Neoliberalism and Social Capital

Dr. Patrick Fitzsimons

Research Director Auckland Medical Aid Trust 1998
Mail address: P.O. Box 29095, Greenwoods Corner, Auckland

Some of the ideas examined in this paper were presented in a symposium at the American Association for Research in Education in New Orleans in April 2000.
The symposium was on Neo-liberalism, Welfare and Education: The New Zealand Experiment.

In 1998, after 15 years of radical reform in New Zealand, the neoliberals wanted to recognize the notion of ‘community’, albeit on their own terms; under Social Capital they redefined community as individualised trust arising from an ahistorical, abstract, notion of ‘spontaneous sociability’. This ‘community’, it seems, would produce economic value, and the neoliberal ‘trickle down’ effect would therefore be reactivated. But, like the neoliberal policy it was supposed to address, this initiative (and Bolger’s re-election bid) failed.

The ‘new’ approach to social policy depended on reinventing community through a particular version of social capital. It was the same approach to policy that involved notions of social cohesion and responsibility put forward in the Code of Social and Family Responsibility (Department of Social Welfare, 1998). These two policy moves can be viewed as part of Government attempts to devolve responsibility for welfare away from the center to community and from the collective to the individual. But the notion of community as a social ideal is both historically and theory-laden, and underlying the use of social capital as a new metaphor for community is an acknowledgment of the inadequacies of a pure neoliberal market-oriented model as a basis for social policy. Indeed, it could be regarded as a cynical expression of community.

The paper argues that these policy initiatives are an attempt to mask the failure of neoliberal reforms, by appealing to traditional notions of community while at the same time implicitly redefining a community morality. These initiatives have failed, leaving the Government with no distraction from its inadequacies until the arrival of the current policy of the ‘Knowledge Economy’.

You can download a full version of the paper in Adobe Acrobat format by clicking here.