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What I've been reading

March 19th, 2006

What’s Left? The Death of Social Democracy by Clive Hamilton. The latest Quarterly Essay is a restatement of arguments Clive’s presented a number of times before. The central argument is that, since widespread poverty is no longer a problem, social democracy is irrelevant and what is needed is a postmaterialist politics of wellbeing.

Not surprisingly, I have a lot of problems with this.

First up, while there are a lot of reasons why poverty has declined, one of the most important is the welfare state, the central achievement of social democracy. Almost no-one in Australia goes without meals as a result of poverty (2.7 per cent of Australians do so in the course of year according to ABS stats cited by Hamilton), but the figures are much higher in the US (this source says 12 per cent in a given month, even though the US has significantly higher mean income per person. And, despite welfare reform, there is still a substantial welfare state in the US. Without it, the numbers would be larger and we would see starvation, not just hunger.

Second, there’s a good deal more to social democracy than income redistribution. Public funding or provision of a wide range of services like health and education are central elements of social democracy and they are becoming more important not less as the share of services in the economy increases.

Third, and relatedly, a lot of the appeal of postmaterialism is the claim that we already have everything we need, and should be satisfied. But it’s hard to see how this claim can be made in the case of many services, most obviously, health. As an example, developed societies have rates of infant mortality far below anything achieved in the past. But that’s no comfort to parents who lose a child, particularly if the child could have been saved by the allocation of more resources. There does not seem to be any natural point of satiation here.

Fourth, postmaterialist/antimaterialist political views have been around for a long time – there’s nothing in this book that would have surprised Thoreau – without achieving more than marginal success. This suggests that the whole project needs rethinking in some way.

Of course, Clive recognises a lot of this, including the need to defend the social democratic project. His real objection (p40) is that social democrats exaggerate the benefits of what they have to offer and the evils of the alternative. But the title of the essay is an example of this very process. The achievements of social democracy are taken for granted, even though they are all under vigorous attack, and the benefits of political postmaterialism are oversold.

More discussion from Andrew Norton at Catallaxy

  1. Tristan Ewins
    March 19th, 2006 at 14:52 | #1

    First I should say that I haven’t read the essay yet. I didn’t even know it was available. (it’s not available in my local newsagency) Nevertheless a few comments about postmaterialism and social democracy:

    a) There’s nothing wrong with improved productivity. Productivity drives growth – and there’s nothing wrong with that either. Without productivity growth furthermore, a nation will fail to remain competitive. This is the nature of the world economic system we’re involved in and there’s no way around that – for better or worse.

    b) Technological innovation linked to economic growth does improve quality of life. I can’t imagine where I’d be, for instance, without internet broadband. Sure, 10 years ago we could do well enough without it. Capitalism creates and endless array of new ‘wants’ to fuel its expansion and stability. There are problems with a perspective of ‘relentless growth at all costs’, but technological advancement is not one of them.

    c) Nevertheless, there are problems with the ‘growth at all costs’ approach. There are environmental hazzards. There’s the problem of increasing productivity by extending working hours for some employees while other employees are underemployed. A 35 hour week or increased penalties for overtime would help rectify this but would probably have some negative effect on growth. Growth, however, as Hamilton recognises, is not everything. The quality of our interpersonal relationships, the opportunity to exercise and socialise and relax – all these contribute to real quality of life – and yet they may come at the cost of growth.

    d) With more and more Australians underemployed poverty is still a major issue. Poverty, after all, is relative – and not just absolute. The fiscal crisis of the state leads to devastating inequality in the provision of health and education services – and things are getting worse, not better. Traditional social democracy still has a massive task ahead of it if it is to ‘civilise capitalism’. More progressive taxation, higher social expenditure, shorter working hours, higher levels of full time employment, more free time to build familial and social networks – these all comprise part of the solution. To some extent this might come at the expense of growth and consumption. It is a choice we all face based on our personal conceptions of ‘the good life’.

    Tristan

  2. March 19th, 2006 at 15:36 | #2

    Clive, had a bit of say, on R.N.,today.

    ‘National Interest’,without Terry Lane and going well.
    But Terry is still missed.

    http://www.abc.net.au/cgi-bin/common/player_launch.pl

  3. Warbo
    March 19th, 2006 at 15:41 | #3

    Thanks, John. You might want to look at “Almost no-one in Australia goes with meals as a result of poverty…” Without, surely. And in the brackets that follow, it’s not clear what the 2.7 per cent refers to – proportion of people who go without meals?

