speri.comment: the political economy blog

‘Civic Capitalism’: bringing in the social dimension

We need to develop new social policies that foster the quality of the societies within which citizens live their daily lives under capitalism 

Professors Colin Hay & Tony Payne, Directors of SPERI

Colin Hay and Tony Payne

Colin Hay and Tony Payne

We have focused so far in this series of posts on the political and economic aspects of the flawed, and now failed, Anglo-liberal model of capitalist development and of the ‘civic capitalist’ alternative that we have been setting out.  But political economy, both as analysis and practice, does need also to embrace the ‘social’ dimension – much more so in fact than it usually does – and it’s time now to turn directly to this aspect of the discussion.

There has, of course, always been a concept of the social bound up within the liberal model.  It is familiar to us and is grounded in the notion of the rational, egotistical, self-seeking individual charting his or her way through life unencumbered by awareness of conditioning by society, let alone being ready and willing to bear responsibility for participating in it and ensuring its wider collective functioning.  In the UK at least the idea was captured in Mrs Thatcher’s observation that ‘there’s no such thing as society’.

Whilst her remarks were, in a sense, taken out of context, the famous shortened quote is important.  And it has endured precisely because it encapsulates so brilliantly an attitude to the social that was (sadly) emblematic of neoliberal thinking not only in the UK but world-wide.  In a nutshell, the view was that the social dimension in political economy need not be thought about or attended to, because it was a given that individual ambition, decision-making and strategy was at the heart of all things.  Look after the political and the economic (above all, make the political answer to the economic) and the social will look after itself.  How wrong can one be?

Of course, this won’t do in civic capitalism, almost by definition.  For, in this model, our preferred model, those selfish and free-standing individuals are transmuted into citizens with real rights and responsibilities.  They constitute the society that capitalism must be made to serve.  Indeed, we have already recognised this in an earlier post in which we called for the development of a new international standard of economic performance beyond GDP to be known as the Social, Environmental and Development (SED) index.

In this frame of reference, the key questions then become the following: how best to think through the social; how to incorporate such an understanding into a new model; and what to draw on intellectually to do so?  There are various possible answers, but they have varying merits.

One seemingly plausible move would be to turn to the concept of the ‘quality of life’, understood as a means of taking the discussion beyond notions of standard of living to embrace more qualitative indicators.  Some of the work undertaken on this terrain is now based on ‘life evaluations’, wherein individuals are asked to assess and self-score their life on a scale in relation to certain specified experiences.  It’s unquestionably interesting and has opened up a lively enough debate about happiness, which even includes attempts to measure Gross National Happiness!  But, in general, the life evaluation approach is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, and doesn’t connect well to the political arena.

Globally, the most widely used means of assessing the quality of life within countries is the Human Development Index (HDI) developed over many years by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on the basis of Amartya Sen’s work on the capabilities and functionalities of human beings.  In a nutshell, the HDI is worked out by combining three measures of development: a long and healthy life; an education index that measures the extent of schooling; and a decent standard of living.  One of us has blogged about this in more detail previously. Again, it’s very interesting and certainly more subtle than measurement solely by reference to GDP.  It comes up as well with some striking anomalies – the shaming fact, for example, that the UK, although the 6th largest economy in the world, could only crawl its way to 26th in the world in the HDI rankings in 2013.

Another recent attempt to develop a better way to incorporate the social into the practice of political economy appeared in the 2009 Report of the ‘Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress’.  This was headed by Nobel Laureates Amartya Sen (appearing again in our story) and Joseph Stiglitz and facilitated by the French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi, following a commendable initiative to establish such an enquiry by then President Sarkozy of France.  However, the Report itself has been widely considered to be disappointing.  As its title revealingly indicated, it separated the economic and social arenas according to the common practice that it was perhaps invited to challenge.  All in all, its work has been judged by many of those working in the social indicators field as constituting ‘old wine in new skins’.

The truth is that the quality of life concept, although intuitively appealing as a potential new lodestar on this front, is rendered inadequate for our purposes precisely because it does not take us beyond a focus on the individual and his or her psychological assessment of their life experiences, no matter how much they are set up to embrace.  In other words, social progress is defined only as the sum of the satisfactions, or otherwise, of all of the individual members of society.

For our purposes, it is preferable to draw on an approach that is more social (and, indeed, sociological) in flavour and inspiration, namely, the work being done by several scholars to assess the ‘social quality’ of society more generally.  This derived initially from a book jointly published by W.L.Beck, Laurent van der Maesen and Alan Walker in 1997.  The main home of the school is the European Foundation for Social Quality (EFSQ) in Amsterdam, although it should be said that Alan Walker works at the University of Sheffield and is associated with SPERI.

In classic sociological fashion, social quality thinking conceives of society as providing the context for the exercise of individual agency and is thus able immediately to distinguish between societal and individual well-being (although recognising that the two are inextricably linked).  This, of itself, is an important step-forward.  The approach then goes on to identify the four main aspects of social quality:

  • Socio-economic security, meaning that people must have the resources over time to cope with daily life in dignity, both in adverse and good times;
  • Social cohesion, understood as the glue that binds society together and builds trust amongst its participants;
  • Social inclusion, referring to the degree to which people are, and feel, integrated into institutions, organisations, groups of friends and kinship systems;
  • Social empowerment, defined as the capacity of people to take advantage of the opportunities open to them as citizens and associated in consequence not only with their levels of education and health but also their subjective feelings about the extent and nature of their agency within society.

This is certainly an attractive package of ideas, although it still needs, and is rightly getting from its advocates, more elaboration and detail.  Much of the current work of the EFSQ is now devoted to cross-European measurement of existing social quality in different countries.  This is manifestly important in research terms, but it is to be hoped that the search for quantitative refinement does not excessively trump the conceptual development of the idea itself.

The reason for saying this is that it is immediately apparent that an embrace of the concept of social quality puts on the table a whole series of potential social policies that could be appropriate parts of a new civic capitalist model.  These should really be taken forward by social policy specialists, rather than the two of us, but consider, for now, the merits of asking, and then answering effectively, some of the following questions.  Should not economic policy in future be evaluated, at least in part, by what it does for the autonomy and agency of those experiencing it? Do mass lay-offs, as opposed to shared working in recessionary times, look quite the same from this perspective? Could not labour market and employment policies be better designed to facilitate the participation of people in the enterprises to which they devote many hours of their life? Is it the case that social policies cannot be devised to foster social solidarity in particular contexts, as well as to prioritise human dignity in schools, hospitals and work-places?  In an internet age where so much raw information is so easily available, why can’t education policy be reframed to focus centrally on the gaining of a more meaningful sense of social empowerment by learners?

None of this is very radical.  Yet it all flows from, and can be achieved within, a model of civic capitalism that sees the pursuit of social quality as a core and defining value.  More detailed policy elaboration is clearly required to put some flesh on the bones highlighted above, but these bones must now be part of the new body, the new model of capitalism, that we need to build.

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