[This article has also been published on the RESCuE Project’s blog]
The process of resilience, regardless of field, usually entails developing the ability or capacity to withstand and deal with shocks; an idea that has been developed from engineering, ecology and psychology. In the UK, the term has been used in relation to community cohesion and the prevention of radicalisation. The term has also been established within a socio-economic context, mainly in macroeconomics to discuss the resilience of markets and national economies, and in development studies focusing on the ability for villages, towns and countries in the Global South to develop prosperity.
It is only just beginning to be used to discuss the ability for households in more developed states to deal with economic shocks, such as the Great Recession. Thus far, the term has been linked to disasters or major crises: absolute poverty and global inequality in terms of development, the health of economies such as Greece, or the ability for communities to resist and reduce terrorism. Each of these carry connotations of a large and potentially absolute threat to wellbeing in some form. Yet for the concept to be transposed onto or adapted for use in more developed states, it is important to recognise the fact that the crisis at hand may not be as deep or as close to disaster. This is not to say that the issues households in developed states face are less important or (relatively speaking) less severe. Rather, these states, particularly in Western Europe, have developed long-standing and deeply embedded welfare settlements that to some extent protect against the most severe crises, and help transfer risk away from the household onto the state (though of course it would be naïve to suggest this happens in every case).
There is a well-established literature on the variations of welfare states and the different worlds of welfare capitalism. Based on the assumption that there are different forms of welfare state that categorise and transfer risk differently, one could also assume that there may be different points where a household’s situation develops into a crisis. This entry point, at a fundamental level, would depend on the nature and depth of social citizenship rights in a given state, and the ease with which they can be accessed. Of course, it is likely that a ‘crisis’ will have many similar features across states, such as a household not being able to pay bills, afford essentials, and so on. However, there is already a lot of differentiation both within and between states regarding at what stage someone can receive help from the state, and the extent to which they must rely on civil society, friends and family. This differentiation is only one criterion for understanding the extent to which a household is able to develop and maintain resilience, but given the importance of welfare in in post-war Europe, it is worth focusing on in more detail.
According to T.H. Marshall, social citizenship entails having a modicum of economic security, as well as the ability to participate fully in society and to be an active member of the polity. An inability to deal with the risks and shocks associated with market capitalism prevents this. As such, one can draw a direct link between resilience and social citizenship. The extension of social citizenship rights, traditionally via the welfare state, to members of a polity provides an essential tool for developing and maintaining resilience in that it provides assistance to those who are struggling to cope, or cannot cope, with shocks. In providing assistance through risk mitigation, capacity building, or crisis support, the welfare state can contribute directly to a household’s resilience. However, citizenship implies a contract. Therefore assistance from the state can be understood as an investment in its citizens; the state shores up citizens against and provides some resources (such as economic transfers or skills training) to prevent an immediate return to danger, and in return citizens should (ideally) be less likely to require assistance in the future.
In other words, welfare as social investment can help develop households who, because of their renewed or developed resilience to economic risk and shock, will be less of a burden on the state in the future. Theoretically this should reduce the strain on a range of social citizenship institutions (including beyond the welfare state). Freed-up resources could possibly then be used in other areas, to increase support for more vulnerable groups, and to help create high quality jobs with good pay – an aim that distinguishes social investment welfare from neoliberal welfare strategies, for example.
An issue with this line of thought, directly related to resilience, is that of activity and passivity. The relationship between resilience, welfare and crisis sketched out above implies that at some point in a timeline of resilience development, a household will require external help that makes it reliant on institutions other than itself. At this stage, it is perhaps difficult to categorise a household as ‘resilient’. Yet as qualitative research for RESCuE in the UK suggests, it becomes increasingly more difficult to exercise one’s agency as resources become less available. In such a situation, help is needed to overcome socio-economic inertia and allow financial respite that enables households to settle debts and save money. This facilitates movement to a position from which agency can be exerted over the important social and economic choices one must make to develop resilience. This also relates to more traditional debates surrounding welfare, in that development of social investment in the 90s emphasised a move away from passive receipt of benefits to active participation in return for support. Citizens would develop their human capital in order to be able to compete in a global labour market that demanded flexible workers. As such, a resilient citizen would be an employable citizen; a worker with many strings to their bow.
Social investment welfare is therefore an ideal companion to the concept of resilience. Their relation to one another embodies the contractualism of a European welfare settlement that is focused on building the capacity and developing the social and economic independence of European citizens, whilst striving to reduce the burden on what is increasingly being seen as an outdated and outmoded institution of support in a modern, developing and globalised economy. However, although it certainly outlines the implied responsibilities of citizens (to develop relevant skills, become financially literate etc.) it does not do much to outline the social rights of citizens. As such, there is a danger that ‘resilience’ becomes a stick with which to beat those who do not take up the opportunities provided by the state as enthusiastically as they possibly could. Indeed, this is something that the Labour government in the UK focused on between 1997 and 2010, focusing on a hand up not a hand out, and increasing the conditions placed upon receipt of welfare support.
Resilience as a concept and as a normative ideal certainly has potential to be a progressive and transformative force, but to do this justice there must be more in terms of highlighting the rights and benefits for the citizen, rather than focusing on their responsibilities as global citizen-workers. Investing in citizens, encouraging them to become autonomous and entrepreneurial, requires an acknowledgement that risk is being transferred onto individuals who may not be in a position to deal with it effectively. If citizens are expected to take on the responsibility of accepting substantial risk for varied levels of improvement in quality of life, there must be a reciprocal expectation that the state will ultimately do more to ensure this risk is manageable, perhaps through mitigation and transfer strategies.