What are social democratic values?

You might say that the values guiding social democrats haven’t changed much over the years. We believe in liberty, both civil and political; equality, both legal and social; and solidarity, both national and international. However, values are one thing, how they are interpreted, moulded together into an ideology and applied to the real world quite another.

For much of the 20thcentury these values were packaged together as a program that modified capitalism in the interests of social equality but not in a way that would undermine the incentives deemed necessary for economic growth. This acceptance of a capitalist framework is what distinguished social democracy from socialism and the planned economy.

By the end of the century it was also thought necessary to regulate and influence capitalist growth in the interests of environmental sustainability. Once again this approach distinguished social democrats from others on the left who saw science, technology, and economic growth as the keys to a future of socialist abundance.

These distinctions made political sense in the context of the Cold War but when that ended socialism was dealt a savage blow. The capitalist marketplace became more competitive and the imperative to improve productivity more pressing. Social democrats discovered the market and embraced a microeconomic reform program to ensure markets functioned properly.

Social equality was redefined as social inclusion with the role of government defined to enable its citizens to participate in the market economy rather than to protect them from its vagaries.

This social democratic assault on the regulatory and protectionist state led to the first rift within the ranks of social democracy between the traditional interventionists and the market reformers.

More strains were exposed when it became clear that climate change was real and dangerous in its implications. Dealing with the policy questions that followed revealed the close ties between social democracy and the material interests represented by the carbon economy. It is one thing to regulate growth in the interests of the environment, quite another to move to a low carbon economy and lifestyle.

This has led to a new set of divisions within social democracy   on the questions of energy, growth and the environment.

Add to all of this the issues related to culture and society. For much of the 20th century social democrats held traditional or conservative views about culture, gender and sexuality. However, as the century progressed and new social movements emerged, the case for radical change in social relationships gathered pace and was taken up by many social democrats. It was a case of multiculturalism challenging national values and the freedom to choose challenging the obligation to uphold traditional institutions and practices. All of this radical liberalism fitted well with the commitment to a free market, globalisation, and internationalism.

Not surprisingly, a good deal of the discussion about these issues was linked to a debate about the continuing relevance of religion and fundamentalism. Remember it had been Christianity rather than Marxism that had played a key role in the emergence and development of social democratic values.

It’s not surprising that with all of these differences on culture, economics and the environment; it is much harder to define social democratic values today. Much of the cement that held it together in the last century – a common religious perspective, a set of national values, an economy to plan and  build , a community to protect and a Cold War to be won – can no longer be assumed.

Take away religious fundamentalism, nationalism and tradition generally and you certainly have a clearly defined left-liberal set of progressive values and a political program to back it up.

This clearly defined left-liberalism within the ranks has induced many party members and supporters to look elsewhere for their political sustenance either because they reject it in the name of tradition or embrace it in the name of progress. For such people there is too much compromise on values within the social democratic parties today for them to feel comfortable and energised. They are seen as either too liberal or not liberal enough, as too green or not green enough, as too rationalist on markets or not rationalist enough and as too internationalist or not internationalist enough.

This squeezing of social democratic support from right and left reminds us that values and ideas matter and cannot be ignored when developing strategy and designing policy. We can’t turn the clock back to easier times but we do need to think more about what story we are going to tell about the future.


About Geoff Gallop

Geoff Gallop

After attending school in Geraldton, Professor Geoff Gallop studied at University of WA, Oxford and Murdoch Universities. From 1986 to 2006 he was a Member of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly. Professor Gallop was a Minister in the Lawrence Labor Government from 1990 to 1993, the Leader of the Opposition from 1996 to 2001 and the Premier of Western Australia from 2001 to 2006. After retiring from politics he was appointed Professor and Director of the Graduate School of Government, The University of Sydney, a position he still holds. He chairs the Australia Awards Board for the Commonwealth Government. In 2008 he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia.

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