Social Policy and Risk


Ian Culpitt

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  • Frontispiece

    Chance, which was once the superstition of the vulgar, became the centrepiece of natural and social science, or so the genteel and rational people are led to believe. But how can chance ever be tamed? Parallel to the taming of chance … there arose a self conscious conception of pure irregularity, or something wilder than the kinds of chance that had been excluded by the Age of Reason. It harked back in part to something ancient or vestigial. It also looked into the future, to new, and often darker visions of the person. (Hacking, 1990: 10)

    In all history it would be hard to find such butchery as in World War II, and it is precisely this period, this moment, when the great welfare, public health, and medical assistance programs were instigated … One could symbolize such a coincidence by a slogan: Go get slaughtered and we promise you a long and pleasant life. Life insurance is connected with a death command.

    The coexistence in political struggles of large destructive mechanisms and institutions oriented toward the care of individual life is something puzzling and needs some investigation. It is one of the central antinomies of our political reason … when we ask for support as unemployed, even when we vote for or against a government which cuts social security expenses and increases defense spending, even in these cases, we are thinking beings, and we do these things not only on the ground of universal rules of behavior but also on the specific ground of a historical rationality (Foucalt, 1988c: 147–8)

    When there is a tendency to interpret the incidents or accidents that befall us – opportunely or not – by means of the reintroduction of determinism, necessity or signification, does this signify in turn an abnormal or pathological relation to the real? For example what is the difference between superstition or paranoia on the one hand, and science on the other, if they all mark a compulsive tendency to interpret random signs in order to reconstitute a meaning, a necessity, or a destination? (Derrida, 1984: 20)


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    To Ginny, my companion in the risk of it all

    Preface and Acknowledgements

    All good ideas need room to move: space for their shape and nuances to become more obvious with familiarity. They need, if they are to be any use to us at all, to find ready lodging' within our own minds – to raise the cautious yes, the emphatic no, or the maybe. This book is an examination of a set of ideas about risk in relation to social policy. Questions about risks, hazards and dangers seem, increasingly, to be part of the commonality of public discussion. How they have been, and are now being, used to shape our present politics is the focus of this book.

    The nature of risk is imaginatively presented by Beck in Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1992). Relating his thesis of risk society to social policy reveals my other aim, which has been to understand how neo-liberalism used various aspects of risk to attack welfare dependency. Unravelling that has led me to ask whether or not the organizing philosophy of neo-liberalism was based on a valorization of contract and risk. In order to understand the latter I've found myself being drawn more and more into applying Foucault's ideas to that task. This book explores the ways, applying a philosophy of risk, that we might lever the common-sense dominance of neo-liberalism. Undertaking such a critique defines, as Foucault suggested, ‘the conditions under which the use of reason is legitimate in order to determine what can be known, what must be done, and what may be hoped’ (1984a: 38).

    Foucault, of course, is criticized as offering a philosophy that appears to attack the very basis of humanism and thus arguing for a ‘subject-less history’ (Giddens, 1995: 265). How then could he validly be used to comment on an analysis of neo-liberal social policy, which is so hostile to the welfare ‘other’? Decrying Foucault is to miss the radical possibilities that reside in his work. For example, Foucault's question of Paul Veyne, ‘how is it that there is so little truth in truth’ (1993) appears to be yet one more nihilistic epithet betraying, as his detractors assert, his ‘dependence’ on Nietzsche (Cousins and Hussain, 1984: 257). However, this epithet, properly understood, is not necessarily nihilistic but ‘ethically’ challenging. Within it are the seeds of a provocation to ‘truthful power’ and the hegemony of ‘the obvious’ that is potentially liberating. It does allow us to look again at subjects and issues we have either become bored by or are so certain of our assumptions that we have stopped thinking. One such issue is welfare and all the ramifications of that ‘flawed’ political experiment. This book is an opportunity to submit some of those assumptions to yet one more ‘gaze’ to see whether the apparent ‘truths’ of neo-liberal politics, clearly at their zenith, actually have so ‘little truth in them’!

    I want to acknowledge the interest and support I have had for this project from many staff in this department, especially Kevin Dew, Michael Hill, Michael Lloyd and Stephen Uttley. I owe a particular debt to Stephen for his careful and insightful reading of some of the chapters. I have also received some encouraging support from George Pavlich and Patrick Kerans who also read portions of the manuscript. Karen Phillips was enthusiastic about the initial topic and proposal and it has been a privilege to work with her on this book. Her team at Sage have been similarly supportive and helpful.

