Cosmopolitan social democracy

Angela Merkel’s recent denunciation of German multiculturalism marks another step in the tightening of ties between the market-liberal right and ethnic-national tribalism, evident in other European countries and in the US (most obviously with the rise of the Tea Party). In part at least, this is a result of weakness. The positive appeal of market liberalism has declined a fair bit since the triumphalist decades of the 1980s and 1990s, and the global financial crisis exposed the failure of its theoretical basis. But there are obvious problems for social democrats in responding to this development. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and have come to the view that it’s better to put up some half-thought ideas for discussion (and maybe debunking) than to wait for a perfect formulation.

The left needs to offer a transformational vision of a better society if it is to motivate the kind of enthusiasm needed to overcome a rightwing politics of tribalism and (often misperceived) self-interest. The 19th/20th century vision of socialism and class solidarity provides a model and a starting point, but that model is no longer adequate, and the political movements it gave rise to are in disarray. We need, a world view that extends the solidarity of social democracy to the whole of humanity [1].

The institutions of social democracy have been developed primarily at the level of the nation-state and the popular appeal of social democracy rests on notions of solidarity which arise most naturally in a relatively homogeneous society. Most of the last few decades have been spent defending the social democratic welfare state against attacks which were largely justified by claims about the need to respond to (market liberal) globalisation. That defence has been surprisingly successful, even when market liberalism seemed to have won conclusive intellectual and political victories. It’s natural to continue that defensive stance in response to the current push for “austerity”, and to organise that defence at a national level, while seeking to refurbish and to some extent rationalise the national welfare state.

That defensive struggle is necessary, but I don’t think social democracy can endure indefinitely in this defensive/managerialist mode. As I said a while ago we need to mobilise a positive alternative to the fear, anger and tribalism on offer from the right. That means setting out goals that are far more ambitious than the incremental changes debated in day-to-day electoral politics. The goals that seem to me to offer the most hope – a world free of nuclear weapons and extreme poverty, an end to the acceptance of war as an instrument of national policy, action to stabilise the global climate – all involve going beyond national governments and concepts of national interest. And, so I believe, does any plausible program to renew and extend social democracy.

The need for global action on issues like nuclear disarmament and climate change is obvious enough. The argument about social democracy is less obvious. In a world where national borders no longer act as an effective barrier to migration, it is harder to justify social welfare systems in terms of solidarity with people like ourselves (since the population is more diverse) or in terms of mutual insurance or past contributions, at least as regards recent arrivals. Particularly where migrant groups are concentrated at the bottom of the income distribution and are therefore net beneficiaries from the welfare state, including health and education systems as well as social insurance. Less obviously perhaps, internationally mobile workers are unlikely to be happy about paying taxes for welfare systems from which they may not benefit. Within the framework of national social welfare systems, the alternatives are to cut back the system for everyone, to discriminate against recent arrivals, or to tighten restrictions on migration.

The alternative is to extend the welfare state beyond national boundaries. This has already happened in a very modest (and often grudging) way with various agreements between national governments, and somewhat more systematically under EU rules which require national governments to treat all EU citizens equally with respect to some social services.

As between very rich and very poor countries, the benefits of this all go one way. People from poor countries gain from access to social services in rich countries, but not vice versa. But we can turn this argument around to say that the achievements of social democracy in the developed world can’t be secure as long as so much of the world is in extreme poverty. As Jeffrey Sachs has argued (and I’ve argued further), ending extreme poverty is entirely feasible, given an effort comparable to that the developed world has put into fighting pointless wars.

The ultimate goal ought to be one in which, everyone, no matter where they happen to be born has access to the basic requirements for a decent life. That doesn’t entail a world government (at least in the sense in which we typically understand the word “government” today) but it does entail a break with ideas based on nation-states as the ultimate focus of sovereignty. One relatively minor, but important step towards this would come with a “contract and converge” approach to CO2 emissions, which would ultimately imply equal entitlements to emissions per person in all countries [2].

