Social Capital Halpern, David: Polity 2005

By Wilson, Robin | Renewal, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

Social Capital Halpern, David: Polity 2005


Wilson, Robin, Renewal


The three founders of modern social theory in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries offered contrasting prognoses of the emergent European society, derived from their differing analyses of what it was that was modern about it. For Durkheim, the 'division of labour' brought a shift from a 'mechanical' to a much more problematic 'organic' solidarity, with the prospect of ever-growing social fragmentation or 'anomie'. For Weber, Gemeinschaft with its 'traditional' social action was giving way to the 'rational' action of Gesellschaft, risking the engulfing of the individual in an enlarging 'iron cage' of bureaucracy. For Marx, meanwhile, capitalism wrought widening inequalities yet contained the seeds of progress in the contradiction between the socialisation of production and the private ownership of its means.

The contradictory dynamics of capitalism, Marx recognised, could not be reduced to the univocal trends that its more superficial recognition as a disaggregation of tasks or a sphere of purposive action portended--and which could only lead to quietism in the face of growing anomie or bureaucracy or, worse, endorsement of an aggrandised state. It was the great disaster of Lenin to define 'Marxism' as another teleology, of the 'dictatorship of the Proletariat', generating an authoritarian behemoth which issued into a critical battle for the soul of Europe with what seemed at the time to many to be the apogee of the iron cage: National Socialism. As those two totalitarianisms retreated, however, in 1945 and 1989, the challenge to which Marx had attempted an optimistic answer was posed with even greater force: how, in individualistic 'bourgeois society', was it possible to bring about solidarity among strangers?

It was social democracy which attempted, particularly in western Europe after the Second World War, to give that question an answer. And the battleground was the welfare state. Where Christian democratic parties predominated, as in France and Germany, social insurance schemes, funded by the surplus from production, bound society together by tying the middle class into the same social provision as the working class. This ensured that all those who laboured (and here male-breadwinner ideology intervened in a restrictive way) were protected, albeit graduated by income, against the risks that otherwise only those of private means could forestall. In the more radical variant, where social democrats

themselves were in power, as in Sweden, the primary source of funding was progressive taxation, which not only provided more universal welfare but had the added benefit of reducing the differentials associated with market incomes and facilitating social mobility.

But there was also a vicious alternative to this virtuous circle. By rendering benefits less and less universal through means-testing, it was possible to trim welfare budgets as well as reduce direct taxation for the wealthy. This was the Anglo-American route to free capital once more from social constraint, pursued by Reagan and Thatcher as Stalinism crumbled. The inevitable result was an anxiety about a social fabric stretched to breaking point--without, however, the collective resources left to mend it. It was this dilemma to which the New Democrats and New Labour responded--and yet were unable in substance, beyond 'triangulation' and 'spin', to resolve.

The intellectual who best articulated this dilemma was Robert Putnam, with his notion of 'social capital'. In his 1993 study of Italian regions and his 2000 survey of US states, Putnam was able to demonstrate remarkable correlations between prosperity and social order on the one hand and, on the other, the strength of horizontal social networks, self-reinforcing relationships based on trust and wide acceptance of social norms.

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