The Case for Active Government

Jean Curthoys

Social democracy is such a vague notion that it is customary to spell it out as a set of concrete policies. I’m not going to do that because I think there is a general point to be made about the framing of such social democratic agendas – and because I’m a philosopher and we specialize in generalities. I shall begin by picking up on just one sentence in a recent letter from Luke Foley to members of the ALP, a sentence I found very encouraging. Summing up his proposals for party renewal, Foley wrote this: ‘Above all, we should take as our guiding principle a belief in active government as a force for good’ (my emphases).

This is no bland motherhood statement, although on a quick reading it might appear to be. In the present climate in which the neo-liberal insistence on ‘small government’ has captured the day and the Labor Party is on the defensive about the allegation of ‘big government’, it is what Sir Humphrey would have called a ‘very brave’ stance. ‘Active government’ has so long been associated with wasteful and interfering bureaucracy at best, and with the evils of totalitarian socialism at worst, that almost nobody admits to thinking it a good thing. Since it is manifest that many of the challenges facing us now can only be addressed by government, it is imperative that these associations be challenged.

A commitment to ‘active government as a force for good’ is fundamental to social democracy. It is what transforms a social democratic agenda from a ‘laundry list’ of worthy objectives, which may or may not be achievable, into a challenging and inspiring project. It is this conception of the role of government which makes social democracy the democratic project of late modernity. What it implies is extending the reach of democracy to the economy or, as some put it (I don’t know if Foley is among them) to the ‘management of capitalism’. And this means government which both regulates the economy and participates in it through the provision of public infrastructure – otherwise known as the welfare state. No other political tradition aspires to develop democracy in this way. Genuine liberals are democrats, to be sure, but their conception of politics basically stops at economy. Neo-liberalism explicitly aims to limit the scope of parliamentary democracy lest it unsettle the supposedly self-regulating mechanisms of the market. Marxism, because of its ‘after the revolution’ mentality, essentially does not have a conception of politics. Fascism, obviously, doesn’t count a democratic movement. Social democrats have to stop being on the defensive, stop agreeing as Julia Gillard did recently, that they ‘have moved beyond the days of big government and big welfare’ and go on the offensive. We are the democratic movement; the movement for ‘small government’ is not.

I’ll try to make this a little more concrete in  terms of the particular brief of the panel to which this is a contribution: ‘looking back to look forwards’. I want to go back, though, to a whole period of western democracy, that which lately has become known as the post-war ‘golden age of social democracy’ – roughly from 1945 to the late 70s. Admittedly, in Australia, this so-called ‘golden age’ was mostly administered by a governing Liberal Party, though many of its achievements were brought in by Labor. But the reason it is known as ‘the golden age of social democracy’ is that this was a time in which both sides of politics were committed to some economic planning, to broadly Keynesian economics, and to the welfare state. In short, it was a time when broadly social democratic ideas defined the agenda.

There are now two influential books making the case that social democrats should draw positively on this period. One is Tony Judt’s death bed appeal to the next generation, Ill Fares the Land. The other is Sheri Berman’s more theoretical The Primacy of Politics. It is not an easy case to make. Most of their ‘golden age’ is retrospectively loathed by most of those who lived through it. It overlaps with the time Paul Keating scorned as that of John Howard’s ‘white picket fence’-  the time of women in the home, aborigines in reserves, gay men in the closet, and the aim of life a house in the suburbs. Only cultural conservatives admit to nostalgia about this post-war period. However, as Tony Judt tells it, there is something important missing from the memories of both radicals and conservatives.

In his recollection, the post-war period was also a time when the vast majority of the population used public health, public education and public transport. This shared experience and frequent contact with other sections of the population made for a genuine, if unconscious, sense of community. This tacit sense of community was an experience of citizenship, of belonging to a nation in terms of something more than chauvinistic pride. It manifested, he says, in a general preparedness to pay taxes for the ‘public good’ whether or not one directly benefited, for it was understood that a strong public sphere was for everyone’s good, providing security, enabling trust. ‘User pays’ was not part of the social imagination and social welfare was seen as a right, not a degradation. The tendency to unequal wealth, intrinsic to a free capitalist market, was held in check. The picture may be overdrawn, but the ‘golden age’ is still proof that capitalism can be managed politically, and overall managed quite well. For in these respects of security, equality, wealth, and equality of opportunity, this period certainly was golden in comparison to the deregulated capitalism which came after.

Sheri Berman takes the argument one step further by emphasizing just what an unprecedented and unique achievement the post-war period was. She shows it to be the outcome of a long history, beginning in the 1890s, when social democrats first tried to synthesize of some of the insights of Marxism and liberal democracy, while addressing the failings of both. For social democrats acknowledge, what liberals don’t, that the capitalist market is not intrinsically democratic, that the inequality of economic power it produces is an inequality of real power. In short, that democracy must be extended to be meaningful. But they also recognize, what Marxist socialists don’t, that capitalism is more efficient, more innovative and far less coercive than socialist planning – and that, in any case, it is here to stay. But it was only the experience of active government, that is, economic planning, during the Second World War which demonstrated that social democracy was possible and enabled social democratic ideas to seize the political agenda. That the golden age lasted as long as it did is further proof that ‘active government’ can be a force for good.  It is now our best hope.

Jean Curthoys is an Australian philosopher who has written extensively on the topics of social democracy and feminism.


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