Social Democracy Research Paper

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The term ‘social democracy’ can refer either to a form of societal organization, an ideology, a set of public policies, a political party or group of parties, or a broad social and political movement centered on such parties and their allies within different sectors of society. The meaning of ‘social democracy’ has varied enormously since its original adoption by a small, vaguely-socialist group within the left wing of the French democratic-republican opposition prior to the Revolutions of 1848. At various times and places, the social-democratic label has been adopted by revolutionary Marxist, democratic-socialist, liberal center-left, and even conservative-authoritarian political parties and tendencies, usually but not always with closer or more distant ties to blue-collar labor unions. Most commonly, the term ‘social democracy’ is used either in connection with political parties that have belonged to the contemporary Socialist Inter-national or its predecessor, the Second International of 1889–1914, or with reference to policies and ideologies close to such parties.

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As parties calling themselves social-democratic have grown steadily more moderate over time, gradually becoming less and less anticapitalist and antiliberal, usage of the term ‘social democracy’ has evolved in a similar fashion. At the turn of the twenty-first century, ‘social democracy’ generally refers either to the programs and policies of the largely center-left political parties that belong to the Socialist International, or to a vague set of essentially liberal, center-left ideological and policy orientations that are often associated with these parties. While specific policies may vary, such center-left ‘social-democratic’ approaches share a commitment to a relatively free-market-based capitalist economy, a fairly developed welfare-state, a liberal-democratic (‘polyarchic’) political system, and a relatively internationalist approach to questions of foreign policy, security, and globalization. All over the world, parties and ideologies of this type are currently among the most important in the vast majority of countries with relatively competitive elections. The term ‘social democracy’ is rarely any longer used as a self-description by Marxist or other anticapitalist and antiliberal tendencies.

1. The History And Significance Of Social Democracy

Ever since the Revolutions of 1848, which are generally considered to mark the birth of the social-democratic movement, the history of social democracy has been characterized by a profound ideological and tactical struggle between relatively radical, anticapitalist tendencies and relatively moderate, reformist orientations. In this dialectical contest, the radicals have generally adhered to some form of State socialism, usually of a Marxist (but anti-Leninist) variety, and/or some version of decentralized and radical-democratic cooperative socialism (‘self-management,’ ‘economic democracy’); the comparatively moderate reformists, by contrast, have increasingly made their peace with multiclass (‘catch-all’) parliamentary politics, liberal ideology, and the capitalist system. Over the decades, this internal struggle has interacted with the often complex relationships of social-democratic movements with other political, social, and economic forces within particular societies to give rise to a wide variety of more or less ‘socialist’ ideological visions and public policies, often very effective and/or highly original, which have directly or indirectly exerted a tremendous influence on virtually all aspects of political, social, economic, and intellectual life in the modern world, particularly in countries with relatively capitalist economic systems and relatively liberal-democratic political systems. Although social-democratic movements and governments have frequently been frustrated in their reformist efforts by powerful domestic or international pressures, the resulting compromises and modifications have often marked significant new developments in the history of their respective countries, and of the world as a whole. Indeed, even when confined to the ranks of the political opposition in a particular country, social democrats have sometimes played a major role in bringing about political, social, or economic reforms, by means of political pressure, foreign example, or intellectual influence.

Among the most important of these socialdemocratic contributions to the development of the ‘welfare-capitalist’ synthesis that has gradually come to dominate an increasing portion of the world since the 1880s, have been the following: (a) the striking (albeit gradual) democratization and humanization of political, social, and economic life; (b) the enormous growth and modernization of both the state and the economy, particularly in the realms of social policy, industrial policy, macroeconomic policy, industrial and labor relations (the much-celebrated ‘democratic corporatism’ of various Northern European countries, now largely defunct in a more market-oriented age), and recently also environmental policy; (c) the more or less successful promotion of social harmony and ideological consensus within previously much more polarized societies; and (d) strong support for international integration and world peace (although the temptation to join in nationalistic ventures, on the one hand, or in pacifistic crusades, on the other hand, has been a frequent source of tension within the socialdemocratic movement ever since its inception, most notably during the First World War).

