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