Of and for society: Thinking the prosocial

What would it take to make society better? Rowland Atkinson, Lisa McKenzie and Simon Winlow, co-editors of the new book Building better societies, discuss some of the obstacles we face in trying to improve society. 

Rowland Atkinson

Lisa McKenzie

Simon Winlow

Social researchers spend so much time investigating the problems of inequality, crime, poverty and ill-health that they rarely have time to step outside these painful realities to engage in the kinds of utopian, creative and counter-intuitive thinking that can change entire academic fields.

We are encouraged, more than ever before, to be ‘policy relevant’, and the space and time needed to identify new and imaginative routes forward is diminishing with every passing year.

Many of us act in ways that are self-disciplining, if not self-defeating. We make careful pre-judgements about who will listen to us, and this often prevents us from making proposals or running ideas that might make the world – dare we say it – a better place. Given the sheer scale of the problems we face today – unparalleled inequality, ecological crisis and deep economic and political uncertainty – the role, and perhaps the duty, of social researchers is to draw on their evidence and intervene effectively in helping social conversations about the issues that really matter.

It doesn’t strike us as terribly partisan to suggest that recent government’s commitment to austerity is inherently anti-social. Indeed, these governments have 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.

“The global financial crisis has given new energy and fresh confidence to those who hope to cut taxes and withdraw funding for public services.”

Our political systems deep commitment to neoliberalism and austerity undermines everyday social life. Valuable conceptions of the public domain have come under sustained attack, and there is a clear sense that consumerised and debt-ridden individualism has split apart the forms of collective identity and common interest that patterned the modern industrial era in the west.

The global financial crisis has given new energy and fresh confidence to those who hope to cut taxes and withdraw funding for public services. Services that were considered integral to modern social life are increasingly viewed as indulgences that can no longer be afforded.

These ideologues justify their position with the claim that the market can do it better. The state, we’re told is old-fashioned, bureaucratic and sclerotic, while the market is dynamic, creative and ceaselessly productive.

Yet social research now tells us, through convincing and in-depth investigations (see, for example, the work of Pickett, Wilkinson, Sassen, Piketty and Dorling) that gross inequalities, the absence of social insurance and expulsions from citizenship generate significant and growing hardship, and tend to punish the vulnerable most.

It appears increasingly evident that multi-faceted forms of social distress, climate change and other modern evils cannot be contained easily and cheaply, and so they are not contained. These problems are getting progressively worse, and growing numbers of people, often characterised as the ‘squeezed middle’, are suffering forms of hardship despite the fact that we continue to live in an incredibly wealthy society.

“We are more capable and happy as private, free citizens…”

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 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 and healthy life for all.

Building better societies edited by Rowland Atkinson, Lisa Mckenzie and Simon Winlow can be ordered here for £15.19.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

 

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