Welfare in hard times

A striking concern with austerity policies and its consequences for citizens and social workers. That is the central impression I’ve got at the conference, organized by the journal Ethics and Social Welfare, on Sept. 1-2, 2016 in London.

A group of inquisitive, highly concerned scholars had gathered. They discussed austerity as a social, political and existential reality in the lives of many citizens, concentrating mainly on British and continental issues ‘with loosing grip on one’s life due to austerity policy and on the concepts used in policy making to fortify a specific type of society, characterized by self reliance, participation, resilience and other terms for ‘help yourself – the state won’t’. One of the contributors, German scholar Ortrud Lessmann (working at Salburg U, Austria) used the wonderful expression ‘living in a standby mode’, the social life of citizens being in a free fall. Three loosely connected keynotes and a great variety of papers but also some razor sharp discussions were the backbone of this conference.

This is what I got from it, as a care ethicist:
In the first keynote Perfecting People: contradictions of Utopian Biology Sue White (Sheffield, GB) concentrated on issues with regard to epigenetics: the normative claims coming with genetics but with epigenetics as well. In a filippica-like lecture she pointed at the imaginaries underlying the policy with regard to genetics: the very idea that people with ‘problematic social behavior’ can be ‘fixed’ by means of genetic interventions, with its flipside that “real people are eliminated”.

The example she used was the policy of the Early Intervention Foundation.  According to Sue White EIF promotes the genetic  amelioration of people’s lives, even when the foundation does recognize that social problems have a epigenetic aspect as well. Reflections from #EIFNatCon: “What can genetics tell us about the possibilities of early intervention?”

Another point of criticism of White was the expression “epigenetically compromised individual”, used by the DOHaD Society:  behaviour related to social problems, and people coping with the consequences of social policies and bureaucracy thus are being pathologized and made object of intervention. Next to the warning that social issues are transposed into the vocabulary of genetics and epigenetics and pointing at the normative aspects of this tendency, White raised questions with regard to the epistemological aspects as well: a natural science kind of knowledge is high ranked (and the type of knowledge of the social sciences depreciated), while at the same time responsibilizing people: you are responsible for the social troubles you are in, even with regard to genetics and epigenetics. White critized the highly persuasive ‘solutions’ (based on ‘repair’ and ‘control’), deeply embedded in natural sciences and social engineering. Her answer to this is political activism against technocratic dominations.

A second keynote Welfare and Moral Economy, was delivered by Andrew Sayer (Lancaster U, GB), drawing on his 2015 book Why we can’t afford the rich.

Sayer critically evaluated the term ‘welfare”: what is meant, is it the social democratic content, i.e. organized support for those in need; is it the pejorative term used in neoliberalism: welfare ( what I (Frans Vosman) elsewhere have called “the losers industry”), or is welfare used in a historically earlier sense (14th C.): happiness, wellbeing. With an allusion to Amartya Sen, Sayer gave this formula for welfare: the freedom to have, be and do the things which are necessary for flourishing.

In a second step Sayer introduced the idea of moral economy. Economy is about provisioning. And how is this related to care? One can look at care as provisioning against the backdrop of dependencies. In the end the issue with economy is to understand dependency: liberal modernity fails to understand this. All economies are moral, one way or another and give some moral justification for existing economic institutions and practices. He advocated a return to Adam Smith’s idea of moral economy.

Thirdly, thinking of wealth and its justification, there are three types of income: 1. Earned income; 2. Transferred income (granted or needs based); 3. “Unearned” (A. Smith), extracted income. Those who get an income without work or need, extract it “because they just can”, getting something for [doing] nothing. This is what Sayer calls ‘the return of the rentier’ and it is related to the rise of neoliberalism. What one can see in neoliberalism is 1. Market fundamentalism (privatizing, deregulating and society considered as a market); 2. A shift in power from ‘labor’ to ‘capital’ (financial capitalism and the return of the rentier); 3. The individual as a consumer and the entrepreneur of the self, being always in competition; 4. A transformation from welfare state to workforce state.

Finally Sayer talked about the necessity of limiting inequality, reducing consumption, support of care work and the possibilities of a basic income for all. Most of all a radically different way of living is needed because the welfare of young and future generations depends on whether we stop global warming.  That requires zero growth.

