factors but were more critical
with social democratic parties themselves, criticising above all the “Third Way”
and associated political reform projects of the 1990s and early 2000s for the
loss of credibility and public trust. Philippe Marliere of University College
London (UCL) in particular criticised that “since the 1980s, social democrats
have blindly promoted free markets. They forgot that the most economically
successful and fairest societies have been those where the state has kept a
strong regulating role, and where public services have been consistently
funded and kept in public hands. With Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder,
uncritical support of globalisation became the new mantra. (…) In reality, the
gap between rich and poor has significantly increased while social democrats
have been in government. And the middle classes, who cannot any longer
rely on effective and cheap public services, are also increasingly struggling.
Peter Mandelson once famously said that he was ‘relaxed about people
getting filthy rich’. His wish has come true.”
It was indeed a recurring theme in many contributions (see for instance Klaus
Mehrens, Jenny Andersson, Henri Weber and Rene Cuperus), that social
democracy has lost credibility and trust as a direct result of the modernisation 3
programmes of the last one and a half decades. Rene Cuperus of the Dutch
Wiardi Beckmann Stichting summarised this notion eloquently when he
argued that “European social democracy faces an existential crisis for one
reason: the electorate is of the opinion that social democracy is betraying the
good society it once promised and stood for – the good society of equal
citizenship, solidarity, social mobility, trust and strong community. The
electorate thinks that this good society has been undermined and destroyed
by an elitist, pseudo-cosmopolitan concept of the good society, built around
neoliberal globalisation, European unification, permanent welfare state reform,
ill managed mass migration, the rise of individualism and a knowledge-based
In his video contribution to the debate, former London Mayor Ken Livingstone
took the criticism of recent social democratic politics even further. Livingstone
argued that because of the progressing adjustment of social democratic
politics to the neoliberal mainstream, social democratic parties have neglected
the development of an alternative political programme. In contrast to
conservatives, who used the “golden years” of social democracy to develop
an alternative political project to be ready to step in once the social
democratic consensus appeared vulnerable, social democrats in recent years
have not done the same. As a consequence, social democrats had no political
alternative to offer when the confidence in neoliberalism started to wane in the
wake of the financial crisis and subsequent recession.
So in sum many of the contributors judged that “Third Way” reformism left
social democrats without “political clothes” and at the same time destroyed
trust and credibility amongst the public. When the crisis struck social
democrats had not only little to offer in terms of an alternative model but were
perceived by many as collaborators in a failing project.
Another negative factor that was frequently pointed out was the social
democratic parties’ loss of societal alliances, above all with trade unions and
green movements (see for instance Arjun Singh-Muchelle and Lucile
Schmidt). Henning Meyer pointed out that the focus on interest politics
associated with “Third Way” Big Tent strategies was wrong because it was
based on a rather simplistic behaviouralist view of the voter as utility
maximiser. The concentration on policies for particular electorates in the
“centre” was one of the driving forces that alienated large parts of the
traditional social democratic electorate.
Some authors such as Mike Cole (Bishop Grosseteste University College)
and Jeremy Gilbert (University of East London) even argued that the dual
crisis of capitalism and social democracy revealed deeper philosophical flaws
that required a radical cure. Gilbert argued that “the lesson we must draw is
that social democrats were always quite mistaken to imagine that they had
somehow tamed capitalism, domesticated it, reinvented it. This was never
what had really happened. Capitalism had been fought back, pushed out of
large areas of social life, kept at bay by the threat of labour militancy or even
military conquest; but it had never been transformed. In fact it could never
have been transformed: the history of the past few decades has made very 4
clear that it cannot be. It can only be contained, regulated, opposed to various
degrees (or not, as the case may be). The language of much contemporary
social democracy continues to imply that there are many possible kinds of
capitalism, from the fierce purity of American liberal capitalism to the cosy
egalitarianism of the German or even Scandinavian models of ‘welfare
capitalism’. In fact, this is a catastrophic analytical mistake.”
