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Rethinking Social Exclusion. Review of Winlow & Hall.

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Rethinking Social Exclusion: The End of the Social. By Simon Winlow & Steve Hall. 2013. Sage. P/b £25.99, H/b £79.

The objective of this book by Simon Winlow and Steve Hall is to offer a fundamental and critically informed assessment of one of the most prominent themes in the social sciences, namely social exclusion. The term social exclusion has over time become a catchall shorthand cited by many but critically engaged with by few. It has become a ubiquitous term much bandied about with scant regard for its true epistemological meaning and seems to be de rigueur in utterances from academics, researchers, politicians, advocacy groups, campaigners and columnists all of whom appear to lament its extent, have varying understandings of what it is, and diverse opinions on how it should be remedied. It crops up with regularity in official press statements on social policies, and it’s also an old reliable - explaining why disadvantaged estates need regeneration, why we must address anti-social behaviour, initiate youth diversion programmes, impose welfare to work schemes and social welfare reforms.

This book offers a refreshing, robust, and thought-provoking re-think of social exclusion in a critical treatment which delves deep into the fundamental meanings and epistemology of the concept in the context of a globally rampant neo-liberalism where ideologues wage a relentless campaign against any semblance of regulation, accountability, or mildly redistributive welfare policies. It is also framed in the context where politics has largely become the handmaiden of the corporations – most recently witnessed in the appointment of the former Prime Minister of Luxemburg, Jean Claude Junker, to the post of President of the European Commission.

Each chapter addresses themes which pivot around the central topic of social exclusion. The first two chapters, after the introduction, provide a critical overview of the European and US discourses. The discussion suggests that while no one actually condones the existence and extent of social exclusion, and scholars and researchers have devised quite sophisticated and nuanced insights into the phenomenon to produce evidence-based social policy research to inform interventions on how best to alleviate it, it is not for the academy to advocate socio-economic change at a structural level to actually eliminate it. Pragmatic evidence-based interventions and reforms from within are the limit of ambitions of many left-liberal social scientists and policy researchers. Advocating wholesale change can be bad for promotional and career prospects!

In the US the discourse has been framed by the enduring myths of freedom and individualism which invariably mean limiting the mandate of the state on individual liberties and keeping taxes low - which needless to say will appeal to the wealthy but are of little use if one can’t pay for food, rent or health care. Social exclusion is primarily understood à la Charles Murray as consequence of an over-generous welfare state leading to individuals rationally opting out of the world of work and onto welfare and in the process undermining the work ethic and promoting other social ills such as the growth of lone parenthood, the demise of the nuclear family etc. The solution, so the logic goes, is to pull the welfare rug out from beneath the underclass so a life on welfare is no longer an option, and expand the prisons to permanently warehouse workshy young males, which is apparently both a profitable investment and a politically palatable use of ‘hard-earned’ tax dollars.

These discussions are followed by chapters on how social exclusion is repositioned in a financialised global economy where mega-wealth is no longer linked to tangible production but is derived from speculative gambling in a giant casino rigged so that gains are private but losses are socialised, as in the crash of 2008. The priority is to drive down wages, restrict the legal protections of low earners, and minimise the tax obligations on wealth, on the pretext that these are the only effective way to stimulate economic growth. To legitimise these strategies which are patently counter to the interests of citizens, working and non-working, the political establishment must be harnessed and incorporated. Thus, in an era of post–politics, ideology becomes recast as pragmatism and blind faith in the market is “common sense”, leaving mainstream political parties trying to differentiate themselves from one another by quibbling over trivia and personality politics, which in turn form the staple diet of a house-trained and corporate-controlled media.

Of particular concern is the thesis on the reserve army of consumers. Constant insecurity in a race to the bottom for low-paid workers with minimal legal protection is matched by a ‘reserve army of consumers’ whereby everyone from the wealthiest to the poorest is incorporated into the non-places of shopping centres, retail parks and online shopping. If one thinks that poor people don’t have the same desires and obsessions with consumer capitalism as the rest of the population, and that they spend their time debating new forms of oppositional politics in run down estates, then think again. According to Winlow and Hall, this is wishful thinking mostly indulged in by left-liberal academics, and their point resonates. When this reviewer surveyed teenagers in a disadvantaged part of Cork city about what facility they most wanted to see in their area, the response was not a youth café but a Starbucks outlet, not a sports facility but a shopping centre, replete with all the big brand labels.

Maybe this is the uncomfortable truth that liberals would prefer was left unsaid, but as the authors point out why should poor communities be any more resistant to the relentless barrage of marketing and consumerism’s intoxicating symbolic power and fantasy than anyone else? Lack of money is no guarantee of immunity. The analysis of the transformation of labour and commodification and appropriation of everyday forms of communication through digital platforms is particularly incisive. How many users of online platforms and digital devices reflect on the precariat trapped in call centres and obliged to smile down the phone at angry, aggressive and often equally insecure customers? Think about it. In a labour market imbued by transience and insecurity you can be a customer today and a “customer relationship manager” tomorrow. How many digital platform users realise that every “like” is an act of free labour driving the revenues of the Facebook corporation let alone think about the implications for meaningful relationships with real people?

Such are the types of questions raised in this book, and they are disturbing and profound. This is an uncompromising, and in places bleak, book that puts the concept of social exclusion on a new plane of understanding. It challenges the reader to consider whether we are facing the end of the social as a space of human existence. Anyone who wants a new understanding of social exclusion, who is concerned with the impact of social disintegration on people and communities, and is committed to the struggle for a just society, should read it.

Cathal O’Connell, Senior Lecturer, School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork.

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