How are we to understand the new social problems that have arisen as a result of the economic restructuring of advanced capitalist democracies since the mid-1970s? This International Labour Review article identifies three conflicting paradigms within which different meanings of social exclusion are embedded – solidarity, specialisation and monopoly. These derive from the political ideologies of Republicanism, liberalism and social democracy. While the idea of exclusion may help to focus attention on certain social categories, it may also distract attention from general rises in inequality and undermine universal approaches to social protection.
The assumption underlying post-war social insurance schemes of a uniform life-cycle, career pattern, and family structure applies to a shrinking number of people. ‘New’ types of social disadvantage are increasingly emerging. This crisis in social policy requires a rethinking of the notions of citizenship and solidarity.
There are three major paradigms of exclusion, each grounded in a different conception of integration and citizenship:
- In the solidarity paradigm dominant in France, exclusion is the breakdown of a social bond between the individual and society that is cultural and moral, rather than economically interested. Cultural boundaries give rise to socially constructed dualistic categories for ordering the world, defining the poor, the unemployed and ethnic minorities as deviant outsiders.
- In the specialisation paradigm, exclusion reflects discrimination. Social differentiation, economic divisions of labour, and the separation of spheres should not produce hierarchically ordered social categories if excluded individuals are free to move across boundaries and if spheres of social life governed by different principles are kept legally separate.
- The third paradigm sees exclusion as a consequence of the formation of group monopolies. Powerful groups, often displaying distinctive cultural identities and institutions, restrict access by outsiders to valued resources through a process of ‘social closure’.
New ideas are important in forging political consensus. Just as the idea of exclusion has many meanings, it can also serve a variety of political purposes.
- Given the multiple connotations of the term, it might provide a political opportunity to cement a broadly based alliance in favour of new social policies. If we define exclusion as a thoroughly new, multidimensional phenomenon touching people at all levels of the social hierarchy in some respects or at some point in their lives, large, cross-class coalitions to combat it may become easier to build.
- To the extent that exclusion is understood in the liberal, individualistic terms of specialisation paradigm, it may become a euphemism for stigmatised, isolated or scapegoated groups. Its meaning may narrow to those with multiple disadvantages.
- By identifying the victims of economic restructuring and the end of full employment, terms like exclusion, the new poor, or the underclass may even serve to justify majority resistance to redistributive taxation and expenditures. Policies to combat exclusion may make it easier to re-target money on smaller social categories, potentially undermining universal social insurance schemes.