Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Reconstituting Community: Social Justice, Social Order and the Politics of Community

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Reconstituting Community: Social Justice, Social Order and the Politics of Community

Article excerpt


During the 1990s there was a shift in the focus of Australian social policy from issues of social justice to questions of social order. Earlier policy which used the language of rights -- understood primarily in terms of access and equity -- has come into disfavour, being associated, often inaccurately, with `passive' welfare assistance. It has been increasingly replaced by the language of `obligations', reflecting a growing concern with the need for social integration in the face of the increasing social divisions associated with globalisation. Crucial to this shift has been a move to reconstitute `community'. The new `politics of community' is a central terrain of political debate and contention, in which the traditional concerns of social justice need to be articulated.

The primary objective of current official social policy is to help bridge deepening social divisions by reintegrating those marginalised from the fruits of the new economic system into `the community'. However, while inclusion is the explicit aim of this policy, it has exclusionary, ideologically-grounded effects. The excluded are those who cannot keep pace with the rising standards of success: those who are having difficulty meeting the expectation that everyone should be able to look after themselves. In a 1999 speech to the Australian Industry National Forum in Canberra, pollster Rod Cameron, speaking about the findings of focus groups run by ANOP Research, identified these exclusionary tendencies:

   One of our clearest findings is the emphasis on the need to compete and
   promote oneself. Across the sexes and occupational groupings they talk of
   the need to look after `number one'. Standing up for a mate who is hard
   done by at work is no longer an automatic response. In the days of
   individual employment contracts, selling yourself is more important.
   (Cameron 1999: 17)

People are turning inwards to `look after number one' as the harsh realities of the aggressively competitive market bite into established loyalties and forms of solidarity, eating away at any impulses of concern for those most affected by economic change. As Cameron remarked: `Australia today is no place in which to expect lasting sympathy. There is a resigned sense of sadness when a factory shuts but only short-lived sympathy for the newly redundant poor.'

The politics of community is directly implicated in this phenomenon of `turning inwards'. My purpose here is to identify the discourses which inform the new politics and show how their rhetoric reinforces a broader trend towards social exclusion. I argue that while the project of reconstituting community is a vital one, the most important question relating to the kind of community that is emerging in the new era of globalisation is yet to be fully explored and publicly debated. Rather than raising this question, the prevailing politics of community has an ideological dimension -of a bias towards social order rather than social justice -- which legitimates the growing disparities in wealth and hardens public sentiment towards those most disadvantaged by the new economic conditions. That bias should be more clearly identified and challenged.

`Community' as a dynamic terrain Of political contention

The politics of community draws on an array of discourses, all of which identify `the community' as both the site of, and solution to, the social problems associated with the new economic conditions. Variations on the theme of the `loss' of community have found their way into our political vocabulary via talk about the need to cultivate `norms of reciprocity' and generate `trust' and `social capital'. The need for a stronger `social glue' is expressed in public debate about social breakdowns of various sorts -- in the family, law and order, in authority and trust. Concern about the loss of community is particularly poignant in country areas, where the talk there is of loss in a literal sense -- of banks, post offices, community meeting places, young people (either to the cities or to suicide). …

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