social services – facing complexities

Soon going to Warsaw – ‘my old topic’, namely social services. In a way and in one respect it is an interesting setting: myself coming more from the social policy side and for instance Nicholas Barr coming from economics or Adalbert Evers as protagonist of – I dare to say – managerialist third-sector perspective. At least as far as I am concerned I can say that my move is surely towards the side of economics – or what is called welfare economics.

This entire undertaking and gathering in Warsaw is surely also very much a personal matter – not least as it is about the launch of the Polish translation of a book on social services which I edited and which gathers not least my own contributions. But leaving vanity aside, there are surely at least three dimensions to this – also somewhat personal:

* First, already studying sociology – several years ago now – meant for me very much studying with this political economy. Looking at the Marxian statement that the actual existence determines the consciousness is surely something that places on the one hand sociology between ‘individuals and the development of personalities’ and ‘socio-material structures’, including humans’ engagement with nature. At its very core this means to focus the definition of the social – with its economic, sociological and individual dimension – on the understanding proper of labour as developed by G.W.F. Hegel who characterises it in his “Realphilosophy (ii)” as

‘universal interaction and education (Bildung) of man … a recognition which is mutual, or the highest individuality’.

* Second, important is – and this is again not least a personal experience, gained over the years – that the frequent fear of discussing social policy in the vicinity of economics is not only misleading but also dangerous. This is surely a field for complex debates: on the one hand it seems to be a triviality, an easily admitted link; on the other hand it is frequently a link that is thought of in too simple terms: as ‘resource question’, suggesting that resources for social policy have to be produced. This leads to the third aspect, namely the need to actually fundamentally rethink the meaning of economy, the understanding of what economic activity is about.

Leaving the complex questions aside, one point can be mentioned showing how much this triviality is neglected: the debate on social services and their specific character – a debate within the institutions of the European Union which aimed over the recent years on defending a status exempting them from the economy. Such claim for exemption looked for a special status, on the one hand based on socio-historical specifities and on the other hand based on general interest. Surely important issues had been raised (and surely I am still somewhat reluctant to rebut the many arguments that had been brought forward [leaving aside the fact that I actually still see the validity of many arguments I am reluctant as well because of my earlier involvement – EU-activities which I left by now already since some time  behind, considering that it would be TIME TO SAY GOOD-BYE.

But there is surely some irony in this entire story of the EU activities to ‘safe social services’ – or we may lean towards a Hegelian expression and turn it actually around, speaking of ‘cunning of unreason’. These two claims forget that they are fundamentally affirmative when it comes to current system – a system of which the recent/current crisis is only an especially perverse manifestation of its general crisis.

  • Claiming socio-historical specifities as foundation means the other way round: capitalist accumulation is the normal ‘good order’, only in need to be ‘occasionally’ and/or partly counterbalanced and compensated for when it comes to some extreme deflections (‘over-accumulation’, ‘under-supply’ …). Profitability is the normal condition, accumulation the utmost aim of the entire process and over-accumulation is then a paradox. If you read Harvey’s ‘Enigma of Capital’ you know that we have to ask: if accumulation is the ultimate goal, how is over-accumulation actually possible? And you know the answer: accumulation is not about the production of use value but it is about capital that lacks the opportunity of realising the expected, at a given time ‘standard’ rate of profit. This is: it is capital that is not geared to any ‘social investment’ or ‘social profit’. On the contrary, it is geared to establish and reproduce itself as waste, as negation of use value and solely realisation of exchange value.
    Not least the ongoing crisis of the finance system should make us think to define such system as socio-historically specific, rebuking any claim to be ‘normal’. The ‘business as usual’ shows that it is not normal at all – it is on the contrary highly perverse.
  • And this shows exactly the point that makes it problematic to claim social services being services of general interest. Again, it legitimises a system that is first and foremost, fundamentally and in principle concerned with private interest – and there is surely nothing new with this: a well known fact and never questioned by its proponents. What makes it remarkable though is that we find in the meantime also people on the left who believe in the invisible hand and in moral philosophy and calls for social responsibility as solution.
    Again, there is the danger that the baby is thrown out with the bathing water. But there is not less the danger of calls for an active civil society, for voluntary services, the danger of claims for general interest orientation, possibly emerging as straightjacket and basis for precarity in all parts of the economy, including social services which are surely also part of the society’s entire economic fabric.

