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.