Saturday, 4 December, 2021

A Moment For Social Democracy

Dev Raj Dahal


The coming years will be pivotal for social democracy, a democracy of free citizens living in solidarity across castes, classes and genders with positive and negative rights. It enables the people to fairly share public wealth, resolve problematic condition and engage in constructive international cooperation to resolve global problems. As the leading apostles of laissez fair capitalism continue to face structural crises intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn, environmental degradation, growing unemployment, neglect of multilateralism, erosion of international institutions, etc. it opened a moment for social democracy as a response to secure sustainable human development, health, security, public good and peace.
Its crisis solution mechanism is premised on a gradualist, reformist management of society, economy and polity, and a negation of the class-blind neoliberal order for its corrosive effects on the state’s ability to regulate disembodied capital and balance between law and freedom. Social welfare state ingrains economic policy on ecological, cultural, social and political life by socialising the public good. The history of economic growth, migration and social transformation as tools for elevating living standards of society now encounters extraordinary imbalance in insecurity from the underfunding of public service and citizens’ aspiration for a just society that market forces alone cannot provide.

Grassroots discontent
The discontent below the political surface at grassroots indicates that the fate of Nepalis cannot be improved with “politics as usual” in class, caste and gender-based society and meet historical mission of socialism to emancipate citizens from archaic fetters. It imposes difficulty on the exercise of the concept of political equality of citizenship, honour and dignity. Without democratic reorganisation of the party structures, leaders and cadres will be less responsive to ordinary lot. In diverse and unequal society like Nepal, it demands class, caste and gender compromise and conciliation across multilevel governance affirming sovereignty of the people which is a source of Nepali state’s power and authority. It also entails transferring the government power to those whom citizens have trust in the instinct of their leadership and creative initiatives making this system serve better than its alternatives.
Many nations have built the foundation of social democracy without abolishing the positive virtues of capitalist system of incentive, innovation, competition and allocation to alleviate the scarcity and work in a meritocratic way. They only cut its negative impulses through a social contract which included social democratic ideals of freedom, equality, social solidarity and peace and played by democratic rules. The surge of neoliberal policies in Nepal is more an elite revolt against the egalitarian effects of democracy embedded in its constitution than improve the fiscal basis of state for redistributive politics. As political power oscillated along all-party consensus, grand coalition, minority government, royal putsch, majority rule and dominant rule of Nepal Communist Party (NCP), now it provided each political party an occasion to reinterpret its founding ideology to fit changing conditions.
Yet, the compromise of their ideologies with bichaulia, the comprador class with unwarranted influence on economic decision-making, puts a strain on governance. The rise of market for the regulation of society did not promote political stability, efficiency and redistribution to address the problems of Nepalis caught at different scales of progress. Party cadres and followers now find trouble in defining what their parties stand for and what is the final goal. These trends, however, bear certain positive elements. It has faded the ferocity of class conflict between the left, the centre and the right. The general political consensus on these illiberal polices outside the framework of the liberal Nepali constitution has weakened the social contract while allowing finance to move in full freedom investing more in symbolic economy for self-enrichment and caring less to greening the real economy, fulfilling basic needs and rights of majority.
The upward flow of wealth and opportunity without plugging the gap between the nation’s financial base and public expenditure has spiralled unsustainable debt having no links to economic growth and trade balance. Infusion of money in patronage politics than the realisation of nation’s natural and human potential has amplified the influence of business in law-making and eroded the efficacy of democratic institutions to avail the common good. Mediating economic and political interests are important to protect Nepali citizens’ constitutional and human rights, bring the opposite poles to the democratic centre and keep up the balancing act between the supporters and foes of social democracy and shore up the capacity of local institutions to serve citizens. The adoption of sustainable development goals brings a consensus on their economic thinking, by necessity, if not by choice.
The constitution of Nepal incorporates many features of social democracy as an ideology of the nation, not only of certain political parties or classes though the tension between the state interests, parties’ behaviour and social grievances for their unrealised promises continue. Nepali workers and their unions coordinated under a common umbrella hardly consider their counterparts - employers and the state as enemy entailing frequent strikes, free collective bargaining and codetermination. The rights to private property and ownership, labour market flexibility, hire and fire, no work no pay, etc. promise that Nepal will not veer to classical form of communism.
