Social Democracy and Neoliberalism: Beyond Sibling Rivalry

By Steve Fuller - 04 February 2019
Image credit: Bill Benzon via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The failure of ‘progressivism’ to gain traction in the current political landscape can be diagnosed in many ways. The diagnosis pursued here, partly in response to a set of recent debates, is that social democracy and neoliberalism have been artificially divided by the spectre of Marxism. But now that Marxism is no longer a serious geopolitical force (though it remains quite potent in academia), the time is ripe for the two ‘centre-left’ movements to come together by recovering their common Fabian heritage, which stresses the value of social experimentation.


Policy Recommendations

  • Marxism should no longer be regarded as the polestar of Left-leaning politics. This point is already reflected in the actions of most politicians and policymakers today, but it needs to be embraced by the academic community if its opinions are to have any relevance in today’s political arena.
  • The shift away from Marx should be made in the context of reconciling the differences between ‘social democracy’ and ‘neoliberalism’, two technocratic forms of state capitalism that draw their inspiration from British Fabianism but have been increasingly seen by academics as polar opposites. This infighting, typically mediated by some phantom conception of Marxism, has contributed to the Left’s blindsiding by the rise of ‘populism’. 
  • Fabianism’s strength in this renewed context is that it approaches technological innovation from the standpoint of enabling greater flexibility in terms of social organization, combined with more intensive interest in data collection. These provide the structural preconditions for inducing a sort of ‘super-liberal’ attitude at the administrative level that encourages systematic social experimentation, for which Karl Popper originally applied the clunky phrase, ‘piecemeal social engineering’.