Kostyło on postmodern dialectic of social care

P.Kostylo (2)A fascinating article by a Polish philosopher, Professor Piotr Kostyło of the University of Casimir the Great. (Courtesy of the publisher, here is a PDF of Kostyło’s article.)

Kostyło notes that this generation of postmodern thinkers seems to have turned against state-provided welfare programs. The usual left-right debate over welfare is between those who argue that welfare spending is inadequate and should be increased and those who argue that it incentivizes bad behavior and should be reformed. So the postmodern position is interesting because it is radically different.

Michel Foucault and Lech Witkowski are taken as representatives of postmodernism, whose “clear message” is that “the weakness of social care is not this or that institution or feature of the people engaged in it; its fundamental weakness is the very fact that it exists and is still maintained.”[34, italics added] foucault-hands

So a question: How did the postmoderns, who typically are on the left politically and so, one might expect, should be in favor of expansive government, come to reject the government provision of social welfare?

Kostyło then tells an intellectual-history story that begins in the Enlightenment, one key feature of which was a belief in human progress, including the belief that poverty was not a normal or inevitable state but rather a solvable problem. But, Kostyło argues, the Enlightenment came in two major versions, the British and the Continental, and each version sought to solve the problem of poverty differently.

The British approach (Kostyło highlights Lord Shaftesbury and Adam Smith) was more empirical, experimental, and individualist. By contrast, the Continental (Kostyło highlights Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot) was more rationalist, theory-driven, and collectivized.

The philosophical differences drove dramatic differences in practice. For the British, the issue was not, abstractly, “the problem of poverty” but, particularly, “the poor person.” The right action was not a generalized, one-size-fits-all recipe but an individualized and personalized effort tailored to the particular circumstances.[35] As a result, the British tried many approaches experimentally.

By contrast, the Continental-French approach focused on “something abstract — the common good of humanity.” Kostyło quotes Rousseau’s articulation of this principle in Émile. While compassion and pity may properly motivate care for the poor, Rousseau argued that:rousseau-rock

“To prevent pity from degenerating into weakness, it must, therefore be generalised and extended to the whole of mankind … For the sake of reason, for the sake of love of ourselves, we must have pity for our species still more than for our neighbour.”[36]

From Rousseau to the French postmodernists such as Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard is a story that unfolds over 200 years, and Kostyło sketches how the abstract theory in practice led to the impersonal, bureaucratized, top-down behemoth that has both failed to improve the lot of the poor, demoralized those who work in the system, and alienated its intellectual advocates — as well as those who, like the postmodernists, now want to reject the behemoth totally.

As a step in the direction of reform, Kostyło rightly points out that intellectual reform is the first step, and he accordingly calls for a re-consideration of the British Enlightenment — especially he calls for Continental thinkers to consider it seriously, as the British Enlightenment is much less known on the continent.

Kostyło tells the story smartly and compactly, along the way covering Marx, Hegel, the Frankfurt School, and Gertrude Himmelfarb. I recommend the article to you for the details.

Piotr Kostyło. 2011. “Postmodern Dialectic of Social Care.” Social Problems in Polish Pedagogy after 1989, Bydgoszcz, Wydawnictwo UKW, s. 32-46. With permission from the publisher, here is a PDF of Professor Kostyło’s article.

My Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. Book information page at my site or the book via Amazon.

8 thoughts on “Kostyło on postmodern dialectic of social care

  • July 13, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    Fascinating. In conversations with leftists I’ve been surprised at how many have agreed with my critique of welfare. One academic and tireless champion of marginalized and disenfranchised peoples spoke to me about programs that were repealed precisely BECAUSE they were effective – thereby undermining the rationalizations of the institutions allegedly devoted to their help. An important precondition of addressing the issue is to confront the false dichotomies surrounding it, e.g. callousness vs. caring, self-interest vs. concern for others, liberty vs. aid to those laid low by misfortune.

    Fact is we are social beings. In a free society – where citizens have not been conditioned to view compassion as the government’s job – helping each other when the chips are down is a natural part of being human and living in society. Each of us have both given and received succor and aid. Economic misfortune may befall any one of us; hence it is to the interest of all that help be available at such times. Compassion literally has survival value. None of this justifies the altruist-collectivist assertion that this requires the rejection of liberty and the enslavement of all to all.

    If a colleague has a heart attack in the office, it takes but seconds for a call to emergency services to be placed. It isn’t necessary to legislate people to the task of “emergency health observers” or to decree penalties for failing to act. It’s understood by every rational person that it is in their interest to respond.

    Collectivists have used the notion that man is his brother’s keeper as a rationalization for tyranny. If I see my brother or sister in distress, I will do what I can to help and would like to think they will do the same for me. If only compulsion can motivate such behavior, we’re already cooked. But the most cursory look at the history of American philanthropy belies this, revealing an extraordinarily generous grass-roots tradition of aid to those felled by misfortune. It was a tradition that, when possible, saw recipients as individuals to be economically, and, where necessary, morally uplifted and reintegrated into society, not farmed out to effectively segregated ghettos with checks. It was help that uplifted, not undermined. It was focused on the maintenance of society’s health, not its pathologies. It was based on liberty, not hostile to it.