Many factors have made social democracy a matter of necessity. First, it has increased social rights incorporated in the constitution such as social inclusion of diversity, proportional representation, right to work, education, health, food, social justice, social protection, contributory nature of social security for workers, social support to the elderly, the disabled, single woman, minorities, Dalits and people of backward regions and periodical renewal of minimum wage. Second, Nepal’s endorsement of universal declaration of civil and political, social, economic and cultural rights acts as what Thomas Meyer calls “a valid component of international law” transcending cultural relativism.
Third, constitutional vision of creating an egalitarian society seeks to abolish discrimination and remove the structural condition of poverty and inequality, and finally the classically defined middle path of ecological, social, gender and intergenerational justice and related international duties which all political parties uphold. These factors are vital to generate the hope and loyalty of poor in its politics, institutions, laws and policies and create a counterculture to a politics of feudalism, populism, fundamentalism, authoritarianism and oligarchy.
The power of Nepali state - the instrument of Keynesian intervention in the economy - , which neoliberal policies reduced to minimum by stripping off its wealth by privatisation, denationalisation, deregulation and globalisation, now needs restoring to execute social welfare commitments, avert the revolt of elites and the return of geopolitics. They have cut the state’s monopoly on power to enforce constitution and expand the base of real economy - agricultural and industrial - for entrepreneurial activities to absorb about half a million youths entering the internal job market annually. The exhaustion of the socialisation of the means of production and underinvestment in human capital especially skill training for youths for new economy has left only one option: their migration into precarious global labour market to earn a living and promote collective good in terms of remittance. This has increased the costs for social cohesion and obliterated the class basis of political parties of Nepal as outbound migration is common agenda of all parties including those of proletariats.
The operation of neoliberal economy subverted regional balance, created gaps in wealth, education, health and access to other opportunities for social mobility and inspired radical revolts, political agitations of sub-groups of society and social struggles as they found the new regime comfortable with the old administrative and political culture built on top-down style. If this constitution and leadership do not provide rational solution to the crises, the forces of reaction might offer the irrational ones hitting the soul of social democracy.
The social democratic response to the multiple crises demands the enforcement of national constitution so that citizens happily pay taxes and the state provides basic state goods such as security, rule of law, public services and social security to the poor. The normative ideals of the constitution are broadly accepted by all strata of citizens and political parties except the demands of some on peripheral issues such as presidential form of governance, multi-nation state, balanced inclusion, etc. The question is how those ideals are given concrete meaning in improving the empirical conditions of Nepalis’ everyday life by a synergy of public, private and cooperative economy.
Managing the integrity system of polity at multi-level governance with ample resources, personnel, institutions, laws and information and right monitoring of their performance can make the officials transparent and accountable. It is vital to change the policy culture of the nation as white collar intellectuals far from being organic part of peasants and workers favouring grassroots democracy are aligned with the privileges and profit and justify the changing nature of status quo, not a future of socialism for coming generations. It is necessary to bring the public good again back to public sphere so that weak, poor and Dalits can enjoy equal access, opportunity and social mobility. It helps to build social democracy on common concern, shared needs and interests and provide a basis for national unity.

Surplus labour
The backlash of globalisation has restricted the mobility of Nepali labour in the market place abroad. In this context, the surplus labour has to be utilised in the productive sectors where effects of COVID-19 are limited, with the possibility of getting the economy back on track. Cooperation between the capital and the labour needs to complement each other in specialisation and exchange so as to lift those at the bottom of poverty line. The problems of regional and international nature such as pandemic, climate change, technological innovation with disruptive effects on employment, terrorism, migration, trade and commerce demand response of global solidarity and a common set of rules, principles and regimes to govern global public goods.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)