Harm Reduction as a Postmodern Ethic
for the Welfare State
The discourse of globalization creates new ways of reinscribing privilege and subordination by calling forth new forms of governance for regimenting populations into the emerging social order.1 How should people respond to the implicit understandings of self and other embedded in the globalization discourse’s preoccupation with welfare dependency? They need to identify those embedded biases, call them out publicly, and propose alternative understandings about how they should practice relating each other, one-to-one and collectively. In so doing, they can make the welfare state less exclusionary and tap its latent possibilities for more compassionate policies. Failing to challenge the discourse of dependency means failing to challenge the disciplinary practices of the new forms of governance. Without the critical distance needed to question that discourse, people risk continuing to be caught in a vicious cycle that alternates from episodic charitable responses to poverty to cracking down on the poor as deviants who need to be punished for their poverty.2 The U.S. response to the Katrina hurricane disaster is but one prominent example.
Thanks to a long pre-Katrina ride to the beach with my wife, the title of this chapter was changed to “Compassionate Liberalism.” President George W. Bush, relying on the writings of Marvin Olasky, has championed the idea that public policies should reflect a “compassionate conservatism,” where social welfare provision is provided on the basis of concern for helping the less privileged develop the self-discipline to be
1. For consideration of how globalization has accelerated the marginalization of the homeless as a special case of those who are seen as failing to conform to standards of the self-sufficient self, see Kathleen R. Arnold, Homelessness, Citizenship and Identity (Albany: SUNY Press, 2004).
2. Both compassionate charitable services and the more punitive policies that flow from compassion fatigue are united by an underlying logic that sees the poor as “other,” lacking “the right to rights,” and therefore unable to access entitlements from the welfare state. See Leonard C. Feldman, Citizens without Shelter: Homelessness, Democracy, and Political Exclusion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004), p. 6.