    I would also like to thank the following for permission to reproduce material from their separate publications as epigraphs in this book:

    Aldine de Gruyter, Luhmann, N. (1993) Risk: a Sociological Theory, page ix; The Times Higher Education Supplement, Mottier, V. (1995) ‘A tool box of deadly spanners’ Volume 1197, October, page 27; The University of Chicago Press, Foucault, M. (1991) ‘Questions of Method’, in G. Burchell, C. Gordon and P. Miller (eds) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, page 79; Rose, N. (1996) ‘Governing “advanced” liberal democracies’, in A. Barry, T. Osborne and N. Rose (eds) Foucault and Political Reason: Liberalism, Neo-Liberalism and Rationalities of Government, page 61; Stanford University Press, Hacking, I. (1986) ‘Making up people’, in T.C. Heller, M. Sosna and D.E. Wellbery (eds) Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality, and the Self in Western Thought, page 227; Sage Publications, Baudrillard, J. (1993) Symbolic Exchange and Death, page 11; The Johns Hopkins University Press, Derrida, J. (1984) ‘My chances/mes chances: a rendezvous with some epicurean stereophonies’, in J.H. Smith and W. Kerrigan (eds) Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis and Literature, pages 5 and 20; Suhrkamp Verlag, Beck, U. (1995) Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk, page 69; Cambridge University Press, Nietzsche, F. (1997) Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, page 192; Hacking, I. (1990) The Taming of Chance, pages 10, 115 and 169; The University of Massachusetts Press, Foucault, M. (1988) ‘The political technology of individuals’, in L.H. Martin, H. Gutman and PH. Hutton (eds) Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, pages 147–8.

  • Afterword: Foucault's Coldest of all Cold Monsters!

    Now we all live, comparatively speaking, in far too great security for us ever to acquire a sound knowledge of man … As long as truths do not cut into our flesh with knives, we retain a secret contempt for them: they still appear to us too much like ‘winged dreams’, as though we were free to have them or not have them.

    (Nietzsche, 1997: 192)

    For Foucault the ‘coldest of all cold monsters’ was of course the state! He did not assume that it was possible to ‘defeat’ the disciplinary society and replace it with a truly human one. Like Nietzsche (from whom he borrowed the phrase)1 he might well have seen risk (and the need for security) as fashioning a politic that made ‘sound knowledge’ of each other impossible. He found the antinomy of ‘large destructive mechanisms and institutions oriented toward the care of individual life’, coexisting in politics, genuinely puzzling and needing investigation (1988c: 147).

    We have seen how risk is an intrinsic part of the genesis of ‘self-politicization’ within neo-liberalism. Diverse practices of governance, developed out of the political protection of that radical ‘self-politicization’, are reflexive. Different antinomies of control and care do coexist. The welfare ‘other’, subject to the disciplinary politics of the state, is the obverse, not the separate object of that ‘self-politicization’. Understanding that our divisive politics are founded on complex reifications of risk – both to defend the project of self-politicization, and to attack recognized social need – allows us to recognize the political legitimacy of that obverse. It would require, as Foucault argued, that the ‘discourse of subjectivity … be cut loose from its moorings in bourgeois individualism’ (Richters, 1988: 632). Allowing for a thorough examination of the politics of security and risk, and especially how this has created our deep social divisions, might yet let us ‘acquire a sound knowledge of’ each other.

    The ‘truths’, which I have been canvassing in respect of risk, are ultimately normative in that they come from a determination to respect the true nature of the welfare ‘other’. The character degradation that typifies so much of the argument for the need to reimpose a moral revaluation of welfare is vapid. The media ‘sound bytes’ that create such instantaneous assumptions about the perfidy of welfare claimants can be rejected. Suggesting that we listen to the ‘truths’ of those who must survive as welfare beneficiaries may seem hopelessly romantic – the ‘winged dreams’ of Nietzsche that are so apparently evanescent. Yet the moral vision that welfare might express the desire for a more civil and nurturing society need not be abandoned. Social policy requires a new language if we are to ‘encounter the otherness of need in each other’ (Goodin, 1985; 1988; Hewitt, 1994: 54).

