Social Solidarity versus “Social Capital” [draft in progress]


The value of the idea of “social capital” is that it sheds light on the non-economic factors which allow poor or marginalised communities to improve their situation irrespective of welfare payments or other measures of redistribution. But exactly what should be done is not immediately obvious.

The problem with “social capital” is that it introduces the language, concepts and methods of economic science into the political-economy of poverty, whereas what needs to be done is to introduce the language, methods and concepts of political science, especially those of social movements, into the political-economy of poverty. A political critique of the concepts of economic science is required to demonstrate the social arrangements by means of which certain classes of people are made poor and marginalised by modern economic conditions.

The empirical work of Robert Putnam has established once for all that people are better able to overcome challenges to their well-being, and thus, over the long haul, avoid poverty and marginalisation, if they manifest a rational disposition to extend trust to strangers and a readiness to establish new social-bonds.

By following James Coleman in attempting to mobilise the concepts of economic science to conceptualise this observation, the empirical fact of “sociability” is obfuscated rather than clarified by the body of theory which has been erected on the foundations of “social capital.” Rather, it would have been better to have followed Jane Jacobs, who only used the term “social capital” incidentally by way of a metaphor in her 1961 Death and Life of Great American Cities, but who understood the problems of poverty and disempowerment as first and foremost political problems that could be overcome only by communities that were able to organise themselves into a self-governing “Thing.”

The idea of rendering political relations into the language of economics was first developed by Coleman in his 1968 study of the “marginal utility of a voting commitment.” By the early 1980s, Coleman had developed this idea into what passed for a fully mathematical theory with a claim to respect as a extension of economic science. The claim is utterly spurious however. As is frequently the case, mathematical foundation (linear action theory) is valid enough, but the conditions for its application to the phenomena under consideration (commitment) are not met. Nevertheless, by this move, Coleman gave respectability to the idea of “social capital” as a category of economic science.

For Jane Jacobs — an activist, not an academic — however, the idea of “social capital” arose as a way of communicating the general social and political conditions by means of which a neighbourhood could deal with the challenges of living in the midst of strangers and subject to attack by powerful outside institutions. Herself a resident of a New York neighbourhood under attack by a Freeway project, Jacobs’ point of view was closer to that of the civil rights activists than to that of the Tammany Hall bureaucrats who more closely expressed James Coleman’s idea of “social capital.”

The anti-racist, feminist and gay-rights movements and the neighbourhood, working class and trade union movements, developed their own views as subjects of oppression rather than as objects of investigation. These currents have accumulated a sophisticated body of ideas, not only in social theory and economics, but moral philosophy, epistemology, cultural criticism, political science, and so on. The conceptual tools of these movements are attuned to shedding light on the exploitation and stigmatisation of people made poor by certain social arrangements which have to be subject to critique in order to overthrow them. People who are poor because they were born on the wrong side of the tracks have also been made poor by certain social arrangements, and it is these social arrangements which have to be subject to critique. Economic science is itself one of those social arrangements.

The crucial difference is that between subjectivity and objectivity.

The aggregation of many different social measurements into a single factor by Robert Putnam has had the effect of convincing a large body of people of the importance of this kind of information and opens a window on a different approach to dealing with poverty. However, the task now is to disaggregate these factors for the purpose of providing practical guidance to people who are trying to resolve social problems in an area.

At the very foundation of the idea of social relations as a form of capital, capable of generating other forms of capital and wealth, is its conception in quantitative terms. However, the more “social capital” is used as a basis for academic research, the more problematic becomes this idea of a simple quantity of “social capital,” the more the need is being voiced to distinguish, for example, between “social capital” which contributes to the capacity of a community to meet challenges, and forms of “social capital” which exacerbate social problems or actually constitute social problems in themselves. But if the quantity of social capital cannot be taken as an indicator of anything in itself, without breaking it down into its component parts, then the whole rationale for the concept of “social capital” is gone. Measuring “social capital” is actually destroying useful information, rather than constructing a useful indicator.

For example, if a community needs a “balance of bonding and bridging social capital,” what is gained by adding these two quantities together as the “total social capital"? An investor may equally well need a “balance of shares and cash,” for example, but these two forms of capital are completely interconvertible; “bonding” and “bridging” “social capital” are not convertible.