The principle justification of the private property and private interest as highest good, as it is entailed in the exceptionalisation of the general interest, has not only consequences for assessing the economy and the status and meaning of social services. Rather, it is equally important as matter for the development of social and human rights. Looking at Germany of his times (and here we are speaking of the Germany of the turn of the century), Hegel contends in his Political Writings that its

‘political edifice is nothing but the sum of rights which the individual parts have wrested from the whole’

– we are now confronted with private rights and private claims and the in the end isolated individual that is even in the social sphere nothing else than … self-concerned.

* Third, I just finished for this year teaching, just ended the sessions on welfare economics at Corvinus University in Budapest – and of course, this self-concerned individual, guided by the utilitarian principles had been very much a point of reference – as much as it is point of departure of the process of capitalist accumulation and as much as it is point of reference (or defining the ‘aim’) of what we call social policy. But this self-concerned individual stands at the cradle of a very specific understanding of ‘the social’ – as Donzelot says in his Invention of the Social

De cette situation d’assujettissement de la classe ouvrière, on rend ordinairement  coupable la nature hypocrite de la forme contractuelle, les termes léonins de l’échange qu’il propose entre un individu qui dispose d’un capital et un autre qui n’a que sa force de travail pour vivre.

Or as Marx defines it: as wage worker, free in the double sense of not being owned as means of production and not owning means of production.

This economic-legal relationship is exactly the reflection of what Hegel says about the shift of genuinely social rights, being redefined as

‘rights which the individual parts have wrested from the whole’.

And it is the foundation as the social or welfare state as increasingly distinct entity, in some what detached from the political economy and thus detached from itself. It must appear as peculiar paradox when Donzelot rightly gears in particular towards the French variation of the social and welfare state: the ‘État-Providence’

Par son impact sur les structures paternalistes de l’entreprise, le droit social brise donc bien la situation d’assujettissement direct de l’ouvrier au patron qui s’ était installée sous le couvert de la fiction contractuelle régissant officiellement leurs rapports. Mais c’est pour les inscrire l’un et l’autre dans deux logiques antagoniques, celles de la rationalité sociale et de la rationalité économique.

Indeed, the conflict between labour and capital – and social movements, civil society and the like should not try to hide behind neutrality.

We come back to the point made before: the danger of calls for an active civil society, for voluntary services, the danger of claims for general interest orientation, now emerging as straightjacket and basis for precarity in all parts of the economy, including social services. We come back to this point as we can see at this point that the state, the general interest and the civil society emerge as detached (though not independent) instances: detached not solely and simply from one another but moreover from themselves. The social is thus dissolving into a separate sphere. The Social Quality Foundation (of which I am advisor) is surely right, rejecting an understanding of the social as adjective and defining it as noun, stating:

The Social Quality Approach understands the social as the outcome of the interaction between people (constituted as actors) and their constructed and natural environment. With this in mind its subject matter refers to people’s productive and reproductive relationships. In other words

  • the constitutive interdependency between processes of self-realisation and processes of the formation of collective identities
  • is a condition for ‘the social’, realised by the interactions of
  • actors, being – with their self-referential capacity – competent to act
  • and their framing structure, which translates immediately into the context of human relationships.

As such the definition helps overcoming a limited approach towards social policy. It surely allows developing an approach towards social policy that goes beyond attaching it to economic policy or even economic development – it is far more. The Social Quality Approach allows both, analysing the social situation and development in a complex manner and also providing criteria that can serve as standard and guideline for soci(et)al policies – now understood as policy of social order – but a social order not in the sense of a system put over the people(‘s needs and wants).

Still, we have to go further in our attempts of integrating the social and the economy – to be more precise: of reintegrating the two and to be even more precise: to re-establish the complete integrity of the two, seeing them as parts, elements of a complex ‘process of relational appropriation’ as I term it since some time.

The development which had been described by Hegel as disembedding of the individual fro his/her own constitutional interests as genuinely social being has to be answered by a re-socialisation. In a proper way this means the socialisation of the economy.

What could then be more appropriate than talking in Warsaw about social policy as matter of social relations rather than working in the topic of social policy and services as matter of provisions.

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