  4. Katz
    March 19th, 2006 at 16:17 | #4

    I’d be inclined to argue against the Social Democratic pieties found embedded, but unexamined, in Hamilton’s argument.

    That piety is the the assumption that an overriding motive for voting for a Social Democratic party is for the general good: adequate health provision for all, state-funded education for all, etc., etc. I’m not disputing that this expansive vision of commitment to a collectivist vision of society motivates some supporters of Social Democracy some of the time.

    But I would tentatively suggest that self-interest rather than collectivism was more a more powerful motive for more supporters of Social Democratic parties for more of the time. However, until recently, this was a bit of a dirty secret.

    Most of this self-interest translated into support for the rights of labour and/or the legal and institutional rights of union organisations. Thus at the workplace level unions and employee associations served to unite employees in the face of hostility of their employers. But it also united employees in the face of competition by outsiders for jobs. The restrictiveness of the “closed shop” provided a social and cultural glue for insiders, and a united front against outsiders.

    For a multitude of reasons this social and cultural glue has dissolved:

    Some of the more prominent solvents of social and cultural cohesion:

    *de-industrialisation and the collapse of the big industrial, blue-collar unions
    *greater ethnic and religious heterogeneity
    *greater geographical mobility
    *the evolution of lifestyles divorced from the culture of the shop floor

    All of these forces, and no doubt others besides, have rendered it less urgent for voters to rally to the support of Social Democratic parties. Thatcher and Reagan and later Keating and Howard were able to effect reforms that weakened traditional workplace culture and organisations without provoking serious opposition from the labour movement, or its social democratic political wing.

    Thus, although unionised labour was often powerfully individualist in practice, until relatively recently it was also collectivist in rhetoric.

    Now the practice and rhetoric are more closely aligned. And as politics is largely about symbols and rhetoric, Social Democrats have been struck dumb by the liberation of individualist, aspirational culture.

  5. jquiggin
    March 19th, 2006 at 16:28 | #5

    Thanks, Warbo. Fixed now, I hope.

  6. Tristan Ewins
    March 19th, 2006 at 18:28 | #6

    Katz, the changes you refer to: the ‘decline of traditional workplace culture’ – and thus the decline of traditional collectivism, is linked to the decline of manufacturing and those work conditions that brought people together collectively in a such a manner that aided in mobilisation for industrial action. Unfortunately, these jobs have been replaced, by and large, with tenuous casual and part-time work under conditions of industrial atomisation. This marks an accentuation of class division – not its decline. The ‘aspirationals’ you speak of are merely that layer of selfish middle class voters who are, as you indicate, overwhelmingly individualist in outlook, and oblivious to the looming social divide. The propensity of this layer to swing purely on the basis of self-interest, without concern for the millions who are ‘left behind’ is something to be mourned rather than celebrated.

    Nevertheless, we are not entirely without hope. Successive polls show a willingness amongst respondants to pay tax where such tax is clearly linked to improvements in social services. And Howard has had to be very careful in his gradualist dismantling of Medicare, leaving it with the status of an insufficient ‘safety net’.

    The Labor Party needs the courage, now, to put the case for tax reform, not to reduce the revenue take, but rather to progressively expand it. Teritiary education is increasingly inaccessible to prospective students from poorer backgrounds, while secondary and primary education faces the threat of Blairite style privatisation – leading to further fissures based upon social class. We cannot allow an obsession with the so-called ‘aspirational class’ to deter us from the task of rebuilding the welfare state, and ‘bringing the middle class’ onboard via the principle of universality. rejecting once and for all the kind of ‘private affluence’ and ‘public squalor’ that both parties seem to accept as increasingly inevitable.

    Tristan

  7. Katz
    March 19th, 2006 at 21:52 | #7

    “Unfortunately, these jobs have been replaced, by and large, with tenuous casual and part-time work under conditions of industrial atomisation.”

    There’s your problem Tristam.

    Historically, the form of proletarianisation you describe here was relatively rare. Workplace cultures in most European settings, and most especially England, grew out of community. The boundaries between the world of work and of the rest of life were often quite blurred. The word “atomisation” had very little meaning. Yet, gradually European, including English, workplaces grew more atomised.

    Atomisation and individualisation appear to be a more or less universal experience. Many pay lip service to the comforts of the welfare state, but of late these sentiments have only infrequently been translated into electoral success.

  8. March 19th, 2006 at 21:56 | #8

    I knew of a few uni friends who run out of money for food towards the end of a fortnight. However, I have to qualify this by adding that this is due to too much beer and too little planning, rather than actual poverty.

