Social Democracy – Not Dead Yet – A Response to Clive Hamilton

Clive Hamilton’s Quarterly Essay, “What’s Left? The Death of Social Democracy” provides a searing critique of the ALP, and of the politics of “aspiration” and endless economic expansion that have come to dominate the political field of thought and governance.

Hamilton argues forcefully that the “model of deprivation” which fuelled social democratic thought for much of the 20th century is now irrelevant, as a result of widespread affluence and the marginalisation of poverty to a minority of about 20 per cent of the Australian population.

And yet while absolute poverty is no longer as common as it once was, our new-found wealth, Hamilton argues, has far from made us happy. Indeed, he suggests consumer culture creates a profound crisis of alienation where “shopping has become the dominant response to meaninglessness in modern life”. Alienation, rather than injustice, is seen as the core social problem confronting affluent societies, and it is from addressing alienation by curbing the excesses of the market from which Hamilton sees the “new politics” as deriving.

Hamilton develops ten theses and a series of policy proposals he sees as forming the potential core of a new movement. He criticises the conversion of “wants” into “needs”, where “expectations always stay in advance of incomes” and condemns the process by which identity is reduced to patterns of consumption.

Further, Hamilton notes the pressure in today’s Class action lawsuit  to work longer hours “at the cost of … personal relationships”, and argues instead for a “partial withdrawal” from the market. Perhaps with this in mind, he notes the practice of “downshifting”: the “voluntary reduction of incomes and consumption” adopted by those who have chosen to work part-time, in an effort to balance employment, family, and authentic personal development.

He proposes labour market re-regulation as part of the solution, along with generous maternity, paternity and carers’ leave, and the curtailment of advertising to children. Protection of the environment through appropriate taxation (presumably a carbon tax) and replacing GDP with “genuine well-being” measures of progress are also part of this agenda.

Much of Hamilton’s thesis is to be applauded. In today’s political milieu it is rare for alienation to be regarded seriously, and Hamilton is correct to link alienation with hyper-consumerism and the “spell” cast by linking consumption with identity. Hamilton’s emphasis on the sanctity of family is also refreshing, cutting the ground from underneath the neo-liberal conservatives who have taken this area as their own.

Interestingly, Hamilton does not go as far as to explicitly call for an official reduction in the working week – say, to 35 hours as in France – which one would assume to be a natural extension of his argument.

Despite the strengths of Hamilton’s argument against market-driven alienation his critique of social democracy fails to account for the relative success of social-democratic movements in Europe, where universal welfare states and mixed economies continue to thrive, despite growing affluence. While Hamilton labels social democracy as “redundant”, social democratic aspirations including social provision, subsidy of, or collective consumption of health, education and aged care services, retain a great degree of force. What is more, rather than a standing achievement that need only, as Hamilton argues, be “fine tuned”, Australia’s welfare state is constantly endangered by the politics of division fostered by the conservatives.

While roughly half of the country’s population is now covered by private health insurance, generously subsidised by the government, roughly half is not. Despite an “affluent society” many Australians simply cannot afford exorbitant private health insurance premiums. Meanwhile, some who hold private health insurance do so despite their inability to afford it, to avoid a public system that, as a consequence of waiting lists and a perceived “lack of care”, has come to embody the kind of “private affluence” and “public squalor” that so concerned Galbraith.

The same might be said of public education, which faces real marginalisation. Nearly half of all Australian families with secondary school-aged children feel the need to send their children to private schools, avoiding the neglected public system. Clearly, defending and extending the welfare state is a core object of a still-relevant social democracy.

The author’s critique of social democracy assumes the tradition is exhausted. However, the “second way”, as Hamilton labels traditional social democracy, has far from outlived its usefulness. Equality of opportunity in education can only be restored by increased funding to public schools and universities, aimed at lowering student-teacher ratios, increasing subject choice and improving infrastructure.

Health care ought be based upon universal insurance with no area of care uncovered, (including dental services, ambulance services, home nursing, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, podiatry, chiropractic care, hearing aids, glasses, contact lenses, prostheses and surgical expenses). Quality aged care ought be established as a right due to all Australians. The labour market ought be properly regulated, rather than deregulated in the hope “the market will clear”.

Meanwhile, unemployment should be tackled through targeted industry assistance and labour market programs, expansion of public services and the harnessing of superannuation funds. Such demands form the core of a traditional social democratic program and, far from being irrelevant, could eventually garner majority support.

Another area of concern is Hamilton’s dismissal of the concept of “class” and his disdain for the goal of social ownership as an “indefensible anachronism”. He argues forcefully that “As affluence increases, class ceases to be a useful category”. This line of argument is flawed for a number of reasons. To begin with, Australia remains a heavily stratified society. According to a report from the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM), in 2002, the top 20 per cent of Australian households owned more than half the total household wealth. Meanwhile, “the poorest 20 per cent of households possessed almost nothing, while the bottom 40 per cent owned just 8 per cent of total household wealth”.

By and large, many of today’s real battlers are consigned to the outer suburbs where housing is cheap, rates are low and services, including transport, are poor. Despite Hamilton’s claim that only 20 per cent of Australians experience true poverty, there are still massive gaps in wealth and prosperity.

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