Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: Women and the Canadian Welfare State

[Patricia M. Evans and Gerda R. Wekerle, editors. Women and the Canadian Welfare State: Challenges and Change. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.]

Social policy analysis tends to be pragmatic and oriented towards solutions. Feminist social policy analysis is both of those things plus it tends to be much more successful than the mainstream to which it is attached at keeping attention on politics and power, at least in certain respects.

Social policy analysis is also predicated, in ways that usually don't get spelled out, on particular sets of practices to enact change and assumptions about the kinds of change that are desirable, possible, and necessary. This organizes and limits social policy discourse in important ways, so there are all kinds of things that cannot be addressed or that it is nearly impossible to deal with in a politically adequate or satisfying way.

In reading this book, however, I found my thoughts not drawn to the practical incremental strengths or unavoidable limits of its answers so much as to the way that both point towards problems that all strands of the left have a long way to go in addressing plausibly.

Women and the Canadian Social Welfare State is fairly standard feminist social policy analysis produced in the moment when neoliberalism triumphant was still something new for Canada. Overall, I would describe it as solid though dated. There is still useful history, useful statistical data, and useful analysis. There is a call and a preliminary attempt to try and wrap feminist social policy around the tidal wave of neoliberalism that had been rising in Canada since at least the early '80s, perhaps since the early '70s, but that crested in the federal Liberal budget of 1995 and the Conservative election victory in Ontario shortly thereafter. There is detailed attention given to housing issues, migration policy, pay equity, the uses of constitutional entrenchment of social rights, long-term care, work, unions, and more. Unfortunately, though I think there are serious limits to the extent to which social policy discourse can be transformed by a radical recognition of the intersection of oppressions along multiple axes and still be recognizable as social policy discourse, it is understating the case to say that this collection fails to push the limits of what might be possible in that regard.

Three specific essays are worth mentioning. The first is "The State and Pay Equity" by long-time Canadian Marxist feminist Pat Armstrong. While it raises some important criticisms of Ontario's 1987 pay equity legislation, it seems that the main point of the piece is to attack a somewhat caricatured and almost completely unexplained understanding of academic "postmodernism" and associate it with the practical political problems that can come with attention to specificity and with a particular kind of skepticism towards the state. While there is value in pointing out how some lefty academics, including some feminists, have been enticed by high theory to lose any grounding they might have had in actual struggles against oppression and exploitation, the complete disregard for the ways in which attention to specificity and skepticism of the state can and do flow from the experiences of people who are actively in struggle and are not just a matter of all of us being hoodwinked by ivory tower frauds is a bit shocking.

On the positive side, I particularly liked "Challenging Diversity" by Patricia Daenzer, which talks about the history of organizing by Black women in Ontario around the welfare of their communities, and which defends the choice by some Black women in the '90s to organize around separate, racially or ethnically focused services. I also liked Sue Findlay's "Institutionalizing Feminist Politics," which again looks at the struggles around Ontario's pay equity legislation but in a way that concretely illustrates how engagement with state practices can organize and regulate the politics of feminists even as they struggle for important reforms.

The book itself points towards the ways in which social policy discourse and related activities are limited as a strategy for improving the lives of ordinary women and men. I'm thinking particularly of the first and last of the entries written by non-editors. In the first, Marjorie Griffin Cohen puts quite bluntly in her opening sentence the impact of the neoliberal shift: "Social policy as a progressive force has been more or less dead in Canada for the past ten years" [28]. There are different ways to talk about what she's pointing to, but it amounts to a description of neoliberalism. That is, for a period of time, not beginning in Canada until the middle of World War II, technical descriptions of collective need accompanied by careful, practical programs crafted to address some of that need while minimally disturbing the overall shape of social relations and often by a certain kind of public pressure were taken up by state relations and (usually partially) implemented. The reasons for this had to do with fear of revolution or socialist electoral challenge, Cold War politicking, the unprecedented (and probably not-repeatable) scale of economic expansion after WWII, a particular openness to central planning in the wake of the war effort, and, for some at least, a genuine interest in doing what was possible to meet needs without rocking the boat too much. Many of those circumstances have changed, and state relations no longer respond to the combination of technically-framed, limited, practical, needs-focused social policy discourse (with or without mostly symbollic public pressure) in the same way. There is infrastructure that has developed around producing that discourse, and so, despite the recognition that such discourse is no longer taken up in the same way, it still gets produced.

She doesn't take it this far herself, but it seems to me that Findlay's essay at the end of the book points not just to the ways in which the neoliberal shift has rendered social policy discourse much less useful than it used to be, but to the inherent limits in reform-focused engagement with the state even in its more social democratic moments. Her focus, as I said, is describing in detail a particular instance in which feminist politics were shaped in ways detrimental to the interests of women by reform-oriented engagement with the state. The ways in which certain strands of state-focused feminist anti-violence work have developed in relation to broader trends in state practices around policing and "law-and-order" reforms is another example. However, there are lots of other limits to approaches that are state-focused and that concentrate on meeting need while leaving social relations largely unchanged -- the inability of this approach to respond adequately (or, often, even see) domestic colonization, its dependence on wealth generated through historical and contemporary colonial relations on a global scale, its inevitable lacing of its redistributive function with oppressive regulatory functions, and others.

But -- and I ask this out of my own political interests rather than on because it is dealt with by the book at all -- what exactly is that current of folks who are both anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian to do? Though there is a superficial appeal to the idea of building non-market, non-state, collective approaches to addressing need in the present, this answer -- or, at least, its most glib version -- runs afoul of another aspect of the needs in question that should be obvious but that it is often easy to forget: their sheer magnitude. We have no answers, not even plausible experiments and proposals, for how to address need across millions of people in ways that are non-state, non-market, yet socialized in terms of their burdens and participatorily democratic in terms of their governance. What does it even mean to have a socialized response to need and suffering that isn't based in the state? Particularly the essay on long-term care in this volume made it clear to me that, while there is value in collective efforts in the present that try to do things in non-state, non-market ways, it is easy for anti-authoritarians to overestimate the political significance of such efforts -- which is to say, the vast majority of activity that happens in our society to meet human needs is already not directly organized by either state or market and is mostly done on an unpaid basis by women, and shifting more labour to that often invisible space is potentially a serious political problem. Sure, small scale collectivization of the labour can help us prefigure and experiment in building the models that we want in our future, but on its own it suffers from one of the same basic problems as social democracy: it denies market relations access to a corner of our lives, but it leaves them otherwise unchallenged and, depending on how it is done, it may reinforce patriarchal social relations.

Anyway. I feel like I've veered rather spectacularly off the course of reviewing this book, so I think I will stop soon. I feel like this book has, quite without intending to, left me in the middle of contradictions that I feel unable to do much with. Despite our skepticism of the state, we (meaning the anti-authoritarian left) cannot abandon or even stop pushing for expansion of the welfare state because there is nothing that currently exists on even close to that scale which can address key human needs, except perhaps the market but that is even worse. Neither can we be satisfied with the welfare state -- we have to challenge its regulatory aspects, ceaselessly draw attention to its dependence on predation, and attempt to radically democratize it. And somehow we must begin to think/talk/act about need, both in the context of struggles related to the welfare state and in the context of developing radical alternatives, in ways that refuse to isolate attention to meeting it from attention to how it was caused in the first place.

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