Social Democracy: Dead, or pining for the fjords?

A talk to a seminar organised by Compass

Portcullis House, House of Commons, London, 4th October 2007

Clive Hamilton1

The Individualised World

Not long ago, while walking through Sydney’s CBD, I overheard a snippet of conversation between two young women sitting in the sun. “I’m not sure what to do with my life,” said one. It struck me as a very modern statement, implying that the young woman had before her myriad life choices and that the responsibility for deciding which one to take was entirely her own.

In the 1950s, by contrast, few young men and women would have asked themselves
“What will I do with my life?” Then, the options facing most appeared limited. Social expectations and constraints relieved individuals of much of the personal responsibility for determining their own life-course.

The idea of “my life” to which we are now so strongly attached is the quintessential product of the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, whose aim was above all to destroy those social expectations, norms and constraints that prevented individuals from living their lives as they wanted to.

While the gains of the new social movements must not be decried, I think it must be admitted that the freedom we now enjoy has become in some respects a burden. Signs of this are everywhere. The self-help industry, for instance. Self-help books always begin by reminding us that we are responsible for our own happiness, an injunction that validates the self-focused individualism of modern life.

The relentless emphasis on the self and personal responsibility is an unconscious affirmation of Margaret Thatcher’s epoch-marking declaration that there is no such thing as society. The neoliberal drum-beat of self-reliance and small government is the same message that, more subtly, the marketers reinforce every time they try to sell us something that promises to make us happier. Self-pity has superseded solidarity as the emotion of the age.

It was not just the spread of the market that gave us the age of individualisation. The new social movements were demands for self-determination built on the belief that everyone, and especially those oppressed due to their gender, race or sexual orientation, should no longer have their life choices constrained by social taboos, discriminatory beliefs or class background. For the first time in history, the social movements gave everyone the opportunity to ask: “What will I do with my life?”

Ulrich Beck has argued that, in place of societies in which people form their sense of self by unconsciously absorbing the cultural norms and behaviours of those around them, living in largely homogeneous neighbourhoods and communities, we live in an era of
“individualisation”. The term refers to the requirement to create one’s own self, to “write one’s own biography” instead of having it more or less drafted by the circumstances of one’s birth.

The new imperative arises in a society saturated by the outpourings of the mass media, in which the symbols of achievement and the characters worthy of emulation appear on the screen and the magazine pages rather than in the local community or in handed-down stories of the saintly and heroic.

But if we cannot construct an identity from the raw materials provided by our communities and cultural heritage, from what can we build it? Into this breach stepped the marketers of modern consumerism. Increasingly, it is to the market, to the brands and the lifestyles attached to them, that people turn in order to create themselves − not to their communities, clubs or unions. In this world it is consumption, typified in the shopping experience, that becomes the characteristic act.

The world has thus changed radically. Social democracy was constructed from a certain understanding of the nature of social distress and an analysis of its causes. It arose in response to the prevalence of material deprivation, workplace exploitation, lack of opportunity for personal advancement and disenfranchisement. But these are no longer characteristic of affluent liberal democracies where relatively few people are materially deprived, exploited at work, lacking in opportunities to develop themselves or disenfranchised from the political process. Most do not feel disempowered; they do not participate in political life because they don’t want to.

Of course, poverty remains for a minority; in some Western countries a substantial minority. The persistence of poverty in affluent societies makes it all the more inexcusable. But there is no structural reason for the existence of this poverty. In fact, when poverty researchers and charities talk about poverty nowadays they overwhelming attribute it to factors like family breakdown and mental illness, factors that are not an inherent feature of the economic system.

My point is that we cannot build a new progressive political program on the circumstances of the bottom 10 per cent of the population. We need to found a new progressive politics in the social conditions as we find them, and the dominant characteristic of liberal democracies is not deprivation but its opposite − affluence. The causes of unhappiness and distress today are predominantly the diseases of affluence − overwork, fragmentation of relationships, the emptiness of consumerism, psychological disorders and a pervasive anomie that challenges the solidity of our sense of self.

Capitalism, and particularly its neoliberal variant, has been highly successful in meeting the objectives it set for itself; but the deeper promises of self-realisation and true freedom have not eventuated.

The end of solidarity

Individualisation has had two profound effects on how people think about themselves, each with far-reaching consequences for modern politics and social democracy in particular.

