09 January 2010

Social Democracy in America?

"Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?" ~ Tony Judt
There is an interview, by turns frightening and enlightening, with Tony Judt at The Guardian today. You can find the lecture - What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy? - mentioned in the interview here at the NYRB.

At the outset of his lecture Judt poses the question I've lifted above. And he proceeds to offer an analysis of the way we do think and talk about public goods and problems and of how that way of thinking and talking inform political-economic institutions and practices. So far, so good. But the analysis hovers above the political terrain at what is likely too great a distance. And, in a country like the U.S., where there has been scant provision of public goods (Judt's running example is public transport) it is not clear what there is to retrieve and protect. His 'social democracy of fear' trades upon the notion that there is much to be lost and that the left needs to remind people of all that. I suppose I disagree about how much we had prior to the period of Reagan through Obama (inclusive); whatever that threshold might've been the Republicans and Democrats have connived to eviscerate it. The latest debacle around health reform is a standing example.

So, what I take to be helpful from Judt's essay is this:"What, then, is to be done? We have to begin with the state: as the incarnation of collective interests, collective purposes, and collective goods. If we cannot learn to "think the state" once again, we shall not get very far." That said, Judt has not much positive to say about what role the state ought to play or how or on what terrain. But among the things that political institutions can do much better than the various alternatives (and here I presume, like Judt, that we are all democrats now; in that sense 'political institutions' simply means democracy) is to make decisions about how we ought to coordinate our interactions in various domains, monitor the conditions (often quite restrictive) necessary for alternative institutions such as markets (but not just markets - think churches, bureaucracies, etc. too) to operate in acceptable ways, and debate the criteria we use to assess acceptability. In short, the "state" can provide a forum for democratic contestation and dispute over the character and contours of public action. That is perhaps pitched at too abstract a level. But when Judt quotes Keynes to the effect that "The important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all" it is clear that a considerable amount of what government can do revolves around the democracy as much as the social in social democracy.

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