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Is social democracy the end of history?

By Mark Bahnisch - posted Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Both Andrew Norton and John Quiggin, though from rather different perspectives, have made the case that far from being a (neo)liberal government, Howard’s governing practice, if not his rhetoric, is social democracy with a conservative tinge.

In Andrew Norton’s case, he’s somewhat critical of Howard’s redistributive spending as an actual liberal, but also (I think it’s fair to say) tends to bolster the case made on the basis of research like that of Ann Harding of NATSEM that Howard hasn’t governed just for the rich. This is a defence Howard himself has made.

John Quiggin, by contrast, is critical of Howard’s misdirection of the spending, and of the Government’s fiscal and (lack of) macroeconomic policy generally.


It’s an interesting point, particularly since I spent part of the weekend reading Columbia political scientist Sheri Berman’s The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century.

Berman, at one level, is arguing there’s been some severe telescoping involved in the narrative of the end of history which sees the 20th century as a battle between Marxism and fascism on one hand and liberalism on the other. What’s ignored, she suggests, is that liberalism and Marxism were both exhausted ideologically at the start of the century, and that social democracy and fascism arose, almost dialectically, to supplant them.

At the level of the battle of ideas, the post-war decades were dominated by social democratic thinking, even if ostensibly conservative or Christian Democrat parties were actually governing. On the other hand, she contends (influenced here by Karl Polanyi) that the resurgence of liberalism will itself lead to a reaction, and she believes that a more libertarian and less statist social democracy will arise (the sort of thing I’ve long been arguing for, incidentally).

It’s an interesting argument, and she makes both the historical case and the case for seeing social democracy as a force in its own right (rather than some sort of inbetween position) well.

Let’s throw Kevin Rudd into the mix.

There’s been a fair bit of attention paid recently to whether Rudd got Hayek right in his recent articles for The Monthly. It may well be that it was unfortunate, as Jason Soon argued, that he based his reading on David McKnight’s book Beyond Left and Right, which has previously attracted some criticism here at Larvatus Prodeo.


In some ways, this is an interesting debate, but in others, it’s not central to Rudd’s actual position. Politicians aren’t really “public intellectuals”. If Rudd was indeed pouring through Hayek’s tomes and databases of Hayekian scholarship, he wouldn’t be doing the job he’s paid to do. What’s more interesting politically is the position Rudd stakes out.

In her argument about the distinctiveness of social democracy, Berman contends that social democracy is a distinctly modernist ideology. That is to say - unlike both fascism and Marxism - it doesn’t involve a violent movement towards an end point where both civil society and politics per se are elided by a utopian social stasis.

Such utopias, as those who know their history of the Long Twentieth Century will surely agree, are in fact violent and exclusivist dystopias. Rather, social democracy seeks to revive and construct community and sociability continually while embedding markets as modes of production and distribution as epiphenomenal to social goals rather than as the goal of a Liberal utopia.

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First published on Larvatus Prodeo on the November 6, 2006. It is republished as part of "Best Blogs of 2006" a feature in collaboration with Club Troppo, and edited by Ken Parish, Nicholas Gruen et al.

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About the Author

Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He founded the leading public affairs blog, Larvatus Prodeo.

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