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Australian sociologists have a long-standing interest in the articulation between the economy and society. Their research mostly takes its bearings from political economy and critical theory. Two themes are especially prominent: first, the role of the state and political elites in relation to the economy and, second, social class and social control. An exemplar of the former theme is Michael Pusey's Economic Rationalism in Canberra: A Nation Building State Changes Its Mind (1991); an exemplar of the latter is R.W. Connell's Ruling Class, Ruling Culture: Studies of Conflict, Power and Hegemony in Australian Life (1977). When the Australian Sociological Association ran a poll of its members regarding the most influential books in Australian sociology on its fortieth anniversary in 2003, Connell's Ruling Class Ruling Culture came first and Pusey's Economic Rationalism in Canberra ran second. Presumably these results indicate that this line of inquiry is held in high regard by the Australian sociological community. So it should be.
Yet there is another sociological tradition that addresses the articulation between the economy and society. This approach, usually described as 'economic sociology', has undergone a resurgence in the past two decades, especially in the United States (Guillen et al., 2002: 5-6). In turn, there has been a wave of books that take stock of the field, both in terms of its classical lineage and its contemporary manifestation. Most but not all of these books are from the US. They include Carlo Trigilia's Economic Sociology: State, Market, and Society in Modern Capitalism (1998; English translation 2002); Neil Fligstein's The Architecture of Markets: An Economic Sociology of Twenty-first-century Societies (2001); Harrison White's Markets from Networks: Socioeconomic Models of Production (2001); Nicole Biggart's Readings in Economic Sociology (2002); and The New Economic Sociology: Developments in an Emerging Field (2002), edited by Mauro Guillen, Randall Collins, Paula England and Marshall Meyer.
The new economic sociology has barely registered in Australia. This is a pity. This review article explores how economic sociology might contribute towards a richer understanding of the articulation between economy and society in Australian sociology. It does so through a review of three books. First, it addresses Michael Pusey's latest book, The Experience of Middle Australia: The Dark Side of Economic Reform (2003). It then turns its attention to Carlo Trigilia's Economic Sociology, a landmark synthesis of the field from a European perspective, and Neil Fligstein's The Architecture of Markets, an ambitious attempt to build a more coherent theoretical foundation for the field. Finally, the article considers how economic sociology might enrich Australian sociology.
Pusey's The Experience of Middle Australia
Connell's Ruling Class Ruling Culture was written in the midst of the crisis of the Keynesian welfare state and the Fordist production model. The crisis was followed by two decades of neoliberal economic reform. The intellectual leadership of the case for neoliberal economic reform--or 'economic rationalism' as it became known in Australia--came from economists. The intellectual leadership against economic reform came from political scientists, with the support of sociologists and some renegade economists (Carroll and Manne, 1992; Stewart, 1994; Stilwell, 2000). The dominant framework in the case against neoliberalism was one of political economy, for sociologists as well as political scientists.
The most prominent sociologist in the debate around neoliberalism was Michael Pusey. Pusey's Economic Rationalism in Canberra, based on interviews with 215 senior government officials, catapulted Pusey to national prominence in the debate. Pusey described how 'economic rationalists', often trained in economics and sceptical about the role of government, had taken over the senior ranks of the federal public service. Their reforms were supported by the peak organizations of big business, notably the Business Council of Australia. This was a tale of rampant capitalism.
Pusey's most recent book, The Experience of Middle Australia (2003), turns the focus from government officials to 'middle Australia'. Pusey interviews a random sample of 400 Australians from five capital cities with average household incomes below the 90th percentile and above the 20th percentile. His object is to map their 'lived experience' of economic reform. Pusey's intellectual bearings come from European post-Marxist and critical theory: for example, Habermas, Offe, Touraine and Bauman.
In Chapter 2 Pusey addresses income. In the 1960s, he observes, Australia was a relatively affluent nation with a 'distribution of (wage) income that was generally judged to be one of the most equal, if not the most equal, in the world' (2003: 20). This was on account of the 'wage earners' welfare state', the 'bedrock institution' secured through class settlement at the time of Federation (2003: 41). Neoliberal reform had successfully undermined the wage earners' welfare state, making Australia one of the most unequal nations in the world. Middle Australians 'have a fairly accurate perception of what is happening to their incomes' (2003: 30). They are also realistic in their view of who have been the winners ('people on high incomes, rich people with assets, big business, and big companies') and losers ('people in the middle' and 'ordinary people generally') (2003: 32-4). Most middle Australians think that there is too much dispersion of incomes.
Chapters 3 to 6 address work, families, communities and politics in turn. The details change, but the basic story is the same: neoliberal reform has wreaked havoc in the everyday lives of middle Australians. For example, economic reform has 'blasted away institutional constraints on markets', leaving people with 'depleted connections that were once concretely available from stronger, "thicker" communities, local neighbourhoods, church congregations, and extended families--all typically, only a generation ago, more often than not within walking distance of their homes' (2003: 135). Middle Australians are still overwhelmingly unreconciled to reform. They are most likely to blame big business and multinational corporations, and they still want active government. These views have been evident in sporadic political breakouts, such as the movement around Pauline Hanson. Such breakouts still threaten 'the end-game of economic reform, which is the political disempowerment of the broad middle class' (2003: 167).
In his final chapter, Pusey observes that the criterion of success for reformers 'has always been the degree to which the people can be made to accept "the dull compulsions of the market" like wind and rain and hence as inevitable and quasi-natural forces' (2003: 173). Yet the 'promises of economic reform have now gone sour' (2003: 170). Pusey describes how his respondents--as they reflect on their experience of economic reform--show 'two emotions that are perhaps one: anger and moral anxiety' (2003: 174). They are angry about the new capitalism, with 'egoistic and predatory corporate moguls ... at the top and themselves at the bottom' (2003: 177). They are …