How we came not to care: Historical trends


Continuing my discussion of interrogating inequality, here is another post with a possible clue as to how we came not to care. This one considers a rather wide expanse of history

We have neglected to cultivate a culture that cares

I recently struggled through the book Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society by Mitchell M. Dean. The book is very clearly written — the publisher calls it “exceptionally clear and lucid,” and it is. The book is intended, however, for experts already familiar with Foucault’s writings and lectures, particularly those on governmentality.

I frequently found myself in a fog, but I persisted. I was hoping to find ideas that would explain the changes that produced the contemporary self, including why we have become a society that fails to care about increasing inequality. And I did find a brief reference to this development in a section where Dean asks: “Where do our notions of ‘care’ come from?” Why do we think the state should care for the welfare of its citizens?

Dean discusses the attitudes of those in positions of power during ancient Roman times and during the subsequent era when Western Europe was dominated by Christianity.

In ancient Rome, under the city-citizen model, rulers had a duty only to those who were recognized as citizens. Slaves, outsiders, and women were systematically excluded. Romans (men, citizens) could gain prestige and glorify themselves by using their wealth to make gifts to the city (e.g., public buildings), arrange gladiator fights, or produce public banquets and festivals. The motivation was to establish that one was a noble and memorable being, worthy of becoming a member of the ruling class.

Things were different under Christianity (the shepherd-flock model). The duty of Christian rulers was to care for all of God’s creatures, including the poor and marginalized. Women could now be part of public life, especially wealthy women who became benefactors of the poor and women who devoted themselves to the care of the sick.

According to Dean, the attitude we have today towards social welfare is somewhat of an amalgam of these historical precedents. We combine a notion of the rights of citizens (pity the poor immigrant, however) with — ideally — a Christian love of humanity. The problem, as Dean points out, is that we’ve neglected to motivate citizens to contribute to the general social welfare. (emphasis added in this and the following quotations)

We are used to questioning the attributes of welfare recipients and of the poor …. However, the ethical orientation of those from whom national governments seek to raise the funds for social benefits and services is rarely called into question. The difficulties of and revolts over the raising of taxation, particularly from the rich, suggest that advanced liberal democracies have neglected to cultivate an ethical culture that can sustain concerns for social justice and the alleviation of disadvantage. There is nothing in these societies that parallels either the obligation of a nourisher of the city in ancient Rome or the obligation of the almsgiver in Christianity. … [I]f we are to sustain or to revive the ideal of a welfare state in the twenty-first century, we need to think about how to cultivate new forms of ethical comportment appropriate to the transfers of wealth it requires.

They are poor because we no longer care

We might find sources of “ethical comportment” in a theory of justice. As Rosanvallon relates, however, the argument in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice collapsed in the 1990s. Citizens no longer lived behind the requisite ‘veil of ignorance’ — they no longer believed that everyone was equally subject to the social risks of poor health, unemployment, the insecurity of old age.

The institutions of solidarity established after 1945, and the policies that accompanied them, were also left vulnerable by the absence of a coherent theory of equality. The plain fact of intolerable suffering, coupled with the impact of great events such as the war, had initially sufficed to establish a consensus in favor of reform. But no theory of justice emerged to justify subsequent changes to the system.

Contrast this with the 1950s, when Richard Titmuss argued (Titmuss was a British social researcher who influenced Britain’s post-WWII policies):

They are poor because we no longer care: “Because we are a very unequal society … because we are unwilling to tax ourselves … unwilling to reduce our demands for more and more consumption. Because we don’t really want a more equal society.”

After citing this, Rosanvallon comments:

It would be difficult to take a position more diametrically opposed to that of conservative liberals, who never tired of insisting that poverty was a consequence of failure or error.

Poverty came to be blamed on laziness. Concern for future generations — one’s own descendants in particular — replaced traditional forms of social justice. We are now embraced by the jaws of neoliberalism.

Related posts:
Interrogating inequality: An annoying article
Interrogating inequality: Some good news
Interrogating inequality: Tony Judt
How we came not to care: Rosanvallon
How we came not to care: Oligarchy of the elite
Income inequality and American politics
Why is it so hard to reform health care? The historical background
Déjà vu: Historical resistance to the inequities of health
Health inequities: An inhumane history

Image source: Salon


Mitchell M. Dean (1999/2009), Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society

Pierre Rosanvallon (2013), The Society of Equals

John Rawls (1971), A Theory of Justice

David Reisman (2001), Richard Titmuss: Welfare and Society


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