society Reviews

‘The Social Question in the Twenty-First Century – A Global View’ review: For a coalition of the excluded

Will the undocumented migrant, the indebted farmer, the brutalised student, and the demonised minority forge an alliance in a quest for social justice?

It took a Thomas Piketty to settle the question for all those allergic to Karl Marx: does capitalism promote inequality? Yes. Piketty proved with empirical data what Marx had proved using dialectics — that in a capitalist society, the wealthy earn from their assets, without having to work, much more than what the working classes earn from their wages and salaries. The rich get richer, and the poor, poorer, unless the state intervened. It was only through tax-funded redistributive policies such as pension schemes and subsidised healthcare that capitalist societies achieve a measure of stability.

But in recent times, following the global rise of neo-liberalism, governments around the world have started retreating from their social responsibility, preferring to put their faith in ‘market solutions’. It is against this backdrop of neo-liberal orthodoxy taking root in policy circles that this anthology of scholarly essays brings the focus back on an old question that has receded from public memory: the social question.

Search for dignity

What exactly is the ‘social question’? Simply put, it is the age-old, human quest for social justice and dignity. It has found expression in different ways throughout history — in wars, mass migrations, the founding of new religions, cults and kingdoms. However, this ancient quest crystallised into the ‘social question’ quite late in human history. As sociologist Goran Therborn, one of the contributors to this volume, which is an open access publication and available free online, observes, it was only “in a context of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution — the former by putting inequality before the law, and the latter by producing poverty and misery by wage labour” that the social question emerged as a concept.

In other words, the social question is organically linked to the rise of wage labour.

Just as wage labour spread at different times to different parts of the world, answers to the social question have followed different trajectories. In the Global North, the social democratic welfare state became the norm. In the Global South, the State’s social protections remained weak and perpetually under pressure from mounting debt as the country tried to balance growth and redistribution.

Widening disparity

The third trajectory, followed by the erstwhile communist countries, saw the State taking complete ownership of both capital and labour.

But by the first decade of the 21st century, all the three responses to the social question (the social democracies of Western Europe, the redistributive states of the Global South, and the Communist bloc) had converged into one stream: the neo-liberal state that speaks not of social justice or equality, but ‘poverty eradication’.

Today it’s a truism that economies of the Global South, such as India, are striving to become like the developed West by growing faster and bringing economic prosperity to all its citizens. But anthology editors Dutch sociologist Jan Breman, social historian Marcel van der Linden, and U.S.-based sociologists Kevan Harris and Ching Kwan Lee, contend that what is actually happening is the opposite: with increasing informalisation and flexibilisation of the work force, and the rise of a ‘precariat’ following de-industrialisation, it is the informal economy, widening disparity, and growing pauperisation of the Global South that is spreading to the Global North.

“The social question of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the workers question,” notes Therborn. But with workers marginalised, and lacking a political voice, who is left to articulate this question? At the moment, there appears to be no one. Perhaps there is potential for a coalition of the variously excluded. Can the undocumented migrant, the indebted farmer, the daily wager, the brutalised student, and the demonised minority forge an alliance rooted in a common quest for social justice?

Whether unlikely allies manage to bridge class and identity divides for a common political programme will determine if, and how, the social question is articulated in the 21st century.

The Social Question in the Twenty-First Century: A Global View; edited by Jan Breman, Kevan Harris, Ching Kwan Lee & Marcel van der Linden, University of California Press, ₹2,637.

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