A sign of strange times: 1984 by George Orwell has become a bestseller yet again. Here is a book distinguished for its dark view of the state, together with a genuine despair about what to do about it.
Strangely, this view is held today by the Right, the Left, and even people who don’t think of themselves as loyal to either way. The whole fiasco happening in D.C. seems insoluble, and the inevitable is already taking place today as it did under the presidents who preceded Trump: the realization that the new guy in town is not going to solve the problem.
Now arrives the genuine crisis of social democracy. True, it’s been building for decades but with the rise of extremist parties in Europe, and the first signs of entrenched and sometimes violent political confrontations in the United States, the reality is ever more part of our lives. The times cry out for some new chapter in public life, and a complete rethinking of the relationship between the individual and the state and between society and its governing institutions.
Origins of the Problem
Social democracy is what we have now and what everyone loves to hate.
At a speech for college students, I asked the question: who here knows the term social democracy? Two hands of more than one hundred went up. That’s sad. The short answer is that social democracy is what we have now and what everyone loves to hate. It’s not constitutionalism, not liberalism, not socialism in full, and not conservatism. It’s unlimited rule by self-proclaimed elites who think they know better than the rest of us how to manage our lives.
By way of background, at the end of the Second World War, the intellectual and political elites in the United States rallied around the idea that ideology was dead. The classic statement summing up this view in book form came in 1960: The End of Ideology by Daniel Bell. A self-described “socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture,” he said that all wild-eyed visions of politics had come to an end. They would all be replaced by a system of rule by experts that everyone will love forever.
To be sure, the ultimate end-of-ideology system is freedom itself. Genuine liberalism (which probably shouldn’t be classified as an ideology at all) doesn’t require universal agreement on some system of public administration. It tolerates vast differences of opinion on religion, culture, behavioral norms, traditions, and personal ethics. It permits every form of speech, writing, association, and movement. Commerce, producing and trading toward living better lives, becomes the lifeblood. It only asks that people – including the state – not violate basic human rights.
They would build a cradle-to-grave welfare state.
But that is not the end of ideology that Bell and his generation tried to manufacture. What they wanted was what is today called the managerial state. Objective and scientific experts would be given power and authority to build and oversee large-scale state projects. These projects would touch on every area of life. They would build a cradle-to-grave welfare state, a regulatory apparatus to make all products and services perfect, labor law to create the perfect balance of capital and labor, huge infrastructure programs to inspire the public (highways! space! dams!), finetune macroeconomic life with Keynesian witchdoctors in charge, a foreign-policy regime that knew no limits of its power, and a central bank as the lender of last resort.
What Bell and that generation proposed wasn’t really the end of ideology. It was a codification of an ideology called social democracy. It wasn’t socialism, communism, or fascism as such. It was a gigantically invasive state, administered by elite bureaucrats, blessed by intellectuals, and given the cover of agreement by the universal right of the vote. Surely nothing can truly be oppressive if it is takes place within the framework of democracy.
A Brief Peace
The whole thing turned out to be a pipe dream. Only a few years after the book appeared, ideology came roaring back with a vengeance, mostly in reaction to the ossification of public life, the draft for the Vietnam war, and the gradual diminution of economic prospects of the middle class. The student movement rose up, and gained momentum in response to the violent attempts to suppress it. Technology gave rise to new forms of freedom that were inconsistent with the static and officious structure of public administration. Political consensus fell apart, and the presidency itself – supposed to be sacrosanct in the postwar period – was dealt a mighty blow with the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Government no longer held the high ground.
All that seemed to hold the old post-war social-democratic consensus together was the Cold War itself. Surely we should put aside our differences so long as our country faces an existential threat of Soviet communism. And that perception put off the unleashing of mass discontent until later. In a shocking and completely unexpected turn, the Cold War ended in 1989, and thus began a new attempt to impose a post-ideological age, if only preserve what the elites had worked to hard to build.
Over the last 25 years, every institution of social democracy has been discredited, on both the Right and the Left.
This attempt also had its book-form definitive statement: The End of History by Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama wrote, “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
It was Bell 2.0 and it didn’t last long either. Over the last 25 years, every institution of social democracy has been discredited, on both the Right and the Left, even as the middle class began to face a grim economic reality: progress in one generation was no longer a reliable part of the American dream. The last time a government program really seemed to work well was the moon landing. After that, government just became a symbol of the worst unbearable and unworkable burden. Heavily ideological protest movements began to spring up in all corners of American public life: the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Bernie, Trump, and whatever comes next.
The Core Problem
Every public intellectual today frets about the fracturing of American civic life. They wring their hands and wonder what has gone wrong. Actually, the answer is more simple than it might first appear. Every institution within this framework – which grew more bloated and imperious over time – turned out to be untenable in one or another sense. The experts didn’t know what they were doing after all, and this realization is shared widely among the people who were supposed to