25 years ago, Michael Ignatieff wrote a profound, thoughtful little book entitled The Needs of Strangers. In it he offers a series of critical reflections upon welfarism, the predominate social imaginaries of modernity, relationality, and the buffered self of political individualism. Echoing such thinkers as Ivan Illich, Neil Postman, and Charles Taylor, Ignatieff attempts to come to terms with where such a world locates our “appropriate” responsiveness to the needs (real or artificially constructed) of the stranger.
“Every Tuesday morning there is a barrow outside my door and a cluster of old age pensioners rummage through the torn curtains, buttonlesss shirts, stained vests, torn jackets, frayed trousers and faded dresses that the barrow man has on offer. They make a cheerful chatter outside my door, beating down the barrow man’s prices, scrabbling for bargains like crows pecking among the stubble.
“They are not destitute, just respectably poor. The old men seem more neglected than the women: their faces are grey and unshaven and their necks hang loose inside yellowed shirt collars. Their old bodies must be thin and white beneath their clothes. The women seem more self-possessed, as if old age were something their mothers had prepared them for. They also have the skills for poverty: the hems of their coats are neatly darned, their buttons are still in place.
“These people give the impression of having buried their wives and husbands long ago and having watched their children decamp to the suburbs. I imagine them living alone in small dark rooms lit by the glow of electric heaters. [. . .] All these old people seem [. . .] cut adrift from family, slipping away into the dwindling realm of their inner voices, clinging to the old barrow as if it were a raft carrying them out to sea.
“My encounters with them are a parable of moral relations between strangers in the welfare state. They have needs, and because they live within a welfare state, these needs confer entitlements-rights-to the resources of people like me. Their needs and their entitlements establish a silent relation between us. As we stand together in line at the post office, while they cash their pension cheques, some tiny portion of my income is transferred into their pockets through the numberless capillaries of the state. The mediated quality of our relationship seems necessary to both of us. They are dependent on the state, not upon me, and we are both glad of it. Yet I am also aware of how this mediation walls us off from each other. We are responsible for each other, but we are not responsible for each other” (p. 9-10).