  9. March 19th, 2006 at 23:12 | #9

    CT, work is the curse of the drinking classes.

    More seriously, what I object to most about the Social-Democrat project is, first, its jump-or-be-pushed ideals (which is all that the “democracy” means), and second most the way that it generates its own demand by the techniques it uses, so creating a vicious spiral. It thrusts people into ever greater dependency.

    Some days I switch those around, according to whether I think that one or the other failing has more or less conscious design to it.

  10. Razor
    March 20th, 2006 at 13:09 | #10

    I pity you poor sods who force yourselves to read, let alone consider, Hamilton’s deranged ramblings. He should be allowed to wander off inot oblivion in his hair shirt.

  11. Uncle Milton
    March 20th, 2006 at 14:15 | #11

    Hamilton’s thesis, that the economy has become irrelevant to politics, and so the left needs a new set of meta issues, depends entirely on the assumption that the current golden age will continue indefinitely and so we can indulge ourselves with worries about whether consumption really makes us content and fulfilled.

    The trouble is some time in the future (but no one knows when), we will have another recession, and the traditional concerns about the economy will return. In the early 70s, there was a movement called Zero Economic Growth, which was saying pretty much what Hamilton is saying now – we’ve got all we need in material terms, economic growth is harming the environment, and so on, and we should stop growing the economy. This movement reflected the ennui of the late post war boom.

    In the mid 70s, we actually got zero economic growth, in fact we overachieved and got negative economic growth, and it turned out to be not quite as pleasant as the ZEG movement said it would be. The ZEG movement promptly disappeared.

  12. March 20th, 2006 at 15:32 | #12

    Katz,
    I found this passage

    The word “atomisation� had very little meaning. Yet, gradually European, including English, workplaces grew more atomised

    very interesting. Are you trying to say the workplaces increasingly became places very little dictionary meaning?
    Please explain.
    I would strongly agree with you that voting for Social Democratic parties is typically motivated by self-interest – but then, most voting is. Very few people vote on the basis of what is best for the country / state / other entity and will actually hurt ourselves. Trying to analyse voting patterns with an assumption of altruism would be an exercise in futility. The current government knows this well.

  13. Katz
    March 20th, 2006 at 16:58 | #13

    No AR, what I meant to say was that in England in the first half-century or so of industrialisation workplace cultures evolved out of pre-existing working-class institutions, notably churches and chapels. Labour organisations also emerged out of these local cultures. Thus, there was quite a degree of blurring of workplace culture and the cultures of communities. Working class people tended to be very insular, parochial and distrustful of outsiders.

    Any notion of nation-wide or even occupation-based organisation seemed to threaten their sense of community solidarity. It wasn’t until the second half of the nineteenth century that nationwide working-class institutions, such as the Trades Union Congress or variants of the Labour Party began to develop. Rather, there developed a patchwork of trades-based unions.

    Thus, workplace culture evolved before the forces of atomisation and individualism became powerful.

    Interestingly, the first major threat to English working-class communitarian values came after 1846 from Famine-Irish immigrants, who suffered enormous discrimination and violence in many Northern English industrial towns. Employers were often keen to employ the Irish, who were prepared to work for less. However, union control of entry to skilled trades meant that the Irish only infrequently found the bottom rung of the ladder that led to membership of the so-called “labour aristocracy”.

    Employers often thought it was prudent not to provoke their existing labour force by employing Irish. This became less true as time went on, but these prejudices persisted for a long time.

    The rhetoric unleashed against the 19th-century Irish is almost undistinguishable from the rhetoric unleashed against 21st-century Muslims.

    In short, I meant to say that during the formative period of the English working class, English working class people had little direct, lived experience of the processes of atomisation.

    To clarify, consider the degree of overlap between your work colleagues and your friends. If there is very little overlap, then your work culture is not closely associated with your community culture.

  14. March 20th, 2006 at 18:23 | #14

    Katz,
    Thanks for the clarification. I noticed a linkage that may just be coincidence, but it appears latent in what you are saying and one I had not thought of before.
    The ‘threat’ to the English working classes from the Irish coincides with the development of the TUC and the Labour Party(s) in England. This was also the same period when Marx etc. was writing some of his strongest (worst?) writings. Do you think this is just a coincidence, or does the development of a “working class” consciousness in England represent a reaction to the threat from the Irish?
    It is also interesting that the racist reaction seems to be from the ‘working’ classes (no communal/internationalist feelings here) rather than the “capitalist” class as this represents a threat to their jobs and a perceived threat to their way of life.

