Postmodern Welfare: Reconstructing an Emancipatory Project


Peter Leonard

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    For my children: Jane, Katharine, David, Nick, Polly


    Two generations have been powerfully affected by Michel Foucault's transformative archaeologies of knowledge and practice, and I certainly number among them. I am also indebted, of course, to the many contemporary authors who are frequently cited in the text, and among those who have been most influential in my thinking I must mention Zygmunt Bauman, Judith Butler, Nicholas Fox, David Harvey and bell hooks. At a personal level, my thanks go to Glenn Drover, Robert Fisher and Robert Mullaly, whose critical comments on my earlier attempts to confront the implications of postmodernism directly informed the writing of this book, though only I am responsible for any strangulation of their ideas which may have occurred in the process. To Liesel Urtnowski and to many of my graduate students at McGill University I owe my greatest debt. Their commitment to both political practice and theorization and their willingness to engage in an educational dialogue provided me with a form of learning from which I have benefited immensely. I am also grateful to Janet Meldrum for the remarkably careful and accurate way she transformed my often inchoate manuscript, chapter by chapter, into a printed script; and to Chris Rojek, of Sage Publications, who responded enthusiastically to my ideas for this book as well as providing subsequent editorial guidance, many thanks.

    Finally, I want to express my special appreciation to Lynne Leonard. Apart from providing me with emotional support, including at times a much-needed optimism, she has enabled me to gain some understanding of feminism as an everyday practice of resistance.

    PeterLeonardMontreal and Ottawa


    In the contemporary political discourse taking place amongst those who assume a critical, oppositional stance to the now triumphal world capitalist order – feminists, socialists, anti-racists, defenders of minority cultural rights and others – a critical question is being posed. Is the emancipatory potential of the project of modernity, which expressed its resistance to domination in the universal terms of justice, reason and progress, now at an end?

    Many issues enter into this discussion. The recent history of the collapse of state socialist regimes and the reckless scramble to institute market economies, together with the swing to the Right of many social democratic parties and governments, combine to produce a profound questioning and uncertainty on the Left and, more widely, a discrediting of socialist ideas and policies. Feminists, in particular, have been able to demonstrate the existence of deeply embedded impulses to domination and gender inequality often lurking beneath the surface socialist rhetoric of equality and liberation. Into the debates between different critical perspectives enters that complex of unsettling ideas manifested in the practice of postmodern deconstruction. Postmodernism challenges the modern idea of a universal, essential subject, common to all humanity, which has been at the core of a socialist belief in the possibility of a world-wide political struggle, and as well as underpinning the Western drive to colonizing the Other in the name of a single notion of ‘Civilization’. But postmodernism also challenges all the meta-narratives of emancipation as espousing a singular idea of Truth which leads invariably to domination, thus fixing feminism and anti-racism with its beady, critical eye.

    So the questioning of the problematics of modernity becomes increasingly urgent. Does the postmodern insistence on the recognition of difference and of cultural relativity rather than universal reason, which might initially appear to validate the perspectives of those confronting gender domination and racism, in fact spell an end to the chances of reconstituting a mass politics of liberation? The overriding question in critical political discourse is this: what are the possibilities of a politics which is based upon a full recognition of the reality of socio-cultural diversity but which nevertheless achieves solidarity in the interests of populations which now experience, in this post-Cold War period, the unmitigated onslaught of the global market economy of late capitalism?

    The idea and practice of welfare occupies a central position in this questioning and debate. Welfare as a function of the state under capitalism, postmodern critique argues, epitomizes that contradiction between domination and emancipation which has been historically the invariable feature of modernity. As the political agenda of the Right comes to dominate the discourse on welfare, its empowering and caring side loses ground to a brutal individualism intent on the further degradation of the poor. Even where the radical Right has not directly taken control, state welfare continues to be characterized by surveillance, control and repression, its critics maintain.

