Monday, January 25, 2010

'Are we so sure that there are no floods to come?'

I have finally gotten around to reading an essay by Tony Judt that was referenced in a recent (and rather harrowing) article about the New York University historian's ordeal with motor neurone disease.

The piece, 'What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?' appears in the New York Review of Books.

I think it's well worth reading.

It's quite a lengthy excursion across the subject suggested by the title, and--among other topics--Judt considers differences between the political language of western Europe and the United States, the lingering relevance of nearly century-old economic debates and the difficult necessity of recovering a sense of common social purpose and belonging.

Much of it is not really earth-shattering, and there are some bits where I'm not really convinced.

But I was most struck positively by the parts of his essay in which he discusses, first, the past accomplishments of social democracy and, second, the need for it--if it wishes to maintain its success in the future--of reminding people about the reasons it emerged in the first place.

As to the past:

The welfare state had remarkable achievements to its credit. [...] The common theme and universal accomplishment of the neo-Keynesian governments of the postwar era was their remarkable success in curbing inequality. If you compare the gap separating rich and poor, whether by income or assets, in all continental European countries along with Great Britain and the US, you will see that it shrinks dramatically in the generation following 1945.

With greater equality there came other benefits. Over time, the fear of a return to extremist politics—the politics of desperation, the politics of envy, the politics of insecurity—abated. The Western industrialized world entered a halcyon era of prosperous security: a bubble, perhaps, but a comforting bubble in which most people did far better than they could ever have hoped in the past and had good reason to anticipate the future with confidence.

The paradox of the welfare state, and indeed of all the social democratic (and Christian Democratic) states of Europe, was quite simply that their success would over time undermine their appeal. The generation that remembered the 1930s was understandably the most committed to preserving institutions and systems of taxation, social service, and public provision that they saw as bulwarks against a return to the horrors of the past. But their successors—even in Sweden—began to forget why they had sought such security in the first place.

As to the future:

The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains. The rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.

That these accomplishments were no more than partial should not trouble us. If we have learned nothing else from the twentieth century, we should at least have grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences. Imperfect improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek. Others have spent the last three decades methodically unraveling and destabilizing those same improvements: this should make us much angrier than we are. It ought also to worry us, if only on prudential grounds: Why have we been in such a hurry to tear down the dikes laboriously set in place by our predecessors? Are we so sure that there are no floods to come?

Well, are we?

I've spent a certain amount of time over recent years trying to figure out the processes that have made relatively decent societies and those that have seen them unravel.

I'm still not entirely sure; however, I think that being very aware that they can unravel is a healthy corrective to complacency.

And that's, perhaps, a start.


Ario said...

I've spent a certain amount of time over recent years trying to figure out the processes that have made relatively decent societies and those that have seen them unravel.

I should just probably buy your book for your detailed thoughts on this, but when I read this passage I can't help but think: "Come on! Tell us! You can't drop the curtain now! It's just getting exciting!"

The whole reason why I walked away from social democracy is that it didn't seem to provide much of answer to some elementary questions: how to finance the welfare state, how to improve social mobility post-'89, how to embrace globalisation without throwing an Attac-like sulk, etc.

Obviously I know now that the alternative is worse and much more ineffectual(steep learning curve). But to my mind these questions remain, with added urgency (given the epidemic of budget deficits in the West).

Can we really just insist on returning to and/or reinforcing the old solutions (strong welfare state, rigid labour protection laws, high susipicion of globalisation, etc.) or will that, passim Jared Diamond in fact lead to the dikes breaching because their foundations are so shoddy?

As a Dutchman I am really worried about those dikes. I also hope I spelled it correctly.

John Carter Wood said...

I wouldn't urge you to buy my's a bit pricey. (Not my fault: this is the world of academic publishing.)

But if you want to encourage the local university library to buy one, please do so!

I said trying to figure out: I'm still at it and am not entirely sure what the right answer is (and if I do figure out the magic formula, I'm holding out for a large advance before making it available to the world).

But one of the things I have found (in my own work and that of others) is that a few things matter quite a bit. A relatively low rate of inequality seems important to generating a strong sense of social solidarity. (And there are suggestions that it has a positive impact on, say, homicide rates.)

Second, having reliable, (largely) incorruptible and effective institutions (such as courts) that people believe in is also key.

Which is not all that remarkable, I know, but I don't think that in this area we're going to discover anything earth-shatteringly surprising: we know more or less what is good; actually achieving it, however, is another matter.

Although, as I've mentioned several times, there is a lot of research now that suggests that on the level of everyday interpersonal violence, western Europe has seen remarkable success over the last several centuries. (A recent book by your fellow Dutchman Pieter Spierenburg, A History of Murder summarises this all quite well, and is relatively affordable.)

In short: a certain amount of prosperity and a certain amount of security are what you need if you want people to not be savages.

And I think that social democracy (and, if you pushed me, I'd say that Christian democracy too) on the European model has been the best system--for all the caveats and contradictions, etc. that I won't bother mentioning--for producing these two things that I've so far found.

(I'm quite impressed with Japan as well, though I don't understand that society as well as I should before commenting more on it. And, actually, I think the US does quite well too on a lot of points, but I prefer the continental European balance to the American one.)

As to social democracy: no, I think it's not just a matter of holding onto the old system. You can't maintain a pension system based on the demography of the 1950s and the expectation that people will draw benefits for an average of five years in a world with a different age structure and the probability that people can now expect to live 20 years or more after retirement.

Or a world where capital has become more mobile and international competition a lot fiercer than it once was.

This is why I think some of the Schröder-era SPD was not that wrong, at least in direction.

But when it comes to the details of labour-market regulation or pension system financing, then you're talking to the wrong guy.

But I don't trust any party that says making these adjustments is going to be without pain.

(Or whose basic answer is: leave it to the market.)

The question is how that pain is spread. European political systems--probably like all political systems--have been good at distributing more: they're having a hard time with distributing less.

But this has a lot to do, I think, with their electorates as well. I think people generally get the governments they deserve.

Still, watching the current US fiasco around something basic like healthcare, I wouldn't worry too much about those dikes on this side of the ocean.

Europe's been pretty good at muddling through the last half century or so. I tend to think that'll continue.

At least: I hope.

Ario said...

I'm sure your book is worth every eurocent. :-)

I've only just read your email, so I should perhaps first read the homework you've set before I go on.

But I'm guessing that, if you look at it in stark terms, a society's survivability, never mind prosperity, depends on the trust available between its citizens, and if and how that trust is fostered.

I'm also guessing that if you have a general mindset in a population which puts the emphasis on togetherness and fairness - i.e. equality in other terms - rather than individual advancement that trust has more of a chance to grow and prosper. The example that comes to mind, perhaps unfairly, is the UK, where almost two decades of Tory government could not be made undone by the tentative return to social democratic poliy under Labour. This could merely be my biased perception (though I vaguely recall some survey in The Economist confirming it a couple of years back), but there seems less "community spirit" in the UK than in Continental Europe.

So, yes, for those reasons - and the ones you mentioned - I also think that European social democracy is the better system, caveats etc permitting.

Plus, if you really want to get all reductionist about it, there remains always the question if humans could ever have survived the harsh evolutionary pressures they as a species were exposed to, if they hadn't banded together. It somehow seems self-evident that we are first and foremost group animals, and only then individuals.

But I'm being speculative, which means it must be getting to my bedtime.

Again, thanks for your email and your interesting comment here.