After the Welfare State: Reconceiving Mutual Aid

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
The Telos-Paul Piccone Institute

The 2020 Annual Telos-Paul Piccone Institute Conference
February 15–16, 2020
Deutsches Haus at New York University
New York, NY

After the Welfare State: Reconceiving Mutual Aid

Keynote Speaker: Catherine Malabou, Kingston University and University of California, Irvine.


Conference Description

Although the rise of populism has often been interpreted as the atavistic return of racism and nationalism, the underlying sources have more to do with the collapse of the welfare state model in advanced post-industrial countries, which has resulted in the search for new forms of solidarity that could replace welfare state structures. These structures were first developed in the early twentieth century when a new type of nation-state and industrial economy came into being along with the developing capitalist regime of accumulation. Such a regime brought about the destruction of the existing networks of solidarity—based primarily on family, religious community, and workplace ties—thereby leading the state to intervene in different social services, including health, employment, and senior care, as well as in labor policy regarding such issues as the minimum wage, the length of the working day, retirement, and accident insurance. However, these interventions by the state, whether they responded to labor union protests or arose from anti-socialist preemptive actions by conservative forces, have been accompanied by the growing bureaucratization of its practices, which have come to constitute, along with capitalist commodification, one of today's fundamental sources of inequalities and conflicts.

The shifting line between the private and the public has had ambiguous effects. In the end, state intervention was carried out not in the form of a true democratization but through the imposition of new forms of subordination. The social result with greater globalization and deindustrialization in most of the advanced industrial countries has been a sense of abandonment, as well as a loss of empowerment and autonomy in all segments of the population. At the same time, with the emergence of post-Fordist capitalism in the late twentieth century, this subordination to the state has taken the opposite form—that of a reduction of state intervention and care, based on the idea that the endless expansion of state services cannot serve as a panacea for all problems. As a result, new distortions in the private/public divide recently have appeared. In turn, the private sphere has become increasingly contentious, first, because of growing privatization of previously public services and, second, because gaining access to those services is left to individual initiative.

The feeling that governments are incapable of dealing with social problems has regenerated the awareness that collective self-management is perhaps inevitable, at both micro- and macroscopic levels: from neighborhood collectives up to lending circles, non-profit societies, religious organizations, and solidarity economies. The contemporary interest in structures of mutual aid relates to the fact that we are living in an era that is clearly looking for new models of human flourishing and social development. Not only must we deal with multiple and recurring crises (finance, food, energy, and environment), but there is a growing recognition that today's normative agenda has to be much more encompassing and holistic, including issues of gender equality, fair trade, environment, and cultural and religious diversity.

A need to reconceptualize the concepts of the "common good" and "collective interest" is developing out of this set of conditions, leading to new definitions of civic sense, responsibility, and autonomy. The need for intermediary structures between the private and public sphere frames the space of intervention for mutual aid as a new form of social coherence.

But the concept of mutual aid has a complex and contradictory history. According to Peter Kropotkin, there is an innate biological evolutionary tendency toward mutualism in all living beings, an immanent social rationality that orients humanity toward a self-regulated political organization and society. Against social Darwinism, Kropotkin argues that species not only compete but also, and mainly, collaborate. Such an evolutionary vision later formed the core of Edward Wilson's sociobiology, marking the beginning of the altruism/selfishness debates within which the problematic of mutual help has remained enclosed for decades. Libertarianism, for example, presupposes that individuals' social behavior is grounded in a natural principle of selfishness that should then become the basis of aid. This vision allows for a deterministic idea of the capitalist economy in which Robert Nozick argues for the principle of a "minimal state" grounded on the fact that no distributive justice can come from above. Similarly, Friedrich Hayek argues that the "true" nature of liberalism lies in the doctrine that seeks to reduce to the minimum the power of the state. Democracy is then only the means for collective decision-making or a utilitarian apparatus for safeguarding internal peace and individual freedom. The capitalist free market, in turn, is said to be the only type of social organization that respects the principle of individual liberty.

If the theory of mutual aid can no longer be grounded in an opposition between the two poles of society and the state, but must be reconceptualized in terms of the mediation between both, the modes of its mediation become the key to the implementation of mutual aid practices. Ideas of family, nation, and religion thus take on new potential significance as the forms of mediation between individuals that can create the basis for networks of mutual aid. Are these the key categories that would embed mutual aid in broader affective, ethical, and metaphysical frameworks, or are there alternative possibilities that would establish new types of networks?

This conference seeks to develop new concepts of mutual aid that are not predetermined by conceptions of biological, economic, or political certainties. Key questions include:

  • Why is mutual aid not linked with theories of social contract, and how do we determine its degrees of separation from the state?
  • How can mutual aid be reconceptualized by renewing intellectual traditions?
  • What are the moral implications and requisites of the concept of mutual aid today?
  • What are the privileged domains of application for mutual aid and what are the organizational principles underlying them?
  • Does mutual aid imply a reorganization of the economy, or is it compatible with or even essential to a capitalist organization of economic life?
  • Does the concept of mutual aid offer tools for reimagining socialism in a way that avoids an overreliance on state power?
  • Does mutual aid require a reconstitution of subjectivity that moves it away from the autonomous individual of liberal theory?
  • What are the prospects and problems of religious frameworks, such as Pentecostalism, that function as the basis for mutual aid?
  • Can the rise of populism be understood as part of a search for new networks for mutual aid? Does mutual aid imply the restriction of its networks to limited groups, implying a relationship to political identity?
  • How does the concept of mutual aid relate to state power and the sovereignty of the state?

Abstract Submissions

Please note: Abstracts for this conference will only be accepted from current Telos-Paul Piccone Institute members. In order to become a member, please visit our membership enrollment page at Telos-Paul Piccone Institute memberships are valid until the end of the annual New York City conference.

We invite scholars from all disciplines to submit 250-word abstracts along with a short c.v. to by September 30, 2019. Please place "The 2020 Telos Conference" in the email's subject line.