• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Social Inclusion Unit? Leave me out

Since the election of the Labor government in November 2007, social inclusion has been a central focus of policy. Now, not before time, the very idea of a Social Inclusion Unit has become the subject of debate. Most of the arguments have focused on whether this unit should be scrapped. But one crucial point overlooked is that, far from being a desirable objective, social inclusion is an unusually vapid idea.

Supporters of the unit claim their objective is to fight social exclusion. But it is far from evident what such exclusion means. Since the term was invented in France in the 1970s there has been little consensus on its meaning. When the British government launched its Social Exclusion Unit in December 1997 it adopted the practice of labelling anyone with a problem—people with low self-esteem, single parents, disabled people, immigrants, elderly, the vulnerable, the mentally ill, pregnant teenagers, the educationally challenged, the unemployed, the poor—as part of the vast army of socially excluded. That’s a lot of people with a lot of different problems to be subjected to one policy orientation.

Lack of clarity about the meaning of inclusion and exclusion has not inhibited its promiscuous application to virtually any problem afflicting society. At a recent seminar discussion on policy we were informed that, far from being a health issue, obesity was about gaining social inclusion.

There is now a virtually uncontested consensus in the social policy, cultural and education establishment that social inclusion should be at the heart of their institutions’ missions. At conferences, officials and administrators routinely demand that schools, hospitals, universities, libraries, museums or sport facilities should place inclusion at the centre of their activity.

One driver of social inclusion policy is the relentless expansion of state bureaucracy. It is worth noting that supporters of this policy claim their ” joined-up” social inclusion approach helps get around the ineffective government bureaucracy. This argument was voiced by David Cappo, former chair of the South Australian Inclusion Board. But no sooner did he take a swipe at bureaucracy than he called for “a social inclusion lever that has the authority of the head of government to put pressure on the bureaucracy to make a joined-up plan work”.

In other words, Cappo wants more inspectors—officials—to supervise colleagues pursuing joined-up social inclusion targets.

The other, more important driver of social inclusion policies is the growing tendency of the state to move away from the provision of traditional welfare policies to the therapeutic management of social problems. One of the underlying features of this approach is the belief that it is the task of public authority to offer recognition and esteem to alienated individuals. Principally, inclusion is offering recognition to otherwise invisible or excluded groups and individuals. The right to be esteemed has become an officially endorsed entitlement to everyone in society. In its caricatured form, the turn towards the therapeutic management of the electorate was most strikingly expressed through the proclamation of the “respect agenda” of the former Brumby Labor government in Victoria. In January 2010, the premier appointed the country’s first minister charged with promoting respect in the community.

John Brumby announced that the state’s minister for the “respect agenda” would confront the problems of alcoholism, anti-social behaviour and racism. The bizarre idea that people who enjoy high levels of respect become angels would come as a surprise to the hierarchy of the Mafia.

The provision of an entitlement to respect is based on pure psychobabble. “If you respect yourself, you don’t go out and binge drink,” stated Brumby. One question Brumby and advocates of therapeutic policymaking fail to explain is how governments possess the power to force people to respect themselves. The original respect agenda was, like the idea of the Social Exclusion Unit dreamt up by Tony Blair’s advisers, underpinned by the conviction that the principal task of social policy is to make people feel good about themselves. Blair defined his vision of a good society as one committed to “belief in the equal worth of all”.

This recognition of the primacy of equal worth represents an important shift from the previous concept of social equality to that of “equality of esteem”. Equal worth has little in common with previous ideas about the liberal ideal of equal opportunity or the socialist aim of equality of outcomes. It works as a form of flattery—everyone is respected, esteemed and endowed with equal worth and therefore “included”.

The consequence of the politics of flattery is that it continually strives to establish the lowest common denominator as the cultural norm. Inclusion is represented mainly as a psychological process of validating people to make them feel good. The corollary of this is that public bodies, including cultural and educational ones, should do everything possible to avoid undertaking any initiatives that may make people feel bad. As a result, schools must ensure their pupils never experience failure or lack affirmation. Everything must be done to ensure that children possess a high level of self-esteem. A similar imperative is at work in universities. Lecturers are pressured to mark positively and provide a climate of support where no undergraduate feels intimidated. Galleries and museums are charged with affirming visitors and ensuring they don’t feel overwhelmed by their experience.

Advocates of social inclusion never pose the question of “inclusion to what?” If they did, they would have to acknowledge the fact that ” inclusive education”, like “inclusive art” or “inclusive sports” has no virtue other than providing no challenge to the “excluded”. The very demand to become inclusive represents a call to alter the standards and integrity of an institution. But the newly included have not suddenly become the recipients of genuine respect or esteem, for the simple reason such qualities cannot be provided through a government grant.

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