There were some very interesting paper presentations. To mention a few: a paper given by Lizzie Ward and colleagues, who are doing research on self funded care. If there are no or insufficient public provisions for people who do need to receive care and if people start to pay themselves, one way or another, what sceneries do we see? Concentrating radically on the lived experiences of people who try to pay for care themselves, how then does a market of care look like?  Who cares for whom,  what do their relations look like? I thought this is a highly original topic and stringent perspective.

Another interesting paper was given by Ortrud Lessmann (Salzburg) on the European research program called Re-Invest, funded by Horizon 2020.  RE-InVEST is short for- Rebuilding an inclusive, value based Europe of solidarity and trust through social investments. Six countries, six issues, six research groups and six NGO’s  are involved.

The design of the study was participatory, focusing on empowerment, with people who are poor, or who have a poor health, who lack housing etc. Particularly interesting was the discussion: what about the ethics of this kind of research? What if people do participate and some policy relevant findings have come up? When the researchers leave the scene, even with the best of intentions, you do leave people behind in the same misery there in. Policy driven, funded by Brussels, getting policy relevant findings… and then?

Apart from the entanglement of participatory research, aiming at empowerment, in neoliberal policies and ideals, the question was raised if this kind of research is ethically responsible. Lessmann pointed at the role of the NGO’s that are involved from the beginning to the end of the study and gave examples how a NGO did go on with the results to politicize them.

The third and last keynote, was given by Eva Feder Kittay (emerita Stony Brook U, NYC, USA): A Theory of Justice for  an Ethic of Care. In her long term effort to redraw the relation between an ethics of justice and an ethics of care, Kittay is construing a theory of Justice on the very basis of a theory of care. She thus criticizes the Rawlsian theory of justice but those care ethicists as well who discard of the justice issue. Kittay started of with an analysis of the phenomena of austerity and the poverty of many, of affluence for some and of the shrewd types of generosity of the very rich. What is distributive justice when confronted with this affluence and austerity?

A second step is going to the roots of what caring (i.e. the practice of caring) is about. According to Kittay we have to acknowledge different types of dependency of people. Everybody is vulnerable and in some specific sense dependent: inevitable dependency, derived dependency or inextricable interdependency. Justice, in the restricted sense of distributive justice, must take into account these dependencies: who is in relation with whom, and who is dependent in what sense on whom? Thus another, care ethical imaginary of the fair terms of living together arises.

A final step in Kittay’s reasoning is the setup of a series of “concepts and principles of justice based on an ethics of care”. There are nine of such “concepts and principles”: 1. The self, as a relation based entity; 2. Relation based equality; 3. Mutually constraining rights and responsibilities; 4. The realm of care central to justice; 5. Freedom as lived in the fulfilment of needs; 6. The asymmetry of power;  7. A societal covenant rather than a social contract; 8. Allocation and distribution; 9. The principle of reciprocity: the “obligation to receive care graciously if possible”.

Kittay presented her thoughts in as she explained an unfinished state, as work in progress. A book of hers will come out in 2017 on this issue. Our interview with Eva Feder Kittay is available on ethicsofcare.org in November 2016

Professor Eva Feder Kittay

To conclude: researchers from different countries and different disciplines shared the awareness of hard times in their work- and research practices related to austerity policy, in the broader context of neoliberalism. Kittay’s reference to the unfinished state of her thoughts as ‘work in progress’ can be considered as appropriate for the whole conference. A lot of work has been done admirably and much more is needed.

About the author: Frans Vosman

Frans Vosman

Prof. dr. Frans Vosman studied moral theology and philosophy at Nijmegen University and did a doctorate on economical ethics in Paris and Rome. Professor Louis Vereecke was his promotor. He was engaged in medical ethics before he took interest in the ethics of care, at Tilburg University, where he was professor ethics of care. He held a chair ethics of care at the University of Humanistics, Utrecht. He was interested in combining conceptual and empirical ethics and in the fundamental political character of the ethics of care. Together with colleagues he did research in a general hospital about patients perspectives and research with regard to people with an intellectual disability. He focused on the ethics of care as a form of fundamental political ethics, He considered the connections with other forms of political ethics, with epistemology and political forms of phenomenology to be quintessential. Frans Vosman died in June, 2020

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