A New Politics of Wellbeing
- At 1 July 2005
- medium Opinion
A Speech to ‘Politics in the Pub’
Gaelic Club, Sydney, 22nd
Let me begin with some background to the thinking that led to the development of the
Wellbeing Manifesto. Over the last two or three decades, the neoliberal revolution –
which in Australia we call economic rationalism – has swept all before it around the
world. There is no serious political opposition or alternative to the arguments of those
who support the single-minded pursuit of more economic growth and the spread of
free markets everywhere.
The process of so-called economic reform – including the wave of privatizations,
labour market deregulation and competition policy − has undoubtedly increased the
rate of economic growth, although at considerable cost to social cohesion and at the
expense of some of those least able to protect themselves.
The economy has been booming since the early 1990s and most Australians have
become prosperous as never before. Average incomes exceed $50,000, sums that
would have seemed grand to our parents or grandparents in the 1950s. Not everyone
has been blessed by this prosperity but the great majority has been.
So on its own terms, neoliberalism has been highly successful. But around the world,
a few brave voices have begun to ask a subversive question: if we are so rich why are
we no happier? There is evidence of a widespread social malaise in rich countries, reflected in the prevalence of psychological disorders. Many people believe that the
preoccupation with money has been responsible for a decline in public and private
morality, and there is a widespread feeling that there is something empty about the
consumer life. In other words, has the transformation of our society come at too high a
price, or indeed been directed at the wrong goal? Was it all a mistake?
The Australia Institute began asking these questions around six years ago, first with a
study undertaken for us by Richard Eckersley which concluded that most Australians
do not believe life is getting better. When asked to reflect on what would make for a
better life, few people rank more money high on the list of priorities.
We also started to ask why governments and commentators are so preoccupied with
GDP, gross domestic product, as a measure of how we are progressing as a nation.
Why do we assume that the annual increase in the value of marketed goods and
services has any bearing on the nation’s state of wellbeing?
So we constructed an alternative to GDP which takes account of how increases in
national income are distributed. It also accounts for some of the costs of the growth
process, including the effect on the environment, the costs of commuting and the costs
of crime. We also added in the benefits we derive from the vast amounts of unpaid
work that Australians perform in the household and in the community.
The alternative index, known as the Genuine Progress Indicator, showed that while
GDP continued to rise through the decades, from around the mid-1970s this better
measure of national progress stopped rising and began to fall.
In addition to this work, in the 1990s psychologists began exploring in detail the
relationship between higher incomes and happiness. They found that, above a certain
threshold − one passed by the great majority in rich countries like Australia − more
money would make virtually no difference to perceived life satisfaction. More
alarmingly, they found that the more materialistic people become the less happy they
are, the higher the likelihood that they suffer from psychological disorders and the
poorer is the quality of their personal relationships.
Think tanks and researchers in other countries began to notice these things too. In the
USA, organizations such as Redefining Progress and the Center for the New
American Dream began asking awkward questions about the benefits of our obsession
with economic growth and higher incomes.
In the United Kingdom, the New Economics Foundation also published a Genuine
Progress Indicator. Its work led last year to the publication of a manifesto for
wellbeing. We at The Australia Institute were so impressed that we set about writing a
wellbeing manifesto suited to Australia.
One thing that the think tanks I have mentioned have in common is that they are not
aligned to any political party, a fact that gives them the freedom to think more
radically and to go beyond the traditional preoccupations of both conservative and
social democratic or labour parties. After all, the established parties of left and right
have all committed themselves to neo-liberalism and the free-market as the keys to
further social progress.
For much of history it was understandable that humans wanted above all to be free of
the daily compulsion to provide for their material needs, and they dreamt of the lives
they could lead once so liberated. But now that most people in rich countries are
affluent, the economy has become more rather than less important, and we are in the
grip of money-hunger as never before. Instead of being liberated by the enormous
productive gains we have achieved, it seems that we have allowed ourselves to
become enslaved. In sharp contrast to the promised freedom to choose our own
destinies, our materialism makes us ever-more dependent on others for our personal
identity and sense of self-worth.
The new wellbeing agenda challenges the traditional parties equally because it says
that, for all of the economic benefits of free markets, in the end we cannot find true
happiness in a shopping centre. The new wellbeing agenda side-steps the traditional
left-right debate over who can best manage the economy, and says that in rich
countries the answers to social progress cannot be found in the market. In short, it’s
not the economy, stupid.
