About the failure of social democracy. On past futures and pasts to come.

First published in March 2021.

In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin thought social democrats failed because they proposed a dull kind of linear progress, which ignored the emotional reality that people wanted to break time, in reactionary or revolutionary ways. As Germany did with Fascism.

Ten years ago, after the collapse of social democracy, my mentor Tony Judt proposed a different solution. After the failure of so many imaginary futures, why not go back to some reusable pasts — such a social democracy, which had recreated Europe.

In the absence of grand narratives about the future – socialism or the global triumph of liberal democracy — isn’t there something valuable in the narratives of conservation, sustainability and other ‘reusable pasts’? Can’t we look backwards to see progress?

I only say this because Walter Benjamin preferred the revolutionary communists compared to the progressive social democrats, because they had a more messianic and poetic vision of time. But perhaps that has all changed, now the future has abandoned us.

Instead of the constant vistas of progress, consumption, increasing GDP, perhaps the pandemic has made us realise that rather than constantly striving for what we have not got, we are lucky to have what we have, and should look after it.

Better outcomes in education, reproductive rights, and redistribution of wealth then becomes — like making sure Covid-19 doesn’t mutate in other countries — not just an argument for social justice, but also collective survivability.

Not political correctness, just common sense. 

Peter Jukes, Author, journalist, Executive editor of Bylinetimes.com director of Byline.com & Bylinefestival.com.

[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 5 March 2021 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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