From about 1930 to 1980, the left -- however you define it -- set the political agenda in North America and Europe. Then, in the decade between the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the fall of Mikhail Gorbachev, the left imploded. It has yet to reorganize itself.
The right -- however you define it -- has been in charge for so long that only those over the age of 50 can even recall a different time and different values. As historian Tony Judt says in his final book Ill Fares the Land, "Our problem is not what to do; it is how to talk about it."
His book is a dramatic way to start the conversation. In Dec. 2009 he published an article on social democracy in The New York Review of Books. He defined it as a system in which the private sector operates under government regulation and taxation, while the government in turn funds public services like education, infrastructure and health care. Some of Judt's readers urged him to expand it into a book, and he did so while in the last stages of Lou Gehrig's disease. It appeared in April. He died in early August.
'Poor No More'
I read the book recently, just after watching a Canadian-made documentary, Poor No More, which makes a similar case for social democracy as the solution to our current ills. Taken together, the two works suggest a direction that the Canadian left might take. But they also show it would be a long journey even if we could begin it.
Judt was a historian of intellectual trends, especially in the European left. In 2006 he published Postwar, surely the standard account of Europe since 1945. His last book is a kind of abstract of that enormous work.
In effect, Judt argues that the postwar world could have relapsed into fascism. Instead, western Europe and North America gave their middle classes good reason to accept health care, secure jobs and cheap education: such benefits were universal, regardless of income.
Generation of ingrates
Ironically, the middle-class war babies and early boomers got into university in the 1960s, in numbers never seen before, and immediately rejected the system that had put them there. Social democrats had built the postwar world as a way to protect whole countries. Their kids took that for granted, and clamoured for individual rights and freedoms. Individualism led to the "Me Decade" of the 1970s, and then to the Thatcherism/Reaganism of the 1980s.
In hindsight, the 30 years between 1945 and 1975 were a golden age, when a single worker could support a family, buy a house, look forward to a good pension and send the kids to a free or very cheap post-secondary education. In most industrial countries, the income gap narrowed. In the U.S., Democratic and Republican administrations from Truman to Nixon promoted a stable employment market, education opportunities and social programs.
But as Judt also notes, the social-democratic state could make horrendous mistakes: public-housing projects that became instant ghettoes, and schools that didn't teach.
During the golden age, conservatism was universally rejected. The debate was between Marxists and liberals -- another term for social democrats. Like U.S. Republicans, British and Canadian Conservatives basically endorsed the social democratic idea.
So Judt is right to call the conservative rise a genuine intellectual revolution. Reagan and Thatcher were the first mainstream politicians to win support with programs that explicitly attacked social-democratic principles. Those programs were inspired by the Austrian economists like Friedrich Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter who saw any strong, social-democratic state as a forerunner of fascism -- as had happened in Austria.
The abyss of forgetfulness
The conservative revolution succeeded beyond its supporters' dreams, at least in the U.S. and U.K. Even erstwhile liberal parties like the Democrats and Labour accept conservative premises. In those countries, income gaps have widened and social problems have worsened. Yet the state intrudes more than ever into its citizens' lives in the name of "security." Conservative deregulation has resulted in the greatest economic collapse since 1929, and a level of unemployment that would have been intolerable in the golden age.
The late Jane Jacobs, in her book Dark Age Ahead, warned that "During a Dark Age the mass amnesia of survivors becomes permanent and profound. The previous way of life slides into an abyss of forgetfulness."
Judt uses history to pull us out of that abyss, but he does not call for a return to the good old days. Postwar social democracy delivered stable employment and a host of subsidized social services, but we can't go back.
"For the foreseeable future," he writes, "we shall be deeply economically insecure. We are assuredly less confident of our collective purposes, our environmental wellbeing, or our personal safety than at any time since World War II. We have no idea what sort of world our children will inherit, but we can no longer delude ourselves into supposing that it must resemble our own."
Judt does not prescribe a tidy solution to these problems, but he strongly advises us to discuss them in the light of history: "Much of what is amiss in our world can best be captured in the language of classical political thought: we are intuitively familiar with issues of injustice, unfairness, inequality and immorality -- we have just forgotten how to talk about them. Social democracy once articulated such concerns, until it too lost its way."
Social democracy really has just a few premises: a democratic parliamentary state that regulates the economy in the interests of the citizens rather than the stockholders; a system of social services that keep everyone healthy, educated and engaged in society. Then the citizens take it from there.
So if we want to preserve and improve what we have, those premises can give us at least a starting point for a new social democracy.
Towards a Canadian golden age
Canadians, of course, pride themselves on their own social-democratic achievements, especially medicare. But we too have taken a beating since 1980, and a recent documentary tries to guide us toward a new golden age.
Poor No More is an ambitious attempt to remember how to talk about our problems in social-democratic terms. With Mary Walsh as its narrator, it shows us the collateral damage of our shift to the right since Brian Mulroney: middle-aged part-time workers who can't make ends meet, and single mothers who can't find a job at all.
The film indulges in some embarrassing weepy passages, but once past the tear jerking it makes some good points about free trade and corporate tax cuts. Then it takes some of its people to Europe -- first to see the current mess in Ireland after the crash, and then to see Sweden cruising along with union reps on corporate boards and 480 days of parental leave for each child.
The Swedes certainly look happy with their arrangement. In fact, here's the list of the five happiest countries in the world -- Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. All of them suspiciously social democratic. And on Sept. 9 the World Economic Forum declared Sweden the second most competitive economy in the world, just below Switzerland and well above the U.S. at #4. Canada is at #10 -- down one spot from 2009.
Tony Judt would probably have disagreed with this film's argument that we simply need to adopt the Swedish model. But he would not have rejected its argument that we could gain something similar if only we would vote for it. Alas, the victims of the conservative revolution are too poor, isolated and demoralized to think that voting would make a difference.
Taken together, the book and movie are discouraging about our present condition. But as Tony Judt concludes: "As citizens of a free society, we have a duty to look critically at our world. But if we think we know what is wrong, we must act upon that knowledge. Philosophers, it was famously observed, have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."