III. The Future of European Social Democracy
Moving on from the analysis of social democracy’s plight, the future of social
democratic politics in Europe was the focus of attention for many contributors.
Changes to the general approach of social democracy appeared necessary to
some authors. Stefan Berger of Manchester University for instance stressed
the need for a new utopian social democratic vision, the value of which has
been questioned due to the mantra of pragmatism in the 1990s and 2000s. “In
the early 1990s utopia was as dead as communism, and social democracy
was in deep crisis. In many countries in Europe it underwent an often painful
transition process, involving changes in leadership and changes in
programmatic orientation. The latter usually included a partial endorsement of
the liberal market economics that had seemed so successful in sweeping
everything before it in the neo-conservative era of the 1980s. It also involved
high doses of pragmatism: social democracy was redefined as that which
worked.” Berger further stressed the continued relevance of an international
utopia for our times: “Utopias were necessary in the nineteenth century – for
thinking outside the box, thinking about alternatives to a system of
untrammelled greed. And who could deny that the contemporary world is also
in dire need of utopias, to enable us to think about alternatives to a system
that is about to condemn humankind to oblivion.”
The importance of democratic multi-level internationalism was also
emphasised by many authors. Referring to the European Union, Stefan
Collignon (St. Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa) argued that “modern
social democratic policy must be European if it seeks to correct the inequality
created by the single market, and if it wishes to ensure that the losers of
Europeanisation can live an emancipated and dignified life in the European
Union. Modern social democratic policy must find the means to make sure
that fairness and justice can be re-established in the European single market,
and find ways of redistributing the gains generated by European integration
across the borders of the nation state through a new model of solidarity. But it
is not enough for European social democracy merely to demand the creation
of a social Europe. It must also conquer the instruments by which a social
Europe can be created.”
Authors such as Mary Kaldor of the London School of Economics (LSE) and
Zygmunt Bauman (Universities of Leeds and Warsaw) argued that the
necessary instruments to achieve social democratic politics Collignon referred
to must also be created on a global level: “Globally produced problems can be
only solved globally. The only thinkable solution to the globally generated tide
of existential insecurity is to match the powers of the already globalised forces 5
with the powers of politics, popular representation, law, jurisdiction; in other
words, there is a need for the remarriage of power and politics – currently
divorced – but this time at the global, planetary, all-humanity level.” (Bauman)
On the basis of the need to change the social democratic approach to
become truly internationalist and integrate an utopian vision, more concrete
policy issues were addressed by a variety of authors. Three areas seemed to
be of particular importance: inequality, the green economy and the reform of
It was widely criticised (see for instance David Clark, Lorenzo Marsili and
Niccolo Milanese) that the crucial question of inequality has taken a backseat
in recent years and that social policy – with mixed success – was targeted at
poverty reduction at the very bottom of society. Under the veil of this mission,
general inequality in many countries has further widened – also under social
democratic leadership. Philip Golub and Noelle Burgi (University of Paris)
therefore called for the reinvention of the politics of equality: “The first step in
this direction must be to restore the legitimacy of the notion of equality, and
the essential link between equality, fairness and liberty, and between freedom
and social justice. Equality, which entails the notion of rights, is of course
understood here as the right of all individuals who are members of a
democratic polity to equal universal access to public services such as health,
education, energy, infrastructure, etc. Needless to say, in order to guarantee
social and democratic outcomes, the principle of access requires in turn the
conception and implementation of appropriate distributive policies, the explicit
aim of which must be to prevent the reproduction of class structures and
social stratifications.”