    Writing of early 19th century America Alexis De Tocqueville marveled at its social cohesiveness, noting that the misfortune of one was felt by the entire community and all rallied to help. Today compassion is largely seen as the government’s job. Nothing in my view has done more to erode our sense of family, community and society.

    For those overwhelmed by economic misfortune today, particularly in America, a dreadful limbo is often reached where state assistance is woefully inadequate but exists to sufficient degree to kill private initiative, because people believe the problem taken care of. “That’s what I pay my taxes for.” This may be a reason welfare statism appears more successful in Scandinavian countries: more money is thrown at it. Thus, ironically, in light of collectivist’ rationales, the welfare state encourages a tendency to disengage each member of society from the whole because voluntarist responses are co-opted by state imposed ones. Nothing in my view has contributed more to our alienation from each other. What I call “F-you individualism” is in fact a product of socialism.

    Thomas Sowell, syndicated libertarian columnist and academic economist (b. 1930), who is black, wrote: “The assumption that spending more of the taxpayer’s money will make things better has survived all kinds of evidence that it has made things worse. The black family – which survived slavery, discrimination, poverty, wars and depressions – began to come apart as the federal government moved in with its well-financed programs to ‘help.’ ”

  • July 14, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Thanks! To belabor the issue, just as there can be no humane and rational political theory that denies the individual there can be no humane and rational moral theory that denies the self. In denying both socialist theorists achieved not the brotherhood of mankind but the inferno of modern totalitarianism.

  • July 15, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Thank you, Stephen, for the favorable post. I also thank Edward Fox for his comment. I agree that there is something simplistic in explaining the issue of social assistance in a dichotomical way. For example, the classical opposition between liberalism and collectivism can be nicely presented as a theory, but it can be completely misleading when applied to social practices. A liberal (as we on the continent understand this term) can be much more sensitive to the fate of the poor than an advocate of collectivism. Contemplating the problem from a post-totalitarian perspective (in this part of Europe we have enjoyed democracy only for twenty-five years) I clearly perceive that the biggest harm to social assistance was done by communists and their allies who claimed that an individual was no longer responsible for the other and that the task was entirely on the state’s shoulders.

  • July 17, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    Piotr: Thanks for your remarks. Your last sentence raises an issue we must be careful to frame properly. An individual’s right to exist is the first right. It cannot be conditional on serving others, for that is the premise of slavery and tyranny.

    “The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants,” said Albert Camus, “and it provides the further advantage of giving the servants of tyranny a good conscience.” Modern totalitarianism was, to use Alice Miller’s phrase, a war of annihilation against the self. Preconditional to the actual physical liquidation of selves (individuals) its two primary fronts were man’s mind and conscience. It produced precisely the opposite of the benevolence, empathy and brotherhood it tried to equivocate. “Du bist nichts; dein Volk ist alles!” – “You are nothing; your people is everything!” declared the Nazis. “To be a socialist,” said Goebbels, “is to submit the I to the thou; socialism is sacrificing the individual to the whole.” As as others have noted, in sacrificing individuals to the whole the Nazis proved tireless.

    I would frame it as saying we are responsible for creating the kind of society we want, and that to pass that responsibility onto the state has grievous consequences.

    In spite of huge differences with the man I can’t but help appreciate the words of Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

  • July 20, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    Edward, you are absolutely right saying that our responsibility for the other cannot exceed certain limits. As John Stewart Mill put it, we cannot force people to be happy, neither can we stop them from hurting themselves. Hence, any attempt to play God inevitably leads to tragedy, both on the individual and social level. I cannot but agree with you that totalitarianism kills human conscience. It simply makes you believe that you are incapable of discerning what is good and what is bad. Your judgment on whether the other needs help or not is not relevant any more. It is up to the state to determine if an individual is in need of assistance, and what kind of help she should be given. Totalitarianism makes people morally handicapped. As a result people withdraw from any social involvement, they cease to trust each other. The collapse of communism has not transformed people’s minds (at least not immediately). Today, we understand in this part of the world that the state is not omnipotent and those in need will not be assisted properly. However, instead of making a rational decision on how to help the unprivileged, many well-being people sustain that they are unprivileged, too. The very concept of being unprivileged has become relative. Anyone is poor, excluded, marginalized in a sense. This is what postmodernists tell us and their words sound nice to the ear. They relieve us from having to take care of the other. Stephen Hicks writes in his “Explaining Postmodernism” that “the failure of socialism made postmodernism necessary”. I think that my argument shows why it was so.

  • July 20, 2014 at 10:12 pm

    Well put, Piotr. Btw if you want to see a postmodernist in a more absolutist frame of mind suggest that reason, enlightened self-interest and capitalism are the way to go.

  • July 20, 2014 at 10:17 pm

    Two relevant quotes:

    “[A] principle of American society, which one must always keep in mind is this: since every individual is the best judge of his own interest, society must not protect him too carefully, lest he should come to rely on it and so saddle society with a task it cannot perform.”
    – Alexis De Tocqueville

    “An essential point in the social philosophy of interventionism is the existence of an inexhaustible fund which can be squeezed forever. The whole system of interventionism collapses when this fountain is drained off: The Santa Claus principle liquidates itself.”
    – Ludwig von Mises

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