Though it failed to offer a credible political alternative, the student movement expressed a global and radical critique of society and its institutions which could not be so easily dismissed. Such a critique had, of course, previously been expressed by individual theorists, writers and artists. What was new in the 1960s was that this was voiced, more or less spontaneously, by a mass movement.
Its cultural underpinnings were virtually ignored by the traditional Left, partly because socialist parties had little understanding of cultural politics, partly because it involved concepts which were outside the socialist tradition. What was this cultural substructure? Social theorists have described it as ‘post-materialist’, an expression which suggests the search for the politics appropriate to an an age of abundance. Socialist and capitalist politics, in spite of their differences, shared a common terrain: if resources were scarce, the question was how to distribute them. For post-materialists this assumption did not hold. In an era of abundance, politics must, inevitably, acquire a different form.
Politicians of the Left (and the Right) could fairly retort that the assumption that a post-scarcity age had been reached could only be entertained by privileged students, temporarily removed from the world of gainful employment, detached from its competitive ethos and unencumbered by family responsibilities. The real electorate had mortgages or rent to pay, children to feed and clothe, jobs to obtain or preserve. The student radicals arrogantly or childishly ignored these fundamental truths. They were right, however, when they held that human dignity should not be satisfied merely with the riches available on the shelves of supermarkets and department stores; they were wrong when they believed themselves to be the first to hold these views.
Social democrats believe in a well regulated, efficient market-based economy aimed at sustainable growth. We also believe in strong social and fiscal policies aimed at achieving greater equality.
But what do we mean by equality? This is a critical point of difference between liberals and social democrats. The liberal concept of equality emphasizes political and civil rights. Such rights include the right to vote, the right to stand for office, freedom from discrimination and equality before the law. These rights are fundamental, and social democrats support them and fight for them, but they are not enough.
When social democrats speak of equality, we also speak of social and economic rights, of substantive equality. These are rights like the right to medical care, to education, to retirement and to freedom from poverty. We believe in a society that distributes wealth and income more evenly. Social democrats reject unfettered markets because unfettered markets produce the unfair distribution of wealth we are experiencing today. Only by combining progressive taxation with social rights, removing appropriate goods and services entirely from market criteria, can we ensure a fair degree of real equality.