Although self-styled ‘social-democratic’ parties and ideas have played a leading role in the history of an increasing number of countries around the world since 1880s, the concept of ‘social democracy’ is generally couched in terms based on the experience of Northern European Social Democratic, Socialist, and Labor parties (particularly those of Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries, as well as Germany, Austria, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium), because they have usually been the leading forces associated with the ‘social-democratic’ label, whether in terms of ideological and tactical development, policy-innovation, electoral support, governmental influence, or international prestige.

To the extent that world history since 1848 has been the story of the grand struggle between capitalism and socialism, social-democratic movements and ideas have often played a decisive role in finding a more or less successful middle-ground between the two (frequently under the slogan of some sort of ‘Third Way’ between unbridled capitalism and state-socialism), particularly in Sweden, Norway, and the other countries of Northern Europe. And to the extent that world history during the same period has been the story of the grand struggle between democracy and dictatorship, social-democratic movements and ideas have contributed greatly to both sides: on the one hand, social democracy spawned radical, antiliberal offshoots that quickly evolved into the rival totalitarian movements of communism and fascism during and after the First World War; on the other hand, social democrats have often played a decisive role in resisting and defeating these totalitarian movements, as well as other antidemocratic political, social, economic, and intellectual forces.

From the 1945 onwards social-democratic parties all over the world have grown steadily more dependent on the success of the welfare-capitalist social-market economy and the support of middle-class voters and relatively privileged elites in both the public and private sectors. This has been the result of two major interrelated processes: first, the continuation of these parties’ aforementioned gradual movement toward the liberal center of the ideological spectrum; and second, the search for new bases of support and new reasons for existence under the impact of the gradual economic and cultural disappearance and disaffection of these parties’ traditional blue-collar industrial (‘proletarian’) base. The first of these processes, that of increasing ideological moderation, has largely been due to the combination of mass prosperity, the rise of the welfare-state, profound political and social democratization, the failure of Marxist ideas and State socialist regimes (‘real-existing socialism’), the spread of international peace and integration, American political and cultural hegemony, and the all-butinevitable habituation of social-democratic elites to existing power-structures. The second process, namely the disappearance and disaffection of social democracy’s old blue-collar base, has stemmed primarily from the combination of four interrelated developments that are associated with relentless economic and social modernization: first, much greater levels of social and economic mobility and opportunity, partly as a result of successful social-democratic policies; second, the accelerated disintegration and dissolution of inherited social and cultural solidarities and cleavages, including class-consciousness (‘individualization,’ ‘desegregation,’ ‘depillarization’); third, the drastic weakening of inherited attitudes, beliefs, and values (‘postmodernization,’ the rise of ‘postmaterialist’ or ‘left-libertarian’ values), particularly among highly-educated elites; and fourth, the transition from a predominantly ‘Fordist’ socioeconomic system based on mass production in ‘smokestack’ industries, to an increasingly ‘postindustrial’ economy based on much more sophisticated technology, a much older, more highly-skilled, and more highly-educated laborforce, a burgeoning service sector, much more widespread share-ownership, much higher levels of flexibility in all areas of economic and social life, much greater concern for environmental protection, and much higher levels of international interdependence, integration, and homogenization (‘globalization’).

2. The Challenges Facing Social Democracy Today

In the twentieth century, social-democratic parties and elites increasingly staked their claim to rule less on utopian visions of ‘socialism’ than on their ability to manage and modernize the welfare-capitalist socialmarket economy more fairly, more humanely, more democratically, and, above all, more competently and more efficiently, than their rivals on right and left. Yet, although egalitarian and statist alternatives to free markets and a fairly rapacious capitalism were in the year 2000 weaker and more uncertain than ever before, challenges from the populist and often vehemently antiliberal and antimodern right, which since the 1980s has increasingly drawn the support of traditionally social-democratic (or communist or Christian Democratic) working-class voters, are often close at hand. Thus social democracy is faced with the difficult task of reconciling the interests and aspirations of an economically and culturally ever-more diverse potential constituency, a task which may prove extremely difficult once the worldwide economic boom at the turn of the twenty-first century dissipates. The danger, then, is that social democracy may become caught between the conflicting demands of relatively successful or privileged and relatively unsuccessful or underprivileged sectors within increasingly unequal and anomic postindustrial societies, with the attendant risk that important groups within either or both sectors may gravitate toward antiliberal and antimodern movements on the left or, more likely, the right.


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