Pierre Bourdieu, whose own notion of “social capital” plays a fairly restricted role within his theory, at least is clear on this point:

“to construct the continuous, linear, homogenous, one-dimensional series with which the social hierarchy is normally identified, implies an extremely difficult (and, if it is unwitting, extremely dangerous) operation, whereby the different types of capital are reduced to a single standard. This abstract operation has an objective basis in the possibility, which is always available, of converting one type of capital into another; however, the exchange rates vary in accordance with the power relation between the holders of the different forms of capital. ... one of the fundamental stakes in the struggles between class fractions whose power and privileges are linked to one or the other of these types. In particular, this exchange rate is a stake in the struggle over the dominant principle of domination (economic capital, cultural capital or social capital), which goes on at all times between the different fractions of the dominant class. [Distinction, p. 125]

Simply put, what is called “social capital” cannot be conceived as a form of capital. This is not because of the notion of “capital” is being conceived too narrowly, but rather because the objective convertibility of forms of capital is objectively not manifested by the phenomena conceptualised as “social capital.”

The contradictions arise because the wrong conceptual framework is being used to investigate the political economy of poverty. The wrong concepts are being used because the wrong question is being asked.

The question which needs to answered is not in the first place: how can the people of a neighbourhood or region gain more wealth and resources? but rather how can the people of a neighbourhood or region organise themselves so as to have more control over their own life and more political clout?

All those things that are picked up in the various measures of “social capital” (trust, sociability, participation, social cohesion, norms of reciprocity, networks, etc.) are self-evidently relevant to answering this alternative question, but the manner of their relevance is much clearer. The proposition that the answer to the question “Can most people around here be trusted?” is obviously a good indicator of the likelihood that people in that area are going to be able to get organised. Putnam discovered that it is also a good indicator of the likelihood that people in that area are going to be able to overcome poverty and exclusion. Now that we have all been convinced by Robert Putnam’s statistics, isn’t it time to leave this problematic concept behind us, and look at the actual social and political conditions which are needed to overcome poverty and exclusion, and for that matter, other challenges which communities may face?

In my experience, those who are active in the “social capital” discourse actually don’t mind that the concept is dysfunctional; it has marked out a range of issues and a field of observation, and who needs a concept anyway? Divergent and sometimes perverse policy recommendations emerge from the debate according to the different conceptions people bring into the discourse.

In order to reconstruct the body of enquiry currently taking place under the banner of “social capital,” I propose the concept of “social solidarity” as the aspect of social relations which is the pre-condition for the construction of “subjectivity,” or “self-determination” — the real objective of all social action. Wealth is just one, rather problematic, route to self-determination. Far from generating a “trickle down” effect, the pursuit of wealth as a means of attaining self-determination actually undermines the self-determination of others and destroys social bonds, rather than strengthening them.

Creating companies means creating new social bonds of collaboration. In this sense creating a company is little different from creating a new club, pressure group or voluntary association. Once the conditions for collaboration and corresponding commitments have been established, what people choose to do with their new-found collaboration is up to them.

The approach put forward here by no means minimises the importance of economic progress and the improvement of living standards as opposed to political and social progress itself. However, it tries not to put the cart before the horse.


Social scientists from left to right, community activists and churchpeople, liberals like Francis Fukuyama to social democrats like Robert Putnam, both the leader of the (Australian) Opposition Mark Latham and next in line to the Liberal throne, Peter Costello, all seem to agree that what communities suffering under neo-liberal policies need is “social capital.”

But this is such an unclear concept; it can mean having the right connections, having power over other people’s lives or just being sociable. It’s meaning is so elastic that it is simply a dark space in which imagination can substitute for vision.

Nevertheless, opponents of the concept of “social capital,” whether from right or left, seem only to be able to shout shrilly like the advocates Sabbath observance at a Sunday football game. The undeniable truth that both market fundamentalism and the welfare state have equally exhausted their historical mission seems sufficient for the advocates of “social capital” to rest their case. I intend however to put forward a genuine alternative to extending the market into those areas of everyday life which have formerly escaped its ravages (as may be the outcome of “social capital” theory) or choosing between a “nanny state” or a “police state.”

Broadly speaking, my conclusion is that “social capital” theory wrongly attempts to conceptualise poverty as an economic problem rather than as a primarily political problem.

