Editorial International Journal of Social Quality 5.1

Theorizing the social

According to Lutz Leisering in his editorial in this journal of the thematic issue on the ‘social’ , Volume 3 (2), the idea of ‘social’ is not just about social services as found in textbooks of social policy but “reflects a culturally entrenched notion of the relationship between state and society – a recognition of the tension between the ideal of political equality and socio-economic inequality, and of a collective responsibility by the state for identifying and redressing social problems” Theorizing ‘social quality‘ began in Europe at the end of the 1990s in reaction to the increasing reduction of the operation of the European Union to an ‘economic project’. In an ideological sense this reduction was legitimated by decoupling the economic dimension from the socio-political and socio-cultural dimensions and leaving the latter two to the authority of the EU’s Member States. The supposed duality between ‘the economic’ and ‘the social’, as seen in neo-classical economics and mainstream political and sociological studies, paved the way for this move. In practice the national based policies became subordinated to European oriented financial and economic politics and policies with which to address the globalization of production and reproduction relationships. This shift became seriously strengthened by the revolutionary development and application of new communication technologies.

The consequences of the duality and imbalance have been highlighted in recent years in ‘the Greek question’, arising from Greece’s refusal to follow the logic of purely financial desiderata. This entrenched finance-dominated logic has required an unbearable amount of unemployment, especially of young people, and that more than 40 percent of the Greek population fell into poverty. At the same time this logic allows for the untouchable affluence of the upper income groups and for what is essentially a transfer of wealth from poor Greek people to wealthy Northern European bondholding institutions, who have not had to take responsibility for their earlier questionable investments in Greek bonds.

In this issue the tension between economic politics and policies and the role and meaning of other dimensions of societies is central. As Anna Coote remarks, there are no signs either of any sufficient move in this mainstream economics to decouple production from greenhouse emissions by switching to zero-carbon energy sources. Similarly, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who led the famous Report on ‘Our Common Future’ (UN-Commission, 1987), observed on the eve of the global conference on sustainability in Rio de Janeiro, June 2012, that “governments are currently refusing to make the transformative changes needed to resolve the global sustainability crisis” (Brundtland, 2012). Is this a question of ‘refusing’ or also of being victimized by the conceptual duality between ‘the economic’ and ‘the social’, which paves the way for uncontrolled financial-economic processes for the accumulation of profit?

Following the ambition of the Journal to stimulate a dialogue between various approaches to address financial-economic, socio-political, socio-cultural and environmental challenges, this editorial connects some aspects of the papers that follow. The procedure followed is to connect questions raised by Raymond Apthorpe’s paper in this issue with aspects of the preceding papers concerning the presumed duality between ‘the economic’ and ‘the social’. This duality is contested in social quality theory, which argues that the economic dimension is an aspect of ‘the social’. According to Apthorpe, mainstream economists – and also somewhat heterodox economists like Sen and Stiglitz – do at times permit themselves what he calls ‘sightings’, or sometimes a little more, of what they call ‘social’. He defines ‘sightings’ as “glimpses of what is thought to exist; while ‘social’ refers to various sorts of notions about ‘people’”. There are various of these forms of referring to the ‘social’, but they unfortunately add up to little: they consist mainly of a miscellaneous set of ‘non-economic’ aspects that mainstream ‘economic’ thinking can use to blame for the ‘policy performance gap’ between what such thinking promises and what it often actually delivers.