Social democracy is not enough

Twenty years ago a seminar entitled something like “New Directions for the Left” would have involved taking Marx and adding water.  These days it is more like  taking Rudd and adding spice. Either way, the Left usually doesn’t get it.

Unless the Left – with social democracy as its major Australian manifestation – can see the ecological imperative (and not only climate change) as the single most important factor driving events in the 21st century, and unless it can develop environmental stewardship as part of its core message, it will become irrelevant. Social democratic and social liberal theorists are so good at analyzing complex social, economic and cultural relationships. However, they are often reluctant to leave the comfort of their humanities frameworks to engage with scientific argument about the complexities of biological relationships and the dependence of the human species on a dynamic and vibrant planetary biological diversity.

If the key question of the 21st century is the nature of the relationship between human society and the natural environment, and the key struggle of this century is going to be over how we use natural resources, then some on the Left have already placed themselves on the wrong side of the barricades. A left-wing trade union leader who argues that green jobs are not real jobs and a left-wing premier who intends overseeing a 30 per cent rise in carbon emissions in her state are both part of the problem. If 25 per cent of all plant and vertebrate species could be lost by 2050, if ocean acidification could destroy the Great Barrier Reef (and most other coral reefs) within 50 years, and if all seafood species are already gone by then, then these good leftists can place themselves alongside the climate change denialists, the right-wing think tanks and the fossil fuel lobby as the enemies of sustainability.

This is not to say I am hostile to social democracy. In fact, I am very comfortable with the pragmatic, largely non-ideological, hands-on democratic and collectivist form of social democracy that has developed in Australia over the last 150 years. It is simply that it sees the environment as an add-on to the existing ways of thinking about politics, rather than as an opportunity for a fundamental re-think. Therefore, the Rudd Government’s greenhouse reduction strategy is designed to find the lowest common denominator in the community. Few are seeing as relevant the question of whether the carbon reduction programs will have any impact at all on mitigating climate change, let alone the wider question of how we develop a rational and humane transition to a sustainable future.

Only the Greens are attempting to develop a model of social democracy that does attempt to combine traditional Left concerns about social justice with that of environmental stewardship. However, many Left theorists continue to maintain support for the ALP on the grounds that the Greens cannot win enough electoral support to win government. This is the main dilemma for the Left. Does it support a model of political action and political institutions that seem incapable of addressing the key challenges of our time, or one that does address this challenge but is having great trouble moving beyond its minority, post-materialist base?