Changing Welfare, Changing States: New Directions in Social Policy

Article excerpt

John Clarke Changing Welfare, Changing States: New Directions in Social Policy Sage, 2004, 208 pp. ISBN: 0-761-94203-3 (pbk) £19 ISBN: 0-761-94202-5 (hbk) £60

John Clarke's ChangingWelfare, Changing States is a highly stimulating and well-written piece of work that reflects the author's status as one of the most original contemporary social-policy thinkers. Yet while fully recommending this book, it is also necessary to stress that at its centre lies an unresolved tension-between materialism on the one hand, and idealism on the other. For all of its merits, of which there are many-most notably a series of excellent critiques on matters such as 'New' Labour's multiculturalism, recent globalisation discourses, and the fabrication of the 'citizen-consumer' in welfare arrangements-the book is located in a contradictory problematic for which there is no solution.

Clarke's central objective is to develop a constructionist position dealing with the problem of 'what's been happening to welfare states'; yet, with this goal in mind, the author takes as his point of departure Gramsci's thesis of the state as a continuous process of formation and superseding of unstable equilibria. Therein lays the fundamental contradiction: the premise of the work is clearly Marxist-or, more precisely stated, Gramscian-and yet the main argument is overtly anti-Marxist. This tension manifests itself throughout the book.

From the start, Clarke makes it clear that he is not concerned with the welfare state in a materialist sense, as a concretereal object. Instead, the reader is informed that the book deals with 'ideas', 'thoughts', 'concepts' and 'stories' of welfare; that is, Clarke is interested in 'how we think about welfare states' (p. 1). The immediate problem that arises from this schema is that the idea of welfare is exclusively considered in terms of the state, yet nowhere does Clarke attempt a systematic or comprehensive examination of the state as subject. This amounts to a glaring omission, inasmuch as the book is not genuinely oriented around 'changing states', as its title suggests, but is solely directed towards 'changing welfare'-which, by implication, defines the state as constituted through, and centred around, welfare. This reductionism only serves to testify to Clarke's aversion to the complex material relations of the phenomenon under examination-a matter further demonstrated by the fact that the author firmly places himself in the realm of postmodernism. Specifically, he suggests that 'we should "think again" about welfare states' (p. 2), and in this regard, the book advances the notion of a 'cultural turn' in analytic thinking, by which Clarke means that welfare states exist only as social constructs (p. 147).

The idea of welfare states as 'constructs' is, for Clarke, the point of entry into his cultural turn (p. 18). On this basis, the notion of welfare is treated as forever 'unstable, flexible and mobile', and consequently nowhere does the author attempt to refine the meaning of the welfare state, but instead welcomes and encourages 'the absence of rigorous definition' (p. 19). In response to this approach, one must ask 'why?' Contrary to Clarke's supposition, I suggest that it is necessary to attach precise definitions to social-science concepts, and that where an adequate definition is lacking, so one must be sought. Only by proceeding in this way may we engage in the task of understanding the 'social', and thereby avoid arbitrary theorising that detracts from genuine scientific endeavour. Clarke, however, seems to place aside the mantle of social science, openly admitting that his book is not concerned with an exposition of evidence (pp. 3, 12), or with presenting a theorisation of welfare (p. 4); nor is he even willing to advance a logical examination (p. 3). Yet if not logical, empirical or theoretical, what method of articulation is left? At once, an answer presents itself: Clarke enters into social constructionism, journeying into the idealist realm of pure abstraction and fantasy. …