Another often referred to policy area was environmentally sustainable growth
(see for instance David Ritter). Margot Wallstrom (former Vice-President of
the European Commission) underlined the importance of linking the economic
recovery with green policies when she argued that “we believe that a socially
and ecologically sustainable society can create new opportunities for
economic growth, employment creation, social protection and a cohesive
society. Climate change policies should be considered as opportunities to
realise a triple dividend – protect the environment and boost economic growth
and employment creation at the same time. Countering global warming is, as
a matter of fact, maybe the only option if we wish to get our economy back on
track and ensure a viable economic system. ‘Going green’ is thus a win-win
Unsurprisingly, the reform of capitalism was also a key debating point. The
discourse addressed the issues of a fairer tax system (Will Straw), the
rebalancing of the mixed economy (Tapio Bergholm and Jaakko Kiander), a
new socially sustainable strategy for growth (Paolo Borioni) and the reaction
to the financial crisis. Duncan Weldon, who is a partner in a fund management
firm, for instance argued in favour of a rebalancing of finance capitalism and
the ‘real economy’: “‘Finance capitalism’ represents the subordination of
production (and hence much employment) to the pursuit of money profits in
financial markets through trading in stocks, bonds and other instruments. This 6
can lead to the ‘real’ economy being starved of the investment it needs. One
of the largest drivers of the current recession is a collapse in investment levels
– at least partially driven by the failure of finance capitalists to supply credit.
We are now in a perverse situation whereby banks that were for a decade
prepared to lend for consumption and speculation on property and financial
instruments are currently not prepared to lend for the financing of the
necessary rebalancing of economies towards greener, sustainable growth.”
This topic also linked the Good Society Debate with the wider discussion
about “socially useless” activities of financial institutions and how to deal with
these business models in the future.
Apart from policy issues, the debate generated also many articles that
focused on institutional questions. Here two areas were of particular
importance: First, organisational issues of social democratic parties and their
societal reach and second the future role of the state (see for instance Karin
Roth and Attila Agh). As the state has seen a political revival as the insurer of
last resort, there was a vivid debate about how this momentum could be used
for a more positive concept of state interventionism for progressive purposes.
This debate is of course linked to the above-mentioned discourse about the
need for a true internationalism with multi-level governance.
In terms of party organisations, the strengthening of democracy, links to
NGOs but also a serious opening up to new media were recurring themes
(see for instance Niels Annen). The damage inflicted on the traditional labour
movement alliance with trade unions in particular was an often-mentioned
aspect. Dimitris Tsarouhas of Bilkent University in Ankara underlined the
continuous strategic importance of this link and called for a renewal of this
alliance when he wrote: “What is remarkable about the party-union link is how
much it has been underestimated by social democrats themselves. The
‘golden age’ was made possible by many different components, but one of
them was certainly successful party-union links: these were instrumental in
forging governmental coalitions that enhanced women’s rights, gave
employees a say in the workplace and secured safe work conditions for
employees. Even today, and despite all the changes that the link has gone
through, unions continue to form the backbone of the progressive movement
in a number of countries.”
IV. The Cleavage within Europe
One of the striking characteristics of the debate was an often fundamentally
different assessment between contributors from North, West, and Southern
Europe and those coming from Central and Eastern Europe. To be very clear,
we do not want to blame anybody for their views or analyses, but it is
important to stress that closing the sometimes wide political cleavage running
through Europe is one of the most important tasks for social democrats if a
real European social democracy is the aim. What Carl Rowland, who himself
lives in Hungary, referred to as a “core versus periphery” situation became
also clear in some of the articles.7
First, it was often stressed that different historic backgrounds mean that social
democratic traditions are very different. Leszek Lachowiecki (Director of the
Index Academic Centre) for instance strongly criticised social democracy in
his native Poland when he wrote that “it is strange but true that Polish PostCommunists – having converted themselves into social democrats – have
been in power for about half of the period since the downfall of their
dictatorship. But in fact this group, which is led by people like Aleksander
Kwasniewski and Leszek Miller, has hardly any genuine Communist roots
either. The label of social democracy was acquired by these politicians for
purely tactical reasons. In reality, they were leaders of a narrow group of
technocratic businessmen (former apparatchiks of the ruling party), who
sought to enrich themselves in the process of selling off state-owned industry.
