Andy Blunden May 2004

What’s wrong with “social capital”
talk at New International Bookshop, 12th May 2004

It’s very easy to belittle “social capital” theory. It is so riddled with methodological absurdities and ideological sleight of hand that it is sometimes difficult to take it seriously.

The guru of the statistical analysis of “social capital,” Robert Putnam, now says: “social capital is stubbornly resistant to quantification” and “we must take care not to frame questions about change solely in terms of more social capital or less social capital. Rather, we must describe the changes in qualitative terms.” What was all the fuss about then, one might ask.

And there is every reason to suppose, as Chris Scanlon has pointed out, that “social capital” theory has the effect of “naturalising” a neo-liberal approach to micro-management of deviant communities, and providing a rationale for political and financial decimation of the public sector.

However, there are a good reasons I think for taking this move seriously.

Firstly, what the social capitalists have done is to extend the domain of economic science so as to subsume non-economic social life. This is, I think, an ideological reflection of the process in which economics is in reality subsuming social life. Thus, they are engaged in a critique of the boundary between economics and politics, with the intent of extending that boundary outwards.

This gives socialists, and Marxists in particular, the opportunity to respond with a critique aimed at doing the reverse, i.e., of critiquing economic theory (“social capital” theory in particular) and policy from the standpoint of social life and exposing the real, social and political roots of poverty and exclusion with a view to overcoming them.

Secondly, in this domain of “social capital” theory we meet not only Third Wayers like Mark Latham, but genuine people dedicated to solving the problems of poverty and exclusion who already know that there is more to well-being than a fat bank account and more to poverty and exclusion than not having a bank account. And we should make common cause with those people, and we stand to learn a lot in the process.

The focus on “social capital” forces us to ask: “What is it that makes people poor and excludes them from social life?” The na´ve, mainstream answer has been “not enough money” or “nothing to sell,” and the social capitalists claim that there is more to it than that, and further, that giving people money, for instance by means of transfer payments or job creation schemes, is not solving the problem. This is a contestable conclusion, and insofar as “social capital” theory is a cover for cutting welfare, it should be contested. Nevertheless, Nancy Fraser’s work, for example, shows how even well-intended measures of redistribution can fail and even exacerbate the problems of low status and stigmatisation.

People are made poor and excluded by certain social arrangements, and economics is a part of these social arrangements, which goes part of the way to explaining why redistribution does not in itself solve the problems of inequality and subordination.

If we are going to be able to engage in the debate around “social capital,” we have to have an alternative way of interpreting and making sense of the “social capital” data and we have to have a broad approach to how to “make democracy work” and deal with the effects of social disadvantage.

If we ask ourselves: “What is it that people need?” the answers given are “well-being,” or “utility” or, following Amartya Sen, “capability,” usually calculated on an individual basis. Amartya Sen’s notion of “capability” comes closest to the notion I am putting forward, and indeed already some of those involved in the “social capital” debate, who are not convinced of the validity of this concept, talk about “capacity.” But the problem with Sen is that he tries to incorporate the notion of capability into a utilitarian ethical framework, i.e., political economy. How should we answer this question of human need?

We have to have a concept of human relationships which goes deeper than economics and deeper than individualism, and it is my contention that the concept of subject provides this opening. The “subject” is, unfortunately, a concept which has been almost eradicated from modern thinking, and doubtless the assault on subjectivity which has taken place in social theory and philosophy, including “social capital” theory, is a reflex of the marginalisation of the subject by capital in modern society. I think for example, an understanding of the notion of subjectivity gives us insight into the effect of communication technologies and the relation between politics and economics which is at the heart of the problem.

By subject I mean that specific unity of Individual, Universal (that is, ideals and cultural artefacts) and Particular (i.e., social relationships, organisation and activity) which has the capacity to be an actor in society and express its own will. The idea of subject is perhaps best captured in the notion of self-determination.

All the data collected by the “social capital” researchers — networks, norms of reciprocity, shared values and understandings, etc., etc. — are self-evidently indicators of the existence of subjectivity and the pre-conditions for the formation of subjectivity. But as Jane Jacobs insisted, contra all the social capitalists, Pierre Bourdieu included, they are non-additive.

I could put it this way: what poor and marginalised people need is more political clout, they need to get organised. Information about existing associations, levels of trust, norms of cooperation which may or may or not be shared, all these are qualitative indicators of the preconditions for a neighbourhood, for example, to get itself organised, defend itself from the intrusion of unwanted strangers and the misbehaviour of government and business. The connection of these indicators to the capacity for self-determination — subjectivity — is self-evident. All that remains is the political problem of overcoming social, political and economic exclusion. But in general, it can hardly be surprising that groups of people who have an effective voice in society manage to overcome such hurdles.

Nevertheless, all subjects need to produce something which is valued by other subjects, or putting it the other way around, need to have what they do valued by other subjects. This is the economic basis for the formation of subjectivity.

But the social capitalists have shown, I think, that the chicken-and-egg dilemma faced by marginalised groups, people who may be producing nothing at all, cannot be solved by the normal methods of economics. People have to get organised first. Whether they form a social movement, neighbourhood committee or private company is a secondary question really.

The best people in this area know that it is about getting organised, and the labour movement has had a couple of hundred years of practice in that, beginning with the formation of trade unions out of otherwise atomised human dust. We should be participating in this debate with all due humility alongside those who are using whatever conceptual tools they have at hand.

A couple of final points. Tony Vinson has shown that social cohesion helps disadvantaged people avoid bad outcomes such as ill-health, loneliness and poverty in urban areas, but it does not have this effect in rural areas. This is what I call the Salem effect. It demonstrates why it is important not to use a word like “community” loosely. What is significant about modernity is living with strangers; that’s a different problem from the rural or medieval village.

So we have to ask: what it is that makes it possible for people to gain self-determination. What are the pre-conditions for building self-government?

I use the term “social solidarity.” Solidarity means this: I see a stanger who is in trouble; I ask them, “what can I do to help?” and I offer support on the conditions that they determine, unconditionally. That’s different from philanthropy, where I determine how I will help someone. “Community” on the other hand has a strong connotation of conformism — that’s what I mean by the Salem effect. It is solidarity though that supports and builds the capacity of a subject to determine it’s own future, for itself.

That’s what is needed in modern society — social solidarity.

Andy Blunden