    Fundamentally, the issue is whether we can find a position for critical theory that can elucidate the whole, one that can set out the reasons why the normativeness of its inclusive stance should be respected. It may well be that espousing a critical position requires an adoption of a stance, an attitude, rather than seeking to complete an analysis that could be normative (cf. Valero-Silva, 1996). Foucault explicitly rejected the possibility of a normative stance, let alone the possibility of explicating policy on the basis of such assumptions! However, I think Fraser is correct in her rejection of this pessimism (1996: 533). It is rather an attitude towards dependency that is an appropriate normative concern. This is not to argue for the possibility of ‘undistorted discourse’. Given our constant propensity to establish ‘meta-narratives’ (our own ‘story lines’) we can take an ironic, yet passionate, position towards them. Foucault did not reject the valid search for some ‘understanding of what a modern ethic would look like’ (Nielsen, 1997: 9). In searching for such an ethic, social policy must articulate how the ‘sovereign’ common-sense of neo-liberalism can be challenged. Ironically it is Foucault who has sketched out the clearest perspective on how this might be achieved.

    Risk and Social Policies: What is to Be Done?

    In previous chapters we have discussed aspects of Foucault's thinking about governmentality, and the notions of sovereignty that it entailed. In one of his most famous papers, ‘On governmentality’, he made the observation that ‘whereas the end of sovereignty is internal to itself and possesses its own … laws, the finality of government resides in the things it manages and in the pursuit of … tactics’ (1979: 13). The depiction of the ‘arts’ of government as tactics rather than laws might seem odd, given the legislative and mandating power of the state. Making the point of distinguishing between law and tactics is important. It opens up the possibility of challenge and counter-tactic. For example, if the neo-liberal rhetoric of common-sense can be defined as tactical, rather than a law of governance, then dissent can more easily be lodged against its ‘truth-claims’. The polemic of common-sense had reified risks, their definition, their locales and their resolution into the tight logic of specific policy. It is possible, as a counter-tactic, to raise such reifications for scrutiny. Another is to argue that such reifications are in fact immanent discourses, which neglect the social ‘realities’ of the welfare ‘other’.

    We could perhaps retreat into the security of Foucault's canard that academic discourse ought not to be a vehicle for practical injunction: ‘love this; hate that; do this; refuse that’ (Gordon, 1991: 6). However, in the preface to the edited volume which includes Gordon's classic paper, the editors state that:

    Foucault observed that there is a parcel of thought in even the crassest and most obtuse parts of social reality, which is why criticism can be a real power for change, depriving some practices of their self-evidence, extending the bounds of the thinkable to permit the invention of others. (Burchell et al., 1991: x)

    In the end, the continuing viability of neo-liberal welfare policy will depend on whether individual autonomy and security can be linked together in the development of policies that are mutually enhancing. To suggest this is not an ‘illusory’ contradiction. It is rather an invitation to both aspects of that policy continuum to submit their ‘practices’, their ‘arts’ of government, to mutual scrutiny. One vehicle for this is a thorough analysis of risk and how the palimpsests of each can be merged and rewritten.

    The enormous logic of change unleashed by neo-liberal ‘mentalities of rule’ is rational and premised on a valorization of common-sense. However, there is another aspect to how such particular ‘mentalities of rule’, the ‘practices’ of governance, can be challenged. Neo-liberal ‘mentalities of rule’ have reified the logic of common-sense into a set of explicit norms. However, hidden in these norms is a longing for transcendence – a paradoxical desire to ‘escape’ the contingent and risky mundane. Common-sense has become part of the ‘sovereignty’ of neo-liberal politics. The contingent is accorded universal significance. This reflects Kant's assumption that ‘the finite human being cannot avoid the illusion of the infinite (i.e. sovereign) subject precisely because it is infinite’. Foucault agrees that reifying political power ‘is indeed possible on the condition that human beings are finite’. However, he also contends that ‘it is precisely for this reason that one should not accept the notion of an “infinite subject” of power’ (Cousins and Hussain, 1984: 263; Doxiadis, 1997: 539–40). Neo-liberalism, like any political ideology, cannot lay total claim to common-sense.

    Those reifications that depended upon the hidden ‘sovereignty of the infinite’ are illogical. They are only one more ideological throw of the contingent philosophical dice. This is the simple, but powerful, challenge to the awful rhetorical hegemony of neo-liberalism, which rejects the legitimacy of the welfare ‘other’. The ‘sovereignty’ of that rejection is unsustainable. Neo-liberal social policy demonstrates the ‘despotism’ intrinsic to the moral practices of governance inherent in ‘the paradigmatic liberal subject's relation to himself’ (Valverde, 1996: 359). Such despotism creates a crisis view of welfare support that is akin to a mentality of triage. This is the paradox: only those who can be ‘saved’ by their own efforts will get the help they need.