The Wellbeing Manifesto breaks the link between the economy and our individual and
social wellbeing. It thereby challenges the dominance of economics and finance in the
political life of Australia. It calls for a reorientation of politics so that we focus on the
things that truly can improve our wellbeing. It dares governments and political parties
to break the spell cast by the quarterly national accounts and GDP and to commit
themselves instead to improving gross domestic happiness.
This is the background to the development of the Wellbeing Manifesto. It represents a
sharp break with the traditional preoccupations of political programs, and I think it is
the freshness of the approach that has been in part responsible for the extraordinarily
enthusiastic reception with which it has been met, even before the Manifesto has
received much attention in the mainstream media.
When I look at the people that have endorsed the Wellbeing Manifesto and read the
comments in the lively forum section of the website, within the enormous diversity I
can pick out two broad groups. The first is the traditional left who support a range of
progressive issues and organisations. The second, and bigger group, are simply
concerned citizens who do not share the social analysis of the traditional left but are
deeply concerned about the moral and social condition of modern Australia.
I think some of those who have endorsed the Manifesto have interpreted it through
social democratic spectacles and therefore have not grasped how radically different it
is. I believe that social democracy is dead and is no longer capable of inspiring
citizens to support social change.
Let me explain briefly why.
Social democracy emerged at a time when society was dominated by the struggle
between labour and capital and set itself the task of evening up the balance through
the political process. Class barriers have now largely dissolved, reflected in the
dramatic decline of trade unionism and the rise of lower-income conservatives who
feel no class solidarity and are just as likely to vote for the conservatives as the Labor
This is not to say that business does not continue to exercise enormous power, but that
it exercises power in quite different ways. Generalising, it is no longer exerted through
struggles in the workplace over pay and conditions and the right to organise. It is
brought to bear through the processes of consumption. The locus of social control and
social conflict has shifted from the production sphere to the consumption sphere
which is dominated by marketing.
The nature of the individual has also been transformed. In contrast to social
democracy’s conception of the individual as a member of a class engaged primarily in
an economic struggle, and from which they derive their identity and place in the social
order, the individual today is free floating. No longer subject to material privation, the
choices facing today’s individual are vastly expanded, at least in principle. Many
people could choose to step off the materialist treadmill and distance themselves from
the influence of the market. This is why the downshifters − those who have
voluntarily decided to reduce their income to pursue life goals other than material
accumulation − are so important.
Today, our sense of self and place in the world are more fragile and contingent than
ever. In a world of cultural diffusion and loss of community rootedness, we must
create our own identities and it is primarily through our consumption behaviour that
we do this. And how do we construct our identities? In large measure, and
increasingly, through the lifestyles we choose, the brands we buy, the self we
manufacture by selecting an identity from those on offer by the marketers.
The compulsion to participate in the consumer society is no longer driven by material
need, or by political coercion, but by the belief of the great mass of people that to find
happiness they must be richer, irrespective of how wealthy they already are. If
ordinary people today are exploited then it is by common consent. They choose the
gilded cage, and would prefer not to be told that the door is open. Thus in rich
countries today the power of capital today is an ideological rather than an economic
As a consequence, the old idea of solidarity, the emotion that powered social
democracy, has little meaning. People are no longer drawn together by their
oppression, united against a common enemy, or bound by a shared cultural history. In
place of solidarity, they aspire to occupy a superior position to their peers, or at least
to differentiate themselves from them, to assert their individuality (albeit a pseudo-individuality).
Because consumer capitalism and neoliberal ideology have succeeded so spectacularly
at creating the impression among people that they are true individuals, the widespread
acceptance of social justice has evaporated. Australians are far less likely now than
three decades ago to have sympathy for the poor, and much more likely to attribute
their disadvantage to the personal inadequacies of those so afflicted.
Of course, power is still exercised through the political process but social democracy
has long since accepted that its duty when exercising political power is to facilitate the
conditions under which business creates wealth. In the Australian Labor Party this is
perhaps represented by the change in the usual greeting of fellow party members; the
transition from ‘comrade’ to ‘mate’. Where ‘comrade’ is still used it’s done so in a
way that mocks the real meaning of the term or marks it as a historical anachronism.
Social democracy was temporarily reinvigorated in the 60s and 70s through its
adoption of a rights agenda − equal rights for women and indigenous people and the
campaign for sexual liberation in all its forms. This soon led to a divide between
traditionalists associated with the union movement and preoccupied by the deprivation
of the working class, and middle-class progressives more focussed on rights, a
worldview that reflected the new individualism of consumer capitalism.
