Social Democracy – Not Dead – Response to Clive Hamilton
Clive Hamilton’s Quarterly Essay, “What’s Left? The Death of Social Democracy” provides a scathing critique of ALP, and the politics of “aspiration” and endless economic expansion that dominate the realm of political thought and government.
Hamilton argues emphatically that the “deprivation model” that fueled social democratic thinking for much of the 20th century is now irrelevant, as a result of widespread prosperity and the marginalization of poverty for minorities of about 20 per cent of Australia’s population.
The Death of Social Democracy
But while absolute poverty is no longer as commonplace as it once was, our new wealth, Hamilton says, is far from making us happy. Indeed, he suggests consumer culture creates a deep crisis of alienation in which “shopping has become the dominant response to the meaninglessness of modern life”. Alienation, not injustice, is seen as a core social problem facing affluent societies, and from overcoming alienation by limiting excesses of the market from which Hamilton sees the “new politics” comes from.
Hamilton developed ten theses and a series of policy proposals that he saw as the potential core of a new movement. He criticized the conversion of “wants” into “needs”, where “expectations always precede income” and condemned the process by which identity is reduced to patterns of consumption.
Further, Hamilton notes the pressure in today’s consumer society to work longer hours “at the expense of … personal relationships”, and argues instead for a “partial withdrawal” from the market. Perhaps with this in mind, he notes the practice of “downshifting”: “voluntary reduction of income and consumption” adopted by those who have chosen to work part-time, in an attempt to balance work, family, and authentic personal development.
He proposed re-regulation of the labor market as part of the solution, along with maternity leave, generous paternity and caregivers, and restrictions on advertising to children. Environmental protection through appropriate taxation (perhaps a carbon tax) and replacing GDP with “true welfare” progress measures are also part of this agenda.
Most of Hamilton’s theses are commendable. In today’s political environment, alienation is rarely taken seriously, and Hamilton is right to associate alienation with hyper-consumerism and the “spell” cast by associating consumption with identity. Hamilton’s emphasis on the sanctity of the family is also refreshing, cutting the ground from beneath the neo-liberal conservatives who have taken this area as their own.
Interestingly, Hamilton did not explicitly call for an official reduction in the work week – say, to 35 hours as in France – which would be seen as a natural extension of his argument.
Despite the strength of Hamilton’s argument against market-driven alienation, his critique of social democracy fails to explain the relative success of the social-democratic movement in Europe, where universal welfare states and mixed economies continue to thrive, despite growing prosperity. While Hamilton labels social democracy as “excessive”, social democratic aspirations, including the social provision, subsidies, or collective consumption of health services, education and care for the elderly, retain a great degree of power. What’s more, rather than a steady achievement that only needs to be, as Hamilton put it, “adjusted”, the Australian welfare state is constantly threatened by the politics of division fostered by conservatives.
While roughly half of the country’s population is now covered by private health insurance, which is subsidized by the government, roughly half are not. Despite the “affluent society” many Australians cannot afford the exorbitant premiums of private health insurance. Meanwhile, some people who hold private health insurance do so even though they cannot afford it, to avoid a public system which, as a consequence of waiting lists and perceptions of “lack of care”, has become a kind of “private prosperity”. and the “public squalor” that worried Galbraith so much.
The same can be said of public education, which faces real marginalization. Nearly half of all Australian families with secondary school age children feel the need to send their children to private schools, avoiding the neglected public system. Clearly, defending and expanding the welfare state is a core object of social democracy that is still relevant.
The writer’s critique of social democracy considers that tradition has run out. However, the ‘second way’, as Hamilton calls traditional social democracy, is far from useful. Equality of opportunity in education can only be restored by increasing funding for public schools and universities, with the aim of lowering student-teacher ratios, increasing choice of subjects and improving infrastructure.
Sacrificing Democracy for Growth
Health care should be based on universal insurance without an exposed treatment area, (including dental services, ambulance services, home care, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, podiatry, chiropractic care, hearing aids, eyeglasses, contact lenses, prostheses and surgery . expenditure). Quality elderly care should be established as a right for all Australians. The labor market should be properly regulated, not deregulated in the hope that “the market will be clean”.
Meanwhile, unemployment must be addressed through targeted industrial assistance and labor market programs, expansion of public services and utilization of pension funds. Such demands form the core of traditional social democratic programs and, far from being irrelevant, can eventually garner majority support.