    ‘Governing Through Freedom’: Some Preliminary Thoughts

    This apparent paradox is, as we have seen, at the heart of the governmentality literature. Various environmental, ecological and risk debates, which fashion the nature of modern politics, reflect a much wider problem. These concern, as Wynne argues,

    the larger crises of legitimacy facing modern, economic, scientific-technical and political institutions, and the search for new forms of legitimate order and authority … new forms of emergent political order, with new configurations of global vision and local rootedness, will emerge – are perhaps emerging – in which further imaginations of the relationships between knowledge and human values will be vital. In seeking the basis of more legitimate, less alienating forms of public knowledge, and stable authority out of present conditions of incoherence and disorientation, new constitutional norms of valid knowledge may be articulated. (1996: 78)

    Making prognostications is often not wise, but I think we can discern something of the shape of our future politics which arises out of the contracting out and privatization of health and social services. There we see renewed demands for a ‘managerial commodification’ emphasizing the sick as consumers of health ‘goods’ and no longer patients to be served. Nevertheless, in the management of health services (and in the provision of social welfare services), despite all the language of ‘product’, the notion of ‘service’ has never been completely swamped. The valorization of ‘service’ is arguably part of the ‘freedom’ of highly qualified professionals to respond to health needs on the basis of their ethical commitments.2 Quite complex forces of managerialism and organizational theory are wrapped up in these ideas. I do not intend to try ‘unwrapping’ them here. What I suggest is that these micro-aspects of governance, through contract, have the potential to redraft our future social policies – how they are being ‘mapped’ and will be implemented. The question is not either product or service but how these are being expressed within new management structures.

    The glimmerings of Wynne's point that ‘new forms of emergent political order, with new configurations of global vision and local rooted-ness, will emerge’ can be seen in the health services. My speculative contention (really only a jeu d'esprit) is that health and social service professionals have the capacity to become ‘unionized’ at the level of client need, and not specifically in their own self-interest. The neo-liberal ‘management’ of politics has the capacity to introduce new and unintended opportunities for political coalitions that do not arise in protest from ‘below’. Challenges to the power of the former liberal state were, in part, the consequence of the rise of unionized labour. New challenges to neo-liberal states may well come from coalitions born out of the frustration at not being able to deliver quality services – mandated by the respective codes of ethics of professional groups. Foucault said of these professions, and their disciplinary nature, that ‘human science … constitutes their domain, and clinical knowledge their jurisprudence’ (1980: 107). The ‘sacred’ language of service still jousts, for its defenders, with the ‘profane’ language of managed product, and vice versa.3 Social service clients now are reframed as users and consumers. Once these professionals equate the provision of their specialist services as a way to manage the world, as an aspect of governance, then the potential is there for both intended and unintended systemic challenges. The complete marketization of the social world that the penetration of the public sector has witnessed as a result of neo-liberal attacks on social provision still has these issues of professional service ‘stuck in its throat’!

    Professionals have, individually, been used to the ‘public fight’. However, what may be different is the suggestion that we are witnessing a move from personal sporadic outbursts in the media towards a clearer realization that ‘management’ is an intrinsic part of the professional medical role. It is the doctors (in the hospital systems) who commit resources and prioritize spending. Doctors are realizing how necessary it is to place themselves within ‘the control room’ of the health reforms and not to stand to one side. There are interesting examples of this occurring in New Zealand where health professionals, operating within a ‘hinder/provider’ contracting system of governance, are taking on the role of chief executive officers and senior management. It is doctors (in these roles) who are managing public opinion to pressure governments for more resources. While that is a more uncertain general strategy (at a macro-level of demand for their hospitals for example) it will be different if the professionals themselves start to manage the publicity for the needs of client/patients.

