"Yes, Virginia, there is a thing called Society": Social policy and the voluntary sector 2017

At the start of 2017 we have witnessed growing tensions between the socially disparate forces eager to disentangle from the decades-long pervasiveness of neoliberalism, and the political forces that conspire to maintain the status quo. Social Policy Whisperer Professor Paul Smyth outlines the growing global policy momentum towards 'inclusive growth' and 'shared prosperity', and examines implications for how Australia's voluntary sector might engage in an anything-but-orderly transition.

2017 promises to be a year like no other for those in the voluntary sector.  For so long now we have begun the year in the shadow of the great behemoth of neoliberalism that we can scarcely imagine life without him. But so it is. Strangely, dancing on his grave is not some reincarnation of the traditional left but a motley crowd successfully tapping diffuse social alienation and anger. It is as though the political system and society are drifting apart. But where will this lead? What kind of a Society will emerge? What does it mean for the voluntary sector?

True, in Australia neoliberalism still leaves a strong and nasty welfare undertow.  There are the recycled welfare cuts in the Omnibus Bill, Centrelink’s ghoulish harassment of the poor, the prospect of a national cashless welfare card and so on. But these all bespeak a federal government seemingly unable to recognise that the Thatcher-Cameron era is over – indeed comprehensively repudiated by UK’s conservative leader. And, of course we have the ongoing PC inquiry into the human services. But indicative of our changing times it has produced more of a whimper than the big bang heralded at the launch of the Harper Review. These shadows will recede, and sometimes quickly so.  Now is the time to focus on a future after neoliberalism.

In our Social Services Futures report 2016, Power to Persuade sketched out the ‘inclusive growth’ or ‘shared prosperity’ consensus that now embraces international economic policy agencies such as the Asia Development Bank, the World Bank, the IMF the OECD and others.  But as recent developments within nation states - including the US and the UK - demonstrate, we should not anticipate some kind of orderly, top down adoption of this new global policy framework.  Nevertheless this consensus has received a major boost with the UN’s 2030 Agenda calling on all countries to embrace the goals of inclusive and sustainable development. Inevitably economic growth will cease to be seen as an end in itself but rather something to be harnessed in the service of ‘people and planet’. Elaborating this goal of inclusive development for Australia is where the voluntary sector should be focusing its energies.

The challenges will relate as much to practice as to theory. The declining legitimacy of neoliberalism is releasing new social movement. How do voluntary organisations engage with this new movement? Caught in the undertow the sector finds itself conforming in varying degrees to the ‘market model’ in ways which strip it of its ability to create social value.  Even at this tail end of the PC era, one hears of erstwhile agencies financially pressured to shed their community development focus in favour of a ‘business’ model replete with agency ‘brand’, ‘market share’ focus and so on; while advocacy must become sufficiently discreet so as not to disrupt one’s ‘trusted’ status with government. While partnership is OK when both sectors share common social goals, it is another matter when government policy and social expectations diverge as is happening today.

The new politics of 2017 will challenge agencies to either remain tied to a rapidly dissolving political order or to recast themselves as agencies practising real solidarity with and genuinely able to mobilise the interests of those they seek to serve. Such a practice model points back to an earlier model of community activism epitomised in David Scott’s book, Don’t Mourn for me Organise; and, as Kenny et al. (2015) note it might well be the case that the leadership here is being taken over by a new generation of organisations like Get Up! who are taking a stand outside the status quo.

2017 also brings a challenge of ideas. So much remains to be done to convert the UN goal of ‘inclusive development’ into a compelling policy idea. Modern social policy history shows us that major policy reform involves no less than a reimagining of society.  The welfare state itself arrived with a promise of equality grounded in the ‘social rights of citizenship’, as elaborated by thinkers such as T H Marshall. Then a radical social policy was fuelled by the rediscovery of the class structure  – for people of this Whisperer’s generation, who could forget Raewyn Connell’s, ‘Yes Virginia There is a Ruling Class’? – which rendered the promises of the ‘welfare society’ illusory while holding forth the promise of Socialism.  And then we have had Neoliberalism in which the social ideals of the welfare state and Socialism itself were turned on their head in a world where self- interest was exalted and people led to believe there is ‘no such thing as society’.     

If we were to take a much longer view of Australian history we would soon see just how foreign is this social nihilism of the last couple of decades. It is the big idea behind the assault on social justice, the undermining of public service, the evisceration of the Voluntary Sector, the promotion of self-interest and inequality which has now led to the revolt of the ‘left-behinds’ and ‘throwaways’.  But meeting the challenge of ideas today is not just a matter of dusting off the concept of the welfare state or the socialism of the ‘new left’.  These projects failed as much because of their own limitations as their conflict with neoliberalism.  We have to start afresh.  But where?  

One of the great contributions of recent ‘communitarians’ of left and right has been to highlight the way in which social policy came to focus on market and state to the neglect of the social dimension. If the French revolution was about liberty, equality and fraternity somehow we forgot about the last.  And yet, as the great ethical systems have argued, real happiness is found in solidarity. The Connell piece referred to above was a play on a famous editorial written in response to a young lady named Virginia who asked if there really is a Santa Clause. In 2017 our foundation for social policy renewal might well be the rediscovery of solidarity or that thing called society. The original editorial concluded:

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.



Kenny, S., Taylor, M., Onyx, K. and Mayo, M. (2015) Challenging the Third Sector Global Prospects for Active Citizenship. Bristol: Policy Press.