I shall proceed by making a critique of the main theories of social capital, including those of Jane Jacobs, Pierre Bourdieu, James Coleman, Francis Fukuyama and Robert Putnam. As Putnam’s version is the most influential, I will deal with this notion and some of its extensions (vertical vs. horizontal, bridging vs. bonding, wide vs. narrow) at greater length.

Then I shall present the notion of social solidarity as a specific relationship and mode of activity distinct from both personal attachment (kinship, love and friendship), rights (civil, political and social) and hierarchy (welfare, direction and regulation, whether traditional, bureaucratic or personal) which offers an alternative to the anomie of the market and paternalism of the welfare state.

The significance of solidarity is that it is the basis for the formation of trust and collaboration on which a new subjectivity can be constructed. Whether this subjectivity takes the form of a company, a social movement or a local residents’ committee is important but secondary. However, one of the important questions which is obscured by the notion of “social capital” is whether poverty can best be overcome by transforming everyone into capitalists, as proposed by Mark Latham, or whether people most need to develop voluntary association capable of pressing their collective interests against capital and government. Conceptualising nascent subjectivity and social solidarity as a form of capital prejudices the agenda for social policy in the direction of “Third Way” neo-liberal policies of the kind proposed by Mark Latham, as opposed to other legitimate approaches.

However, before I begin I must outline a framework in ethics and social theory from which to proceed. My principal sources are Hegel (both the mature and the young Hegel), Marx (both the young Marx and the Marx of Das Kapital) and Lev Vygotsky’s social psychology (including its development by A. N. Leontyev). Some of the ideas have already been broached in my For Ethical Politics.

A primary aim of this analysis must be to make clear in terms of person-to-person relationships the meaning of the social and historical concepts utilised in modern social policy, so that people can be actors in defining their own destiny, rather than objects of social policy.

‘Solidarity’ is the notion central to the problem of oppressed groups struggling to gain control over their lives. Solidarity is defined as the bond created by an agent voluntarily extending aid to a stranger, under conditions determined by the recipient of solidarity.

This is the concept implicitly relied up when, for example, Brian Murnane of St Vincent de Paul, says “every time someone said let’s do something, we backed them.” It differs from the notion of “bonding social capital” because it relates to new bonds formed between strangers, the relation which is most significant in modern, urban conditions; it differs somewhat from the notion of “bridging social capital” because it is distinguished from relations such as “alliance” and “exchange,” both of which are also important “bridging” relations, but do not have the same capacity to foster the development of new subjectivity; and it differs fundamentally from the notion of “welfare,” in which the conditions under which aid is extended is determined by the giver, and therefore a mode of subordination.

Further, rather than conceiving of solidarity as a resource in the manner of economic science, solidarity is understood as a relation between subjects, which is a pre-condition for important kinds of collaboration which can form the basis for a new subject. In talking about subjects, the key concept is “self-determination” rather than wealth or “utility.”

A subject is defined as a self-conscious system of activity. By using the conceptual framework of activity theory, we can mobilise the social psychology of Lev Vygotsky and his school to understand the psychological implications of social problems and struggles, and to make the connection between personal development and community development. It also allows us to distinguish the different aspects of subjectivity known in Hegelian terms as Individual, Universal and Particular. Here the legacy of Hegel can be utilised to follow the stages through which subjectivity develops from objective systems of activity towards the attainment of self-determination.

The distinction between “horizontal and vertical social capital” cannot distinguish between a community electing a steering committee for their own redevelopment project, and a feudal lord ruling over the affairs of his underlings. Activity theory however not only provides a finely grained view of relations within emergent organisations, but also draws on a substantial body of psychological theory and practice, particularly among educators.

The stigmatisation and exclusion that affects people as a result of their place of birth or residence is structurally no different from the stigmatisation and exclusion that affects people as a result of their gender, “race” or sexuality, and the conceptual wealth of feminist and post-colonial social theory can be brought to bear once we leave behind us the mysticism of pseudo-economics and adopt an explicitly socio-political approach to the political economy of poverty.

Likewise, 170 years of development of social and political philosophy within the workers’ movement, including Marxism, provides a rich source of concepts once we leave behind us the ultimate commodity fetishism of defining human life as a form of capital.