    The challenges that came from the ‘socialism of the dispossessed’, Foucault's ‘subjugated knowledges’, are spent. A new discourse for that is yet to be outlined. But the challenges that will come from professional opinion, collectivized within a new understanding of managerial power, will be considerable. Opposition to the constricting and eviscerating rhetoric of neo-liberalism is only now being enjoined at these professional levels. It is a contentious power, lying in wait. The destruction of a service ethos is well proven within public sector bureaucracies. Whether it is yet dead, within the professionals' own requirements to deliver high quality and verifiable health and welfare services, remains to be seen. As Beck concluded:

    are we dependent on the experts for every detail in issues concerning survival, or does the culturally manufactured perceptibility of hazards restore to us the competence to judge for ourselves? Are the only alternatives now an authoritarian or a critical technocracy? Or is there a way of counteracting the disempowerment and expropriation of everyday life in hazard civilization? (1995a: 184)

    This challenge to ‘disempowerment’, if it comes, will be the more powerful for neo-liberal managerialism because it will be a revolt, not from the easily dismissed ‘other’ but from ‘their own’. That may well fracture the tight logic of the managerial consensus. Client representation on boards of social agencies was a failed community experiment. Countervailing ‘voices’ are still needed at the level of policy analysis. Social policy needs to expose how ‘unified epistemologically’ are the social experts who pronounce on welfare issues. This new professional disquiet may provide the impetus for a revaluation of welfare social service ethos.

    What we may see emerge is a new politics of professional competition – a politics in ‘which new imaginations of the relationships between universal knowledge and human values’ are expressed in new coalitions. Risk is no longer devolved onto the client but increasingly involves the professional who delivers the service.4 There is a reflexiveness of mutual responsibility for outcome, which is a simulacrum of contract. That is where the epistemology of neo-liberalism will be caught because it is very hard for it to maintain its hegemony without maintaining (to use its sacred language) the fundament of contract relationships. The relationship of this potential new form of public mobilzation is an interesting reversal of Foucault's ‘gaze’ which we discussed earlier.

    What Nature of ‘Canvas’: Private or Public?

    Posing the possibility of alternatives in current welfare policy runs the risk of appearing to present aspects that can be dismissed as social policy redux. We are so feverishly painting private canvases that anyone setting out to inscribe tentative marks on a public one is dismissed tout court. Beck, less uncertain about the ‘problems’ in doing this (within the looming shadow of his risk society), has set out three future strategies. His aim was to ‘beat it into the heads of these pseudo-free democrats, who turn a deaf ear to historical experience, that the market fundamentalism they idolize is a form of democratic illiteracy’ (1997a: 53). Quite how he intended to do that is not clear! Beck does rightly identify that where there were once two ‘employers’, capitalism and the state, there is now only one. However, his panegyric to a lost capitalist vision, where the state had been in ‘social competition’ within what he calls ‘jobless capitalism’, has aspects of a sociological ‘Chicken Little’. Perhaps the ‘sky will fall’: but such rhetorical challenges seem never to have escaped from the seductions of a philosophical manqué. We need a more robust language!

    Beck offers a choice for what he calls the invigoration of ‘public work’, as an alternative to passivity.5 This involves three aspects: active compassion, practical critique and active democracy. Active compassion means ‘active resistance to indifference’ – all the ways that ‘civil society’ can be reclaimed through strategies of active involvement. Practical critique represents the aspects of citizen inquiry and lobbying and ‘resistance’. Active democracy refers to all the explicit ways that a concept of civil society can be brought back onto the political agenda. Beck's conclusion is that the injustices arising from ‘globalization must be made accountable for the general welfare’ (1997a: 56).6 In order to ‘paint on the larger canvas’, he suggests that reinvigoration of civil society will require alteration to taxation systems. He raises the ‘unspoken’ issue that has social coherence but no current political feasibility.7 In summary, he wants an increase in tax abatement for contributions to the general welfare. He also wants a ‘tax-financed basic support payment’ so that people who are involved in voluntary social organizations can receive a ‘public stipend’. His third aspect, a category of general ‘citizen's support’, is an unambiguous manifesto for a civil society paid for by an increase in taxation! No matter how laudable this is, the dominant rhetoric picks it off so easily with variations of the ‘nice but not affordable argument’, or more pejoratively with ‘Why should my money go to pay for a life-style choice of non-work?’

    Social ‘Knights’ and Private ‘Knaves’

    In an illuminating article Le Grand (1997) picks up this theme and describes three categories of motivation and behaviour (knights, knaves and pawns). His thesis is that major changes in welfare systems have resulted from politicians and policy-makers assuming the worst about the motivations of those who need welfare assistance. Describing that opinion, he says ‘in most situations of relevance to welfare, the individuals concerned are more likely to be self-interested than public-spirited’ (1997: 160). He also sets out an exposition of ‘legal welfare’ and the possibilities of what he calls new ‘robust’ welfare strategies.8 Both aspects of his paper merit some comment in this postscript about risk and social policy and the implications of this for future welfare strategies.

