Göran Therborn published an article in the New Left Review 78 which is a hugely important reminder. Not least he highlights the ongoing meaning of the class question for social policy which had been – and still is – largely neglected within the British tradition of social policy and its foundation in social administration.
I think Göran’s contribution is a hugely interesting reading especially today while for another time the current crisis is not discussed with a proper reference to class issues. The debate on the crisis still remains caught within a framework of a supposed general interest, which had been and is always the interest of a minority. This is well known not only from Karl Marx’ work but also getting obvious from a thorough study of the two main works elaborated by Adam Smith (“Wealth of Nations” and “Moral Sentiments”).
I may add a brief comment, putting the perspective on social policy in perspective. Looking at economics, it’s original sin is linked to Marshall, stripping off the political from the economy: whereas all thinking in this area – be it by Xenophon, Ricardo, Smith or Marx to name but a few – had been hitherto seen as essentially political economy, we find now this fundamental shift of an alleged separation. NB: The mathematisation is not as such a problem although it is this that frightens frequently social scientists entering the debate on economic questions. Not least with this lapse we find the birth of social policy in its modern form: separated, entering a hopeless competition, searching its foundation in a claimed “pure reason of values” and prone to be swallowed by administration. The most extreme pattern surely developed in and from the Anglo-American tradition which founds social policy in social administration. Rather than referring to recent debates and examples (see for instance my own writing: Person oriented services and social service providers in comparative and European perspective. Current debates on changes by liberalisation in a perspective of a theory of modernisation; New York: Nova, 2006, and more recent and relevant: The End of Social Services? Economisation and Managerialism; Bremen: Europaeischer Hochschulverlag, 2012)
I want to draw attention to the work of Karl Polanyi (surely beyond any suspicion of being Marxist): The Great Trsansformation. In his analysis of pauperism, Speenhamland legislation and its ‘antecedents and consequences’ (see part two: The Rise and Fall of the Market Economy; I. Satanic Mill) he clearly shows that this legislation had been genuinely part of the political economy of the time, not a matter of ‘distinct social policy’. And as such it had been established, taken back and re-established in new forms. A quote may show this:
The market pattern, on the other hand, being related to a peculiar motive of its own, the motive of truck or barter, is capable of creating a specific institution, namely, the market. Ultimately, that is why the control of the economic system by the market is of overwhelming consequence to the whole organization of society: it means no less than the running of society as an adjunct to the market. Instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system. The vital importance of the economic factor to the existence of society precludes any other result. For once the economic system is organized in separate institutions, based on specific motives and conferring a special status, society must be shaped in such a manner as to allow that system to function according to its own laws.
It is interesting to read then the analysis of the development of the social policy legislation which had been mentioned: the class question always being on the agenda, the bourgeoisie always well aware of acting as class – in a way we may apply the notion brought forward by Marxism when looking at the proletariat, here applied to the ruling class: a class being characterised by the consciousness of being a class for itself rather than being only an objective entity without a consciousness of its existence (cf e.g. Marx,Karl: The Poverty of Philosophy; ; Chapter 2: The Metaphysics … . Strikes and Combinations of Workers). It is also interesting to see that in current debates the bourgeoisie is again (or we may better say: still) well aware of this close intricate link. On the other hand, we find on the (in a political sense) liberal and left spectrum a reluctance to enter the debate of class issues to see social policy as genuinely economic question and vice versa, in other words: to return to a genuine understanding of political economy. Pseudo-radical reference to a Ship of Fools or greed as phenomenon of general deterioration are only apt to distract from the essential question of class. – Sober analysis shows that the fools are actually sitting on board of a social science vessel that understands the social as add-on, aiming on strengthening its meaning rather instead of rooting its meaning in societal objectivity. In a proper understanding the social, then is the
outcome of the interaction between people (constituted as actors) and their constructed and natural environment. Its subject matter refers to people’s interrelated productive and reproductive relationships. In other words, the constitutive interdependency between processes of self-realisation and processes governing the formation of collective identities is a condition for the social and its progress or decline.
(van der Maesen, Laurent J.G./Walker, Alan, 2012: Social Quality and Sustainability; in: van der Maesen, Laurent J.G./Walker, Alan [Eds.]: Social quality: From Theory to Indicators; Basingstoke: Macmillan: 250-274, here: 260)
So, in this light a left understanding of social policy has to make a “step back”, returning to the roots if it doesn’t want to allow to be continuously pushed aside by the quest for economic miracles of economic growth of and within marketised societies. To quote another time Polanyi:
The ecomomic system is, in effect, a mere function of social organization.
And social organisaiton and social policy, in one way or another, is a mere expression of class relationships. As such it is a matter of capitalist formations, defined not only by economic interests but by economic power: the control of the means of production and the control of their development and “use”.