The first is that we have come to accept that we are each responsible for our own lives. Those who succeed in socially sanctioned ways feel justified in their efforts and duly rewarded for their determination and superior character. Their success absolves them of the need to feel compassion for those who have failed, for failure can only reflect poor choices or a lack of character. Those who do not succeed must internalise their disappointment rather than blame the bosses, the schools, the government, exploitation or “the class system”. In this world, social problems become individual failures; there are no more dysfunctional societies, only individual “losers”, a process that has a deeply conservative political consequences.

The second effect of individualisation is that the replacement of class-based stratification by a collection of individual life stories has, paradoxically, a homogenising effect. The identities that can be forged out of the products provided by the market are not to any great degree the creations of those who adopt them, but are manufactured by “popular culture” and thus controlled and co-opted by marketing. Thus the individuality of the marketing society is a pseudo-individuality, as if there were an invisible hand guiding the pen that each of us takes up to write our biography.

The political implications of the new dispensation could not be more profound. The idea of the citizen on which social democracy was historically founded has been transformed. Social democracy saw the individual as a member of a class engaged primarily in an economic struggle, from which was derived an identity and a place in the social order. Today, we go to the market to find an identity, to adopt a persona that reflects our desired self, to be projected onto the world.

The compulsion to participate in the consumer society is no longer driven by material need, 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. And it is this belief that has turned people inwards, to become preoccupied with their own material circumstances in a way they were not when they were poor. Despite the opportunities opened up by our affluence, the richer we become the more self-interested we become.

As a consequence of self-focused individualism, the old idea of solidarity, the emotion that powered social democracy, has little meaning today. 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 position superior to that of their peers, or at least to differentiate themselves from them, so as to assert their uniqueness. Because consumer capitalism and neo-liberal ideology have succeeded so spectacularly in creating the impression that each of us is a self-made individual, the widespread acceptance of social justice has evaporated. Like Australians, Britons are far less likely now than three decades ago to have sympathy for the poor, and much more likely to attribute their disadvantage to their personal inadequacies.

Injustice versus alienation

For most thinkers of the Left, lack of justice remains the defining characteristic of modern capitalist society, and the central focus of political activity in order to achieve a better society is to overcome injustice. For some social democrats, the foundations of injustice lie in the economic domain and pressures to inequality must be countered by political power designed to bring greater fairness.

For others, reflecting the influence of the new social movements, injustice is located in the cultural domain and the defeat of injustice lies in social change as well as political activism. Whether understood as inequality in the distribution of resources or in misrecognition of individuals and groups, it is the struggle against injustice that defines and gives enduring relevance to social democracy.

Against this, I maintain that the defining problem of modern industrial society is not injustice but alienation, and that the central task of progressive politics today is to achieve not equality, but liberation. Social democracy as we understand it cannot deliver this goal and a new politics is required.

I am not arguing that all problems have been solved and injustice no longer exists. That is patently not true. But – and this is my fundamental point – they cannot be understood as structural characteristics of modern capitalism. It is perfectly feasible to imagine a social and economic structure in all essentials the same, but in which, in particular, poverty is much diminished and the circumstances and opportunities for marginalised groups are vastly improved. Deprivation is not inherent to the system.

The fact is that neo-liberalism has fulfilled its promise of prosperity, delivering large increases in incomes across the board. It is simply untrue that the rich get richer and the poor inevitably get poorer. In Australia, social democrats have had to acknowledge the awkward fact that after eleven years of conservative government all of the evidence shows that the incomes of poorer households have kept up with the average. Over the seven years to 2004–05, the average real income of the bottom 20 per cent of families with children increased by the same proportion (18 per cent) as did that of the family on the average income. The rich have become richer, but the poor have not become poorer, even in relative terms if the average is the benchmark.

We now have the odd spectacle of the Australian Labor Party attacking the Coalition for being the highest-taxing government in Australian history, and then promising to reduce taxes by more than the conservatives. Senior Labor figures have called for a reduction of the marginal tax rate on the richest Australians. Voters are perfectly right to ask: “What does Labor stand for?”

Although the ideal of justice is losing its political force, this does not mean that power, exploitation and alienation have vanished; they have merely re-emerged in a new guise. Whereas justice motivated demands for greater equality (more equal distribution of income and wealth, or equal treatment of excluded groups), the answers to the new forms of exploitation and denial of identity do not lie in a more equal distribution of, or access to, sources of wealth or recognition, but in controlling, regulating and denying the power of the market.