    I agree that we do not know whether ‘in welfare-relevant situations’ it is possible to ascribe such universal assumptions about basic perfidy, or if other motivations obtain that we do not see. Social policy needs more empirical studies of the ‘story lines’ of welfare recipients – an interweaving of quantitative research and social criticism. That our public depictions are so fraught and disrespectful reveals the urgent need for this. The rhetoric is so limiting and deadening. We need to apply these discourses, as I have argued previously, to generate a new Foucauldian ‘genealogy’ of welfare dependency. Epistemological challenges to neo-liberalism's assumption that welfare recipients are all knaves are easily fended away. Le Grand's use of Etzioni's assumptions, to push for reeducation in the civic virtues by some process of conversion from the moral status of knave to knight, is the weakest aspect of his paper. The task is not to mount a direct challenge to these ‘normative’ belief systems but to explode what they mean through an analysis of their ‘practice’, not their intent. Attacking ‘false’ or selfish ‘knavish’ behaviour directly simply will not work: it is difficult, as Foucault said, to ‘get into people's heads’ to try and refashion belief.

    When Le Grand turns to an analysis of ‘legal’ welfare and the possibility of new partnership welfare strategies his argument is much more convincing.9 These new strategies, while having an implicit hope of attitudinal change, are practical and achievable – or at the very least they are debatable at the policy level. So too is his consideration of obligation alimentaire.10 However, the question still remains (in some minds at least): if we learn to recognize and respect the legitimacy of ‘being on welfare’ through greater public recognition of the welfare ‘story lines’, would we be willing to pay more for quality social support? Or will we still rather maintain a punitive, minimal welfare state? Were we ever, in Le Grand's terms, knights and can we regain our ‘social knighthoods’? One suspects a certain resignation in the ‘structure’ of the analysis that posits knights, knaves and pawns. The continuum is really a binary one between knaves and knights. Pawns' motivations are always consequent to the prior action of the others. This raises the question as to whether we can generate social policy theorizing that can encompass Foucault's genealogy of the ‘practices’ of welfare.

    The achievement of that will depend upon the successful challenge to the malign connection of incontrovertible common-sense and ‘expert knowledges’. How well fresh intellectual campaigns can be mounted against the multitudinous restrictions that expertise entails is vital. Wynne has mounted the most articulate counter-argument to the Gordian knot of expertise and common-sense. He sets out a complex argument, against Beck's and Giddens' notions of reflexive modernization, and defends the importance of lay knowledge against arrogant and normative interpretative expertise. He argues that in the ‘hiddenness’ of such lay knowledges lie the seeds for transforming ‘modernity's ahuman and alienating universals’ of common-sense. Opposing the ‘solutions of expertise’ may allow us to reveal some aspects of how to achieve Honneth's ‘recognition’, or understand other discourses by listening to Hajer's ‘story lines’. Wynne's hope is that we gain ‘inspiration to find the collective self-conceptions that can sustain universals that do not bury the traces of their own human commitment and responsibility’ (1996: 78).

    Notwithstanding the significant integration of present welfare and social policy that Le Grand has achieved, basing the analysis too squarely on the quicksands of human motivations is a strength (in that we require that information for an accurate assessment of welfare ‘story lines’) and is also strategically flawed. Relying on an analysis of the stereotypes of labelling theory focuses on the subjective nature of welfare disciplinary knowledges and not on their defining function within society. There is a sense in which such analyses implicitly reinforce rather than challenge dominant political ‘practices’. We do need to find ways to challenge the hermeneutics of negativity that surrounds the welfare recipient. What Le Grand points to is the necessity to know more about the personal motivations of these recipients. Good and much needed though such surveys of attitudes and beliefs might be, we need a more compelling analysis. Le Grand may indeed be correct in assuming that this is not feasible. But if not, then the impossibility of this must be proven on a wider canvas than the variability of human motivation. Whether Beck's ‘larger canvas’ will suffice requires further work. This exploration into risk has sought to find one means, at least, to lever that vigorous neo-liberal rhetoric of common-sense.

