Towards a left critique of the welfare state

According to the tired old battle lines, a ‘left’ position is in favour of social welfare, of a system in which the less ‘fortunate’ are supported by the altruism of all. So if you are a lefty, you are supposed to hold to some form of the welfare state, which some deluded people equate with socialism. By contrast, a ‘right’ position (neo-liberal) holds that the state is a hindrance to the smooth working of the market. Therefore, the welfare state, or ‘nanny state’ as they like to call it, should be dismantled, so that the utopia of unconstrained market relations may realise its full potential.

Yet, these battle lines take place on a ground determined by the bourgeois state (the one-party state of liberal democracy), which ensures that we believe we are engaged in real debate, in a real struggle of ideas, but we are actually all playing the same game.

Various arguments have been put forward for the rise and establishment of the welfare state. One argument is that it was a response by capitalism to the growth of communism, a way of appeasing worker demands for medical cover, education, unemployment benefits and so on. Another argument is that the welfare state was the autonomous achievement of working class action in capitalist states. In this scenario, workers sought to reform the system to make life more bearable.

But what if we developed a properly left criticism of the welfare state? It would need to begin with a telling observation by Alain Lipietz; the welfare state ‘ensured that any person who could not earn his or her living could still be a consumer, because he or she could go on having a money income’. For Lipietz and others, the welfare state was a feature of post World-War II ‘Fordism’, a reconstruction and re-regulation of capitalism to ensure continuing and increasing consumption of the products of industry. If you work, we’ll give you occasional pay rises; but if not, we will ensure that the state pays you enough to keep on consuming.

Add to this the fact that the welfare state was initially conceived as operating within a nation-state and was thereby predicated on the fact that most people in the world are excluded from such a state. So you get situations now, in Scandinavia, as Christina points out, where xenophobia is based on the sense that new immigrants are coming to bludge on what is left of the welfare state. That is, the welfare state actually encourages xenophobia and racism. Thus, the populist right-wing position, in which support of the welfare state and xenophobia are part of the party platform, is entirely consistent.

Of course, what was envisaged as the welfare state in the 1950s and what operates now are quite different, and yet the modified welfare state remains a feature of political struggle. Yet the point remains that the welfare state is a product of particular formations of capitalism. That would mean a left position would then entail the dismantling of the welfare state as part of the destruction of capitalism.

With thanks to Christina (Germany), Susan (Bulgaria) and, virtually, Alain (France) for talking some of these things through.

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20 thoughts on “Towards a left critique of the welfare state

    1. To start with, when we are in that situation, we shouldn’t be treated as consumers who need to be enabled to continue consuming. And any system that would replace it would have to be international rather than national.

      1. I’m not sure that I am. The economic sense of consumption (ie. “using up a resource”) may be broader than the biological sense (ie “ingesting things”), but the second sense is a subset of the first. It’s hard to imagine a kind of ingesting that doesn’t use up any resources, isn’t it?

        The aim of socialism (IMHO) isn’t to get rid of all consumption… it’s to give control of the ‘means of consumption’ to ordinary people so they can be used in a healthy way – used to meet human need … rather than turning everything good in the world into a commodity, sold for profit.

      2. That’s a bit too close to Locke’s argument for private property. Given that private property, argues Locke, is not part of creation, the way it develops is through human tilling of the soil, and so on. To consume food is one thing, but to be a capitalist ‘consumer’ is something quite different. We consume commodities, most of which are useless and badly made, but we do so because the system generates needs we never thought we had. Either that or those cavemen were just dying to consume ipods, iphones and apps in a way that was excruciating.

      3. Hmm… I dunno I think the cavemen would have loved a plough and a domesticated horse!

        My point is that you can’t say consumption is completely wrong. It’s deformed by capitalism, and needs to be redeemed not destroyed.

  1. The theory is of course right, and in New Zealand the unionists of the 1920s who became the governments of the 1930s included more than the fair share of racists, nationalists rather than internationalists, and anti-Semites. But this congruence of nationalist-racism and welfare state is in place by the 1930s. “post World-War II ‘Fordism’”? What about FDR pre-WW2?

  2. Go easy on the Calvinist piety here, Rev. Boer. If you didn’t capture the imagination of the toiling masses of Australian workers and peasants with your tales of glorious Soviet tank battles, your critique of the decadent consumerist ways of the unemployed is unlikely to arouse them even in these times of austerity.

    Your idea of communism is looking more and more like a Salvation Army homeless shelter; a cheap meal, communal prayer, and brutal and anonymous encounter in the shower room before lights out at 9pm.

    You would no doubt agree then with the head of China’s sovereign wealth fund and former deputy finance minister that Europe’s troubles are a consequence of “the worn out welfare society”.

    “The labour laws induce sloth, indolence, rather than hardworking.”

    O who will save man from his wretchedness and total depravity?

  3. I think that the main issue regarding the welfare state was its dialectic unity with the existence of the Soviet Union. Once the USSR fell, the welfare state began to dismantle, with slower rhythm in Scandinavia and with quicker rhythm elsewhere.

