The Social Nation?

28 Feb 2014

The welfare state was an abstraction. But it was not just an idea. It was a practical response to the woes of capitalism, and in particular to the inequities of industrial capitalism: manufacturing capitalism, in the main. It was only partly an achievement of the organised working class, through its trade unions. It was also the goal and creation of religious organisations, social liberals and even some conservatives, at different points in its history. Ultimately, it was a recognition of how a nation-state might also be a social nation.

In that guise citizens lived its abstractions: we were all actually connected, whether or not we worked side by side or lived in the same local communities, by the forms of agency bestowed by the institutions created in the name of that modern state. Some were repressive forms of connection; but it was also an abstract form of cooperation, actively made to work around a generative notion of what the commonweal is or should be. Old ethical notions about support for the weak, and perhaps old and modern experiences of the pleasures of cooperation, informed what came to be a broadly legitimated social project.

Thus, for example, most people did not just pay taxes but knew the reason for doing so: the benefit to both them and to others, via a powerful collectivity that joined ‘us’ and an unknown ‘them’ in public education and public health systems, in social security measures and special case programs for the marginal. No doubt we were joined together in a society riven by economic interests and contradictions—taxation itself was a site of class struggle!—but countervailing forces, and perhaps even a more basic drive to community in some form, were able to be drawn upon in making that more abstract mode of modern social
connection a practical reality.

The same can be said for another element of the modern welfare state: the protection of local trades and industries through tariffs and quotas, and via other governmental interventions to support jobs and encourage economic growth. In fact through the struggles of the unions in the main, but ultimately again with an understanding of why it was collectively important for the complex social whole, in the modern period Australia’s was a social economy. While capitalism saw workers merely as labour, to be drawn in and out of production as ‘the economy’ demanded, and welfare beneficiaries a residium beyond the pale of helping, the liberal middle classes and the institutions of the state recognised something of the same basic idea of the social nation: that we were more than an economy and that despite the distances between social groups there were ethical and practical reasons for us holding ourselves together as a collectivity. Once, under threat of closure, with clear implications for a whole community, SPC Ardmona would have been rescued not because the Napthine government in Victoria had an election coming up, but because city folk knew they were connected to the country side: they could imagine the travails of their ‘brothers and sisters’ in Shepparton and liked having their food grown and manufactured ‘just up the highway’, and their political representatives would have taken heed of those connections and concerns.

Post-modern and post-industrial critiques have put paid to so much of this picture, both practically and in the contemporary imagination. Many have seen the critique of the repressive elements of the modern institutions—for example, penitentiary forms of control of the mentally ill, or patriarchal assumptions within social security measures and wages and awards—as synonymous with a critique of the modern state as such, and fed into, at the least, a derogation of the cooperative ideal in general and of identification with a commonweal of any type. That is, in the first flush of insight into the assumptions of that whole period and structure of modernity (not just the politics of its internal contradictions), they have often led to assertions of radical difference, leaving the whole question of cooperation and connection to vague ideas of ‘affinity’ or intense personal relations, effectively evacuating the complex site of the social, and the nation
as a social entity, structurally and ethically.

For most people, the claims of radical theory will seem irrelevant. But interestingly, many of them coincide with aspects of what has without doubt touched and reshaped the lives of everyone, and to some degree our selfdescriptions too: neoliberalism and globalisation, the two intimately connected in this period of postmodern reconstruction of the social, and our identities within it. Radical individualism is not a theory but a reality forced up from the ground of consumption capitalism and its techno-scientific underpinnings; the undermining of the social nation has not been achieved primarily by the force of critique but rather is the consequence of an embracing trajectory towards the practical abstraction of borderless finance and open trade.

