What’s so great about the welfare state?

ESSAY: The origins of state welfare were far from progressive, and in its new therapeutic form it is actually a barrier to human solidarity.

In the run-up to the UK General Election, spiked will publish a series of essays reposing political issues. The aim of the ‘Question Everything’ essays is to encourage people to rethink the past, the present and the future. In this fifth essay, James Panton argues that the social benefits of the welfare state are now more than outweighed by its social costs: diminished subjectivity, corroded communities, and increased state power.

With all the ‘tough talking’ in the General Election campaign about which party is most capable of making drastic public spending cuts, there appears to be at least one piece of good news: the welfare state – that alleged crowning achievement of Britain’s postwar political consensus, which guaranteed citizens ‘protection from want’ from cradle to grave for more than 60 years – is safe.

Whatever minimal and technical disagreements exist between the three main parties about how and when spending should be cut, there is one thing on which they are agreed: savings will be made and public expenditure will be cut without any deleterious effects on the provision of frontline welfare services in healthcare, education, support for children and families, and benefits for the needy.

Thus New Labour pledges to ‘protect vital frontline services in health and education’ while bringing ‘borrowing down to meet our commitments on halving the deficit’. The Conservatives promise to ‘cut the deficit, not the NHS’. The Liberal Democrats promise not only to reduce class sizes in schools but to provide more funds ‘for things like one-to-one tuition and classes in the evenings’ while ‘protecting and improving the NHS’. On the New Labour government’s Sure Start initiative for families and young children, the only discussion seems to be about who will do most to expand it. Labour minister Ed Balls promises to defend Sure Start against Tory cuts, while the Tories deny the cuts accusation and actually promise to ‘strengthen Sure Start by recruiting thousands of new Sure Start health visitors’. Even on the question of welfare benefits, where there is at least the appearance of a disagreement, none of the parties is proposing reducing service provision in any way.

Some people will be pleased that the welfare state will pretty much remain intact – but there are many reasons why this apparent consensus on the immediate future of the welfare state should concern us. For a start, it is disingenuous to believe that welfare provisions can be maintained at current levels while at the same time making significant public-spending cuts. There is also the profoundly conservative assumption that cuts are essential in the first place, which assumes a future of austerity and low rates of economic growth (see, for example, The austerity auction, by Rob Lyons and There is an alternative to austerity, by Daniel Ben-Ami).

But most troubling of all is the fact that the leaders of all parties are united in their refusal even to consider the possibility of significantly reorganising, much less reducing, society’s reliance upon state welfare provision. The twin influences of economic recession and the exhaustion of political and state institutions give us the possibility of asking a number of hugely important questions about the welfare state: What kinds of social provisions do we want in society? How might they be (re)organised? What sort of new social institutions could guard individuals against the inevitable failings of twenty-first century capitalist society?

Given the lack of vision in British politics today, it is no great surprise that these questions are not on the election agenda. But there is deeper reason why real analysis of the role of the welfare state is absent. To raise any critical questions about the welfare state would require the political class to question the role it has played in a fundamental reorganisation of the relationship between state and citizens, radically transforming assumptions about what citizens are capable of and what role the state can and should play in our lives. Over the past couple of decades, a new understanding of welfare has been put at the centre of the elite’s project to connect with, engage with and remould the citizenry. Where the old welfare state was largely about providing citizens with the material things they needed to survive, the new welfare state is a far more therapeutic institution and is about redefining what it means to be a citizen and how citizens relate to the state.

The old notion of the welfare state as a ‘safety net’ to help citizens cope with hardship assumed that individuals, families and communities were generally able to run their own lives most of the time. Social assistance, therefore, was designed to return people to a situation where they could get on with their lives unaided, as autonomous, capable human beings. But the model of welfare that has developed over the past two decades entirely rejects the idea that individuals have the capacity to run their lives. Welfare provision now starts from the assumption that individuals and communities are incapable of managing their own health and lifestyles, family life, child-rearing and informal community relations without the constant intervention of the state and its institutions to advise, train, counsel and (re)educate them.

The change has been so profound that it is really no longer appropriate to talk about a ‘welfare’ state at all. In its place there has developed what former New Labour prime minister Tony Blair described in 2006 as an ‘enabling state’. This new ‘enabling state’ might promote itself through the rhetoric of responsibility and empowerment, but in fact its impact on individuals and communities has been extremely disabling. Virtually every welfare-state intervention is now premised on the assumption that individuals are vulnerable, physically and psychologically incapacitated, and in need of constant therapeutic intervention.

Questioning the role of the welfare state in our lives has never been more urgent. And to do this effectively, we must first understand what the welfare state was really all about in the past, and then consider the more recent transformation of state institutions from providers of discrete assistance and material resources into vehicles for therapeutic guidance.

The origins of the welfare state

Of course, the welfare state, even in its traditional form, was always more than a mere safety net. Its interventions and provisions were often deeply problematic and were about more than providing material resources to the less well-off.

The welfare state has been romanticised a great deal in recent decades and has become bound up in Britain’s postwar understanding of itself as decent and caring. Many on the left in particular considered the welfare project to be the first step on the road to socialism. However, it is important to recognise that the real motivation for building the welfare state had little to do with moral concerns about ensuring greater material equality or social justice, and certainly had nothing to do with creating a socialist Britain. In reality, the welfare state developed as an attempt to mitigate the failures of market society and to contain the threat of class conflict – it was driven by the interests of the state, not the interests of the citizenry.

