Reviving the common good

David McKnight

I want to begin to discuss the ideas and values which underlie social democratic parties and institutions by looking at the other end of the political spectrum.

Over the last 25 years it has been the Right in Australia and in other countries which has engaged in the most fundamental and deep ideological renewal. In crude shorthand, we have seen the passing of an older kind of conservatism and the ascendancy of an aggressive Right, based on free market values. On the basis of this, it has succeeded in undermining social democratic ideas and capturing the political agenda.

On the broad Left, no such ideological re-thinking has really occurred. The Left has been in a largely reactive and defensive stance for a long while.  What has happened is the stitching together of the demands of a variety of causes and issues. At best this can operate as a useful coalition of unions, ethnic groups, women, the environment lobby and so on.  At worst, it is an opportunist patchwork with no guiding values or organising ideas, and defaulting a series of separate deals and political patronage.  Along the way, Labor has accepted far too much of the free market dogma  — a dogma which argues that whatever the question, the answer is always the market.

The reason we are here today, I believe, is that the renewal of the Right has been very effective — to the point where it is not only poised to take government nationally,   but also to take government with some the most reactionary ideas deeply opposed to everything social democratic parties have stood for.

There are lots of ways of responding to this situation– but I want to keep the discussion at the level of ideas and values.

If you ask people to identify the fundamental values that Labor or social democracy should stand for you get a variety of answers. One popular response is that Labor is about promoting equality; another typical response is that it is about care for others, including support for welfare state;

These are important qualities but they do not identify what I think is one of the  basic values of social democracy.

One of the core values which historically made social democratic parties different from conservatives is the recognition that working people share a common interest in certain things — as well as having individual self interests. That is, that there are certain things which we can only achieve jointly and by co-operation and which cannot be achieved privately or individually. Another name for  this is the common good or the public interest. The idea that working people — or today, people more generally —  share a set of common interests may seem obvious, but it has been a profoundly important point in defining social democracy over the last 150 years.

In terms of social democracy, the notion of a common interests was demonstrated originally by the creation of unions. This was a recognition that individual workers faced a common threat from exploitative employers — and they realised that it was only by joining in collective action and collective structures that all could benefit. This spirit of common interests was carried over into the programs for government developed by the first social democratic parties in the late 19th and early twentieth century. A variety of public institutions were created such as schools and hospitals, public services, and so on. In effect, this was an infrastructure for a civilised society, in place of the jungle of self-interest.


The idea that a society shared extensive common interests became broadly accepted beyond the realms of social democratic parties.  Following WW2  the reconstruction of the relationship between markets, state and society was accepted by nearly all, including conservatives figures such as Menzies. But beginning from the 1970s, this consensus changed in ways I’ve already described. A philosophy took hold which, at bottom, argued that the common good could only be achieved by maximising all individual self interests.

At the moment we are seeing a slow re-construction of Australian society into one in which self-interest and individualism is elevated as the supreme good. The first wave of this belief occurred in the economy with privatisation of a large number of govt institutions. We now face second wave of marketisation which is aimed at introducing the market and market values into a large number of  social institutions and relationships. The latest example concerns public education where its advocates believe that creating a market in schools with competition and choice,  based on a system of national testing, should be the preferred mechanism for improvement. I think this is a profound step backwards.

I’ll close with a reference to the contemporary situation. When social democracy began in the late 19th century , its notion of the common good — which was called socialism — was aimed at building institutions to protect working people from the vagaries of the market and from poverty.

Social democratic  philosophy was based on a notion of the common good as a form of protection, security and solidarity against these threats.

Today much has changed. The underpinnings of a civilised society exist thanks largely to social democracy and its agenda.  But today we face a new round of threats, not just from the unfettered market, but from the consequences of humanity’s struggle to live well and prosper.

That threat is climate change and with it, the even deeper question of sustainability. Grappling with it presents difficulties, in terms of traditional social democratic practices. For example, social democratic outlook both practically and theoretically based on improving living standards and the quality of life.  It never conceived of the idea of limits, never conceived that the call for endless and ever-increasing affluence might one day have to be abandoned.

Yet this is the case.  Climate change is an unavoidable and world-shaking set of events whose dangerous consequences are getting closer every year. Integrating an understanding of it — and a response — into a traditional social democratic philosophy is difficult, though not impossible.  In doing so, we need to ground our response in the two basic values I have outlined – a modernised notion of the common good and a new idea of protection and security against threats.

David McKnight works as an academic at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of Beyond Right and Left: New Politics and the Culture War which discusses the need for a radical renewal of the progressive political vision.

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