Prime Minister Abbott is about to sign free trade agreements with both South Korea and Japan: part of the remarkably hard-nosed ideological commitment of this government to the neoliberal idea. Toyota noted this imminent agreement in its given reasons for closing up shop in Australia. Meanwhile the local processing of food (milk, butter, fruit) is threatened, and the workforce and families associated with these sectors are radically under pressure. Qantas, while likely to survive, will do so at the cost of an already announced battle to the death over pay and conditions. Despite lingering suggestions of Abbott’s social Catholicism, his government seems prepared to abandon whole social groups, blaming the unions but in actuality denying forms of social diversity supported in a previous era, with their groups now to be understood merely as individuals available for retraining. In postmodern conditions where the idea of the social has retreated, such groups will be disciplined first by the market through consumer tastes and identity needs (often for non-Australian goods), and second by the remnants of a welfare system that forces ‘losers’ onto the streets and worse. Look at the United States.

When we experience this dessicated social reality we are confused. We don’t fully understand that we are in the midst of total system change; that many of the things we have been taught to value are in the process of losing their social-structural supports: their material, as opposed to their ideational base. In the main people want public services, and many still carry at least implicitly a desire for the collective of which they are a part to take responsibility for those in trouble or who need encouragement. And many still believe we have a nation that does or should have borders, of one kind or another.

Yet the competing assumptions and now new structures of neoliberal and globalised life undercut this old reality, and in response people hunker down in the gut knowledge that our brothers and sisters, whether locally or through the abstract welfare state, cannot be depended upon any longer. Life has taken on a different complexion, and resentment and confusion break out in relation to the global other in boat people and asylum seekers. Of course Abbott and his Coalition partners are neoliberal radicals when it comes to the open flow of trade and investment, vicious reactionaries when the human products of that same process knock on our door.

There is a great deal more to say about globalisation: about the chance for greater parity among peoples in terms of their economic chances, and potentially a more embracing appreciation of human sameness and difference through the kinds of relations that can be forged out of trade. On the argument above, one might even think here are potentially the very material structures of a new level of abstract connection and cooperation: a structure on which a new cosmopolitanism might become the ethic of the era, including its embodiment in global structures of care and concern. There could be a politics of globalisation: a global Left and Right perhaps, just as in the modern period—the Occupy movement?—or on the other hand internal contradictions around new cultural figures—the refugee, for example.

Yet there remain unspoken elements in these depictions—of both the modern social and the neoliberal globalised flow. If there was choice available to modern citizens and their representative thinkers and reformers to devise systems of state-based economic management and care, it involved assumptions then as now about
Human Progress and about Nature. In fact, the sources of historical-cultural possibility in both periods were hardly examined; and as such assumed to be limitless. Scientific rationality, humanism, capitalism—hallmarks of modernity and all open-ended systems—assumed the continuity of a human essence, yet each pressed against taken for granted forms of life that sustained that practised and imagined value. In the age of manufacturing, the trajectory of environmental and social destruction had its own limits. As horrific as that destruction often was, it was checked by the very limitations of the means of production itself. In this context the abstract state’s domestic solutions to social problems could assume a relatively solid base in local industry, city–country relations and other social relationships that, while all abstracted in modernity, could not be so stretched across space or as transformed by science and the
market as they are today.

In the present period those practical/intellectual sources of Human Progress and limitless possibility, if only experienced by most people as limitless white goods, have more obviously broken through the processes and systems of natural-cultural containment that framed human life, including modes of production, and gave it meaning. The question has to be, is what we took for granted as given and central to our human being able to be supported at all in the form of the ‘social’ sketched out for us in the neoliberal-led, globalised world offered by Abbott and his team of radical ideologues?

In terms of our relationship to nature, is it actually sustainable to import a whole nation’s cars, or basic foodstuffs? What are the actual environmental limits, in terms of food miles, or energy extraction and use, or global pollution? Socially, is it possible to still have a complex social form within a nation when a crucial social layer is laid waste: and one, moreover, in manufacturing, that retains roots in face-to-face cooperation and embodied labour in more or less direct relation with fundamental conditions of existence? Socially, is it possible to build structures of complex cooperation or to support attitudes and systems of care that reach out to even unknown domestic others, when the fickle needs of consumer identity undergird production and identity is shaped through appeals to radical individualism, as if our species-being springs from autonomous existence rather than cooperative endeavour and collective meaning?

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.