Social welfarism and the bureaucratic mediation of relationality, part 1

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).


About Ben Kautzer

I am currently dwelling in the intangible space of the between. Having finished my MA in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham, I decided to take a bit of a break, return to California, and start applying for PhD programs. That process is finally drawing to a close. This Fall I will be commencing my doctoral research in political theology at either the University of Nottingham, Durham, or Bristol. As of yet, that future still remains (uncomfortably) uncertain. My recent academic pursuits tend to focus on political theology (ecclesiology, ethics, politics, liturgy), biblical theology (scriptural narrative, hermeneutics, philosophy of memory and historical method), and Continental Philosophy (especially phenomenology). View all posts by Ben Kautzer

3 responses to “Social welfarism and the bureaucratic mediation of relationality, part 1

  • Alex

    Although I agree there is a danger here, you see, this kind of anti-welfarism stuff, as I have noted to you previously bleeds rather too much into the very neoliberal rhetorical tropes that you ulitimately seek also to oppose. Read any neoliberally inclined Christian and they employ precisely the same argument: welfare is bad because it eliminates Christian’s proper duty to charity.

    This guys experience is not universal – I think someone can support welfare and at the same time see it as solidarity with, and not a distancing from, the poor. Indeed, this is the very reason it was argued for the the first place, often by early ‘Christian Socialists’, certainly in the US context and in the UK various similar others, where it was argued that this indeed was the appropriate Christian response, a kind of tithing.

    I also think that as a systematic way of ensuring the poor get was is required to live, it works far better than the alternatives. This might be a brutally realist position, but at the end of the day we should be glad people are fed because there very life and flourishing depends on it – feeding the poor means feeding the poor, not feeding the poor in a way that aligns precisely with the rather abstract moral purity (no mediation – I must always feed to poor directly with my own hands!!). Such a thing, I fear makes giving to the poor more about one’s self and maintaining one’s own theo-philosophical purity than getting the life saving job done.

  • Alex

    IE With the neoliberal types, the anti-welfarism stuff above is often tied to the idea that the poor somehow deserve their position through fault of their own.

  • Ben Kautzer

    Thanks, Alex, for this insightful post. I fully agree with you that the common discussions surrounding questions of welfarism, personal responsibility, and the practical care for the socially marginalized not only risk digressing into utopist appeals to a nostalgic romanticism, but also have a bad habit of being (albeit unintentionally) re-inscribed back into the logic of liberalism.

    That being said, I think it would be a misreading of the book to suggest (without heavy qualification) that Ignatieff is simply regurgitating a right-wing version of neoliberalism, advocating the dissolution of the all manifestations of social welfare and binding the poor to the “proper consequences” of a life of “bad decisions”. As you have pointed out, in terms of our current political discourse both Left and the Right, Liberal and Conservative embody two poles of a singular social imaginary; these “diametrically opposed” perspectives are simply two sides of the same coin, namely, the oscillating spheres necessary to sustain the liberal politics of states and markets.

    It seems to me that Ignatieff is attempting to do something more interesting here. His account is neither a tacit rejection of all aspects of the liberal project (justice, freedom, choice remain valuable even if their definitions and the conditions under which they can be best realized require debate), nor is he suggesting the deconstruction of the state and the relegation of the “realist” care for the poor to the hands of a privatized, individualistic philanthropy. The locus of his critique seems to rest on the very question of what constitutes “need” itself. Ours is a society in which enormous power rests with those capable of crafting, shaping, and intensifying the formation of needs and desires. The manifold institutions of modernity (the hospital, the school, the corporation, the DMV) and their expert shamans (the doctor, the principle/administrator, the manager, the bureaucrat) have radically redefined our perception of need and means by which it can be satisfied. Ivan Illich makes a fascinating argument on precisely this point. He argues that because the genuine needs of individuals are not adequately met by organizations (namely, solidarity, belonging, relationality, touch, shared reflections upon the good and human flourishing, etc.), these same institutions therefore substitute fabricated needs that they alone can fulfill. As a result, they create an insatiable “demand” that not only guarantees their own perpetual existence, but along with it a modernized form of poverty defining those not yet dependent upon their goods and services.

    In Ignatieff’s words, “For all its shortcomings the modern welfare state can be understood as an attempt to reconcile these antimonies: to create a society in which individuals would be given what they need so that they would be free to choose the good. For all the apparent relativism of liberal society – our interminable debate about what the good in politics consists in – in practice a shared good is administered in our name by the welfare bureaucracies of the modern state. From birth, our needs for health and welfare, education and employment are defined for us by doctors, social workers, lawyers, public health inspectors, school principles – experts in the administration of needs.

    “The paradox is that this continuous intrusion into the logic of our choosing has been legitimized by our public commitment to freedom of choice. It has been in order to equalize everyone’s chance at a free life that the state now meets needs for food, shelter, clothing, education, transport and health care (at least, in some countries). It is in the name of freedom that experts in need now pronounce on the needs of strangers. Apparently, societies that seek to give everyone the same chance at freedom can only do so at some cost to freedom itself” (pp. 136-137).

    Of course, ensuring the poor get what is required to live is critically important. However, can we presume that what is required to live is ubiquitously understood? Without abandoning a “realist” perspective on meeting basic needs through organized and structured means, I want to interrogate the question. A genuinely realist agenda must deal with the fact that our methods of social welfarism can be deeply dehumanizing, classist, racist, and counter-productive to their purposes. Does that mean the utter dissolution of any systematic response? I hope not. If anything the question that sits in my mind, especially in relation to the Church’s place in this conversation, is one of faithfulness.

    For Christians, the question is not whether to care for the poor, but what constitutes faithful care. The one area that I have to strongly disagree with you on is the move you make in suggesting that a personal call/responsibility to charity is implicitly bound to a neoliberal agenda, that it is best understood as primarily a “duty” (or some sort of universal ethical imperative), that feeding the poor directly necessarily implies the massaging of the ego rather than the actual care of the hurting, and that the fullness of mercy can be actualized through the writing of checks to faith-based NPOs. Granted that’s a radicalizing of your actual claims, but not an unwarranted one.

    By contrast, from a biblical perspective, the works of mercy are irreducibly personal. The life and ministry of Jesus is packed full of account after account of feeding the poor directly, of ministering to the sick and the lame, of hospitality. The admonitions of Paul to his congregations are equally full of charges of our calling to respond to the needs of the poor, the burdened, the estranged. James defines true religion – that is our right, worshipful devotion to God – as the care for widows and orphans. I think the question is complicated when we only think in terms of food or drink. What about a work of mercy like “visiting the sick”? I don’t see how that works very well in terms of the model of a disinterested socialism (Christian or otherwise). There are a lot of delightful conversations and debates to be had here, but I’ll leave it at that.

    The main point that I want to stress here is that I want to try and think beyond the liberal project precisely at this point. To do so requires a vision of charity in which personal engagement does not suggest the dissolution of structural solutions, but that is also not subjugated to a private voluntarism. As Ignatieff puts it, “It is a recurring temptation in political argument to suppose that these conflicts can be resolved in principle, to believe that we can rank human needs in an order of priority which will avoid dispute. Yet who really knows whether we need freedom more than we need solidarity, or fraternity more than equality? Modern secular humanism is empty if it supposes that the human good is without internal contradiction. These contradictions cannot be resolved in principle, only in practice” (p. 137).

    Put slightly differently, perhaps our task is to discover how to do the “lifesaving job” in a way that the enables a life of flourishing worth living in the first place.

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