All of this seems utopian in (at least) two senses. First, it seems very hard to sell politically. In part this reflects the long-standing distinction between a maximalist statement of long-term goals and a ‘fighting platform’ for a particular election. Part of my argument is that it’s the lack of long-term vision beyond the preservation of past gains that is sapping enthusiasm for social democracy.

But even after making the obvious adjustments to electoral reality, it’s far from obvious how to fashion a platform based on these ideas that is going to attract majority support in the short term. The power of nationalism and tribalism is strong, and the counter-appeal of global idealism goes only so far. On the other hand, it seems as if there is enough support for greens and leftish social democrats to form the basis of a significant minority that would support such ideas. Given a reaction against rightwing austerity politics, this group could form part of a majority coalition with mainstream social democrats.

More importantly, tribalism and monoculturalist nationalism belong to the past (as do essentialist versions of multiculturalism, in which people are defined by birth into some particular culture). The possibility of sustaining, in any country[3] a majority group (or even a dominant minority) that can be defined homogeneously in terms of race, religion, sexual politics and world-view (all at once) is slipping away fast. Part of the rage of the Tea Party is the fact that its adherents at once recognise this and are unwilling to concede the existence of an America that is not overwhelmingly white, Christian and traditionalist in terms of sexual mores and broader social attitudes. So, the more that social democracy and acceptance of social diversity are seen as two sides of the same coin, the better the long term prospects for social democrats.

The deeper question is whether such a program is feasible at all. Traditional views of international politics take the nation-state as an immutable atomic constituent of the system that can’t be wished out of existence by idealistic political movements. But the reality is that the sovereignty of nation-states has been eroded in all sorts of ways over the years since 1945. That’s most obvious in Europe, but all countries are bound up in a web of international arrangements that are increasingly hard to break out of. Big and powerful states like the US, Russia and China still act intermittently on the assumption that the rules don’t apply to them, but such displays (US and Russian military adventures, China’s attempted blackmail over rare earths) typically have high costs and few benefits. The real question is whether (as was assumed unquestioningly in the years leading up the global financial crisis) such constraints work inevitably in the interests of financialised market liberalism or whether they can be turned in more socially productive directions. I don’t know the answer, but I do think that the attempt to do this represents the best hope for a social democratic future.

Obviously, a lot of what I’ve written above is only partly thought through, and at least some of it is doubtless wrong. However, I’m not really interested in dealing with snarky nitpicking and general derailment, so I will exercise a fair bit of discretion in deleting comments I regard as unhelpful. I’ve opened up a new “sandpit” thread where I will direct snark and lengthy off-topic monologues and back-and-forth disputes between commenters. Since this topic will clearly interest Jack Strocchi, I will pre-emptively direct him to the sandpit.

Finally, a few links to things I’ve found useful (not necessarily because I agreed), from John Keane and Policy Network.

fn1. This certainly isn’t a new claim – Ulrich Beck has been arguing for a similar, cosmopolitan and social democratic, position for some time. But it certainly needs a lot of working out and discussion, and blogging provides me with an avenue to try out ideas like this.

fn2. Although I don’t believe the process is as conscious as this, the ferocious rightwing resistance to the reality of climate change ultimately reflects an intuition that some global action of this kind is the only possible response.

fn3. The big potential exceptions are China and perhaps Japan, although it seems obvious that maintaining current restrictions on immigration will be very costly for Japan.

17 thoughts on “Cosmopolitan social democracy

  1. “Angela Merkel’s recent denunciation of German multiculturalism marks another step in the tightening of ties between the market-liberal right and ethnic-national tribalism, evident in other European countries and in the US (most obviously with the rise of the Tea Party).”

    I don’t see much evidence of strong ties between free market liberalism and ethnic nationalism. For example, in the Netherlands Geert Wilders opposes reforms like increasing the retirement age. And the German Christian Democrats have never been a good example of a free market party. In most countries, ethnic nationalist anti-immigration type parties tend to support economic policies like protectionism, interventionist industry policies, rural subsidies, welfare policies targeted towards those they considering deserving etc. But they usually are not sympathetic to free market economic policies (Indeed, in Australia the Hansonites seem to have decided at some point that attacking market-based economic reforms would yield more support than exploiting racial issues). There seems to be some psychological correlation between fear of foreigners and social diversity, and fear of free trade and free markets.

