Applying Durkheim’s concept of ‘anomie’ to social security policy in contemporary Australia

Length: 979 words

Social, political and economic theories are only valuable if they find application in practical government policies. The period spanning the last two centuries has seen the emergence of many competing theoretical explanations for the nature and organization of civil society over the course of recorded history. These theories cover such fields of enquiry as sociology, psychology, political science and economics. The dialectic of the recent two centuries has been between the theory and practice of ‘capitalism’ and its opposing ideology ‘communism’. And each country’s social policies fit within either of these two economic systems. As it stands now, many democratic governments across the world (including here in Australia) have embraced one or the other variant of capitalism. But purely in terms of theoretical principles, it is socialism that offers broad scope for devising and implementing social security policies for citizens. More importantly, in the context of this essay, it is Marxism and Socialism that address directly issues such as public welfare. Since Marxism puts the collective good ahead of individual interests, robust social security policies are to be found within this analytic framework. (Arato & Gebhardt, 1978)

Moreover, when one looks at the performance of social

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security measures in Australia, some major failure areas become apparent. Access to basic healthcare, quality education and decent standards of living are in no way guaranteed to a majority of citizens. It is only the top 20 percent of the population (in economic terms) that can avail of these necessities without uncertainty. The rest of the population is dependent on favourable labour market situation, foreign policy environment and public welfare initiatives to make ends meet. In this context, a case is to be made for revisiting the process of the dialectic and look for fairer solutions to these persisting social problems. Marxism and its later branches, including Western Marxism, the Frankfurt School, etc, by way of providing nuanced understanding of the organization of societies also thereby offer new alternative solutions to social issues. (Craib, 1997, p.64)

Social problems in contemporary Australia and elsewhere are created by inequitable wealth distribution, inequity of power and political franchise, human exploitation for private profits, domination of the working classes by the elites, commoditization of culture and the alienation of humans from their work and from each other. In this context, revisiting Marxism (especially the Frankfurt School) is a healthy exercise, as it has the potential to offer up solutions for these issues. It was Marxism that first propounded the notion of class division – something that was present in all historical societies and civilizations – being at the root of most social problems. Marx was particularly vocal on what he perceived to be the domination of one social group (the working classes/slaves/peasants) by the minority group holding much power and wealth (capitalists/royalty/feudal lords). (Habermas & Michnik, 1994, p.5)

In contemporary Australian demography such distinctions are not stark. As a participant of the global neo-liberalisation program, Australian economy and society has undergone rapid change over the last three decades. As this rapid transformation unfolded, categorical distinctions of class are no longer straight forward. For example, many highly-skilled immigrant professionals from minority communities were able to establish their careers and integrate themselves into the Australian mainstream. To the extent that this situation has spread the wealth of the country more evenly, the task of the policy makers is alleviated. But public institutions and the policies they implement are still far from ideal, carrying several flaws from the previous eras. And Marxists’ analysis of class domination is still evident in the country. This situation makes it imperative to implement social security policies for the benefit of those groups in the demography that is disadvantaged or identified as high risk.

Although Australia is one of the more advanced nations in the world with democratic credentials, its domestic policies are somewhat skewed to favour the elites. With a strong tendency to fall back upon conservative principles, social cohesion in Australia is decidedly less consolidated compared to those of the United States and the United Kingdom. This is reflected in the slew of racist attacks on ethnic Indians (despite official proclamations of them as opportunistic crimes). The overwhelming majority of Caucasian Australians are yet to accept people of other ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds as their own. This is not surprising when one considers that as recent as 1970, ‘White Australia’ was the official government motto. Marxism and its off-shoots, by way of condemning domination of all sorts, are also against institutions of domination. And bringing in such refreshing new perspectives to the policy framework, Australian society can make rapid strides toward greater cohesion and unity. And approaching those solutions from the Marxist perspective is likely to lead to effective and just solutions. The thoughts of Western Marxists, especially the Frankfurt Schoolers are highly relevant too, for their analysis and synthesis is far more sophisticated and insightful than what Marxists traditionally expressed. (Harrington, 2005, p.54)

Coming to practical solutions for aforementioned problems, the works of Emile Durkheim becomes quite relevant, for he is a key figure in revisionist Marxist thought. He is seen as an important intellectual figure in twentieth century philosophy and some of the concepts introduced by him are relevant to policy makers. Although Durkheim agreed with many premises of traditional Marxism, he was against revolutionary tendencies therein, and instead preferred a more gradual reformist approach. Also, as against totally dismantling capitalist economic organization, Durkheim suggested a middle path, whereby socialist elements (including social security policies and citizen welfare schemes) could be incorporated within a broader capitalist framework. One of his objections to total revolution is that it would create too much chaos and instability – a situation that would undermine the implementation of any possible reforms. Extending this assessment to the Australian social security policy, the prudent way forward would be to induce welfare measures within the existing institutional arrangements and not aim for radical overhauls.

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