So the world that gave rise to social democracy as a political ideology is no more. The
clear divide between class interests, the emphasis on regulating the economy to
promote social justice, the solidarity that bound working people together politically
and culturally are no more. Instead, we have a society dominated by affluence,
individualism, the obligation to find a self-identity, and an ideology of personal
This does not mean that poverty and disadvantage have been abolished and that the
circumstances of the poor and dispossessed do not matter. But the deprivation model
cannot provide the basis for a politics of social change in a society characterised by
affluence, and the continuing focus on the conditions of those who have not enjoyed
the benefits of affluence is counter-productive.
It must be admitted that after three decades of neoliberalism, and especially the last
decade of conservatism, which has seen an unprecedented increase in individualism
and preoccupation with self by most voters, the traditional empathy of many
Australians for the misfortunes of the genuine battlers has dissipated.
In other words, we do not lack the ability to solve poverty in Australia, we lack the
willingness. And the unrelenting emphasis on the economy has only made the bulk of
voters more preoccupied with their own circumstances. As we become richer we have
become more inclined to blame the victims for their own adversity and less willing to
help them out. We will not solve the problem of poverty until we solve the problem of
Some supporters, or potential supporters, of the Wellbeing Manifesto have also asked
why it contains no reference to that other great domain of progressive politics, the
defense of human rights. Great strides have been made since the 1960s in entrenching
the protection of minority rights. But while constant vigilance is required to protect
those gains, we do not believe that a new politics can be built on the rights agenda.
The Wellbeing Manifesto asks a different and daring question: while everyone should
have the right to participate fully and equally in society, do we have a society in which
everyone would want to participate? Should everyone have the right to shop til they
drop? Do women want the right to enter a world in which they must behave like men
to succeed? Is it equality we desire, or liberation?
The future envisaged by the Wellbeing Manifesto is one that applies to all Australians;
it is not an appeal to allow minorities to enjoy the advantages enjoyed by the majority,
but asks whether those advantages are really worthwhile. In other words, it challenges
those in the mainstream to take a hard look at the society they have created.
It is more difficult to make this argument in the case of the rights of indigenous
Australians, not only because their material circumstances remain a stain on the face
of Australian society but because they occupy a special position as the original owners
of this land. But while not in any way diminishing these claims, the Wellbeing
Manifesto is a manifesto that applies equally to all, and calls on Australians to commit
themselves to building a better society. I believe that the cultural and social shift
underlying the Wellbeing Manifesto would make mainstream Australia much more
prepared to acknowledge the special place and circumstances of Indigenous people.
I hope this gives you some insight into the development of the Wellbeing Manifesto, a
task in which the Institute has benefited greatly from the contributions of Richard
Eckersley and Richard Denniss and, of course, our colleagues at the New Economics
Foundation in London from whom we have borrowed so much.
I would also like to thank the David Morawetz Social Justice Fund for providing
Since the Manifesto went online two months ago over 4000 Australians have given it
their personal endorsement. Watching the response come in has been gratifying and
exciting for us, not least because of the wonderful variety of the supporters. If you
look at the list of those who have signed up on the website you will see that it includes
large numbers of students, retirees, teachers, academics, doctors, public servants,
managers, NGO workers and people who describe themselves simply as ‘mum’ (or, in
one case, Chief Domestic Officer).
We have also received endorsements from firemen, soldiers, artists and musicians,
secretaries, counsellors, psychologists and life coaches, child care workers, a currency
trader, an investment banker, a winemaker, a tailor and a circus trainer.
And so it is marvelous to see the diversity and enthusiasm of those who have turned
up this evening to hear about the Manifesto. The next stages are uncharted territory,
and it will be up to those who sign up and become involved to decide whether it is
worth taking up the Manifesto and using it to begin to transform Australia, to create a
I believe that the time is ripe for such a change. Not far beneath the surface most
Australians have a gnawing doubt about the value of a money-driven life. They know
that their society is too materialistic, and that the money society is at the root of the
decline in values.
By painting a picture of a new society, one that is less selfish and materialistic and
more devoted to the things that really will make us happier and more fulfilled, the
Wellbeing Manifesto can help us forge a new politics for the twenty first century.
1 Executive Director, The Australia Institute, www.tai.org.au