    The Shape of Future Welfare Discourses

    This study of risk and social policy is obviously only tentative, aimed more at generating debate than foreclosing it. The subtext of my argument, throughout, is that neo-liberalism is not ultimately just a political philosophy of the individual subjective self. It is side, back and middle of the whole canvas! It stands revealed for what it is, a totalizing and normative political epistemology – a sophisticated Foucauldian set of governmental ‘practices’ waiting to be deconstructed. The opportunity is there for us to do this work.

    It will be important for us to reflect ‘on why so many crucial questions have been posed in such profoundly distorted ways’ (Maguire, 1996: 171). The pejorativeness of anti-welfare rhetoric depends upon the structure of an argument that the ‘fault’ of the system lies with those who apparently misuse it. My purpose has been to sketch out the possibility that the ‘fault’ lies in the system itself and that misuse is predicated by its very structure. As Wynne has commented:

    the powerless always tend to rationalise and thus consolidate their own impotence and apathy because to do otherwise is to expose themselves to the greater pain of explicit recognition of their own neglect and marginality (1996: 53)

    It is the cultural narrative of both sides of the welfare ‘divide’ that are required to be set alongside each other. The neo-liberal ‘logic’ behind the association of security, not with the social but with individual independence, can now be seen as a necessary part of the questions which social policy can address. Focusing only on welfare dependency misses the point. The more important question is whether we can, or will, address the wider issue. Given our current focus on independent individualism, it is not easy to see how we can.

    We have destroyed the general community ethic of mutual responsibility that did inform the ethos of those who framed social democratic welfare state policies. Fragmenting ‘responsibility’ into a personal privatized reality has clearly generated an enormous creative energy in those now free to pursue the opportunities that a deregulated society and economy offer. The productive creativity of that cannot be gainsaid. But risks are still ‘delivered’, so to speak, in an obviously unequal way. The obvious inequalities of genetic, social and familial inheritance are not easily dismissed. However, our social policies are increasingly framed within discourses of equality – especially the discourses of equality associated with the rhetoric of individual responsibility and opportunity. The concept of welfare ‘safety net’ is not a sufficient idea to contain the reality of the denied ‘voice’ of welfare discourses. Constraining the manifold differences of that ‘voice’ within such narrow ideas of risk, security and individual responsibility serves a much narrower and tighter purpose.

    The current debates about welfare dependency and risk will only produce some ‘light’ if we are willing to consider the whole interactive policy system surrounding welfare. As Lowi (1990) has trenchantly concluded, the ‘problem’ in the present climate is that there are two apparently incompatible public policy issues: one is systemic, universal and general; the other specific, regulatory and ‘piecemeal’. The welfare state was an ‘insurance state’. It involved a raft of social polices which attempted, systemically, to

    democratize the burden of bad outcomes by removing most of the blame and indemnifying as many of the victims as possible. But this half of the public policy approach to risk works precisely because the welfare state, functioning as it does through the reality and the conceptualization of insurance, works best at the level of the largest possible universe. The welfare state was, in effect, made to order for the emergent systems approach to social policy. (1990: 38)

    The oversight, monitoring and implementation of these systemic policies are always individual and particular. The whole complex of regulations surrounding welfare ‘cannot grapple with the system at all but only with specific conducts that may, cumulatively, improve the system someday, somewhere down the line’. Fundamentally, Lowi presents the paradox ‘regulation can't deal directly with risk at all. Risk is a system concept, and regulation has to concern itself with specific conduct’ (1990: 39). This is a significant argument, daily recorded in the problems faced by welfare bureaucracies. Examining the welfare claimant in the ‘harsh winds’ of a regulatory climate, which cannot individualize the welfare claimant, might well lead to a wider evaluation of the welfare state. Rationales for the institution of the ‘old’ welfare state involved aspects of a moral viewpoint, even perhaps a collective ‘disgust’ about the crude facts of social and economic disadvantage. Contemporary welfare systems do not express such altruistic social motivations. However, as Lowi has demonstrated, they face an almost impossible task. We require a thorough evaluation of the limits of such welfare practices.