  15. Katz
    March 20th, 2006 at 18:47 | #15

    “The ‘threat’ to the English working classes from the Irish coincides with the development of the TUC and the Labour Party(s) in England.”

    No. The TUC was an attempt to establish a national profile for the British Labour movement. This meant Irish-based unions as well. As a grass-roots based federation, many paaticularism and prejudices were given a fair old airing during TUC conferences, but the central thrust was towards nation-based labour organisations, thus undermining local organisations. The same applies to the BLP. Thus, these national labour institutions sought to break down parochialism and prejudice.

    “This was also the same period when Marx etc. was writing some of his strongest (worst?) writings. Do you think this is just a coincidence, or does the development of a “working classâ€? consciousness in England represent a reaction to the threat from the Irish?”

    Marxism had very little influence on working class thought or political practice in 19th Britain.

    And with regard to the impact of the Irish. I think that the opposite is true. British Labour institutions sought to break down ethno-religious identification. To a large degree this was achieved by 1914. There were exceptions, notably Glagow, Liverpool and the whole of Ulster, but the TUC came to represent a huge proportion of the British (i.e., English, Scottish and Irish unionism) by 1914.

    And don’t forget that at the same time Christian religious denominations were losing contact with the British working class, with the exception of the Irish in Ireland.

    “It is also interesting that the racist reaction seems to be from the ‘working’ classes (no communal/internationalist feelings here) rather than the “capitalistâ€? class as this represents a threat to their jobs and a perceived threat to their way of life.”

    It is true that in 1914 nationalism easily trumped internationalism with the coming of the Great War. But it is also true that by 1918 the rhetoric of class consciousness and class conflict was a dominant theme in Labour politics. The “socialisation objective” became both BLP and ALP policy immediately after the end of the Great War.

    Social Democratic politics ended up, like most powerful movements, a bit of a muddle. These contradictions are the necessary result of compromises arising from the need to construct “a broad church”.

  16. Steve Munn
    March 20th, 2006 at 23:27 | #16

    PrQ says: “a lot of the appeal of postmaterialism is the claim that we already have everything we need, and should be satisfied. But it’s hard to see how this claim can be made in the case of many services, most obviously, health.”

    I totally agree. Try telling someone who is in terrible pain yet has to wait a year or more for an operation that their material needs are amply met.

    I also recall reading in the “The Age” a few months ago that people are waiting as long as five years in some parts of Victoria for public dental care.

    Other problems of genuine need include those without cars in areas without decent public transport, inadequate mental health services and some shocking Government schools in disadvantaged areas.

    Welfare cuts for single mums will invariably mean an increase in the number of women and children who go to bed hungry. (Oh well, as right libertarian luvvies say, this sure beats welfare dependency. Let them eat bloody cake!)

    I also do not agree with Katz et al about altruism not being a factor in voting. I think their will always be a proportion of people who will vote with their hearts not their wallets. Also, simple self-interest does not adequately explain the support we see for religious parties like Family First.

    I personally always vote Green mostly because I am a sucker for native flora and fauna. I do not give a rat’s bum about whether Green policies will take a few extra dollars out of my pocket in tax (provided I am happy with how it is spent).

  17. Katz
    March 21st, 2006 at 06:03 | #17

    “I also do not agree with Katz et al about altruism not being a factor in voting”

    This is what I actually said:

    “But I would tentatively suggest that self-interest rather than collectivism was a more powerful motive for more supporters of Social Democratic parties for more of the time.”

    I didn’t deny “altruism”. I simply demoted it.

    Nuance Steve. Nuance.

  18. Paul Norton
    March 23rd, 2006 at 10:15 | #18

    Another angle I’d take on this debate is that we should be careful not to conflate environmental concern with postmaterialism or antimaterialism. Some environmental concern (e.g. Australian and North American greenies’ desire to conserve native forests and wilderness, or the desire to save Siberian tigers, black rhinoceri, etc.) does have a strong post-materialist element. Much does not, including concern about climate change and its consequences, the Australian and global water crisis, various forms of soil degradation, the health impacts of urban air and water pollution and hazardous wastes, energy for sustainable development, etc. Also, minimising resource and energy throughput per unit of economic output is desirable on both environmental and economic grounds.

    In response to Uncle Milton’s point about the Zero Economic Growth discourse of the 1970s, we now have a much more nuanced understanding of the relationship (in the short- to medium-term) between economic activity and environmental protection. We know empirically that environmental protection provides a slight stimulus to aggregate economic and employment outcomes. Also, theoretically I agree with those (like Andre Gorz) who argue that an economy which is growing in conventional terms is a precondition for a successful structural adjustment to an ecologically sustainable economy and society – always bearing in mind the importance of the composition of economic activity, not just its scale, for sustainability.

