The Death of Social Democracy

A talk to the Fabian Society, Melbourne, 8th March 2006
on the occasion of the publication of What’s Left? The death of social democracy

Quarterly Essay 21 (Black Inc. 2006)

Clive Hamilton1

The Individualised World

Not long ago, while walking through Sydney’s CBD at lunchtime, 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 in front of her myriad possibilities and that the responsibility for deciding which path 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. For a young working-class man the question was likely to be, “Which trade would I do best at?” Middle-class men had greater room to move, although the option of choosing a trade rather than a white-collar occupation was proscribed by social expectations. For young women the choices were even more restricted. For most, the future was largely mapped out for them.

If they insisted on defying expectations and conventions, they would in all likelihood end up outside normal society, becoming bohemians or something even more repugnant. In other words, social expectations and constraints relieved individuals of much of the personal responsibility for determining their own life-course, a responsibility that weighed down upon the young woman basking in the sun that day.

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 must not be decried, it must be admitted that the freedom we now enjoy has become a burden. Signs of this are everywhere. The self-help industry, for instance, is really aimed at lightening the burden. 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 title of Stephanie Dowrick’s recent book, Choosing Happiness, is emblematic of the age. It promises that however we find ourselves − whether unfulfilled in our work, trapped in an unsatisfying relationship, beset by the endless irritations of modern life or struggling with anxiety − we can be happier through our own choices.

The relentless emphasis on the self and personal responsibility is an unconscious affirmation of Margaret Thatcher’s 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 women’s, sexual liberation and civil rights 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 their class background. The arguments that raged through those years were about “rights”, and above all the right of individuals to make their own life choices unhampered by convention, tradition or prejudice. 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. Whether individualisation is a blessing or a curse − whether it means the final step to personal freedom or being set adrift from all that is solid − is not the point; the point is that fixity can no longer be assumed, that personal relationships and connections to social groups are always contingent, that individuals must now scan the world to decide with whom or what they wish to identify.

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.

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 effect.

It is worth noting that a society of this kind does not necessarily prescribe dog-eat-dog individualism for all of its members. The opportunity to chart one’s own life-course does not mean that we must inevitably choose to be self-focused. Indeed, any new progressive politics must navigate this gap; it must be a politics that persuades citizens in an individualised society to consider others before oneself, and to do so in the face of the pressures of consumer culture and the market to do the opposite.

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 far-reaching. 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 onto the world.

I argue that 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. 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 selfish we become.

Nowhere was this better illustrated than in the 2004 federal election. It wasn’t the extraordinary public spending spree of the conservative government during the election campaign that sank the Labor Party: it was the private consumption binge of the previous decade. Booming house prices coupled with an unprecedented level of consumer debt have left most Australians absorbed by their own material circumstances, with little room left for thoughts of building a better society.

This profound social shift helps to explain the deeply disturbing fact that a plurality of Australian voters continue to support the Coalition despite conceding that the Government, and the Prime Minister himself, frequently lie to them and engage in immoral activities. This would have been unthinkable in Menzies’ time. If held accountable to normal rules of conduct in public life, most Howard Government ministers would have resigned several times over by now. It is an unremarked paradox that the conservative Howard Government that has built itself up as the defender of traditional values has also been the principal beneficiary of the post-modern devaluation of moral norms.

As a consequence of self-focussed 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. 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 blighted.


Aligned with the trade union movement, the ALP emerged as Australia’s social democratic party dedicated to ensuring that the living standards of working people were the first priority of government. This was at a time when material deprivation and exploitation were widespread. As the bosses exercised power in the workplace and wider political sphere, the Left organised to counter it in both, and with considerable success. The progressive income tax system and the welfare state are the great legacies of social democracy.

But all of that changed in the 1980s when the ALP became the party that introduced neoliberal economics and unleashed the spread of market ideology. Here it only mirrored the transformation of social democratic parties around the world which one after the other converged on the neoliberal ideology they shared with the conservatives.