Another area of concern is Hamilton’s rejection of the concept of “class” and his disdain for the goal of social property as an “untenable anachronism”. He argued emphatically that “As prosperity 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 highly layered society. According to a report from the National Center for Social and Economic Modeling (NATSEM), in 2002, the top 20 percent of Australian households owned more than half of total household wealth. Meanwhile, “the poorest 20 percent of households own almost nothing, while the bottom 40 percent own only 8 percent of total household wealth”.
By and large, many of today’s real fighters are relegated to the outer suburbs where housing is cheap, fares are low and services, including transportation, are poor. Despite Hamilton’s claim that only 20 per cent of Australians actually experience poverty, there is still a huge gap in wealth and prosperity.
Furthermore, as Hamilton admits, class refers to a deeply structural concern about power, not just a matter of identity. “Structure” in this sense does not imply a lack of human agency. In Australia, the richest 20 per cent of individuals “[own] nearly 90 per cent of all shares”: a clear indication that the class remains as relevant as a category today as it was before.
Ownership of the means of production still constitutes the “big gap” between the affluent and the most ordinary of Australians. This division has significant consequences for any process of economic democratization. Despite Hamilton’s claim that work is no longer at the core of most people’s identities – this role, on the contrary, has been taken up by consumption – work is still at the core of most people’s everyday lives, and its democratization should remain a goal that appeals to everyone. social democrats and social democrats.
Furthermore, as workers, most of us still face not only alienation but also relationships of exploitation. It may be unfashionable these days to talk about “deprivation of surplus value” for fear of being labeled an “unreconstructed Marxist”, but it can still be argued that most workers do not receive the full fruit of their labor.
While there is no realistic “final” exit from this bond, progress can be made through “cooperative incentives and support schemes” designed to encourage cooperative ownership through financial incentives, advice, and taxation. Re-expanding the public sector would mark a reaffirmation of democratic control over the economy, and the taking of surpluses for social purposes. Public ownership remains defensible for these and other reasons, including the need to provide competition in oligopoly markets, to provide essential services based on need, not profitability, and the need to provide first-class infrastructure in the realm of “natural public monopoly”.
Furthermore, even though Soviet-style bureaucratic socialism is dead – the relative flexibility of capital flows is preferable to a stifling “command economy” – the same goes without saying for the “democratic mixed economy” project in which the capital flows themselves are democratized through wage-earning funds. Meidner style, and in which cooperative enterprises proliferate throughout economic systems.
While there is still a need for a radical revival of the traditional social democratic agenda, we might ask: is there any point in expecting such a process to take place through the Labor Party? As Hamilton justifies, “The fading of substantive differences between conservative and social democratic parties means that they are more likely to attract careerists and opportunists.”
ALP reform will not be easy, but a good start is the mandatory disclosure of faction membership in conference elections, direct election of National Conference candidates, provision of policy speeches by all conference candidates, and all conference decisions to be taken as binding.
In this way, ordinary party members will gain influence over the decision-making process, paving the way for the social democratic reform movement from below. The ALP needs to be a “bottom-up” not a “top-down” party, shifting power from careerists to ranks and files. By empowering the ranks and files of ALP, moreover, there is also hope of mobilizing them into broader struggles led by alliances such as the “Now We Are the People” movement. Building a power bloc strong enough to secure real change remains the most pressing task facing the broad left today.
Traditional social democracy is neither dead nor irrelevant, but after the “Third Way” and its impact on Labor thought, it certainly finds itself relegated to the margins of obsolescence.
However, in the process of its revival, the social democratic movement could do worse than heed Hamilton’s advice, moving to support a new politics that looks beyond consumption to provide scope for developing real meaning in people’s lives. While economic growth need not be abandoned completely as a core goal, and sustained productivity gains will maintain competitiveness, it must always be weighed against social costs.
A good place to start is to apply 35 hours a week and extend the mandatory annual leave. Instead of internalizing the idea that there is no alternative to neoliberalism and bland Third Way politics, social democrats and socialist democrats need, now, to return to their radical roots. Only then can they avoid the effective “liquidation” that Hamilton suggests in “What’s Left? The Death of Social Democracy.”
Tristan Ewins is an established freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Left Socialist Australian Labor Party (ALP).