Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Capitalism & Social Change

In my seminar on Global Social Policy the professor was lecturing on development paradigms around the world and we began discussion how various socio-economic systems (and the cultural characteristics that often accompany such systems in any given society) affect social development. We talked about the “welfare state,” as characterized by the Nordic countries, about the “liberal welfare state” (ours truly), and about various adaptations mixing the two that most other countries adopt.

After a discussion on the varying pros and cons of such systems, the professor basically posited that widespread progressive social change—the kind that truly creates more just, equitable societies—and capitalism are pretty much at odds. He argued this case not with the rhetoric of some critics, who harp on the economics (that a capitalist system naturally creates a hierarchy that benefits some and marginalizes others, and that it depends on this marginalizing system for survival), but rather by honing in on the cultural components of a capitalist society that prevent successful economic integration for all. Societies like the U.S., he posited, are so individualistic that they’re inherently incapable of adopting the kinds of policies and tactics that (according to him) successfully create more equal societies: ones that, rather than simply provide “band-aid treatment” to a given social problem, work on a structural level to challenge its roots and equalize the economic playing field for all—or, more simply, that promote prevention instead of just treatment—policies that (he argues) create and depend on an active role for government. According to his argument, while we as a society may very genuinely wish that the disadvantaged among us had an easier time of it, when it comes to making the kinds of societal changes necessary to make that happen—allowing for a bit of (faint of heart among you be forewarned, I’m about to use dirty words) wealth distribution and government intervention—we forget that dream of equity in a second and fight those policies (that are so blatantly turning our founding fathers’ vision on its head) to the death.

Somehow this all made me think of my earlier rambles on community service and differences in conception of civic duty between the U.S. and Latin America. In a way I feel like it goes hand-in-hand with my impression that folks here have a more innate (if less ostensible) sense of social responsibility; if my supposition has any truth, it makes sense that they’re more willing as a nation to accept the idea of a policy that, in an effort to improve the lot of the socially and economically disadvantaged, necessitates the replacement of a portion of individual choice with government direction and that suggests a country’s super wealthy may have some responsibility to help the impoverished masses… the very ideas of which in our country have the public rallying to “restore honor” and bring back our “traditional values” …(which, if not strong, inclusive communities and a holistically healthy populous, I’m not sure what are). Perhaps it is our national tendency to conceive of personal life and service to community as two distinct and separate facets of being that fuels our distaste as a society of policies that would relegate the former (even just a bit!) to improve the latter.

I found his argument quite compelling but also, for obvious reasons, troubling. I feel like our nations’ vehemently negative response to the recent health care legislation lends a decent amount of credibility to his notion, but at the same time I’m not ready to completely accept his thesis, as it would mean conceding that widespread social change is not possible in our country and all but nullify what I see as my life’s work (and that of many of you all, too). Though I’m not sure exactly where the middle ground is or what it looks like with respect to this seeming contradiction, I’m resolutely hopeful that it exists. I say this all the time and mostly you all ignore me, but in this case in particular I’d really like to hear your thoughts! I know many of you are working on this very issue, even if you don’t generally conceive of it in these terms, so you can’t get away with not responding for lack of personal relevancy…

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