Talk at University of Melbourne
Capacity Building and Community Strengthening Forum.
Andy Blunden 13 July 2004

Social Solidarity vs Social Capital

  1. The idea of “social capital” has penetrated public policy debate to a remarkable extent, hasn’t it? It is an extremely problematic idea, though, and needs to be subject to critique. Public policy does need a concept to shed light into the relation between economics and social life outside of the economy, so the emergence of even such a problematic term as “social capital” should be welcomed. It provides an arena in which the social arrangements which exclude millions of people from economic and political life can be contested.
  2. There is a big misunderstanding however hampering this discussion. Those who are critiquing “social capital” are generally saying that “social capital” is an unclear concept, a concept which simply fails to adequately structure research into the relation between economic and non-economic life. On the other side, those who use the term don’t seem to be bothered about the concept at all. It is used in a kind of nominalist way to point to non-economic resources inhering in social relations, and attacks on the concept are seen as either semantic pettiness, or an unwarranted discounting of the importance of non-economic social life.
  3. I don’t want to take up your time with a critique of “social capital” as a concept, something which is very easy to do, but usually fails to impress those who are happy to use the term to express whatever they want it to express. Instead, I want to focus on suggesting an alternative concept which, in my view, offers greater prospect of elucidating the relation between economic and non-economic social life and how people are excluded.
  4. Rather than relying on my own philosophical lights in Hegel and Marx and cultural-historical activity theory, I want to mediate my suggestion through the ideas of Amartya Sen. Sen is someone who rightly has significant standing in the policy debate around poverty and development. Despite clear commonalities between Sen’s own work and the domain covered by “social capital,” Sen is also an opponent of “social capital” theory. His opposition is two-fold: firstly, he is opposed to treating human life as instrumental, and secondly he regards the concept as unclear. But that need not concern us here.
  5. Sen presents himself and his ideas in the form of policy advice to government, but he would be more true to himself, I think, as a spokesperson for social movements. What results from this ambiguity in Sen’s social position, is an internal contradiction within Sen’s thinking. I entirely reject the utilitarian framework in which Sen has chosen to locate the concept which is at the centre of his work — but it is a concept which is of immense value. Most of you here will be familiar with Sen’s ideas. I will express it in terms of a series of five concepts each of which moves a step closer to an adequate notion of what it is that people need in order to overcome poverty and exclusion.
  6. First is wealth in its conventional economic sense, commodities or value; second is functioning, the specific activities in which a person is engaged, using the wealth at their disposal to make a worthwhile life, and third is “capability,” the set of functionings from which a person has the freedom to choose. But Sen goes further than this relatively well-known concept of “capability.”
  7. The fourth level of determination is “voice,” the say a person has in determining not only their own functioning, but in determining the capabilities which the society will make available to them. And fifthly, reflecting the fact that recognition as an equal participant in the social and political life of a society still leaves the person trapped within a dominant paradigm which for example, may include misrecognition of their personality and unjust constraints on their activity, Sen introduces the term “critical voice.”
  8. What people need to overcome poverty and exclusion is “critical voice.” Within the Hegelian system, which is my own analytical framework of choice, this is called “subjectivity.” The problem with Sen, in my opinion, is that Sen tries to develop this idea within a political-economic, utilitarian framework, which in its very essence objectifies the human condition; it is a fundamentally incompatible theoretical framework for the concept of critical voice. Nevertheless, like Bourdieu, Sen is attempting to incorporate a concept of recognition, so important for understanding modernity, within a distribution theoretic, and in this sense, comes up against the same problems as the social capitalists.
  9. The problem, as I see it, is this: what is the appropriate theoretical framework for understanding the distribution and structure of subjectivity — or “critical voice” — within a market-dominated society? How can the millions of people excluded from economic life, denied self-determination and the resources needed for a worthwhile life, critique those social arrangements by means of which they have been excluded?
  10. Briefly, the approach of social capital is this: firstly, social relations are conceived of quantitatively. But quantitative abstraction is a valid theoretical operation only to the extent that it mirrors some process of quantification in social reality. Economic science, for example, is possible only because the economy is just such an objective process of quantification, performed by the market in acts of exchange. But it is now clear that, in Putnam’s words, “social capital is stubbornly resistant to quantification,” because it reflects no such objective process of quantification.
  11. At a second stage then, social capital was conceived of as having different types, being “multi-dimensional,” as expressed in the dichotomies: bonding vs. bridging, vertical vs. horizontal, other-regarding vs. self-regarding, formal vs. informal, good vs. bad and so on. Instead of adding 10 dollars worth of bridging social capital to 10 dollars worth of bonding social capital to make a total of 20 dollars worth of social capital the problem is redefined in terms of a balance of two different kinds of social capital.
