Compassion: A Global History of Social Policy

By Tom Langford

 by Alvin Finkel
Red Globe Press
2018/$34.99/306 pp.

On January 1 of this year, a large number of women, estimated at “hundreds of thousands” and “five million” in different stories in The Guardian, formed a human chain that stretched the entire length of the Indian state of Kerala—some 620 km. The protesters were demonstrating in favour of the right of all women to enter the Sabarimala temple, a Hindu pilgrimage site, and against the violent demonstrations that had attempted to enforce a traditional ban on women aged 10 to 50 years from entering the temple despite an Indian Supreme Court ruling to the contrary. This “women’s wall” protest raised two questions in my mind: What sort of a political movement could manage such a feat? And, how had feminism achieved such a mass following in Kerala? Fortunately I was reading Alvin Finkel’s new book, Compassion: A Global History of Social Policy, at the time and could draw upon his concise historical overviews of social and political developments in Kerala from the time of British colonialism up until the 21st century in order to make sense of this incredible event.

The five pages or so on Kerala, spread across three main chapters, make up a tiny slice of Finkel’s book. However, they are sufficient to convey not only why Kerala has been so successful in promoting human development relative to many other Indian states, but also the initiatives that have generated significant women’s empowerment. For instance, we learn that gender inequalities have been tackled in Kerala through a combination of universal social supports and innovative programs such as using women-dominated self-help groups to distribute government money earmarked for alleviating poverty. The book is chock full of insights such as this and should remain a definitive overview of the development of social policy around the globe for many years to come.

Finkel, a prolific author of books and articles, is a professor emeritus of history at Athabasca University. The title of his book—Compassion—is a great hook and ties in perfectly with an ethical reflection from Albert Einstein that concludes the volume. At the same time, Finkel’s understanding of the drivers of social policy innovation is more complex than suggested by the title. Social policy can originate in pity towards the needy, which treats policy as an act of patronizing mercy. It can result from a strategic effort by elites to defuse grievances and legitimate the social relations of exploitation and oppression that benefit those elites. Social policy can also spring from “compassion motivated by empathy”—a leftist vision of egalitarian social policy.

Compassion is impressive in its temporal and geographic scope. It begins with archaeological evidence of the empathic compassion within Neanderthal communities, and ends with up-to-date chapters on how neoliberalism has transformed social policy in a wide range of present-day countries. The story of neoliberalism in advanced capitalist countries will be somewhat familiar to Canadian readers. A unique contribution of this study is the detailed attention it gives to the impacts of neoliberalism on social policy in the post-communist/communist world (e.g., China, Russia and Cuba) as well as a wide range of “underdeveloped countries.” While Compassion is a notable work of scholarship, it is definitely not a “page turner,” since it is dense with historical facts and assessments. My recommendation is to eschew reading each of the 13 chapters from start to finish—best to start with the excellent concluding section of each chapter and then pursue particular themes or countries that captivate one’s imagination.

Tom Langford is a sociology professor at the U of C and author of Alberta’s Day Care Controversy: 1908–2009 and Beyond.

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