    Here, the question is what to do about welfare as well as how to theorize about it. The postmodern emphasis on difference and its accompanying disillusionment with ‘big state’ solutions to social problems leads to a focus on the liberatory potential for local, small-scale forms of welfare – community-based advocacy and consumer-controlled projects and agencies. These organizations of welfare, close to the people they serve, are able, it is argued, to relate to the diverse needs and social identities of specific populations with their particular configurations of gender, class, culture, ethnicity and other social characteristics. It is a compelling argument, especially to those who are active in the identity politics of the new social movements. But such postmodern political solutions – micro-political resistance rather than the tired old mass politics of confronting and attempting to win state power – pose serious problems. In relinquishing the universalistic ideas of welfare embodied, in however partial a form, in the Keynesian welfare sate (now deceased), credence is given to the political discourse embraced by neo-conservatism and by parties traditionally of the Centre, or Left-of-Centre, which have now adopted a similar political agenda. This new discourse on welfare aims to reduce drastically state social expenditures, establish residual lower cost forms of welfare, fragment opposition and divide sites of resistance, all in the name of local diversity and control. The ‘Higher Good’ espoused by this right-wing discourse is that leaner models of welfare using minimal state resources serve ultimately to improve a country's competitiveness in the global market through reducing corporate taxation, increasing the rate of return on capital, reducing labour costs and returning to the traditional virtues of family cohesiveness and hard work.

    How do I propose to address the questions and issues I have raised? Having a political and intellectual history rooted in Marxism, and subsequently strongly influenced by feminism, I approach postmodern critique with many doubts and reservations. At the same time, I acknowledge its profound impact and importance, especially in its challenge to Eurocentric assumptions about knowledge, science and culture, and its deep questioning of the narrative of emancipation. My perspective, therefore, must be seen, first, as one which attempts a critical engagement with and within the Marxist tradition. It is not, therefore ‘postmodern Marxist’ in the sense that the work of Laclau and Mouffe (1985) might be so described (if it is not called ‘post-Marxist’), a perspective which appears to give priority to postmodern critique over the potential which, I believe, remains powerful in the Marxist tradition. I do not see postmodernism, in other words, as taking over the critical role of Marxism (or feminism, for that matter) but as providing a now essential ingredient in a revitalized Marxism. My view of the relationship between Marxism and postmodernism involves a deeply felt critique of some of the ‘old Marxisms’ which reflected the side of the project of modernity which was rooted in domination. It is a perspective which engages with postmodernism alongside feminism and anti-racism, and demands the acknowledgement and celebration of diversity in cultures, sexualities, abilities, ages and other human characteristics which, within an unreconstructed modernity were excluded, suppressed or discriminated against. My view, unlike that of Laclau and Mouffe, is that we are not at the end of emancipation. The project continues, but under changed historical conditions – economic, cultural, social – and with a newly reflective ability (always existing at least as a potential in Marxism) to understand the contradictions of the emancipatory projects of the past as well as that of the present. A reconstructed project of emancipation, in this book seen as central to the future of human welfare, builds upon the liberatory potential of the whole idea of emancipation still expressed, sometimes in muted form, within socialist, feminist, anti-racist and other struggles against domination.

    This book begins, in Chapter 1, with an overview of the argument between modernity and its postmodern critics. The old, liberal and social democratic welfare state is under attack, not only by the radical Right but as part of the overall challenge to modernity and its knowledge claims. What are the grounds for this attack and in what sense might we see the postmodern not only as critique, but also as the cultural condition of the present period of capitalism? After examining the contention that welfare is rooted in modern domination, I begin to answer the question of whether, following postmodern deconstruction, it is possible to envisage a form of welfare which reflects the emancipatory side of modernity. Chapter 2 concerns itself with the construction of the individual subject, a starting point which marks the dramatic shift in political discourse resulting from the potent combined intervention of postmodernism and feminism. Central to this discussion is the question of the relation between the self as socially constituted, including through the surveillance and control of state welfare, and the self as a relatively autonomous moral agent, capable of resistance. The discourses on dependency and on the mutual interdependence of subjects are discussed in the context of the individual and the collective as actors in the field of welfare.

    Following through the implications of a conception of the subject as culturally constructed rather than as reflecting a basic, universal human essence, Chapter 3 turns to a discussion of culture. First, we examine the postmodern deconstruction of culture in the anthropological sense of ‘a way of life’. We explore its implications for an emphasis on the validity of difference in the provision of welfare and the issues of moral judgement to which debate about cross-cultural communication and the existence of embedded racism gives rise. Next we examine the impact of culture as representation and in particular the effect of the mass media in the constitution of subjects and the possibilities of resistance to dominant media discourses on welfare. Chapter 4 focuses on the organization of welfare as a manifestation par excellence of modernity as a state system of surveillance, monitoring and control. The knowledge/power of the expert and the ever-present threat of individual resistance to professional power are a prime focus of attention. This is followed by discussion of whether the notion of postmodern organization is valid or oxymoronic and leads on to an account of another alternative to modern bureaucracy: the collectivist organization.