  12. But this situation is no better. 10 dollars worth of electing a union delegate can be added to 10 dollars worth of being squeezed by a mafia boss to make 20 dollars worth of vertical social capital, for instance, only at the cost of common sense. Each individual operation of quantification may be of interest, but attempts to combine different antithetical quantities together as either social capital or a type of social capital leads only to an unravelling of the concept itself.
  13. What is being investigated here is subjectivity, agency, critical voice, self-determination or, to use Jane Jacobs’ term, “self-government.” This is what people need. It means being part of a self-conscious system of activity which expresses one’s own identity and can gain recognition from other subjects.
  14. Subjectivity is a relation between three entities, the ideal or Universal, the Individual and what Hegel calls the Particular, which means the institutions, relationships, activities and organisations by means of which individuals give substance to and come to know the ideals. In the time allowed it is not possible to elaborate an understanding of the Subject. The more so at a time in which the Subject is a concept almost entirely absent from public discourse. Critical voices seem almost to be lost in the background noise. Social capital theory is itself a remarkable symptom of what has been called the “death of the subject.”
  15. I rely for now on the authority of Amartya Sen to establish that subjectivity (critical voice) is the essential entity which people need in order to contest the social arrangements which have excluded them, denied them access to resources and social relations needed in order to lead a meaningful and valued life. It is fundamentally impossible however to extend economic theory to incorporate the conception of subjectivity, because economics is the science of the objective quantification of human activity. Sen’s attempts are just as ill-fated as James Coleman’s.
  16. The material dealt with in social capital studies is invariably the same as the raw material in the study of subjectivity. What is frequently discounted however in social capital studies, is the universal or ideal. In order to develop “critical agency” people need ideals. By ideals I mean all those continuing cultural artefacts: language, ideas, identities, norms and ethical ideals, buildings and landscapes, sciences, machinery, principles of justice, visions of utopia, religious symbols and so on, which orient human life. These are the ideals. Only insofar as particular institutions, organisations, social movements and practices in general, create and maintain such ideals is critical agency possible.
  17. Conversely, ideals are dead wood except insofar as they are maintained, concretised and passed on through institutions and Particular collective social practices. And no organisation can survive nor principle exist except insofar as the energies, skills and will of healthy, educated human Individuals perform them. OK? So that’s the three aspects of subjectivity, individuals, universals and particulars.
  18. Let me illustrate the difference. According to social capital, trade unions and line-management enterprises are both examples of “vertical social capital.” Doubtless it won’t be long before someone pragmatically subdivides “vertical social capital” into “upwards” and “downwards” types so that they can be counted separately — but this is not science.
  19. Approached from the standpoint of the Subject however, the distinction between upwards mandate by election vs downwards delegation by line-management is well-established. The theory of the Subject is all about mediation, mandation and delegation, voice and accountability, participation and collaboration. such ideas are quite well-developed in pedagogy, for example, in the study of collaborative learning, and also other branches of social psychology such as group dynamics, community conferencing and so on, not to mention political science more broadly. Subjectivity provides the appropriate framework for the development of the concept of “critical voice” or agency.
  20. Eva introduced me to the term “econospeak” with her Boyer lectures. As I understand it, the idea is that if you can express a social thought in the language of economics, then business and government leaders are more likely to listen to you. Well, the point has been well made. But what has also been demonstrated is the capacity of capital to subsume even our language.
  21. Still, to someone who is excluded from the economy, being subsumed under capital probably sounds like a good idea. The problem is that exclusion — being an “external” — is as much a part of the relation of capital today, as is subsumption. What is required is not the subsumption of social theory and ethics under economics, but rather the critique of economics from the standpoint of ethics and social life, from the standpoint of the Subject.
  22. Briefly, to turn to the title of my talk “social solidarity vs social capital.” Sen for example, in posing the question as to how critical voice can be fostered, points to two processes: assertion and solidarity. Sen uses the term solidarity too broadly though. In the theory of the Subject, solidarity refers to a specific relationship: solidarity is support voluntarily extended to strangers, on conditions determined by the recipient. Thus solidarity strengthens the subjectivity of the recipient, in contrast to other forms of support, such as philanthropy or manipulation, which weaken or colonise subjectivity, and conformism and regulation, which suppress the emergence of a new subjectivity from with an existing subject.
  23. Social solidarity is an appropriate word for that social relation which underlies the capacity to develop “critical agency” or Subjectivity. This is the concept which can be used as a guide to public policy in supporting groups of people excluded under existing social arrangements, without colonising or suppressing their subjectivity.