As a consequence, modern social democracy became the politics of politicians who are not sure what they stand for but who employ advertising agencies to convince the public that they stand for something. Today both conservative and social democratic parties complain that their opponents have stolen their policies. And they are right: so little that is fundamental separates the major parties that almost any policy can be found in the platform of their rival. The adoption of a particular policy is determined not by its consistency with ideology but by whoever thought of it first.

Thus the new leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron, has decided that if the Tories cannot outflank Tony Blair from the right, they will do so from the left. He has begun a policy review designed to soften his party’s stance on immigration, appeal to Green voters (including promotion of organic farming) and win over female constituents by condemning the fact that women still do not receive equal pay. With the help of the rebellious knight Sir Bob Geldof, he has set out to prove that Tories can be more compassionate when it comes to global poverty than Tony Blair’s Labour. The new strategy follows the failure of the old – the right-wing populism urged on the Conservative Party by the former campaign adviser of the Australian Liberal Party, Lynton Crosby.

Convergence could occur because the idea of class had withered. As affluence increases, class ceases to be a useful category: and fewer people find it a meaningful way to think about how they fit into society. The political implications of this have been far-reaching. Most obvious has been the extent to which the Labor Party’s grip on the votes of the traditional working class has been released, as reflected in the emergence of the class of voters known as “Howard’s battlers”. The Liberal treasurer, Peter Costello, can get away with claiming that we are now all working class only because the concept has been deprived of its meaning.

Nor should the willingness of the conservatives to adapt their policies be underestimated. Last year, an analysis by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling showed that the widely held belief that the poor are getting poorer and that the Howard government has abandoned them to their fate is not true. 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 figures cannot be ignored; they reflect the system of targeted family payments refined by the Coalition. We now have the bizarre spectacle of the 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. This has gone so far that senior Labor figures, including union leader and future parliamentarian Bill Shorten, have called for a reduction of the top marginal tax rate to 30 per cent, into which bracket the incomes of his members apparently fall. Voters are perfectly right to ask: “What does Labor stand for?”


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 nature of capitalism and the economic pressures to inequality must be countered by political activism designed to bring greater fairness to the system. For others, reflecting the influence of the new social movements, injustice is located in the domain of culture 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, the circumstances and opportunities for indigenous Australians are vastly improved, and people with disabilities are respected and cared for.

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.

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. The answer is no longer equality, but liberation.

So, after two decades of neo-liberalism, can Labor be revived and become once again the foremost progressive force in this country?

Its recent history provides a few signs that it may be able to do so. Among the thinkers in the party there is an incipient recognition that the old model can no longer serve the interests of the party or the nation. Soon after he was elected leader in February 2004, Mark Latham gave a speech at the National Press Club. The media reported him as calling for more male mentoring, but this was only mentioned in passing in the speech. A bigger theme, which was almost completely ignored, was Latham’s acknowledgment that giving priority to the economy will not necessarily make Australians any happier. Declaring that there is more to life than money, he emphasised the importance of strong relationships to our wellbeing and acknowledged the desire of most Australians for something more meaningful than a pay rise and a bigger house.

As we become more prosperous as a nation, people are demanding that our prosperity has a purpose beyond the accumulation of more possessions. Increased wealth in a society does not necessarily make us happier.

The speech signalled his growing doubts, yet he soon returned to his themes of aspirational politics and the ladder of opportunity which dominated the election campaign in October 2004.

But by the time he wrote his Diaries – which for their searing insights will in my view become one of the most important documents of modern Australian politics – his view of Australian society appeared to have shifted to one very close to the one I articulated to the conference of the ALP/Union Left in 2002. After that speech, which was widely reported, Latham called it the ‘ultimate sell-out of the Green Left … post-materialist basket-weaving for gentrified inner-city types … “Let them eat lentils” seems to be the Hamilton mantra’. Yet in his diaries he wrote:

Traditionally, Left-of-Centre parties have tried to achieve their goals for social justice by tackling various forms of economic disadvantage. Today, however, the biggest problems in society … tend to be relationship-based – social issues, not economic ones. The paradox is stunning: we live in a nation with record levels of financial growth and prosperity, yet also with record levels of discontent and public angst.