    The changes which have taken place in the world-wide economy in the past twenty years is the subject of Chapter 5. Drawing primarily on Marxist analysis of the dynamics of capital accumulation and social regulation, discussion covers the implications for welfare of economic restructuring and its impact in terms of unemployment, job security and poverty. The conceptualization of this new economy as post-Fordism and its connection to the culture of postmodernity is examined in relation to shifts in the discourse on welfare in the context of the crisis tendencies of late capitalism. The micro-resistance of subjects in everyday life, a common theme in the book, gives way in Chapter 6 to an exploration of the politics of collective resistance. Beginning with a discussion of the continuing importance of Marxism as a narrative of political struggle, we turn to the particular problems of a collective politics of resistance under the cultural conditions of postmodern scepticism. I argue, however, that postmodernism has something to offer in terms of an ethics which might underpin a new collective politics of human welfare despite its reluctance to envisage a mass struggle for emancipation. Commentary on the political potential and limitations of the new social movements and politics of identity, and their relationship to struggles over welfare, leads to a preliminary discussion of the possibilities of an organized solidarity emerging from a politics of difference. I argue that, on its own, postmodernism is unable to provide an intellectual or practical basis for the kind of politics necessary to a new welfare project: only as linked to feminism and Marxism does it realize a capacity to move from deconstruction to reconstruction.

    The final chapter of the book gives attention to the possibilities of reconstruction. I argue that these possibilities already exist in prefigurative form, but need to be widened and built upon, and I suggest an underpinning ethics of reconstruction which draws upon both postmodern emphasis on the Other, and feminist and Marxist concern with interdependence. I sketch, in outline, a welfare project whose objectives are to meet both common and particular, culturally specific human needs as the preconditions necessary to the exercise of moral agency. The political means of achieving these objectives – strategies of collective resistance and the building of prefigurative forms of welfare – are suggested. In the end, we come to the question of the crucial role of state power in achieving welfare and how it might be won. In responding to the unassailable critique of political parties, especially as now constituted, as predominantly instruments of domination and homogenization, I introduce the possibility of constructing a party as a confederation of diversities. Such a party would be based upon an organized alliance between a range of social movements, each pursuing its own vision and interests, but with the potential for solidarity rooted in a commitment to the struggle to meet certain common human needs and a realization that some form of mass politics is necessary if the struggle is to be pushed forward.

    This is a book which, though reflecting, I hope, a commitment to political struggle in the field of welfare, to action, is heavy with theory. This theorization derives mainly from postmodernism and its critics, and especially from the mutual interrogation of Marxism and feminism with postmodernism. Much of postmodern writing is inaccessible, using an esoteric and arcane language which then infects those who must debate its conceptualizations in order either to affirm or contest them. Authors of texts such as this one are continuously in danger, therefore, of reproducing a distanced, privileged and academically élitist kind of writing which fails to communicate effectively with a politically relevant readership, thus rendering the possibility of dialogue difficult, remote or, in the worst scenario, non-existent. There is, however, another side to the question of language. The argument in favour of simplicity and immediate accessibility of language in the interests of effortless communication is usually based upon the assumption that language is a neutral vehicle of expression, that it represents an objective empirical world which ideally can be rendered in the language of ‘common sense’. But ‘common sense’, the taken-for-granted assumptions which are embedded in the individual's effortless belonging to a culture, is highly suspect. Common sense and plain language tend to mask the reproduction of a specific kind of discourse – that which supports the existing economic and social order. The invention of new kinds of language which challenge the common sense assumptions contained in the language of everyday are, it is argued, a necessary part of a challenge to dominant social forces: a critical politics requires a critical theory and a critical language. Giroux (1992) writes that ‘every new paradigm has to create its own language because the old paradigms often produce, through their use of language, particular forms of knowledge and social relations that serve to legitimate specific relations of power’.

    Throughout the writing of this book I have been acutely aware of both sides of this argument. The consequence is that I have attempted to avoid the use of the kind of language which I associate most closely with academic gamesmanship (the masculine form is intentional) where the discourse is so restricted that it is accessible only to a very small minority of academic specialists. In following this side of the argument, I have attempted to avoid some complexities of postmodernist language wherever possible in order to communicate with a wider readership. Perhaps I have, at times, fallen into the trap of over-simplifying a complex set of ideas. But I have also tried to use the core concepts and language of the various theories I have discussed in order to connect with a set of political discourses which I believe to be indispensable to thinking about the present and future of welfare. The reader, in any case, will supply her or his own interpretations, regardless of my intentions. As the postmodern author is dead, readers are free to be their own authority.

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