  19. March 23rd, 2006 at 11:28 | #19

    Never mind 19th century values, in the 1930s my mother distinctly recalled boarding house signs saying “no blacks or Irish”. And it wasn’t just in the UK either; does anyone remember the line in Blazing saddles when the sherriff has persuaded the townspeople to be less discriminatory and their spokesman counters with “All right, we’ll take the blacks and we’ll take the Chinese but we won’t take the Irish”?

  20. March 23rd, 2006 at 13:12 | #20

    “Very few people vote on the basis of what is best for the country / state / other entity and will actually hurt ourselves. Trying to analyse voting patterns with an assumption of altruism would be an exercise in futility.�
    And your evidence? This opinion says much about its holder. Individualists think human nature fundamentally bad (selfish) so if people act altruistically it is either a mask for self-interest (as in these posts) or else they are fools.
    Americans in particular tend to think that opinion on human nature is pretty much the be-all and end-all of left and right. There was no great concern for “free riders� till there were individualists to point them out.
    As far as voting is concerned, a source of evidence might be referendums to lower taxes. I think there have been quite a few in the US and Switzerland. How many passed and how many did not? The C2D site at Geneva University tries to document every referendum ever held. I think if you went into it, you’d find your pejorative opinion of voters to be poorly supported.

  21. Paul
    April 26th, 2006 at 11:34 | #21

    I’m am happy to leave the dissection of the detail of Hamiltons paper to others. I am more interested that he is it least putting ideas forward about where too from here.
    I see a strong connection between the concept of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs and the thoughts about the future.
    Yes there are clearly examples of poverty, etc, but at a national Australian level in a Maslow sense, we are well above the basic levels of provision of food, shelter and security. That being the case, then my interpretation of Hamilton is that getting to higher Maslow levels seems to equate much more with the underlying concepts behind Wellness and Happiness, rather than materialism. There is nothing new in that aim or ideal, as many philosophers of the past have indicated, but it seems that in Australia at least at this time, we are probably in a very good position to start moving in that direction as a Nation, rather than just the aristocrates, who have been doing it for generations.
    This ideal doesn’t demand an end to technological growth, or an economic downfall. But it does require us to rethink about why we need the current rate of growth. It also begs the questions about what is meant by Wellness and happiness. Although the empirical evidence is contradictory, just the recognition that there is a need for such studies, is an indication in itself that the the effort to aquire financial wealth above some point may not be bringing the expected improvements in Wellness and Happiness. Materialism doesn’t seem to add much benefit to wellness beyond some point, eg, increasing the number of TVs, sitting rooms, toilets, etc in your home, leads to an extention in your mortage, hence your working life and eventually to the need to employ a maid and the extention to working life, etc.

    The concepts of Wellness, with their imperfections, do seem to target Maslows higher needs. If that is reasonable, then surely we should be looking at what we want the financial outcome of economics to provide to support the social aspects of economics.
    Yes at a psychological level people do get benefit from consumption, but basic economics teaches us about opportunity cost, ie, up to some point more consuption doesn’t bring a worthwhile benefit. What is beyond that? Economics is a social science, but we seem to have forgotten the social benefit aspect, in favour of financial growth, and rate of growth.

    If wellness and happiness at these higher levels is about, having more time for self, family and friends, ie, relationships, and also for the bohemium aspects of life such as the arts and music, then what should the financial aspects of economics be providing? A culture of saving, more opportuntiy for experiencing and participation in the bohemium aspects of life, places of learning the Arts, more opportunity for particiapting in pleasure, recreation and sport. The latter may question the need to have 7 x 24 retail hours, in favour of weekends for indulging in Wellness and Happiness, etc.
    Maybe the critics of Hamilton really believe, that bigger and bigger shopping malls, with their associated extended shopping hours, are bringing wellness and hapiness to themselves, ie, they enjoy spending their weekends shopping, it stimulates and entertains them, brings enjoyment and laughter, feelings of achievement and contentment, the extra purchases bring feelings of fulfillment, obesity a measure of success, etc. I mean that seriously that these are specifically about how these impact you personally and directly, ie, not how you think it impacts others.

    If not, and I am anticipating you don’t, then what are you proposing as improvements to Hamilton’s ideas. It is waste of your intellect to poke holes in the ideas of others without putting your own ideas on the table.

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