John Quiggin has written an excellent post for Crooked Timber, looking at how social democracy can be extended beyond the borders of the nation state.
I’m pleased to see Quiggin making a number of points I’ve argued for a long time – including the fact that a realistic utopianism is a necessary condition for any progressive political strategy, and that we need desparately to move beyond a defensive posture towards the institutions and practices of the welfare state. Quiggin is also quite right to highlight the fact that globalisation has made “social democracy in one country” a much more difficult proposition to achieve, and that the movements of peoples which have – in large part – been set in motion by economic integration have depressed support for parties of the left, particularly when cultural similarity and its solidarities eroded in train with the protection of wages and living standards of the core base of social democratic parties.
Quiggin, I think, is to be commended for propounding an explanation of phenomena such as the Tea Party (and we could add various forms of nativism elsewhere – including Angela Merkel’s negative comments on multiculturalism and Hansonism and its spectres here) which is grounded in political economy and socio-cultural analysis rather than the sorts of reflex and unhelpful liberal responses we hear too often.
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.
He goes on:
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.
The post recognises some obvious political barriers to such a programme, to which I’d add a couple.
The key inhibitor to such an agenda is the age old problem of agency. In the absence of a tightly organised and coherent political movement extending beyond national borders, problems of scale and momentum loom large. While Quiggin notes that the power of nation states is on the decrease , the defensive politics of protecting existing gains has its natural focus at the level of the state, as does the very considerable political energy which is invested in electoralism, often of a “lesser of two evils” variety.
It’s also the case that the most powerful international solidarities are often mobilised culturally and ideologically by the right. The Cold War divisions are an obvious instance, as are the (in some ways) comparable figures of terrorism and Islam as The Other. Such ideological smokescreens have as their effect the reconstruction of a parochialism and a fear which sets up a complex dynamic between global threat and local security. That’s the other source of the ‘know nothing’ populism to which Quiggin gestures.
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.
I’d thoroughly endorse that sentiment.
However, as I’ve intimated already, it needs arguing in a much stronger form than the sort of liberal cosmopolitanism which often has affinities with neo-liberalism: the articulation of the conscience of the progressive wing of the globally integrated classes. Thus, politicians such as Malcolm Turnbull (to pluck a name out of the air) have no difficulty sprouting a progressive line on immigration – if the domestic political circumstances are right. Another example might be Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats in Britain, whose cosmopolitanism exists in happy coincidence with an “austerity” attack on the state, and thus on the agenda of ameliorating inequalities and promoting equalities that social democracy, by contrast, holds dear. It’s no surprise that one of the only signs of opposition to the Con-Lib government’s moves against the mobility of labour was the Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable’s plea that an exception be made for European financial wonks wanting to work in The City.
Secondly, I’m a little surprised that Quiggin, the author of a new book on Zombie Economics, didn’t make more of the obvious fact that the forces of economic and political reaction, far from being defeated by the encounter with reality which the GFC represented for their ideological mantras, have regrouped – the real significance of the “austerity agenda”. In Britain, again, we’re seeing crazy myths about public sector spending “crowding out” private investment about to be tested through unprecedented budget cuts and the sacking of almost half a million state employees. That all this may well result in a double dip recession seems of little concern. But, in this context, one could forgive British social democrats for prioritising immediate defensive struggles over an ambitious future agenda. Having said that, I’d agree thoroughly with Quiggin that it’s always necessary to do both simultaneously – and particularly about the political importance of a maximalist and transformational programme informing quotidian political tactics.
Overall, Quiggin has given us much to think about.
Fn.  Part of an international political economy critique of the globalisation narrative of the dimunition of the state’s room to maneouvre might be to observe that either the active complicity or passive acceptance of the globalising agenda is necessary to maintain global liberalism, and that there continues to be a huge disjunction in the relative power of particular states within the global political space.