by Bennett Heine
Among political and social scientists in recent decades, the phrase ‘give a man a fish…’ has become more a prompt than a platitude, its pregnant ellipses raising questions about the provision and reception of social aid. Who’s giving the fish? How is it given? To whom is it given, and why? Are fish simply given, or are they demanded, taken? What effect does receiving a fish have on a person as a political and social being?
With questions like these, researchers increasingly critique this unspoken ethos of social assistance policy as a logic of stasis, passivity, and social disembeddedness that bears little resemblance to reality. Suzanne Mettler’s 2011 book The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy contributes to this debate by showing how specific forms of policy can obscure their very origins, engendering new understandings of both the government and the market – in the form of market fetishization – and thereby shaping political participation and subsequent policy, complicating any simple model of fish and men.
Mettler’s research represents a fruitful line of critique of the conventional, ‘give a man a fish’ wisdom of social assistance: what happens if you aren’t even aware you were given a fish, or if you’re unclear about who gave you that fish? In her analysis of ‘invisible’ U.S. social assistance programs – namely tax exemptions to individual households and subsidies to private businesses – Mettler finds that many beneficiaries don’t recognize the government origins of programs like the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction and subsidized student loans, despite their large fiscal footprint and high average benefit levels. She refers to the constellation of these low-visibility programs as the ‘submerged state,’ and indicates that their size and use have grown massively in the last thirty years.
A central, troubling aspect of the submerged state is its tendency to foment market fetishization among beneficiaries. In other words, when citizens benefit from government largesse without being aware of it or conceiving of it as such, writes Mettler ‘they are likely to assume that markets are more autonomous and effective than they are in actuality’ (p.27). This assumption endows ‘markets with an efficacy and even a life of their own that is not connected clearly to the activities of individuals’ (Carrier 1997, 16), belying the active role government is actually playing in creating, incentivizing, and subsidizing certain market actions and actors.
Why do these misconceptions of markets and government matter? Despite what the ‘give a man a fish’ mantra would have us believe, beneficiaries of submerged programs don’t exist only in the moment of program participation. Recipients’ understanding of the government’s role in social provisioning as minimal, nonexistent, or unrelated to themselves shapes their future behavior in the wider social and political world – a phenomenon known as policy feedback, wherein policy creates new politics. Mettler finds that beneficiaries of submerged policies exhibited markedly lower rates of policy-focused political action than did beneficiaries of more visible policies (p.45). In other words, if you’re unaware of the role government played in providing benefits, you’re less likely to mobilize politically to defend those benefits.
The image of increasing market fetishization and its policy feedback effects in the context of active, but submerged social assistance policy echoes prior anthropological research on the aspirational and contingent nature of contemporary capitalism. In her research on discourse and practices of the ‘global’ among Wall Street investment banks, Karen Ho found that Wall Street’s ability to sell itself as global was integral to winning the deals that would finance that aspiration’s presentation and possible realization. In the submerged state, a similar dynamic may be at play, wherein the common perceptions and presentation of this system – as privatized in the free market – tell us more about the ideals of certain interest groups and policymakers than they do describe current policy realities. And considering the powerful effects of policy feedback, it’s likely that these policies’ tendency towards market fetishization will continue to erode existing support and impede future popular momentum for reform, lending the submerged and upwardly redistributive state a self-fulfilling nature.
Therefore, future reform of the submerged state must aspire to more than simple material distribution, by addressing deficits of transparency and clarity in defining and communicating the relationships between citizens, government, and private business. As Mettler concludes, ‘whatever the social and economic effects of such [submerged] tax expenditures might be… they are counterproductive when it comes to reinvigorating citizenship’ (p.119).
Bennett Heine is currently undertaking a Masters in the Social Anthropology of the Global Economy at the University of Sussex.
Photo: ‘Capitalism’ by pichumani at Flickr.
- Carrier, James. 1997. ‘Introduction.’ In Meanings of the Market: The Free Market in Western Culture, edited by James Carrier, 1-68. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
- Ferguson, James. 2015. Give a Man a Fish. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Ho, Karen. 2005. ‘Situating Global Capitalisms: A View from Wall Street Investment Banks.’ Cultural Anthropology 20 (1): 68-96.
- Mettler, Suzanne. 2011. The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
- Soss, Joe and Sanford F. Schram. 2007. ‘A Public Transformed? Welfare Reform as Policy Feedback.’ In Remaking America: Democracy and Public Policy in an Age of Inequality, edited by Joe Soss, Jabob S. Hacker, and Suzanne Mettler, 99-118. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.