He went on to mention some of the evidence for this and returned throughout the book to the themes of self-centred materialism and the “gulag of consumerism”.

In the Introduction to the Diaries, Latham made the striking admission that his stress on aspirational politics had been a mistake. He had since come to understand that aspirational voters turn into selfish mortgagees preoccupied with their own financial circumstances and with little concern for their communities.

People live in highly geared McMansions, on $60–$70 000, couple of kids at a non-government school, and they say to the politicians, “I’m the real battler, help me …”

Similar views have been expressed in recent years by a number of other senior Labor figures, including Lindsay Tanner, Carmen Lawrence and Julia Gillard.

These are tentative steps towards a new political debate, taken by thinkers from both the Left and the Right of the Labor Party. Tempting though it is, however, it would be a mistake to read too much into them. None of these Labor thinkers has nailed their colours to the mast, advanced an alternative vision and forced the party to engage in a new debate.

It may be that the Labor Party is now structurally incapable of accommodating a wide-ranging and radical debate. Labor Party factions once served as a means of organising to promote ideas that were held passionately by their members. As Mark Latham describes to devastating effect in his diaries, high-lighted by the factional brawling of the last week, the factions now divide only notionally along ideological lines. They have become vehicles for ambition and mutual support.

If a contest of ideas cannot be carried out through the factions, where in the party can it occur? Perhaps the federal parliamentary caucus should be reorganised to create an Ideas faction which could then engage in a war for the party’s soul with the Opportunist, Careerist and Deadwood factions, conservatives one and all, who would resist change to the last.

Another entrenched “faction” which would need to be defeated is that of the party machine itself, which has in recent years been the object of severe criticism from senior party members, including Barry Jones, John Faulkner, John Button and Carmen Lawrence.

Yet there is an air of unreality about the debate over factionalism. The problem is characterised as a purely institutional one. The debate is wholly inward-looking, as if the problem lies solely with a handful of power-hungry factional bosses who, through organisational cunning, have managed to capture the party.

The structural problems of the party are not debated in historical terms, so no one asks what has been happening in Australian society that has allowed the ALP to be transformed from a party built around a powerful set of values and social goals into one dominated by personal fiefdoms. The “radical solutions” for reform proposed by some ─ including reducing union representation at national conferences and banning parliamentary staffers from seeking preselection until they have had “real jobs” for at least two years ─ mean little. Is there an vibrant but frustrated party membership bursting with ideas and talent waiting to fill the breach once the factional bosses have been stripped of their power? I think not.

The problems of the party structure are manifestations of a wider malaise − ideological convergence, individualisation in society, and the withering away of solidarity. The party that evolved to represent the interests of trade unionists and their families cannot survive in a world where union membership has shrunk to less than a quarter of the workforce and where those who remain have been depoliticised.

As David McKnight has argued in his important book Beyond Left and Right, 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 conservative party for government, nor can one with its roots in unionism and which is controlled by union bosses. Internal party reform would be worthless without a wholesale re-invention of the party’s social base, philosophical rationale and platform. It is pointless debating organisational reform without first debating philosophical renewal.

The Australian Labor Party has served its historical purpose and will wither and die as the progressive force of Australian politics. There is no better sign of this than the mostly vacuous series of papers analysing Labor’s 2004 election defeat published by the Fabian Society. None of the contributors, with the exception of Guy Rundle, had anything sharp or new to say. Evan Thornley wrote about “our people” not trusting us, as if there were a mass of people out there yearning for the Labor Party of old, yet called for a new “brand” for the party.