    As for the Tea Party in the US, surveys show that most Tea Party supporters support programs like Social Security and Medicare. I tend to agree with others who see the Tea Party as largely a reactionary movement of older white Americans who wish to protect their own entitlements but don’t want others getting more of the pie. Of course, in the American lexicon, attacks on “socialism” are often code-words for saying ‘we don’t want governments spending money on black welfare queens, but are happy for public funds to go to the more deserving’. There is an awful lot of cognitive dissonance here, in that Americans like to think of themselves as a nation of small government, self-reliant, freedom-loving, rugged individuals. The reality is vastly different.

    What is really going on is that as free market, limited government ideas have declined in support, politics is increasingly a contest between big-government conservatism and big-government social democracy. As fiscal conservatism and free markets decline in support, the only ideas with any real currency against social democracy are cultural and moral conservatism.

  2. “Less obviously perhaps, internationally mobile workers are unlikely to be happy about paying taxes for welfare systems from which they may not benefit.”

    Or unemployment insurance. Or pensions. Or…

    I have the impression that “multiculturalism” has a different meaning, at least the way it is commonly used, in Germany.

  3. Amartya Sen has been talking about global justice at a number of presentations (including the LSE and the Commonwealth Club). His book, the Idea of Justice, seems to offer a vision of global justice that is achievable in practice.

    First, Sen contrasts two traditions to justice. One tradition, associated with Ralws and Rousseau, seeks perfectly just institutions. The other tradition, which Sen advocates and identifies with Adam Smith and Karl Marx, is focused on outcomes (rather than institutions) and seeks merely to remove “manifest injustice”.

    Sen also contrasts the Rawlsian approach to impartiality with the Smithian approach to impartiality. The Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” device promotes only “closed impartiality” as participation in the original contract is limited to members of a state. Adam Smith’s device of the “impartial spectator” promotes open impartiality by bringing in the perspective of outsiders.

    Sen notes two distinct reasons for bringing in the outsider’s perspective. One concerns global justice, as the actions of a state is likely to affect the interest of others. Another reason is to overcome parochialism within the members of a state.

    Finally, Sen sees a role for “democracy as public reasoning” in helping achieve global justice. While there is no reason to expect full agreement on a perfectly just society, Sen is optimistic that a process of public reasoning can yield answers to comparative questions about justice.

  4. My view is that the social democratic and market liberal movements are over as interesting generative ideologies and have been replaced by ‘the Greens’ (broadly construed). This is because neither market liberalism nor social democracy are based on any fact of the world, but instead have at their heart preferences about social organisation. They are pre-scientific in their origins and intellectual foundations. The Green movement has at its heart facts about the world eg biogeochemical cycles. One’s relation to those systems can be nuanced but the systems themselves exist as fundamental and outside negotiation. This sets the Greens apart from the older political organisations.
    Because the older systems have no fundamental basis in an understanding of the physical world, they have no solutions to problems deriving from the physical world – their putative solutions are always open to negotiated settlements whereby social forces that harm the physical world are met ‘half-way’ whereas they should not be given any quarter at all. This is because the solutions are mapped from the world of social organisation onto the world of physical organisation as if those worlds are congruent. As far as political organisations are concerned, only the Greens act in the knowledge they are not.

  5. ‘I don’t see much evidence of strong ties between free market liberalism and ethnic nationalism.’

    It is significant that movements such as the Tea Party want to embrace free market type ideas as at least as rhetoric. Pauline Hanson criticised ‘economic rationalism’ but she did so in the name of a small business ‘leave me alone’ marketism. That these sorts of parties advocate specific policies at odds with their general philosophies simply means that they have pretensions at least to capturing 50% + 1 of the vote in elections. The Labor and Liberal parties also advocate specific policies at odds with their philosophies – but those those philosophies are still worth discussing.