Civil society and the new conservatism

In Britain and Australia the labour parties have always had close links to trade unionism, both organisationally and ideologically. Yet unionism is now but one of several broad social movements, and just as a political party built on environmentalism or feminism could not provide an alternative vision and organisation to challenge the conservatives for government, nor can one with its roots in unionism, however important the unions remain for protecting the interests of their remaining members.

In some respects, the decline of the trade unions as a force has been replaced by the rise of civil society, generated in large measure by the new social movements of the 60s and 70s. Interestingly, although social democratic parties have a more natural affinity with civil society, in fact it is the new conservatism that has an encompassing idea of the role of civil society and, where it is in power, is transforming civil society in accord with its own political vision.

Thus conservative governments strongly support the role of NGOs as service providers. Charities, especially church-based ones, have for a long time been the organisations that filled in the gaps left by the markets. Ideologically, conservatives are much more comfortable with private charities providing these services than the public sector and have outsourced a growing share of the delivery of welfare and social services. Along with the privatization of some forms of welfare − such as retirement incomes and health insurance − the new conservatism is happy to shift responsibility onto individuals or, where this is not possible, private non-profit organisations.

While sympathetic to the service delivery role of charities, the same conservative governments are hostile to NGOs when they engage in advocacy or political engagement because they are seen as being self-serving and lacking legitimacy, a view informed by public choice theory.

Thus modern conservatism has discarded the “organic” view of society that characterised classical conservatives such as Edmund Burke and adapted effectively to the new world of individualisation. The new world perfectly suits the atomistic conception of classical liberalism. The abandonment of traditional ideas of social order, even an acceptance of the loss of the traditional family structure, has given new conservatism a forward-looking orientation that most on the progressive side of politics lack. I am often struck, when reading social democrats’ calls for a renewal of the doctrine, at the backward-looking, even nostalgic, tenor of the world they posit.

I think this is the best way to understand Tony Blair: like the new conservatives, but unlike most social democrats, he could see that the world had changed radically. Yet rather than forge a new progressive vision he actually articulated and implemented the program of the new conservatives.

A new politics?

It seems to me that a new progressive politics must be above all a politics of morality. Progressives have for decades been afraid to talk about morals; after all, the liberation movements, and the post-modern intellectuals, told us that talking about morality was oppressive because it imposed the moral framework of the powerful and mainstream on those who were different.

Nowhere has this failure been more damaging than in debates over the idea of the family. Promoting “the family” has become conservative territory, but it is time progressives regained the initiative with a new politics of relationships. Everyone wants a happy family life. Families are the source of most of the companionship, emotional support and love we experience throughout our lives; they are where we form our most enduring, caring and loyal relationships. They also provide the most effective defence against the intrusions of the market.

Yet many progressive people, as if still crippled by the feminist and leftist critiques of the nuclear family, are afraid to defend the family; and, perversely, the more the moral conservatives have seized on the notion and moulded it into a romantic and reactionary caricature of the nuclear ideal of the 1950s, the more the progressives have vacated the field.

To shy away from moral arguments has been, in my view, the most serious error of progressives. All life is moral; certainly all public life is a battle between moralities. And here is the fundamental point of entry into a new progressive politics. It turns out that the market is not amoral but actively corrodes the ethical by commodifying the most moral aspects of life − family life, intimate relationships, sex and sexuality, education, childhood and the natural environment.

The historic task today is to counter through political action the demoralizing impact of the market and in particular the spread of corrosive market values to areas of social, personal and cultural life where they do not belong. These are the values of selfishness, competitiveness, instrumentalism, anthropocentrism and the reduction of ethical values to economic ones.

Whereas socialists and social democrats traditionally wanted, through various forms of public ownership, to limit the role of the market within the economy, today the task is to limit the market and its values to the economy, to drive it out of non-economic domains.

This links closely with the new politics of wellbeing which, at its simplest, argues that, for all of the economic benefits of free markets, in the end we cannot find meaning in a shopping centre. It is, above all, the false promise of consumerism that lies at the heart of so much contemporary unhappiness. Public awareness of the cost of consumer lifestyles has given rise to an inner conflict between what we do daily and what we believe is right for us and our society.

