Where does Social Democracy finish and Neoliberalism start? Can both co-exist at the margin between the two? Some argue that they are on a continuum. I’m not at all convinced. That seems a Third Way argument, heartless mechanical Neoliberalism with some Dorian Grey inspired make-up to hide the hidden beast beneath.
There are activities that both Labour and National governments have done in New Zealand since 1984 that are clearly in the social democrat camp – social liberalisations and inclusions relating to identity, the rights of children, gender, victimless pursuits, etc. Generally less so for the Nats of course, especially since they’ve decided that large Mega-corporates are their very special friends – both as funders and key clients at the expense of the planet and the future of our people.
There is no question that particular liberal, loosely ‘social democracy’ projects can be promulgated under a Neoliberal ‘Third Way’ framework, but the threats being created by the Neoliberal agenda to our foundations of social and planetary function far outweighs such window dressing.
Where I think there is a clear distinction between Neoliberalism and Social Democracy is in the dominant assumptions underpinning policy. And I think they are incompatible. They are on very different continua – one dominated by the metaphor of a machine where people have their meaning reduced to a dollar, there to serve the economy as measured by GDP; the other by the metaphor of interconnectedness and constantly shifting system where individuals, communities and place are all moral patients and the economy is there to serve them. To be a social democrat requires an appreciation of the reality of society, and of the deeper connections and interdependencies of people to other people, and to the places on this planet whole to which they belong and on which they depend.
Neoliberalism has no appreciation of those connections, even to the point of framing everything as ‘resources’ or cogs within a controllable and predictable factory model of life, rather than a functioning and inherently complex and adaptive integrated system where resilience to shocks and adaptability are fundamental capacities. Their respective metaphysics are more than incompatible – they are also incommensurable to the point where they cannot talk with each other in the same language.
State Communism came from the same mechanical and essentially autocratic stable as Neoliberalism; with the same destructive and dehumanising factory standards. Their lack of resilience was manifest. Our current dominant model is no less so. An adaptive empowered and resilient Social Democracy, and any workable future political movement, cannot coexist with such meaningless mechanical ‘dys’-connected views of people and place.
How did we get here? We shifted in 1984 from a far deeper understanding of what makes up a history as a colony, a nation, a community, a person and an economy to one dominated by assumptions that we are all part of a machine of selfish individuals, utility maximising, equally powerless, competitive, a world defined as ‘resources’ allocated best by an ‘unfettered’ market; completely devoid of any understanding of humanity. All the breadth and depth of life was expunged by a religious creed masquerading as a science because it had complex maths to cover its incredible (and I do mean *not* credible) assumptions. And so we empower the power-hungry, the selfish, the colonisers and the extractors; and we disempower the nation, the community, cooperation, and the creative potential of both individuals and our economy.
Of course, because so many scientists and humanities minds – which the public sector used to have in spades – refuted this incredibly simplistic view of the world, they had to be expunged, silenced. And so amidst their claims of freedom and liberalisation, Neoliberalism shut down thought, and difference, and art, in favour of their standardised construct of the world. Freedom is lost while they drown out the voices of freedom using large megaphones screaming “Freedom!” And they unleashed the Hyenas of Commerce upon the world.
We became inhuman and inhumane, and designed all sorts of public organisations in the image of a certain, controllable, quantitative machine – standardisation, jobs defined by outputs, schools as factories, corporate-style hierarchies and autocracies, people as cogs, loss of thinking, dialogue, compassion and cooperation, the assumption that the worst ‘rational’ and short-term self interest would magically create a better world.
David Suzuki is quite right when he gives the example of planetary destruction of slow cycling natural systems as economically rational – and therefore nothing short of rationalised insanity; brain damage. It is rational within Neoliberal constructs to liquidate and reinvest in more liquidation, to discount virtues and duties as well as the future until you have a large McMansion on a hill and all else is gone. And any claims that constructing ‘externalities’ will prevent that happening are rubbish.
You cannot know what you need in the future if you are looking at your feet through short-sighted lens. You cannot price those consequences because you cannot measure the impact over distant time and space, and you cannot even conceive of the many meaningful things – the loss of a butterfly in flight. You cannot measure because the framing as a set of resources is false: forests, fisheries, water, soils – not to mention our climate – are far more than mere static sets of resources; they function, they interact, they flow, they dance; they are far more verbs than nouns; murmurations, not bricks.
That is the greatest distinction I would make between Social Democrats and Neoliberals. Neoliberals have no sophisticated view of either people or society (how it actually works), or the environment (how it actually works). They have no ecology. They have no sociology. They have no psychology. They have no history. They have no philosophy. They have modelling and mathematics … and false assumptions.
They presume a society and a planet are a collection of disconnected reducible quantitative and measurable things, and therefore you can make it work by emphasising the presumed mechanical nature of things. And so a multitude of negative consequences ensues because – patently – the world (people and planet) are *not* a certain controllable, reducible machine – they are embedded socio-ecological complex adaptive systems within which there are lives that have meaning.
With that view the outcome follows – a bigger ‘economy’ measured in dollars as a collective rather than with any reference to the meaning and life of one soul. The presumption is that the cog will rise with the collective machine. I cannot imagine a more dystopian view of life.
Until we sort those roots, and dig them out, we’ll be dominated in our policy making by Neoliberal madness. It doesn’t matter if we liberalise the expression of particular identity differences if life is reduced to a meaningless struggle up the hierarchy. That doesn’t mean they care. It is far more about maintaining control than creating a future where life is meaningful and resilience to the uncertainties we face.
I don’t think we will have social justice or any form of social democracy until Neoliberalism is expunged from Treasury, and the public sector restored to something where the mad ideas of the corporate/neoliberal nexus are exposed to the glare of the real world. They are that incompatible. They are positioned that far distant on incommensurable continua.
There can never be a Third Way. We can have a resilient meaningful Social Democracy, or we can continue to head down the path to a dystopian Corporatocracy.
And if it isn’t climate change that gets us, it will be something else.