Bill Shorten, the union leader with politics somewhere to the right of Chopper Read, argued that Labor must now move to the centre! That would be a shift to the left. He roundly rejected any severing of the connection between the ALP and the unions, and called for tax cuts for high-income earners and businesses. Judith Brett bemoaned the inward focus of ALP luminaries, then concluded that the way forward is to change the rules for preselecting candidates. John Button, the elder statesman, had nothing useful to say but at least spared the reader nostalgic references to that greatest of Labor clichés, the light on the hill. The lack of direction in the essays, or any clear-headed analysis of what the problem is or where Labor might go, was dispiriting to say the least.

Alienated from Labor, many progressives have gravitated to the Greens. Yet as a third force aspiring to become the second force of Australian politics, the Greens are hamstrung by three facts.

First, the party’s origins in environmentalism, and continuing emphasis on environmental issues, limit its ability to appeal to a wider audience, despite extensive attempts to broaden its platform. Its name doesn’t help. The Greens, however, have become a powerful force in local government, the natural home for a party of its orientation and structure.

Secondly, the charisma and moral authority of Bob Brown is perhaps the greatest asset and the greatest weakness of the Greens, and his departure will severely test the enduring appeal of the party.

Thirdly, the party has some serious organisational and cultural handicaps, including a large number of activists who are emotionally and ideologically wedded to fringe politics and who work against the broadening of the Greens’ appeal. This is especially true in New South Wales, where the party is controlled largely by a clique whose methods are reminiscent of Trotskyists.

Yet as the last decade of conservative rule has reminded us so painfully, an effective, electable progressive political party is vital to the promotion of social progress and the protection of Australian democracy. All of this points inescapably to the need for a new political party founded on a philosophy and an organisation that reflect the contemporary world.


It is my contention that we have an emerging basis for an alternative progressive politics, one that resonates with the life circumstances of citizens of affluent countries. It builds on an understanding of how the new social movements and consumer capitalism have transformed the world and changed the way we think about ourselves and our lives.

The new politics of wellbeing 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. It sidesteps the traditional Left–Right debate over who can best manage the economy, and asserts that in rich countries the market has become the enemy rather than the friend of social progress.

Such a progressive politics would speak to the underlying concerns and longings of Australians across all parts of the community. 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 Australians believe that escalating materialism has harmful effects. According to a survey taken in December 2004, 80 per cent agree with the proposition,
“Most Australians buy and consume far more than they need: it’s wasteful.” This view is strongly held across all income and age groups. And there is widespread concern about the effects of overwork on the quality of family life, with 75 per cent of Australians agreeing with the proposition “Too many Australians are focused on working and making money and not enough on family and community”.

Australians seem particularly troubled about the corrupting effect of materialism on children. Four in five believe strongly that Australia’s materialistic society makes it harder to instil positive values in children.

Nowhere are these contradictions more keenly fought out than in debates over the idea of the family. Promoting ‘the family’ has become conservative territory, but it is time progressives muscled their way in 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.

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. This has been a political mistake.

In the face of the intensification of the pressures of consumerism and money hunger, many people are learning that they can step off the materialist treadmill and distance themselves from the influence of the market. Around a fifth of Australians have voluntarily decided to reduce their income to pursue life goals other than material accumulation. The political implications of this downshifting phenomenon are potentially momentous.

Most Australians, including those caught up in consumerist lifestyles, feel the prevailing value system is warped. They believe Australia 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. Conservatives have been much more adept than progressives at tapping into these concerns, even though in the name of choice they promote the very market values and consumerist goals that corrode the values we seek to protect.

The widespread unease with consumerism, even among the so-called aspirational classes, and the longing for a society with stronger values derives from something deeper than a perception of social decline. Like all humans, what modern Australians want above all is for their lives to have purpose. It is from these insights that a new politics of well-being can be built.


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© 2023 Copyright Clive Hamilton