A large majority of citizens of rich countries believe that escalating materialism has harmful effects. There is widespread concern about the effects of overwork on the quality of family life. People seem particularly troubled about the corrupting effect of materialism on children. Surveys show that large majorities believe strongly that our materialistic society makes it harder to instil positive values in children.

And they are uneasy about moral relativism and the reluctance of society to make ethical judgments. Most Britons feel the prevailing value system is warped, that the country has become too selfish and superficial, that people have lost touch with the more desirable standards of personal behaviour such as self-restraint, mutual respect and generosity.

The widespread unease with consumerism, even among the “aspirational classes”, and the longing for a society with stronger values derives from something deeper than a perception of social decline. Like all humans, people in rich countries today above all want their lives to have purpose.

The intensification of consumerism is giving rise to its opposite, which perhaps provides a portent of an emerging political movement. Many people are learning that they can step off the materialist treadmill and distance themselves from the corrupting influence of the market. Around a fifth of Britons have voluntarily decided to reduce their incomes to pursue life goals other than material accumulation. The political implications of this downshifting phenomenon are potentially momentous.


All of this calls for a radical change in how we think about social transformation and the type of society we think would be able to deliver these deeper goals, the true goals of human striving. But it requires more than an intellectual reconsideration; it requires an emotional reorientation. As social activists and intellectuals, social democrats have traditionally adopted a particular emotional stance towards “the people”. We felt compassion for those impoverished and in distress and we felt outrage at the injustices of the system. We boldly spoke up for and defended the disadvantaged and voiceless, which gave us a sense of responsibility. Our cause had a certain nobility. Our politics gave our lives meaning.

But when the great majority are no longer materially deprived or disempowered, but in fact live comfortable or affluent lives with few limits to their freedoms, what should be our emotional stance? In truth, we don’t feel much at all about those who are doing well materially. Yet the need to feel compassionate and to exercise our sense of justice leaves many social democrats clinging to an outdated conception of society characterised by deprivation and exploitation, and seizing on any piece of evidence that the bad old days are still with us.

A progressive politics must be based on the social conditions as we find them. It is not that society is no longer without its problems or that there is not widespread distress; it is just that they are not the old social diseases. They require a more subtle understanding of social structure and the complexity of individuals. A worldview in which social problems are blamed on a structure in which a ruling class exploits defenceless people will no longer do, whatever its value in a previous era.

If the people are in a sense collaborating in their own immiserisation then we need a very different politics. As Herbert Marcuse said: “All liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude”, and it seems to me that the first task of a new progressive politics is to understand and articulate this new “servitude”. Such a view requires that political activists speak to “the people” in a new way − not as their protectors, defenders or saviours, but as their collaborators in trying to find a path through life.

Waiting for history

In considering the question of whether social democracy can be renewed or a new progressive politics can be developed the natural approach is to ask what sort of ideas and arguments can be developed to motivate people to become politically active.

We often despair at the widespread disengagement of people from politics in Western countries. But I wonder whether we have got this the wrong way round. It seems that the level of political engagement and civic activism in liberal democracies goes through cycles. At times the citizens are outward looking and socially engaged. When they participate intensely in their societies, great transformations can occur. This was the case in the 60s and 70s.

At other times they seem to withdraw into themselves and become preoccupied with their own lives, their families and their material circumstances. They are more remote from politics, the concerns of others and international affairs. In the post-war period there have been two cycles of withdrawal. The first occurred in the late 40s and 50s when people seemed to need time to husband their psychological resources after the great trials and sacrifices of the war. The second was in the 80s and 90s perhaps initially reflecting exhaustion from the changes wrought by the 60s and 70s and subsequently reflecting the self-focused individualism of the golden era of affluence.

There are signs that we are now entering a new period of engagement in which citizens feel impelled to become active once more, perhaps combining a creeping awareness of the emptiness of the growth project and a rising fear of catastrophe due to global warming. If this is so and there is an internal dynamic to the process of citizen engagement, the question we should be posing changes. Instead of asking, “Which ideas can motivate people to become active?” we should ask, “As people become active, which ideas will seize their imagination?”. After the great victories of neo-liberalism the conservatives have run out of ideas. It is now the turn of progressives. However, one thing is clear: those who cling to the old ideas of social democracy will be left behind.


1 Executive Director, The Australia Institute,


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© 2023 Copyright Clive Hamilton