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Time to envision our society again

By Scott Phillips - posted Thursday, 2 June 2016

Recent commentary about politics in Australia and elsewhere emphasizes how negative and oppositional electorates have become. Politicians increasingly define themselves and their agenda in terms of what they stand against – anti immigration, anti marriage equality, anti climate change action, and so on. The list is seemingly endless.

The frustrating aspect of this sort of politics is that it is detached from any narrative about how we, as a national community, envision ourselves as a society. To some degree this can be traced back to the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher, in rolling out her neoliberal Conservative agenda of robust possessive individualism, declared that "there is no such thing as society". People were responsible for themselves, and it would be by their own industry and thrift that they would lift themselves out of poverty and improve themselves. Not to 'succeed in life', in Thatcher's world, was an indication of personal moral inadequacy rather than of social and economic disadvantage.

The corollary of this sort of thinking was the idea that there's no such thing as social exclusion, because there's no such thing as a society to be excluded from: There are only successful individuals who have proved their rugged capacity for industry and 'graft', or unsuccessful individuals whose lack of industriousness has rendered them less than fit for living useful lives.


Such a narrative had its roots in 19th century thinking about the importance of cultivating habits of thrift, industry and self improvement. It was popularized in the United Kingdom by Samuel Smiles in his book Self Help (1859). This form of mid Victorian liberalism was revived in the 1980s by the likes of Thatcher in England and Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman in the United States. It was a new liberalism (neoliberalism), and it emphasized freeing up regulations and government mechanisms that might be construed as restricting individuals from being industrious, achieving personal wealth and success. What was unleashed in the 1980s was a political and economic agenda crystallized by the mantra of "greed is good" (articulated by the fictional Wall Street tycoon Gordon Gekko). 'Big government' – or more specifically 'taxing and spending' government – was depicted by neoliberal politicians and economists as the problem to be resolved through 'reform'.

Since that time Western democratic politics has been recalibrated around themes of individualism, free enterprise and thrift. Parties compete with each other around how much 'reform' they can achieve, and promise greater commitments to cut taxes, reduce spending, eliminate 'red tape' and free up enterprising individuals to 'have a go' in the world of small business.

What has got lost, however, is a bigger vision about how our individual efforts contribute to shaping a society in which people live their lives together – not only as 'individuals' but also as families, as neighbours, as community members, as global citizens. As a result, inequality has been widening. There is today a growing gap between the rich and the poor in Western countries, including Australia, and the impacts of this go beyond income disparities alone:

"Rising inequality in earnings and in wealth is a major concern, but money is just one aspect of people's well-being. In just about every area, whether it be education, life expectancy, or employment prospects, success is determined by socio-economic status, wealth and assets, sex, age or the places where people live."(OECD, Inclusive Growth 2016)

In reaction to these inequalities, and the threat they pose to people disengaging from the democratic process, there is a growing interest in the OECD not just in economic growth but in 'inclusive growth' – the creation of jobs for all segments of the population and the distribution of the benefits of economic activity fairly across society. And there is a stronger commitment to growing 'sustainable industries' that increase our capacity to produce energy, goods and services in ways that do no harm to the environment that our children and grandchildren will inhabit.

What is becoming evident is that we can only create an inclusive, sustainable and productive future by collaborating with each other and with the environment in which we live. Greater focus on mutual benefit, partnership, collaboration and holistic consideration of the intersection of society, economy and ecology is critical if we are to innovate, survive and thrive.


We need to engage in a conversation with ourselves about ourselves. And we need to do so not on the basis of 'debate', 'battle lines' and winning or losing 'arguments'. Rather, it's time for conducting our political lives in a new key – the key of 'dialogue', of 'making sense together', and of taking account of all points of view so we harvest the 'wisdom of the minority'. In doing so, we will be more likely to achieve a national vision which is not only democratic but deeply democratic. We can do this by conducting policy conversations so that we ask people whose views may differ from the emerging consensus: "What would it take for you to come on board with the currently favoured approach?", and then looking at how minority perspectives could help to shape and refine a more inclusive agreed way forward.

The more that we include each other's concerns in the way we design our national and global agenda, the more we are likely to envision a truly productive, inclusive and sustainable society that we can all benefit from and all help to advance. The time for crafting that deeply democratic vision is now.

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About the Author

Dr Scott Phillips is Director of Kershaw Phillips Consulting a consultancy providing social research, program and policy evaluation and strategic advisory services to health, social sector and educational organisations. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (Deakin University), and holds Non-Executive Directorships with Ermha Ltd (a mental health services company in Melbourne) and the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce (Australia and New Zealand).

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