    There seems to be some psychological correlation between fear of foreigners and social diversity, and fear of free trade and free markets.

    The high point of British belief in free trade corresponded with Britain’s most aggressive period of imperial expansion. Maybe not ‘fear’ of foreigners but certainly hostility towards them.

  6. The “ultimate goal” may be more clearly stated as integration of something similar to the Earth Charter? The right wing rejection of the earth charter could also be described as reflecting an underlying intuition that implementing it would require something like Beck’s cosmopolitan hope for the world.

  7. Great little post Prof. Quiggin. As for comments…
    There is an implicit supposition in the post that extreme poverty is causing mass migration leading to a drop in support for multiculturalism in advanced social democracies. I am not entirely comfortable with this as it seems rather simplistic. Indeed I have grave doubts that those who live in extreme poverty are even able to migrate. I wholeheartedly agree that extreme poverty should be eliminated on moral grounds but I see that as a utopian goal rather than a practical one (there are areas on the planet that could not possibly sustain any population yet people still live there).
    As a starting point the need to understand the reasons people migrate and what would the natural rate of migration should be. Host countries would need to understand the infrastructure investment required to maintain a rate of immigration and how that would be recouped.
    Then there is the thorny point of integration/assimilation/multiculturalism and their various flavours of implementation. The post states that “the power of nationalism and tribalism is strong” and “more importantly tribalism and monoculturalist nationalism belong to the past”. These are two strong contradictory statements, and I am not sure that the latter would hold under careful analysis (unless you meant that as a goal to achieve).
    As a migrant I grew up hearing that migrants should integrate and not form ghettoes. However Australians are not immune from this type of behaviour if you witness the ex-pat communities in London, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, etc. The Economist reported a few years ago that Indians tended to integrate further than did the Pakistanis in the UK. Hence integration may well be a function of culture, education, gender, etc.
    Perhaps migration may be reduced if the fundamental causal reasons such as war, oppression, lack of markets can be tackled head on. However that sails close to nation building and after Iraq and Afghanistan and the GFC there is going to be a distinct lack of will or money to embark on that policy front.
    As for the traditional viewpoint of “international politics take the nation state as an immutable atomic constituent” I would have to say that this is the Eurocentric/USA point of view (admittedly dominant since 1945). Prior to Napoleon, European states were quite fungible with flexible borders tied to the holding of the local warlord (oops I meant Duke, Earl, king). Indeed today Spain and Belgium are holding together with sticky tape. As for Africa and Asia the borders were not quite settle until 1945. Even today there is a long list of border international disputes.
    From my experience of travelling around Asia, the Americas and Europe I tend to believe that sovereignty is alive and well (see note about tribalism above) and any attempt to subvert it will fail, if it does not provoke a violent response.
    Also I would disagree with the statement that the European sovereignties have been eroded due to the treaties signed as part of the EU. Each state has voluntarily signed up to the regulations/laws through their legitimate government. They can all terminate their participation if they wish to do so.
    From an Australian perspective, domestically, I would prefer to see governments providing continuous training to all by having more flexible educational institutions, employers be forced to provide time off for training (or alternatively be taxed heavily if they do not), and continuous investment on basic infrastructure. Internationally I rather our resources concentrated on South East Asia, PNG and the Pacific Island states. With considerable efforts to providing infrastructure to enhance trade – indeed I would go as far as indicating that the Pacific Island states be treated no different as if they were part of the Commonwealth.

  8. Yep, a good thread and a companion for the parallel issues raises at LP by Mark Bahnisch, as to future of arts/ humanities/ soc sciences, at a time of “tightening of ties between the market liberal right and ethnic nationalist tribalism”.
    The conversation between Gillard and Sen Doug Cameron today was intriguing evidence of a form of dumbing down at work in Australia, also.
    If we can blind ourselves to reality and simultanously lobotomise ourselves, to firewall against ideas thinking and consequent realisations, we will have become a good little satrapy of the New World Order.

