Let them eat social capital: Socializing the market versus marketizing the social

By Margaret Somers:

“We have seen the enemy and it is us. No longer should we blame neoliberalism’s starvation of the public sector and its privatizing restructuring of the economy for escalating rates of poverty, skyrocketing inequality, or the constriction of democracy. No, it is the fault of your and my delinquency in our bowling league attendance, our neglect of neighborhood barbeques, and in our lapsed faith-based church activities. Along with the privatization of citizenship has come the privatization of responsibility – yours and mine, that is – and we are shamed by our loss of moral fortitude.

Clearly, the appeal of the social capital concept for the neoliberal imagination is its dismissal of the usual sociological and institutional suspects as responsible for the current problems of poverty and politics – the decline of the welfare state and its ancillary social supports on the one hand, and the privatizing restructuring of the economy on the other. But what makes the concept so resonant, timely, and appealing to a world-wide audience less interested in pointing fingers at America’s bowling leagues and church barbeques, and more in exploring the dramatic reorganization of global markets and politics, is its apparent convergence with that celebrated source of Eastern Europe’s democratic revolutions, namely civil society – that sphere of social organization made most famous by its pragmatic, explanatory and normative revival in Eastern Europe’s revolutionary era of the 1980s. In that context, civil society was idealized as a space of democratic participatory empowerment, horizontal social ties and rights-oriented social movements. Its most notable feature, indeed its constitutive meaning, was its identity as a ‘third sphere’, independent of both the power of the administrative and coercive state as well as the competitive individualism of capitalist market societies.

In its glorious heydays of the Gdansk-based Solidarity movement, civil society was the nurturing ground for democratic associations of rightsclaiming citizens. More than a decade after the fact, however, and in the larger context of global privatizations, the civil society concept has come to represent less rights-oriented democratic politics than merely an anti-statist appendage for the ‘compassionate’ side of market society. And piggybacking on much-heralded shoulders, the social capital concept has taken the same path. Militant anti-statism, appropriate for Eastern Europe’s repressed trade unions and social movements fighting heroically against Communist Party tyranny, cannot be justified in the case of social capital. The exclusion of power and rights from the social capital agenda should alarm us. Like the golden glitter of the Trojan horse, we have been dazzled by the social in social capital to collude with a tragicomedy of social science: Neoliberalism has turned Gdansk into a Bowling Alley.”

Read it full at Thesis Eleven

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