In “What’s Left? The Death of Social Democracy”, Quarterly Essay (No. 21, 2006), Clive Hamilton, Director of the Australia Institute, argues for a new form of progressive politics. The social democracy of old is dead, he argues—with its strong unions, public ownership of assets and distinct social classes. Prosperity, more than poverty, is the dominant characteristic of Australia today.
As part of his discussion, Hamilton advances Ten theses on consumption. I find them challenging personally, including as a Christian.
The last three decades have witnessed a dramatic change in the forces that govern society. In the case of capital, modern firms are driven less by competition through cost-cutting and more by product differentiation and marketing. The spread of affluence and the transition to consumer capitalism have meant that identity now has less to do with one’s work—where one is placed in the production process—and more to do with one’s consumption choices, including consumption of cultural products.
This view of the world can be represented in the following ten propositions. They apply only to affluent countries, although the consumption behaviour of rich consumers in poor countries has some of the same characteristics.
Ten theses on consumption:
- In rich countries, the principal purpose of consumption spending is no longer to satisfy needs but to find and express a personal identity.
- For a large proportion of consumption behaviour, the act of buying and the act of consuming have become distinct and need to be understood separately.
- Marketing, including advertising, is designed to get us to buy, not to consume, and where possible prefers us not to consume but to discard.
- There is an inexorable process of converting wants into “needs” and this results in and reflects a ratcheting up of expected standards of living, one in which expectations always stay in advance of incomes.
- Because of the limits to consumption capacity, this ratcheting-up process inevitably results in more waste.
- The rise in expectations or aspirations puts pressure on people to work longer and harder and this comes at the cost of their personal relationships.
- Whereas growth in consumption was once necessary to improving wellbeing, in rich countries increased consumption is now associated with declining wellbeing.
- Improving wellbeing today requires a partial withdrawal from the market and a distancing from its influence, including an active resistance to the market values of materialism, competition at the expense of cooperation, individualism and the money-metric.
- The trend towards voluntary reduction of incomes and consumption, known as downshifting, is a reaction against the pressures of consumerism.
- A shift to a society based on a downshifting ethic and the associated rejection of consumption as the basis of lifestyle and self-definition is the only way to gain an authentic identity and, incidentally, protect ourselves from severe environmental decline.
It is my contention that these ideas provide the basis for an alternative progressive politics, one which resonates with the life circumstances of citizens of affluent countries by building on an understanding of how consumer capitalism has transformed the world and how it has influenced the way we think about ourselves and our lives.
The manifesto for wellbeing
Australians are three times richer than their parents and grandparents were in the 1950s, but they are no happier. Despite the evidence of a decline in national wellbeing, governments continue to put economic interests first. The obsession with economic growth means other things that could improve our wellbeing are sacrificed. There is widespread community concern that the values of the market—individualism, selfishness, materialism, competition—are driving out the more desirable values of trust, self-restraint, mutual respect and generosity. Many people feel alienated from the political process; the main parties seem too alike and think of progress only in material terms. The challenge of our age is to build a new politics that is committed, above all, to improving our wellbeing.
Throughout history sages have counselled that happiness is not a goal but a consequence of how we live, that it comes from being content with what we have. Today, we are sold a different message—that we will be happy only if we have more money and more of the things money buys. Human experience and scientific research do not support this belief.
Our wellbeing is shaped by our genes, our upbringing, our personal circumstances and choices, and the social conditions in which we live. Our collective wellbeing is improved if we live in a peaceful, flourishing, supportive society, so promoting wellbeing should be a public as well as a personal task.
We often think of wellbeing as happiness, but it is more than that. It is about having meaning in our lives—developing as a person and feeling that our lives are fulfilling and worthwhile. Wellbeing comes from having a web of relationships and interests. Family and friends, work, leisure activities and spiritual beliefs can all increase our wellbeing. The intimacy, sense of belonging and support offered by close personal relationships are of greatest value. Material comforts are essential up to a point, and there is no doubt that poverty remains a serious problem in Australia. But for most Australians more money would add little to their wellbeing.
What can governments do?
Governments can’t legislate to make us happy, but many things they do affect our wellbeing. Industrial relations laws can damage or improve the quality of our working lives; government policies can protect the environment or see it defiled; our children’s education depends on the quality of schools; tax policies can make the difference between a fair and an unfair society; and the cohesiveness of our communities is affected by city design and transport plans.
This manifesto proposes nine areas in which a government could and should enact policies to improve national wellbeing. [The full text has a couple of paragraphs for each of these.]
- Provide fulfilling work
- Reclaim our time
- Protect the environment
- Rethink education
- Invest in early childhood
- Discourage materialism and promote responsible
- Build communities and relationships
- A fairer society
- Measure what matters
Towards a flourishing society
The question for Australia in the 21st century is not how we can become richer: it is how we can use our high standard of living to build a flourishing society—one devoted to improving our wellbeing rather than just expanding the economy. Many Australians are anxious about declining moral standards. We worry that we have become too selfish, materialistic and superficial and long for a society built on mutual respect, self-restraint and generosity of spirit. The changes proposed in this manifesto would inspire healthier communities, stronger personal relationships, happier workplaces, a better balance between work and home, less commercialisation, and greater environmental protection. A flourishing society is not a futile hope. Australian democracy offers people the opportunity to shed their cynicism and commit themselves to creating a better future.
So much for government action. What about individual action? Downshifting Downunder is a move towards this. “A majority of Australians could afford to escape the rat race by downshifting economically, enhancing happiness and social capital, while reducing consumption and environmental damage. In the last decade at least 20% of the Australian population have downshifted, that is, they have voluntarily decided to change their lives in ways that mean they earn less and consume less.”