Having no ideological background and aiming exclusively at their own
individual success, they have eagerly participated in the building of our
current social and economical system, which could not be regarded as
acceptable in any imaginable system of left values.”
A similar criticism was voiced about social democracy in Ukraine by
Oleksandr Svyetlov, an adviser to NGOs and the Ukrainian League of
Poilitical Scientists: “The SDPU(u) has been pithily described as being socialdemocratic to about the same extent as a guinea pig is a pig (M. Tomenko). It
has also been described as a ‘bandit party’ (V. Malynkovich) and ‘oligarch’s
club’ that has privatised the state (Y. Durkot). The party has made use of its
staffing of public offices and state functions for the self-enrichment of its
members; and it has promoted their business interests though the
‘privatisation’ of most of the lucrative state-owned enterprises, and the
preferential allocation of the land in national parks for building private real
Mart Valjatage (Editor of the Magazine Vikerkaar) argued in his contribution
that the Cruddas-Nahles paper and the Good Society Debate in general “does
not pay sufficient attention to two issues that – unhappily – are influencing the
political atmosphere in Europe today, especially in the post-communist
countries. These are the issues of fear and security, and of memory and
history. These two factors give sustenance to an angry political outlook that is
heavily orientated towards the past and fearful of the future.” Valjatage further
referred to history as a burden in the former communist countries when he
wrote that “though the memories of Soviet communism have discredited some
social democratic ideas in these [Eastern European] countries, the confusion
of social democracy with communism is relatively easy to disentangle. But
there has been a strong tendency towards becoming over-entangled in
historical issues, particularly in poring over the lessons of the Second World
War, and the relative evils of Stalinism and Nazism, and this feature of recent
political discourse needs to be firmly resisted. History should be left to
But apart from important differences in social democratic traditions and
national histories, there were also some deep-seated philosophical
discrepancies presented by some contributors. Florin Abraham of the Ovidiu
Sincai Institute in Romania for instance presented a viewpoint referring to the 8
Cruddas-Nahles paper that few other commentators would share: “Another
contentious thesis promoted by Jon Cruddas and Andrea Nahles is the need
for the restoration of the primacy of politics, and rejection of the subordination
of political interests to the economic. If we considered this idea in the arena of
pure ethics it could be accepted as a desirable objective. But if we try to apply
it concretely there are three possible options: (a) politics would turn into
ideology, more specifically into communism; (b) since it is implicit in the
drastic separation of economic interests from politics that the financial support
of companies during electoral campaigns would not be permitted, parties
could expect certain failure, as in the current conditions no single party can
fund its electoral campaign solely through the contribution of its members; (c)
we risk becoming hypocrites, in tacitly accepting the influence of economic
interest groups over parties but publicly denying it. All three options are
Christian Ghinea, Director of the Romanian Centre for European Policies
(CRPE), put an equally controversial claim forward when he stated that “social
dumping is the best thing that has happened to Romanian workers in recent
years, as Western companies have relocated jobs here. Of course, we would
prefer to have Western levels of income here, but the real choice is between
the jobs we currently have and no jobs. (Although these salaries may appear
derisory to people in the West, the wages paid by companies that have
relocated to Romania pushed nominal income up by 75 per cent between
2005 and 2008). So, what is the best option for a Romanian willing to build the
Good Society? – to prevent social dumping to protect Western jobs? I don’t
think so.”
V. Conclusion
The Good Society Debate has achieved its main purpose of bringing together
an unprecedented number and variety of discussants to debate the future of
European social democracy. The diversity of viewpoints and specialist
knowledge provides a rich basis from which the work on political solutions can
This paper summarised the main arguments on the sources of the social
democratic crisis and ideas about the future direction of European social
democracy but also highlighted the apparent friction within Europe that has to
be urgently addressed. Most of the work of course remains to be done. But
the Good Society Debate has provided a framework and a point of reference
that will be helpful to guide future efforts.


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