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Autonomy, liberalism and the new contractualism

Jayasuriya, K. (2001) Autonomy, liberalism and the new contractualism. Law in Context, 18 (2). pp. 57-78.


Jayasuriya seeks to address issues of agency and autonomy implicit in contractual social policy thinking of the new welfare state. One of the distinguishing features of the new social policy thinking of contractual welfare proponents is the emergence of strongly agent centred social policy frameworks tinged with a high degree of paternalism. The new social policy raises an interesting paradox: the entanglement of illiberal social policies within liberal notions of individual autonomy and agency. Jayasuriya suggests that the resolution of this paradox lies in identifying some of the problematic assumptions about agency and autonomy implied in the new neo-liberal contractualism. The core of neo-liberal contractualism resides in a notion of responsible agency that is conceived in a highly moralistic manner. Such a moralism is most evident in neo-liberal welfare contractualism. This, above all, is a point of view which serves to marginalise the 'public' or the political attributes of agency, and in particular, one which elides the direct as well as indirect coercive context of individual action. In other words, it presents a deeply anti-political understanding of the nature of agency. However, the author argues that contractualism remains deeply contested, and an alternative notion of democratic contractualism is proposed. While contesting individualised notions of responsible agency, the article seeks to advance an alternative vision of individual agency that accords primary emphasis to the embeddeness of agency and autonomy on its relational context. Adopting a 'relational' notion of autonomy enables us to locate a conception of individualisation within structures of power and domination.

Item Type: Journal Article
Publisher: La Trobe University
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