Thinking the pro-social

Social researchers spend so much time considering problems of inequality, crime, poverty, ill-health and related questions that they rarely have time to pause and consider more utopian, counter-factual ideas, to step outside the ‘realities’ and constraints of needing to be policy relevant or palatable for other audiences. Many of us act in ways that are self-disciplining, if not self-defeating – we make careful pre-judgements about who will listen and this often prevents us from making proposals or running ideas that might make the world a, dare we say it, better place. This has long been the case but in the context of contemporary forms of unparalleled inequality, ecological crisis and economic instabilities the role and perhaps duty of social researchers is to draw on their evidence and intervene effectively in helping social conversations about these issues. It doesn’t strike me as a terribly partisan comment to suggest that the UK coalition government and its new round of proposed cuts is inherently anti-social (not least because the mainstream alternative/s offer much of the same). Indeed it has managed to triumph in promoting a worldview that suggests precisely any other argument around taxation, spending and investment is either loopy or some kind of powerful ultra-leftist viewpoint that would endanger civilization as we know it.

Today’s economic, political and social environment undermines everyday social life as notions of the shared, the public, the municipal and common space have been fundamentally challenged. The global financial crisis has ended-up granting energy and fresh confidence to narratives that legitimise cuts to the funding of public services, disinvestments in diversionary and creative programmes for vulnerable groups and fresh rounds of public asset stripping. The apparent logic of such attacks is that we cannot afford, do not need and should not pay for arrangements, institutions and provisions that are shared or collectively provided. Yet social investigation now tells us, through convincing and in-depth investigations (like that of Pickett, Wilkinson, Sassen, Piketty and Dorling) that gross inequalities, absences of social insurance and expulsions from citizenship and common provision generate expanding forms of hardship and social problems.

It appears increasingly evident that the kinds of social distress, climate change and other modern evils cannot be contained in convenient or cost-free ways to the wider population. We appear to be seeing the ‘escape’ of social problems from traditionally vulnerable spaces and populations to include those who have more often been able to avoid such problems has led to renewed efforts by the affluent to insulate themselves from these risks (I wrote about this sometime ago as a ‘cut’ in which the affluent are now able to insulate themselves from the costs of inequality that has diminished arguments for promoting greater equality or progressive taxation).

We now find that a number of problems (insecurity, fear, ill-health, violence, education and reducing social mobility) are being exacerbated by new rounds of value extraction from the public realm in the name of increasing efficiencies and economic growth. New forms of anxiety, hardship and concealed exclusion appear to mark this situation, with mounting concern about the long-term consequences of dismantling a variety of forms of common provision and mechanisms that might guard against extreme wealth and income inequalities (notably the NHS but also systems such as water). One critical basis for arguing against this ongoing disaster is to suggest that we are more capable and happy as private, free citizens when freed against the excesses and intrusion of such a dominant corporate-political sphere of influence. In other words, strong forms of municipal provision, affordable health, education, meaningful and financially rewarding work lead not only to some mad vision of a more equal society – they offer deeper and substantial rewards in the form of personal emancipation, freedom and self-realisation than in societies marked by declining public investments and provision. In such contexts what we find is not only troubling forms of social damage and loss (to say nothing of the revolting levels of excessive wealth and consumption by the affluent amidst poverty) but also diminished forms of self, community that ride alongside the vision of a minimal state and corporate capture of assets and profits.

With social and policy thinking often fixed on notions of the anti-social it appears timely to consider the value and limits of the social itself, of the kinds of mechanisms for community participation and self-realisation amidst these powerful social and economic forces. The position of the academy in relation to these debates and to questions of social resilience, emancipation, social justice, the nature of collectivity and forms of social sustenance and protection are also raised by this context. The real lie amidst all of this is that there are sides to choose from when the systemic logic of markets that pervades and dictates so many areas of social life is antagonistic to almost all visions of a sustainable, enjoyable, healthy life for all.

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