6 October 2004

Social capital and welfare state

By Tapani Lausti

Keijo Rahkonen (ed.), Sosiologisia nykykeskusteluja [Modern discussions in sociology]. Gaudeamus 2004.

This book offers a chance to see how several leading Finnish sociologists examine social questions at the beginning of a new century. Among the themes discussed are sociological theory, attitudes to work and family, the future of the welfare state, the concept of social capital, the nature of an information society and the possibility of a return to some form of communitarianism.

In his preface, the editor deals with the question whether modern sociology uses antiquated concepts to describe society. Starting from the very concept of society, many others like work, class and family have been seen as problematic. Ulrich Beck has written about "zombie categories" which prevent us from understanding the dynamics and challenges of our time. Close to his own work, Keijo Rahkonen notes that there is no concept to describe what comes after the welfare state. He quotes Niklas Luhmann who has said that all concepts are tied to their immediate past; they move backwards to future.

Although sociology seems to receive less attention from the media than before, Rahkonen does not believe that this indicates an intellectual decline. On the contrary, in most international debates connected with social and humanistic sciences sociology has offered a major contribution. Rahkonen quotes Anthony Giddens who has said that sociologists have acted as pioneers in many recent discussions about postmodernism, post-industrial information society, globalisation, changes in everyday life, gender and sexuality, changing nature of work and family or marginalisation and ethnicity.

Rahkonen believes that sociological discourse is still important in trying to understand the social forces which shape our lives. Social life has become more fragmented and burdened by many uncertainties. According to Giddens, "creative sociological thinking" has to help to a better understanding these changes.

As the book's chapters vary in subject matters, it is difficult to sum up the contents. Among observations which interested me personally was the fact that in international comparison the so-called social capital — something which facilitates the achievement of agreed aims and creates mutual trust — was found to be strongest in the Nordic countries. This is not surprising as it has been commonly understood that the Nordic welfare society stands in its own category of popularity. Many of us working at the Finnish Institute in London during the late 90s used to explain to British friends how this makes life in the Nordic countries in some ways more pleasant than in Britain where social life had been shaken — if not torn apart — by ultra-individualistic Thatcherite and New Labour policies, supposedly following some obscure demands of "modernisation".

In his chapter on social capital, Kaj Ilmonen writes that the welfare state "has to be understood as a moral solution which gives reciprocity a concrete meaning". Nordic citizens strongly support the welfare state. In Finland this support even increased during the 90s. Ilmonen sees as a possible explanation the fact that behind the welfare state there is a shared moral vision which generalises the trust felt towards it: "If people believed that there is no shared morality, they would probably suspect that the welfare state is being misused and would begin to treat other people suspiciously." (p. 107)

The debate about communitarianism is closely related to questions of the welfare state. In his chapter on "Predicting the Past", Kalle Haatanen writes that "in the discussion about so-called communitarianism a new balance is being sought between an extreme modernisation and individualisation and half-forgotten commitment to community". (p. 145) People suffer from the fact that organised social action as well as many kinds of aimless togetherness have clearly become rarer and seem to be becoming even rarer. (p. 158)

Haatanen speculates about the possibility that the weakening of a more communal craving reflects the absence of crises in everyday life. People's atomisation, loneliness, depression and suicidal tendencies could, according to Haatanen, be a cheap price to pay for the fact that we enjoy a time of peace. (p. 164)

I find this puzzling. Can we really say that people feel unhappy because there is no war and conflict? I would be more inclined to say that popular participation in public life has been narrowed because there has been a decline in democracy. More and more decisions are based on business interests and not on the interests of any communities. Also, I am inclined to see reasons for human unhappiness in the notion that much of what surrounds us in everyday life goes against our innermost nature as human beings.

This humanist perspective, I think, goes against some foucaultian ideas presented in the book. In the chapter on "Welfare, freedom and life politics" Ilpo Helén writes that in liberal social states the conduct of power is based on individualisation: keeping order, social engineering and social "improvement" are mainly organised through individual liberty, choices and "uses of freedoms". In this way human beings are "inclined" to hone themselves into moral subjects.

The humanist tradition would argue that human beings are moral subjects by birth, that our shared moral understanding most probably comes from our inner nature. As Noam Chomsky puts it, "the classical liberal view develops from a certain concept of human nature, one that stresses the importance of diversity and free creation. Therefore this view is in fundamental opposition to industrial capitalism, with its wage slavery, its alienated labor, and its hierarchic and authoritarian principles of social and economic organization." (Chomsky on Democracy & Education, p. 131)

This tradition has also been called the rationalistic-romantic model of the mind. It sees human beings biologically constituted to be creative creatures. A potential for freedom and creativity is thus part of human nature. I am quoting from James McGilvray's introduction to Noam Chomsky's Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (Second Edition, Cybereditions 2002). McGilvray continues: "Assuming, furthermore, the empirical principle that organisms thrive (get satisfaction) when they fulfill their natures and the moral/ethical principle that they should be given opportunities to do so, it is reasonable to assume that a form of social organization giving them these opportunities is better than one that does not." (p. 39)

These quotes may be irrelevant to what the foucaultian sociologists are really saying. However, I find them more inspiring when trying to understand the societies we live in and to consider how we should approach their problems and shortcomings.


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