    The impetus of the Enlightenment project was to prove that politics would ultimately be answerable to reason. But government as a ‘conduct’ of ‘conduct’ turns the rationality of government into an individual ‘affair’ involving all the ‘irrationality’ of private fears about risk. As Gordon (1991) concludes, despite his disavowal of any normative intention or prescriptive injunction, ‘politics becomes, in a new sense, answerable to ethics’. The ineluctable may be more malleable than we think. Beck's ubiquitous risk society might make us more aware that we are ‘more contingent, recent and modifiable than we think’ (1991: 48). The wildness of difference in post-modernity need not blind us to the obvious fact that such differences do exist together, within the same time frame of experience, if little else. To ‘engage the post-modern arts,’ as Dumm suggests, ‘may be to participate in the always sceptical but always affirmative project of making the potential moment of freedom actual’ (1988: 224). How we are to make possible a comprehensive recognition of difference (and recognition of similarity) will obviously preoccupy our immediate and long-term social debates. We do not know how to accomplish this but perhaps it must start with that acknowledgement at the very least. What we currently do to each other in our welfare discourses is repeat the mistakes of the past. We need at the very least, as Donzelot argues, to ‘make use of our conflicts instead of trying to eliminate them’ (1991: 178, my italics). We are in danger of institutionalizing a new/old version of ‘disciplinary welfare’ that is fundamentally driven by an angry uncertainty we neither acknowledge nor will admit.

    We need to go on articulating the values as well as the practicality of welfare. The ideological debates are crucial. But so too is the patient unravelling of the ‘genealogies’ of welfare policy and discourse. Only by maintaining both an ideological scrutiny and an analysis of government ‘practice’ can we expect to challenge the present. In Bauman's words, we need to go on ‘asking such questions as fear final answers more than they fear the prospect of remaining unanswered’ (1997: 84). This is not to argue for a return to the past, but to seek to expose the values that support the politics of common-sense. All does need to be in question, all of the time. That is our security against wilful hegemonies that would make of the present a truth that will admit of no change.


    1 See Nietzsche (1958), Thus Spake Zarathustra: 41.

    2 We need not be naïve about professional power! The humorous note 7 in Le Grand's (1997: 167) article, about preoccupation with more monetary resources, is a useful reminder that public spirited altruism is not easy to find! My point here may not be defensible but there is a new possibility of political coalitions that might alter the structure of entitlement.

    3 A great deal of interesting work remains to be done to elaborate how neo-liberalism appropriated the former language of the left. I have, earlier, given an example of how neo-liberalism took over the former linguistic content of security. With this ‘make-over’ security was associated no longer with protection, but with risk! Another is how phrases which had an ethical ‘weight’ when they were previously used in reference to welfare are now altered: ‘alleviation from distress’ is recast as ‘release from obligation’. Health, education and social welfare professionals have aspects of their self-knowledge which we can call sacred. This reflects aspects of motivation and action that cannot easily be squeezed into a ‘rational utility maximizer’ box. By the same token, neo-liberal ‘management speak’ has a similar ‘sacred language’. Throughout this book I have been depicting this ‘sacred language’ as the mantra of common-sense. It assumes that all things, people, activities and services have a price – that they can be commodified. Both protagonists cry foul when their sacred language is abrogated.

    4 These questions are no longer simply rhetorical. For many social workers:

    the experience of risk and danger is now a central element of what it is to do welfare work. It is not simply that notions of risk are built into the operations, systems and activities of welfare workers, but it is felt as a central element of what it is to do welfare work at the grass roots, and be a social worker. (Kemshall et al., 1997: 228)

    5 This was covered more extensively in Chapter 6.

    6 Globalization now poses the question of whether the ‘coldest of all cold monsters’ is no longer the state but the reified effects of a global market and international capital transfer which can undercut any real attempt to re-establish social democratic policies. As Huber et al. argue:

    Market-oriented economic policies supported by international pressures and by local constituencies gaining from them tend not only to undercut social democratic reform policies, but also to threaten the foundation of even formal democracy. (1997: 338–9)

    7 See Le Grand (1997: 158).

    8 Hirst and Thompson suggest that as we move into a ‘more complex and pluralistic social and political system then the rule of law will become more important rather than less’ (1995: 435).

    9 In relation to the notion of ‘legal welfare’, which does serve to reinforce the aspects of Foucauldian ‘surveillance’, Beck has postulated the development of a ‘social court’. This is parallel to the legal system and would function in a similar way, with ‘cases’ and with ‘legal’ defence of the ‘social charges’ being held in front of ‘lay judges’. While speculative, it is an imaginative idea that may well find substance if the hopes of an active democracy eventuate.

    10 This refers to the set of social polices where those who can afford to provide financial support to needy relatives are required by law to do so.


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