Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Limits of the Altruistic Imagination

Speaking of humoring delusions, I've started reading John Ehrenreich's classic 1985 history of the social work movement to get clearer in the relationship between service provision and organizing. The Altruistic Imagination is required reading for anyone who finds themselves perplexed by that sort of thing. I'm barely twenty pages into the thing and having Aha! moments all over the place.

Social work was born at a time of tremendous economic dislocation. The factory system of labor inverted the relationship between urban and rural areas, and women, children, and immigrant labor were all pressed into service as cheap labor by the industrialists of the age. The margin for survival was thin, and for the poor, which was most people, the entire family had to work. Blacks were largely kept in the south through a variety of means to function as cheap agricultural labor.

By the early 1900's, a revolutionary situation had developed, and reform was being championed by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt in order to preserve the capitalist system.
"First, to create a rational social order, it was necessary to curtail what Teddy Roosevelt had called "the dull, purblind folly" of the rich, that is, giant corporations had to be regulated. The corporations were not about to regulate themselves. Some corporate leaders — people like Mark Hanna, Andrew Carnegie, and August W. Belmont — did understand that a more moderate stance toward workers and consumers was in the long-run self-interest of the capitalist class. Without it endemic unrest, if not outright revolution, was inescapable. But no one corporation could carry out such sweeping societal reforms alone, and in any case, the fear of giving a competitive advantage to the other corporations inhibited them. The task of reform, of moderating corporate behavior, has to be carried out on a unified nationwide or statewide basis or not at all."
This is remarkable in that it is precisely what Robert Reich argues in his new book Supercapitalism. The socially responsible corporation is, he says, an oxymoron, and the rules of the game dictate one loyalty and that's to the investors. He describes the various campaigns that target a single corporation for "unethical" behavior as "detour and frolic," and calls us to pressure government to once again take up it's regulatory role. Corporate reform, he says, is only possible on a level playing field when ethical behavior is expected of all players alike.

Another interesting insight deals with how social work's focus as a field is generally on either individual dysfunction or broad social reform, and that these go in and out of fashion depending on the broader political context. When there is a grassroots social movement pushing for structural reform, the emphasis within social work tends to follow suit. During more conservative times, the focus narrows to fixing people's problems. Ehrenreich's book addresses how both are possible and how we needn't see this either/or dynamic as a given.

Finally, he talks about how social change, especially as imagined by service providers, often represents an assertion of middle-class values and power to mediate the problem as defined by the professionals. This often looks quite different from how poor people themselves would address the issues.
"The third characteristic approach of the progressives to stabilizing the social order took the form of creating class-bridging, unifying, harmonizing ideologies. This is best represented in the very idea of "the public" and the "public interest," ideas that gained currency during this period. This had, in fact, a double meaning. In part, "the public" was none other than the new middle class itself, representing itself as the entire society. Thus the classic progressive tripartite panel, with representatives of "labor," "capital," and "the public": It should be clear that after subtracting labor and capital, the only "public" left is the middle class. …
Other characteristic progressive ideals, reflecting the occupational and political roles of the new middle class as rationalizers, harmonizers, mediators and planners, embracing the value-neutrality of knowledge, the beneficence of science, technology, and expertise, and the desirability of efficiency and order in all things. … Above all, the goal was class harmony."
Hmmm. Sounds a little like something we've been seeing a lot of.


Mike said...

"Harmony" within the middle-class, or across classes?

Tim Harris said...

I think in this case, "harmony" as in "the absence of dissonance," or the flattening of contradiction. In other words, harmony as defined by power.