Latham worries that there is a crisis in civil society. He believes that individuals have become alienated from their communities and are less willing to trust and cooperate with each other:
It is the alienation of the individual from community life that is the cause of so many social problems. (p.16)
He focuses on two culprits for this. One is the market. He criticises "a grotesque expansion of market forces into social relationships" and also consumerism as a form of middle-class escapism.
The second culprit is conservatism. Latham believes that there is a conservative establishment which stymies change and is intent on hoarding power for itself. He sees himself as one of the outsiders attempting to break down hierarchies of power.
It's a flawed view. I'd agree with Latham that individuals are increasingly socially alienated, that our culture is excessively individualistic, that there is too little political engagement and that consumerism and a cult of celebrity are ultimately empty forms of escapism.
But how do you achieve a real depth of community? I would argue that you need to allow stable forms of social life to develop over time and that you need a shared identity based on real forms of connectedness.
This is not what Latham is looking for. He does not want to maintain either stability or commonality. He believes instead that community should be encouraged as the basis for "a sweeping program of social justice" and so that people will "reach out and trust in strangers" from around the globe and support "the redistributive functions of government":
As a society we are poorly equipped to meet the challenges of globalisation: building strong communities that are prepared to reach out and trust in strangers - people, values and information from across the globe.
The crisis in social capital is also a crisis for social democracy. If people do not practise mutual trust and cooperation in their lives, they are not likely to support the redistributive functions of government...
The task of social reformers is extraordinarily difficult ... Not only must they rebuild the trust and cohesiveness of civil society, they also need to motivate people about the value and possibilities of organised politics ... they then need to win majority public support for a sweeping program of social justice. (pp. 16-17)
In one sense he is right. When people are more closely connected to their communities they are likely to have more altruistic attitudes. Social reformers have, in the past, drawn on this altruism to win support for programmes that were not in the interests of the mainstream.
Such reformers could, as an alternative, rely on the apathy of a socially alienated population to force through their programmes. But Latham seems to have too much of a populist streak to find this an appealing option. He sees himself as representing those who are outsiders to political power (the insiders are by his definition the bad guys, the "conservatives"). Latham seems to want to lead a grassroots movement of "social democracy" to push through his sweeping changes - and that can't be done when altruism and social engagement are low.
Finally, Latham is wrong to claim that the establishment is conservative. His line is that those in power (the insiders) want to preserve their control and therefore are in favour of social hierarchies and the status quo. That's why, surmises Latham, he met such opposition to his reform programme.
But much of the opposition to Latham came from within his own party. So he is led to the idea that the ALP itself is a conservative organisation, run as an oligarchy by half a dozen union officials. He describes the ALP as follows:
The Party's defining purpose now revolves around power and patronage, the fuel that sustains its factions but that ultimately drains the True Believers of conviction and belief. It has become a conservative institution run by conservative people, the worst elements of machine politics. (p.8)
In contrast to this, Latham presents himself as in no way attached to the status quo:
Over time, our national political culture has become more conservative and uniform ... I battled against this tendency inside the Labor Party, determined to maintain a bold approach to public policy. I believed in adventurism as a way of public life. (p.20)
It's a misleading picture of Australian politics. Yes, there is entrenched power. But it is power at the service of an increasingly radical liberalism. When Kevin Rudd, for instance, raised immigration to record levels, it was difficult to see this as a conservative measure designed to keep things as they are.
The orthodoxy is a liberal one. Latham doesn't see this because he has in his mind the idea that being progressive means attacking power hierarchies as a dissenting outsider. Therefore, the insiders who hold the power are, by definition, the non-progressives - the "conservatives". He ends up believing that ALP powerbrokers, ABC journalists and the like are Tories.
But this means that he can't engage with the liberalism that is so influential amongst the political class as a whole. And I don't think you can truly understand the shifts in modern society, including those toward social alienation, without considering the role played by this liberalism.