This is the conclusion of David Craig’s conceptual analysis — parts one and two were published over the last two weeks.
Towards a wellbeing society? Market- oriented social wellbeing beyond ‘social inclusion’ and workfare
I argued in earlier posts that the relations between state, society and markets have continued to shift, with market power now strongly institutionalized and in many ways built into people’s subjective and normative expectations of work and welfare.
Overall, I think it crucial that we start re-thinking based on this shift, and that we actively re-consider how the best can be made of it.
Social democratic responses to this shift have tended to rely heavily on state intervention to deliver quick and controllable change. This intervention has been effective in a number of areas, but it has also been in some ways top down and technocratic, reliant on an elite control of the executive function inherited from previous neoliberal ambits (which captured state power to push through marketising reforms). Enacted by a professional political machine using polling and other restricted modalities of participation, this engagement has not really taken advantage of any real shifts in the social order emerging from neoliberalism which might have underpinned a more thorough shift of ground for the welfare state. These shifts include the emergence of a re-commodified labour market reaching further down than ever into families’ lives, time, assets and incomes.
On the other hand, many conceptions of the social which have been activated in policy contexts have been relatively lame and reactionary: Third way governments have played to the communitarian, to moral reaction, to punition and a shrill work ethic, while failing to see anything in the social that might provide a stronger basis for representational political action. The state doing some things for poor people is important, but it can also be self defeating for social democrats seeking to engage and mobilize low paid workers and households whose real living conditions are dictated by market outcomes.
Overall then, here is a call for a conception of the social much more closely linked to markets and market outcomes, but also as viscerally involved and engaged on a day-to-day basis with carving out a stronger niche within those arrangements. The state surely has a role legislating this, as do political managers in making smart policy around it. I suggested that gendered labour (and wider structural and institutional dimensions of the labour market and its governing), the early childhood and family environment, education (especially early education) and the housing market could all be fruitfully examined as sites where this kind of renewed engagement with the social and markets might have traction.
In all these fields we need above all to construct strong historical narratives which avoid dull thirdway notions such as social inclusion, partnership or (simple work or community) participation, and cut to the wider political economic chase in terms of the major forces shaping social and market relations.
These narratives need, in other words, to comprehend some of the following: and also to show people clearly what they have to do with their own past, present and future. They need, in other words, to:
1. Recognise and draw attention to the big picture political economic drivers behind changes including asset, income, intergenerational, health and neighbourhood inequality (ghettoisation), alongside the widening obligation for individual agency and responsibility.
Core to this will be historically understanding the effects of market mechanisms in basic areas (labour, capital, land), how these have been set up and regulated, and what social effects they have had. The housing market, for example, driven by a range of factors including favourable tax policies for landlords and a wider concentration of income in the top deciles, has over time delivered a polarised situation in which home ownership levels are falling while overall housing costs are rising faster than real wages. Asset concentration follows income inequality, and many families are the poorer for this, as the following (before and after housing costs) graphs from Bryan Perry’s 2010 survey of Household incomes illustrate.
Proportion of all individuals in low-income households by age, 60% REL threshold (Before Housing Costs)
Proportion of all individuals in low-income households by age, 60% REL threshold (AHC)
2. Help rebuild and refocus understanding of the roles of state and society, by:
- raising wider debate around the actual costs of rising inequalities, making voters more aware of who these costs impact on, and how the social order and outcomes has been structurally changed by these shifts;
- Building understanding about the real potential social bases of embedding and shaping of market forces, and the ways market arrangements can be more smartly managed to produce better social outcomes;
- Linking, in robust policy terms, the social and political economic drivers to individual and family lived experiences, especially in terms of inequality, control, stress, resilience;
- Building recognition of the real costs of labour market commodification, day to day;
- Building recognition of the limits of the state’s role on the social development side (without weakening that role into mere monitor or bankroller).
From such a debate might emerge, if we are lucky, a plausible conception of wellbeing in relation to markets, social processes, and the scope of state intervention.
This conception would of some necessity go beyond the notion of a welfare state, without losing sight of that entity’s core social security capabilities.
In this context, I don’t think it’s naïve to talk over time about founding some new, durable understandings around something like a wellbeing society (rather than just a welfare state). Perhaps, and this is worth debating, it is not naïve either to talk about the real scope of market-oriented wellbeing. If we can even begin to do this in ways that go beyond the narrow social inclusion-ism of thirdway workfare, we will already be making progress.
We need venues for this discussion to happen, here, in NZ and more widely: Policy Progress seems to me to be a great starting point.
David Craig is senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Auckland, where he teaches around the history and political economy/ sociology of liberalism; colonialism and development; and urban sociology. His previous posts for Policy Progress were State subsidisation of low wages, Reconceiving the welfare state (part one) and Reconceiving the welfare state (part two).