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]
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. 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:
“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.”
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.