Progressive Social Movements: Is the end nigh?

The challenge for feminists is to beat a system that still stifles them

There is a self-flagellatory streak in feminist books these days. The underlying message is that the biggest problem contemporary women face is that “feminists” didn’t tell them that they couldn’t “have it all”, rather than the fact that even in our so-called equal-opportunity world, they still can’t.

This rush to blame may be a sign of larger and more fundamental – even fatal – problems affecting the women’s and other progressive social movements. As Carmen Laurence put it recently on Compass, such movements have failed to offer an understanding of the nature and purpose of society to counter the individualistic market-based philosophy of liberal capitalist countries like the UK, the US and Australia: a philosophy that says the role of the individual is to compete with others for access to the means to buy more stuff.

At the heart of the liberal world view is a vision of individuals competing on a level playing field for the freedom to make whatever choices they like, as long as these don’t interfere with the similar freedom of others. This view implies that the unhappiness of any group must be a consequence of their bad choices: choices for which they have no one to blame but themselves. They could, and should, have chosen better.

Enter the politics of informed consent which, in the Liberal world-view, provides one of the few ways those who’ve made bad choices can escape blame. From the feminist health movement to the more recent co-option of feminist health principles by abortion foes, defenders of informed consent assert that choices are only legitimate if they are made free from coercion and in the face of substantial understanding of the relevant facts. Indeed, the claim that women didn’t know because they weren’t told – and so aren’t to blame for their choices – is at the heart of post-feminist complaints like Haussegger’s.

But while informed consent is a necessary tool for the protection of individual autonomy, political movements based on nothing more than the fostering of individual choice have a slim chance of success, despite the promotion of this sort of approach by commentators like Miranda Devine as the basis of a “new feminism”. This is because, “choice to do what?” will always be the next question that’s asked, and not all choices are the same. We don’t allow people to sell themselves into slavery, no matter how informed or voluntary they declare themselves to be, nor do we have much respect for the mega-rich who freely and knowledgeably reject all philanthropic appeals.

Another well-worn route out of this conundrum is for progressives to show the falsity of liberal claims that the gladiatorial contest for purchasing power takes place on level playing field. However, the culture wars clearly showed how such an approach can be effectively castigated for encouraging a “culture of complaint”, a “black-armband” view of the world or a “victim mentality” in which excuses rather than action rule the day. This does not mean that progressives can’t, or shouldn’t, continue to point to the significant gap between the promise of liberal capitalism and what it delivers. But they should do so in the knowledge that while negative campaigns may undermine an opponent, they provide little succour for the alternative. Perhaps this is why the majority of Australians have granted control of both houses of parliament to a market-worshipping government while at the same time telling researchers that Australian society puts too much emphasis on money and not enough on the things that really matter.

What is the answer? Progressives must make the critique of the market’s capacity to deliver happiness a first order priority. Once able to meet the basics of life, additional money doesn’t increase our feelings of well-being, as the 23% of Australians who’ve already downshifted to a time-rich and money-poor alternative clearly understand. As well, progressives must exploit what religion, philosophy and the social sciences all confirm are powerful sources of human motivation and happiness – family, community, identity, solidarity, security, trust, love, creativity, mastery, autonomy and fairness – to articulate an alternative objective for Australian society. We want to feel good about ourselves, which entails spending time with family, feeling part of our communities, acting with integrity and in accordance with the values we see as implicated in a meaningful life.

We know that what the continental Europeans disdainfully regard as Anglo-Saxon liberalism is not the answer, and that consumerism has been a wash-out too. But before we can step off the wheel, we’re going to need a vision of where we’re headed and someone to show the way. It is the job of social progressives to articulate a vision and to answer the all important question of how we can get there from here.

Publication history

Progressive Social Movements: Is the end nigh?  Sydney Morning Herald