Is there really no such thing as society?

Posted 10 April 2013 9:00am

Paul O'Callaghan, Executive Director, CSSA

(as published on Australian Policy Online)

A young man is shot in a liquor store robbery that goes wrong. “I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate,” he says, as he lies dying on the floor, “and yet, I blame society.”

His friend Matt leans over him and tells him he’s talking crap, “You're a white suburban punk just like me.”

By the Reagan/Thatcher era the idea of blaming society for irresponsible behaviour had become a joke. Even alternative movies like ‘Repo Man’ were mocking the idea.

People often sneer at Margaret Thatcher’s remark that “There is no such thing as society”. But they forget the way the radical left of the 1970s blamed nearly everything on capitalism, the patriarchy or the oppressive hegemony of something or other. Whatever self-destructive thing you might be doing, there was always a way of pinning the blame on some abstraction.

Mrs Thatcher wasn’t an abstract kind of person. She believed in taking responsibility. But at the same time, she understood that not everybody could turn their life around all by themselves.

In the same interview where she said there was no such thing as society she questioned whether it makes sense to hold neglected and abused children responsible for their own behaviour. She understood the devastating effect the lack of a secure loving home could have.

What Thatcher objected to was the idea that society was the same thing as government. She reminded people that, in the end, demands on society are demands on other people.

“There is living tapestry of men and women”, she told Woman’s Own, “and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”

Many people think David Cameron, the new Conservative leader, rejected Thatcher’s views when he declared that “there is such a thing as society”. He didn’t.

Like Thatcher, Cameron wants to solve social problems by getting individuals more involved in their communities. He wants “bottom up” solutions to problems.

Cameron understands that there’s more to society than government, the market, families and individuals. There’s a whole network of obligations and institutions that sit in between the household and government. This is what he means when he talks about the ‘Big Society’ which formed part of his policy platform before the last election.

Politicians like Thatcher and Cameron are right to say that individuals need to take responsibility for their own behaviour. And they are right to say wellbeing depends on civil society and not just government. But they need to be careful they don’t slide into the same evasion of responsibility that they condemn in others.

Parents are responsible for sending their children to school. But we can’t hold them responsible for the quality of schools that the government funds. Individuals are responsible for staying healthy, but it’s wrong to hold them responsible for the quality of the hospitals they go to when they are sick.

In the same way the unemployed are responsible for searching out employers and applying for jobs. They are not responsible for the state of the labour market or the prejudices of employers. Government exists to solve problems like these. Job seekers often need help with training and work experience.

It’s too easy for politicians to unload responsibility for effective schools, hospitals and welfare to work programs onto an abstraction like community or civil society. There are some things government can and should control. We expect our political leaders to take responsibility for these things.

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