  9. Big and powerful states like the US, Russia and China still act intermittently on the assumption that the rules don’t apply to them, but such displays (US and Russian military adventures, China’s attempted blackmail over rare earths)…

    With regard to international rule-breaking, it really is a stretch to lump this in with the Iraq invasion.

  10. I am about to break Godwin’s law.

    The pledged MP was a democratic innovation.

    The original structure of the ALP was a trade-off. The pledge was a result of the NSW 1891 parliament where many Labor MPs either bolted the party entirely or votes with other parties. The strong caucus and no debate outside the caucus rule made sense when the caucus and the annual conference were the dominant bodies in the party. However those days are long gone.

    The caucus no longer elects the cabinet. The conference has become a theatre. Policy is almost exclusively decided by the leadership and the party machinery. The sight of caucus members denying any leadership change when their masters elsewhere had already decided on the change to Gillard was not a happy display of democracy at work. The caucus discipline rule has now morphed into a do whatever the Leader says rule, and that is indeed a recipe for zombi politicians. It is also a party structure that is familiar from the 1930s.

  11. Damn, hit the button too early. It seems to me the best example of a follow the leader party we have is the US Republicans. Now the ALP is obviously more connected to reality than the Republicans, but a structure that emphasises loyalty to the party line and the leader above all is guaranteed to end in a party that talks nonsense most of the time. The ALP already does this on a small number of issues, marriage equality being the most notable. The ALP needs to re-establish a more democratic party structure or there will be many more issues where they find themselves with nonsensical polices communicated entirely in platitudes.

  12. Is it possible that without the threat of revolution, and an alternative to capitalism in the form of the Soviet Union, there’s no real reason for capital to compromise? That because they won against international communism, there’s no real threat to them left, so they can do whatever they want?

  13. John, here are a couple of mechanisms for realising the social democratic goal …
    One path is to simply extend the EU to include more states – potentially every state. This is not so unrealistic, given there is a well understood mechanism for adding new states that is used quite regularly. It may be this simply happens by default as states choose through their leaders to seek membership for reasons completely unrelated to ideas of social justice. In other words, social democracy need not be the goal but a by-product.
    To overcome the state-based nature of existing social democratic institutions, an alternative may be to re-engineer an existing international institution. One candidate is the United Nations. The General Assembly, which is today mostly ineffective, could be transformed by replacing ambassadors with elected representatives. The UN Charter allows up to 5 representatives per state and one way to elected office would be to promote a social democratic agenda. Since the GA has responsibility for the UN budget, it has the means to realise the agenda.

    Importantly, for me at least, is that Australians could play an critical role in either change – we wouldn’t need to rely on big and powerful friends to implement them for us.

  14. This would have to be some of the most vague, utopianist dreaming I have come across in a while. So leftists just need to have even more delusional dreams about redistributionist poverty elimination? I don’t think there is a lack of dreaming, just a lack of coherent reasoning and understanding of human nature and incentives.

  15. I opened John’s contribution while trying to explore a different answer to john’s question. I am interested in two strands of research that do not get a guernsey in the above discussion. One is the work of the Wilkinson et al on the toxicity of inequality and the other is the neurobiology of fairness. I am starting from the point of view of reworking the social system by recognising the connectedness of humanity but expanding the social links past tribalism and prejudice, by looking at a equity and fairness as a measure of well being. If inequality is more toxic than poverty, once life threatening poverties are remedied, it must be because perceived unfairness removes the sense of agency in one’s society/life needed to counter fear and greed. It is a non materialist basis of the social which is not easy for an economist, left or right, to accept. But as feelings do drive most decision making, I think a debate on what type of society would make us feel better would both include material security but also perceptions of fairness and good will as the basis for good social relations even with strangers. This may be a better basis for social democracy than the more limited views of watered down past versions.

  16. I think one other component for such a vision needs to be the non-profit sector – somewhere in between the ‘state’ and the ‘market’ something quite big is already happening in this sector.

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