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Social Solidarity as a Political Task – Moral and Structural Responses

In the course of the nineteenth century, industrializing societies were faced with the challenge of re-constituting the basis of social solidarity culturally and structurally. Regardless of whether the motivation behind the development of social integration measures and structures came from the contradictions of capitalism itself which needed to invest in human capital in order to ensure the availability of a fit labour force, or, whether political interests in ensuring the stability of the nascent nation states sooner or later required social policies, this decisive turn to modern welfare measures was from the beginning embroiled in a fundamental dilemma.

On the one hand cultural, political and economic transformations were driven by a basic desire for freedom and autonomy; old systems of authority and power were being challenged and traditional value structures subjected to rigorous examinations according to the criterion of rationality (Gellner 1992; Bauman 2004). In the cultural domain the freedom to shape one's own lifestyle in terms of partnership, religious affiliation and choice of trade asserted itself gradually, in the political domain the principles of democracy began to be asserted in a series of revolutions (Hobsbawm 1962), and in economics the unfettered pursuit of profit through a free market unencumbered by traditions and regulations established itself forcefully, though unevenly in Europe, as the key criterion of capitalism.

On the other hand, the quest for autonomy brought about new forms of mutual dependency, best illustrated by the division of labour which necessitated an elaborate infrastructure of transport, communication and binding treaties to function efficiently, but also in politics where the rule of democratic law, enshrined in bureaucracy, gradually became more and more comprehensive, consistent and impersonal (Max Weber, see Gerth and Mills 1948). Overall, this process of 'disembedding', as Giddens (1990) terms it, that necessitated members of society
to entertain mediated relationships over greater and greater distances and without familiar patterns, brought with it the threat of instability, disorganization and social disintegration and confronted people with the task of giving their interactions a new binding order and consistency. In the analysis of Durkheim (1997) this meant a transition from mechanical to organic forms of solidarity, a transition which was accompanied by the looming threat of anomie. Poverty, bringing in its wake riots by the disaffected and the threat of revolution, but also rising rates of criminality manifested this threat and dampened the spirit of progress and of mastery over not just technical but also over social processes which the enlightenment period had kindled.

To meet this challenge of finding and establishing a social order that ensured stability and continuity while safeguarding freedom at both the personal and at the structural level two fundamental initiatives developed archetypically in industrialized European societies. One addressed the issue primarily at an individual level, framing it as an issue of re-establishing moral commitments. It tried to avert the fear of the 'mob', the rootless, disaffected 'underclass' of losers from the transformation process (Stedman-Jones 1971) by working on the 'character' of individuals. The underlying philosophy of the combined efforts by philanthropy, humanitarianism and religious organizations was that people on the margins of society had to be induced to use their freedom responsibly, to act rationally and to use the new opportunities of capitalism to their advantage. This bourgeois mentality, which largely ignored the structural causes of inequality, came to be the seedbed of social work in the early, pre-professional form of casework.

Early industrialization produced an array of middle class volunteers or appointed respectable officials who by personal example, by inducements and also by coercion tried to impart 'good manners' to people who found themselves in difficult social situations (Peel 2011). The money for poor relief at the disposal of those charities or those local authorities was to be spent wisely and always with regard to avoiding 'dependency'. Adherence to the principles of the' protestant work ethic' which underpinned the 'spirit of capitalism' was the taken-for-granted ideological consensus and 'the deserving' were judged by their willingness to subscribe to these principles before receiving temporary material assistance. As was characteristic of the political ideology of liberalism, the state was not considered a suitable instrument for bringing about social solidarity, safe for its punitive control functions in the form of workhouses, prisons and other coercive measures which were used as further means of putting moral pressure on the needy. The other approach acknowledged the structural and material dimensions of the problem of anomie in all its forms. According to the analyses and consequent demands by the organizations of the trade union and labour movements, by politically committed organizations (with a scientific underpinning in statistical social research) like the Fabian Society in the UK and the 'Verein für Socialpolitik' in Germany, and by parts of the women's movement, personal character played only a marginal role in the genesis of poverty and social disintegration over against structural factors like low wages, poor working conditions, inadequate
housing, disease and epidemics as well as political disenfranchisement (Wendt 1985). These political organizations and movements, instead of insisting on moral reform and character strength, advocated changes in legislation to ensure rights and effective protection from exploitation and thereby laid the foundations for a coherent social policy approach as a means of re-establishing social solidarity. The logic of these demands would ultimately involve the state as the central provider of measures to counteract the divisive effects of capitalism (Jones 1983). This development, corresponding to social-democratic politics, amounted to a productive arrangement with capitalism and was eventually realized most clearly in the Nordic states of Europe after World War II.

It is somewhat ironic that the first actual initiative for national social policy legislation that put some of those demands into practice came from Chancellor Bismarck of Germany, a thoroughly conservative politician who had banned the Social Democrats from the newly established parliament of the Second German Reich while implementing some of their demands in what amounted to the first social insurance schemes for industrial accidents, ill health, unemployment and old age. Significantly, in this programme the state assumed only the role of a watchdog, leaving the actual realization of welfare and social insurance provisions to organizations of civil society and thereby establishing the principle of subsidiarity (Lorenz 2006). Solidarity in this line of thinking is a matter of self-organization not of the individual but of community units which preserve the spirit and some of the functions of mechanical solidarity of pre-modern times or which are capable of reproducing this function under conditions of modernity. The aim hereby is not to eliminate social inequality but to stabilize its effects by containing social conflicts largely within the domain of civil society, with the added effect that the regulatory, 'patriarchal' role of the state also serves as a source of its legitimation as a 'caring' state.

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