Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Social Policy and Practice in Canada

[Alvin Finkel. Social Policy and Practice in Canada: A History. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier Univeristy Press, 2006.]

This is a solid overview of the history of the Canadian welfare state. It targets introductory readers, I think -- it seems to be largely intended as a textbook -- but it does so without the same degree of sacrifice of political sophistication that is often incorrectly understood as the price of accessibility.

The author, Alvin Finkel, is a long-time Canadian academic and editor of Labour/Le Travail, Canada's main labour studies journal. He says of his politics, "While my intellectual influences are eclectic, they begin with Marxism and its emphasis on the struggles among social classes for power" [2].

Finkel has put together a history that is the broadest survey that I've seen of social welfare practices in the territory currently claimed by the Canadian state. He begins with a brief look at the ways in which pre-contact indigenous nations met social needs, which I think is a vital place to start. I would've appreciated a lot more detail in this section, as well as a greater emphasis on the ways in which the sphere we normally associate with the phrase "social welfare" only coheres as a separate entity in the context of capitalist ways of organizing the world. However, just the fact that this section is here pushes social welfare into a different context than the one in which it is usually treated, even on the left. The rest of the book is a chronological examination of the different ways in which the settler society has dealt with social needs -- from the punitive poor laws and private charities of the 19th and early 20th centuries, through the first fumblings towards a welfare state before World War II and the rather more thorough but still partial efforts after World War II, and on to neoliberalism and the elite assault on the post-war achievements around social welfare in Canada.

In each section, attention is given to the various social forces that shaped social welfare practices at that point in history. There is emphasis on the importance of struggle in the gains that were made, in a way that is not monolithic but that evaluates each instance. In the chapters on the heyday of the Canadian welfare state there is a fairly methodical but not paintstakingly dull look at how each major area of the welfare state took shape. There is also a thoroughgoing engagement with the extensive feminist literature on the Canadian welfare state as well as attention to the experiences of indigenous people. You could no doubt ask for sharper feminist and anti-colonial analyses, but the treatment of these issues is serious and substantive, in contrast with much that has been written by the white male left in this area. There is less attention to the experiences of non-indigenous people of colour with the Canadian welfare state, though still some, and considerably less attention to the experiences of people marginalized along the axis of sexuality. The book would also have benefited from a more thorough examination of the ways that global relations of white supremacy (particularly those aspects that have involved centuries of white-dominated European and Euro-American societies draining wealth from the rest of the world) and patriarchal relations (particularly the unpaid, low-status caring and reproductive labour that falls mainly on women and that allows capitalist accumulation to function) were a precondition for Canada and the rest of the West to have enough wealth to build welfare states in the first place.

Of course, however thorough, a book organized as a survey is still a survey, and a textbook is still a textbook. I'm sure different readers would come up with lots of different places where they would like to see more detail or a more thorough presentation of the argument for a particular conclusion. As well, while not neglecting the importance of struggle by ordinary people in presenting its history, the book could have gone further in exploring both vision and possibilities for struggle oriented towards the future. And there were other areas where the emphasis that the text ends up having is arguably more about the form of the book than about the politics of the author. For instance, it certainly doesn't fail to talk about the intrusive and oppressive aspects of many state responses to poverty, but because its mission is to present how X, Y, and Z came to be, that intrusion and oppression comes across as more peripheral to the story than it is to the actual experiences of social assistance recipients. As well, the author clearly is no friend of capitalism, but the very mission of this book means that it chronicles various human activities that are premised on trying to meet human needs in the context of capitalism -- this is important stuff to know about, and certainly I don't subscribe to any clear "reform vs. revolution" dichotomy, but again it functions to make certain political responses to human need in the context of capitalism peripheral to the story when I think there are responses that deserve greater attention (while still, of course, paying lots of attention to struggles that are directly about meeting immediate needs).

Anyway, this is a good place to start in learning about social welfare in the Canadian context, as long as it is supplemented with attention to some of the more detailed and more critical work that is also out there. One of the most important lessons that is more obvious from this long duration history than from many of the narrower works I've looked at is the extent to which the left-liberal and social democratic commonsense of the welfare state as the rule and neoliberalism as a foolish exception is backwards and dangerous. We have to recognize that the period of even a moderately generous welfare state is the exception in the history of capitalism, and the more generalized viciousness of neoliberalism is closer to the historical norm. And we have to orient our responses to neoliberalism accordingly, and not expect some easy transition back into default pseudo-social democracy to save us.

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