D. Broad and W. Antony eds. Citizens or Consumers? Social Policy in a Market Society. Halifax: Fernwood, 1999, 351pp. $29.95 Paper

This book is a collection of papers presented at the Conference on Canadian Social Policy held in Regina in 1997. There are 26 authors and co-authors, mostly Canadians, writing mainly on aspects of the Canadian welfare state. Almost every paper presents a clear, concise analysis of social policy from relatively consistent critical positions. With few exceptions, the articles provide an excellent survey that covers more or less the entire range of issues concerning changes to the sphere of government policy on social reproduction in this country. Unlike many such conference publications, this one has a strong thematic integrity and a uniformly high standard of scholarship.

Central to all the articles is the question posed by the title of the book. For the most part, the authors trace, analyze and document the dismantling of the social rights of the citizen and their replacement with market-based policies for ‘addressing’ social needs. Most of the authors employ the notion of citizenship from the work of T.H. Marshall who in the 1950s outlined a widely accepted distinction between civil, political, and social rights. The first comprises rights between individuals within civil society, the second defines individual rights vis-à-vis the state, and the third refers to entitlements to state-provided social programs. The breadth of these rights and the degree to which they are extended to all comprise Marshall’s definition of citizenship.

The majority of contributors would agree that the possession of these rights has been always a question of contention between classes. There are, however, differences to draw; neither civil nor political rights are inherently contradictory to a system of private property, and so despite struggle over their extension, they have been and remain in principle consistent with a system of private property. This is not the case with social rights, which embody to varying degrees the ‘non-commodification’ of many essential aspects of social reproduction, from child-rearing, to education, to medical treatment and support in injury, illness and old-age. These rights, which in practice are realized as government assistance in the form of the welfare state, are in principle contradictory to a system of commodity production. For this reason, given the current neo-liberal government policies, they have become the focus of renewed and widespread contestation.

On the whole, the analyses offered are up-to-date, informed, sensitive and clear, yet most of the articles have the distinct air of a lament or take the form of description of the transformation going on. Both of these responses are what would be expected of viewpoints that assume social citizenship to be the goal or objective of the struggle for universal social security. There is, in other words, no critical analysis of social citizenship itself, of social entitlements, of the welfare state, in any of the articles; there is no dissection of the principles of what it is that governments are dismantling.

Although the authors would agree that the achievement of social citizenship has always been contested and limited, none makes the point that the welfare state has only ever taken the form of a compromise as a response to the demands for relief from the instability and limits of the labour market and the bondage and servility of wage-labour. The welfare state cannot be assumed to be, or portrayed as, a resolution to a contradiction or as a final and permanent goal. Moreover, they do not address the fact that the welfare state has always been structured as entitlements granted and administered by the state. It was never structured to be by and for the people; it was always state controlled and administered to the people. These two issues are obvious omissions from the generally fine analyses of the authors.

Besides these neglected issues, the authors spend little time exploring the political, ideological and economic conditions that underlie social citizenship. The existence of the nation-state, for example, of national labour and capital markets, of a national capitalist class and high social wages are some of the prerequisites, without which we would not have the welfare state as we know it. Furthermore, the ideological conditions that lay mainly in the ‘threat’ of socialism and the persisting need to maintain the legitimacy of the nation-state are left unmentioned. The transformation of all of these conditions, with the expansion of transnational corporations since the 1980s, is not examined in these articles as a causal factor in the dismantling of the welfare state. With minor exceptions the issue of globalization does not enter into the analyses.

Without a grasp of the nature of social citizenship and the conditions of its existence and decline, the authors have more or less restricted their work to the examination of the ways in which governments have set about dismantling the welfare state. On this they have done excellent work, but it follows that the most common reason given for the change of these policies is the immediately ideological one, namely, neo-liberalism, as if what were happening were merely a question of government policy. Implicit, then, as a framework for most of the articles is the notion that it was a particular political perspective that was responsible for the building of the welfare state and another for its dismantling.

Despite generally very valuable and rigorous analysis of the undermining of social citizenship, the collection as a whole does not and cannot go beyond a call for its reconstruction or the sense of lament at its dismantling. Laments, however, are fruitless, and, given the changing underlying conditions, there can be no going back to what once was. The next conference might well focus on what is/was wrong with the welfare state as it is/was, and on the conditions of its existence, and then address the question, what now?

Gary Teeple
Department of Sociology and Anthropology,
Simon Fraser University

September 1999
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