    Socialism is not needed to dismantle the welfare state. Capitalists are dismantling it themselves via their well paid intermediaries in parliaments.

    1. That’s just a myth offered by crotchety old nostalgic Stalinists. Welfare states came under attack when neo-liberal reforms developed in the 1970s. No one can claim that the existence or non-existence of the USSR was an overriding policy concern in countries like Australia or the USA where communist parties were irrelevant. Do you really think that 1960s America introduced social security to buy-off its working classes from their allegiance to Moscow? Nor has the decline of the welfare state been uniform in recent decades; it’s expanding in South Korea right now.

      As our sacramental host on this blog would remind us; read your regulation school literature on the economic changes in the 1970s.

      P.s. no one live down to my expectations by citing the allure of North Korea as the reason for the vibrancy of the welfare state debate in the South.

  4. Αnti-communist intellectual rigor is as formidable as ever. Neoliberalism attacked the welfare state in the 1970’s and 1980’s so the Soviet Union is irrelevant when discussing the capitalist welfare state. If one argues otherwise then he is a Stalinist. After all, Berlusconi Youth is happy to argue, the communist party was negligible in the US so the communist threat did not play any significant role for the US in its internal social policy. Well, the “capitalist party” was non-existent in the Soviet Union. Did the capitalist threat play any significant role in its internal social policy or did it not?

    Furthermore (concerning a case I admit I do not know about) South Korea has a rising welfare state according to Berlusconi Youth, and this is so not because out of any fear of North Korea. Very well. First, why do you mention South Korea? Is South Korea, if indeed the case is as you describe it, a representative of the global trend of the condition of the welfare state or do you mention it just for the sake of mentioning it? I live in Greece, i.e. the country of the Western capitalist world that was hit by the global recession in the most brutal way (so far that is, others are bound to follow). In the past year I’ve met only one Greek whose wages have been rising during this depression period. What am I to argue from that when I engage in a discussion about wage labour in Greece? That we should be more careful when describing the dreadful position of Greek wage labour because there is a 1% of Greek labourers that is making gains, and we should take this 1% into account before reaching a conclusion? Second, I talked about the Soviet Union not North Korea, but you seem to equate the Soviet Union with North Korea. In terms of political analysis, this is as hopeless as it can get. Perhaps you should equate Norway then with Saudi Arabia, since both are capitalist. Good luck with the endeavor.

    Post 1991 Berlusconi Youth has not noticed a violent attack on labour rights throughout the globe, even in the “civilized” world of the West. He has not noticed the thorough reduction of any expenses that capital deems unproductive from its point of view (and these include first of all the welfare state expenditures), has not noticed that capital has been encroaching on everything with a greed which is reminiscent of its early industrializing days. The Soviet Union was for capital, according to what can be deduced from Berlusconi Youth’ argument, a small matter. The policies of capital and the capital-labour relation, globally and regionally is now the same, or similar, as it was pre-1991. So argues, in essence, the Youth of the Titan. Working class gains of the entire post WWII period are vanishing steadily (and in many countries rapidly) without leaving any trace behind and the demise of the greatest threat that capital has experienced during its lifetime, the existence of the Soviet Union, does not play any significant role in this issue. What has been going on in the struggle of capital against labour after 1991, and this of course includes what has been going on with the welfare state in western capitalism, is irrelevant with the demise of the Soviet Union. The convergence of Social Democracy with Free Market Liberalism, which quickly came to the result of the virtual indistinguishability between the two, began accidentally to take place after the Soviet fall. Well, it isn’t necessarily so.

    Finally let me propose that you include in your reading list the following book

    “Soviet Legal Innovation and the Law of the Western World” by John Quigley, 2007.

    It is not a publication from Lawrence & Wishart by the way, but from Cambridge University Press. The absolutely crucial influence of Marxist parties before 1914 and of the Soviet Union after 1917 on the social welfare legislation of Western capitalism, which is what we are discussing here, is well documented.

  5. I know Quigley’s work on Palestine so I’ll look into that. My point was simply that one would expect to see an observable pattern of differences emerge in different times and places if the existence of the USSR was the key variable in welfare reform, not attacks on welfare well before the collapse, revivals of welfare rhetoric in well after the collapse, and similar reforms in countries with the presence and absence of pro-Moscow political agitation. There was an influential Moscow-alligned Communist movement in France (and Greece) yet, it was also countries like Australia and New Zealand where no influential political force was promoting the Soviet Union as a viable model of political reform that also developed thorough welfare states. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to then suppose that there was something else going on. The point about South Korea was simply that there was a recent mayoral election fought on the issue of building a welfare society, opposed by the current President on the grounds that “we don’t want to turn into…” um, never mind.

    The snide point about the North was directed at Reverend Boer who believes that North Korea is systematically deomonized by imperialists and we can never trust what we hear from the lamestream liberal secular media. He is right that I have never been there and for all I know the foreign food aid the North routinely demands is all an elaborate and very subtle joke.

    P.s. Roland, I will probably see you at the Dunedin reception in San Francisco. Deane tells me there will be a lot of Presbyterian theologians there so you should probably wear your Lenin t-shirt so you stand out.

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