The scholar Tony Judt gave a talk back in October on "What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy" that has been published in the new holiday issue of The New York Review of Books. Judt is asking a new version of the old question once famously raised by Werner Sombart: "Why is there no socialism in the United States?" That question has received a variety of answers over the years, but for Judt the present absence of the milder option, social democracy, is more perplexing.
"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?" Judt asks, "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?"
Judt blames the fact that "we simply do not know how to talk about these things" on "economism," a modern tendency to think of everything in economic terms and a state of mind whose advent was anticipated with dread by thinkers from the 18th century forward. Judt seems to blame the triumph of economism on a complacency brought on by the success of the 20th century welfare state in Western Europe and the U.S. that undermined people's belief in its necessity. That still leaves no rational reason why citizens in these regions should support a gradual privatization of public services that has actually brought them little benefit. Judt seems to think that this privatization has contributed to the discrediting of the welfare state, if not the state itself, instead of being a symptom of it. He may be right, however, if he means to argue that privatization has exacerbated this sense of alienation from public feeling that leads to economism if we understand economism as a concern for one's pocketbook alone.
The cure for economism, Judt suggests, is to learn to "think the state" again. In plainer terms, we have to start thinking about the public or common good again. Judt worries that we're handicapped in doing this by the failure of Marx-style historical optimism about human progress and the state as its instrument. We can't be utopian anymore, or at least as long as memories of the failures of Bolshevism remain fresh. Judt would prefer a more moralistic social democracy that emphasizes itself as the right thing to do, but not as the answer to all questions or the fulfillment of all needs. Further, he offers the odd prescription of adopting "a social democracy of fear." This means bringing back history with an emphasis on what happens when "the market" fails and why the state needs to step in when it does. Social democracy, Judt seems to say, should be all about warning people about what can and most likely will happen if we let entrepreneurial ideologues complete the dismantling of the welfare/regulatory state. He argues that social democracy will be the real conservative movement of our time in the literal sense of that word, dedicated to preserving what was gained in the 20th century.
I'm not sure if economism sufficiently explains what's happened in this country. Judt himself notes that people have answered Sombart's original question by noting the heterogeneity of the U.S. as an obstacle to the social solidarity that emerged among European working classes. That same diversity probably had something to do with the loss of faith in the New Deal-Great Society order once some groups convinced themselves that others less deserving were benefiting more than they. But that doesn't get to the heart of Judt's leading question: why can't we think differently or outside the current box? Regular readers may roll their eyes at this point, but I can't help but thinking that the perpetual, self-reinforcing deadlock that characterizes the American Bipolarchy has something to do with this conceptual paralysis. The modern ideological alignment of the Bipolarchy along left-right lines forces too many people into reflexive opposition to policies that may benefit the country but don't fit into one or either program.
One of the two sides seems to argue in economist terms, but Judt may underestimate a "moral" element in that position. There are people in America who would argue that economism, or what Judt calls economism, is a moral principle. Judt notes the intellectual heritage of this belief in his lecture, but claims plausibly that few Americans today know the historical background of the ideas they take for granted or as gospel. At the same time, Judt may not appreciate fully the rise of a popular anti-state or anti-social ideology that owes relatively little to the likes of Hayek or Schumpeter, and everything to a dialectic process that generated a doctrinaire morally-absolutist individualism in opposition to all notions of collective welfare. At one point Judt proposes defining the humiliation of the poor as a social cost that we should try to minimize. As soon as I read the passage I regretted Judt's temporary naivete. Doesn't he realize that millions of Americans believe that humiliation is something that people deserve and should experience, either for their own good or as a lesson to others? Acknowledging the difficulty of this particular exercise, Judt says "unless we ask such questions, how can we hope to devise answers?" That's well said. My only complaint is that Judt himself isn't asking enough questions, but I suppose that's where the rest of us come in.