There is a deep, if invisible conflict between our consumer culture and our democratic ideals. It is the result of social processes that, in the last half century, have profoundly transformed how we live and who we are. This paper explores the underpinnings of the condition that many identify as ‘late’ or ‘post’ modernity. Rather than focusing on the intellectual transformations wrought by the Enlightenment, it takes up Charles Taylor’s dialectical account of the relation between the social developments of modernity and changes in social understandings. It then considers the nature and import of our contemporary practices and conditions, their relation to the ‘postmodern’, and their implications both at home and abroad for the ability to sustain meaningful democracies under conditions of globalisation.