I grew up on the far north coast of New South Wales in the house my grandfather built. At the end of our road was the Meerschaum Vale hall, a community center for the inhabitants of our little hamlet to congregate. I remember the stories my dad used to tell. The raging dances, the active community. It was even the hall where he met my mother.
These stories used to bewilder me, not because of their grand scope and scale, but because this image of a hall full of music and good times didn’t fit with my image of a hall that was a ghost house. For me and my siblings, the Meerschaum Vale hall was a creepy old building that was seldom used. Just entering it was exciting because we rarely ever did.
I believe that we can’t just look at the last 30 years of social democratic decline to describe the crisis within social democracy – the water we are all swimming in. We need, instead, to go much further back, and to look closely at how society was built and the organisational forms that supported active and engaged societies. A key to this might be to look across national borders and see the patterns that are forming on a global level.
Engagement is on the rise. I would however, like to point out that a certain type of engagement is not. For the purpose of this article, I will divide engagement into two categories: 1) engagement with content, and 2) engagement with people.
The first category of engagement is engagement with content. We are all sharing links on Facebook and tweeting how abhorred the Trump administration is. This type of engagement is definitely on the rise. It is an engagement with ideas that manifest itself as content, be it videos on social media, the lunchtime seminars we attend or articles from traditional media outlets. It’s individualised.
The other category of engagement, where we engage with other people, often through the creation of common purpose and organisation, is on the decline. We see this in our local sporting clubs, where our kids football teams find it harder to find coaches, or in our study circles where the number of participants haven’t increased despite a population explosion (note that the number of study hours have increased, adding credence to the idea we have orientated ourselves to content, rather than people). We see this in a cold and dank Meerschaum Vale hall where community has been gutted and the coming together of diverse people and interests in common action is on the decline or simply non-existent.
Engagement with people differs fundamentally from engagement with content. A few examples of how these differ can be found below:
|Write posts, attend seminars, share links. (both on and offline)||Run meetings, write agendas administrate democractic processes (both on and offline)|
|Update statuses, comment, stimulate our own intellectual understanding and discussion.||Balance diverse opinions, vote, negotiate and discuss practical issues.|
|Become a better more competent person||Lift and develop the capacities of others.|
|Get others to share ideas and content, use the same hashtags etc. on social networks.||Recruit new members from personal networks, create common purpose for groups.|
As we change the everyday actions of individuals, we change the emergent patterns that form on a societal level. I believe this change has dramatically reduced the ability for social democratic governments to take and hold power.
At time of writing, the Labor party has just released their post-election analysis. The report points to a variety of factors that led to the loss. A weak strategy, internal structures, polling, the failing popularity of the party leader and the lack of a congruent narrative. Coming from a sister party that has lost a few elections, I recognise all these conclusions. These are the same conclusions we make, time after time. The way we express ourselves varies, from election to election and from country to country, but the essence is the same. These, I am sure, are very accurate conclusions but when we start seeing these trends spread from country to country, we have to ask ourselves: “is something bigger at play?”.
Self-governing organisations have always been the bedrock of engagement. As Theda Skocpol describes, self-governing organisations are the cake, not the icing. It is within our federated organisations that the majority of engagement has historically occurred. These large organisations grew out of the industrial age and became the great schools of democracy for society at large.
Since the 1970’s however, Skocpol et.al. points out, these organisations have been in decline. No other organisational form has risen to take their place. Engagement has evolved, from engagement with people, recruiting members and supporting democratic federated structures, to engagement with content on social media platforms etc.. Certain digital media can help us facilitate and co-operate with people, Google Drive is one such worktool, but the structures of these digital tools dictate how we use them. Digital tools are not neutral.
The change from people to content might seem small but it changes fundamentally the everyday actions of citizens. No longer are we sitting in self-governing democractic organisations trying to balance diverse opinions and membership. Without these experiences, the vast majority of the society is not being exposed to democracitic processes with positive outcomes. Without these everyday experiences reinforcing our beliefs that democracy can and does work for the greater good of our societies on the micro-level, how will we ever believe that democratic solutions will work for society on a macro-level?
As Wendy Brown points out in her book, In the ruins of neoliberalism, a movement from democracy to the market hasn’t resulted in a golden age of capitalism. It has, instead, contributed to the rise of demigods, conservatism, nationalism and authoritarianism. Liberalism was just a stop on the way. It broke down democratic structures, shifted services from public to private, and created a vacuum for others to fill.
We live in a time when politics is dominated by conservatism and demigods, not democratic engagement. Donald Trump, Boris Johnsson and Scott Morrison. These people grew out of the vacuum of neo-liberalism and built on the narratives of the free-marketeers before them – Reagan, Thatcher and Howard. We might have to get used to the idea that the Obama Government was an exception to a more general trend, an exception that was built on the organisation and democratic involvement of engaged citizens. Perhaps, Labor’s prospects of winning at the last election wasn’t the open goal we all thought it was. The water we are swimming in is muddied.
When the Swedish social democrats were in their prime, their membership made up around 4% of those that voted. They won and won easily. They became the most successful democratic political party the world has ever seen. At the moment, membership is about 1% of the voting population.
Erica Chenoweth provides insight to the success of the social democrats in Sweden. Every people’s movement that has reached an active participation from 3.5% of the population has been a success. This work should be a guiding light for all social democratic parties the world over – engagement, self-governing organisations and membership should be central to our strategies. Winning elections is a long term fight that we only sporadically win if we focus on messaging and media.
Building a more active civil society isn’t just the role of organisations, government can help too. In Sweden, a culture of membership has been supported by 1) ear-marking funding for democratic membership organisations and 2) providing tax deductions for membership, such as union fees. There has been a laser focus on organisational membership. Compare this to tax deductions for charity, prevalent in many societies. This funding isn’t infinite, so there is an opportunity cost for every tax deduction that doesn’t go to membership organisations.
Our way forward is to transform the everyday beliefs and attitudes of all citizens. To do this we need to focus on their everyday actions. Actions form attitudes. We need to expose them to democratic institutions and processes in their everyday lives, and show them that democracy is indeed a tool that can be used to solve pressing complex problems on the local level. Embeddedness, not better messaging, is the key.
Only when our societies believe in their own power on the local level, will they begin to believe in their power to change their nations and the world. This belief is the promise of social democracy. It’s a promise that formed the bedrock of our successes in the past and will do so well into the future.