In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, certain sections of the liberal intelligentsia became concerned with the apparent injustices of laissez faire capitalism. The social liberal TH Green called on the state to ‘remove all obstacles’ to the individual development of ‘social capacity’, such as those caused by lack of education, ill health and housing (see Thomas Hill Green, Lectures on the Principle of Political Obligation, 1885). Research into poverty and housing conducted by the social reformer Charles Booth and the young socialist Beatrice Webb, and Seebohm Rowntree’s study of poverty in York, in which he developed the argument that poverty was the result of low pay rather than the moral failings of the poor, all provided the statistical evidence and normative arguments for a developing moral, if paternalistic, concern with poverty.

However, these concerns, put forward by various Quakers and liberal reformers, were not sufficient to motivate a fundamental reconceptualisation of the role of the state based on providing welfare and health to all. On their own these arguments did not give rise to a new welfare state. Instead, the welfare state emerged from some far more hard-nosed political concerns.

In 1899, the political class was appalled to discover that, despite the apparent willingness of the British working man to enlist to fight in the Second Boer War, almost 25 per cent of volunteers were unfit for military service. In Manchester alone, 8,000 of the 10,000 men who volunteered were rejected on the grounds of ill-health and physical incapacity. Worse still, the difficulties experienced by those working men who did pass the basic fitness test and then struggled to defeat the less-experienced Boers made the elite worry that this might be the beginning of the end of Britain’s military greatness. How could Britain be great if its fighting men were so physically weak? There emerged a heated elite discussion about the degeneration of the British race, and how this might be turned around by improving the basic conditions of the working man.

Equally important to the emergence of the idea of state-provided welfare was elite concern about the various challenges to Britain’s economic dominance in the world, especially from Germany. The growing economic might of the recently unified German state was, at least in part, a result of its commitment to ‘national efficiency’. In the 1880s, motivated both by an attempt to create the conditions for maximum productivity and to contain social conflict, Bismarck introduced a range of state measures to provide health, accident, old-age and invalidity insurance for the working classes. These German welfare measures were the model for the Liberal reforms made by governments under Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George: the introduction of free school meals in 1906, the introduction of a means-tested pension in 1908, the establishment of labour exchanges in 1909, and the National Insurance Act of 1911, which introduced a basic level of health insurance and unemployment benefit.

Just as for Bismarck, the acceptance by the British ruling class that the state should intervene in society to create the conditions for a more efficient capitalist economy went hand-in-hand with their increasing concern about the growing strength and radicalisation of the labour movement. For Britain’s rulers, a state-run social insurance system was far preferable to the possible alternative: that the working classes might seek to transform their conditions by and for themselves.

The project of transforming these early twentieth-century systems of social security and insurance into the institutions of state welfare that we recognise today began with the publication of the Beveridge Report in 1942. Almost immediately, the promise of a society of fully employed, healthy, educated and materially secure citizens – a society that had defeated the ‘giant evils of squalor, ignorance, idleness, want and disease’, as social reformer William Beveridge put it – became central to the ideological drive to keep British troops fighting in the Second World War. They were now seen as fighting towards a new kind of society.

The principles and institutions of the welfare state were finally established with the Education Act of 1944, which created free secondary education and the basis for comprehensive schools; the Family Allowance Act of 1945; the National Insurance Act of 1946; and then the National Health Service, which was launched in 1948. Most of these provisions were enacted by the first-ever Labour majority government, but it was the Tory reformer RA ‘Rab’ Butler who introduced the education reforms. Butler and his fellow ‘One Nation’ Tories, who entered government in 1951, had no problem with the welfare model. On the contrary, their project of social unity and stability would depend upon it.

The aim of the Beveridge Report was to keep the capitalist economy afloat, not in any way to undermine it, and to establish the possibility of further growth and expansion. The general, postwar acceptance that society could be dominated to such an extent by the state was doubtless made easier by the total domination of society by the ‘warfare state’ for the previous six years. Importantly for the elites, their pursuit of a new welfare-modelled state allowed for the even greater cooption of the labour movement, individuals and communities into a unified sense of Britain’s role in the world.

The point of this brief historical survey is not to suggest that the principles and reality of the welfare state brought no positive benefits. The National Health Service, premised on the idea of providing universal access to healthcare at the point of need, has played a significant role in both eradicating disease and significantly improving the health of the population. The introduction of a comprehensive system of education provided, in theory at least, access to rigorous learning and knowledge to everyone, regardless of class or social privilege.

The social provision of material necessities and resources to individuals who, through no fault of their own, were unable to provide for themselves is an expression of the important humanist responsibility that society has to all of its members in times of need. The recognition that poverty, illness and unemployment are social problems, and not the result of individual moral failings, was implicit in the model of welfare that was dominant in Britain from the end of the Second World War to the 1970s, and is an essential insight for anyone concerned with social justice.

However, it is important to set the positive benefits of the welfare state against the constant potential for the ever-greater intervention of the state in society, and the consequent domination and structure of dependency that this establishes, to limit the capacity of individuals and communities to take control of their circumstances. By providing a buffer against the worst deprivations caused by poverty, unemployment and social alienation, the welfare state also plays a significant role in encouraging people to accommodate to their lot.

The criteria by which any past, current or proposed welfare intervention should be judged is in terms of the capacity that it gives individuals to take greater control of their lives – to live the lives that they want to lead, with the means to take control of the resources that they feel are necessary. On this basis, it would be wrong to dismiss the gains of education, healthcare and material welfare benefits – when people are in need, a decent society should develop mechanisms to meet those needs. But it would be naive to overlook the hardnosed political origins of the welfare state, and its role in de-radicalising and controlling working-class aspiration, and to leave unexplored the increasingly problematic role that a new therapeutic welfare state plays today.

From welfare to therapy

The old aspiration, amongst social reformers at least, to provide social mechanisms that might empower people to take greater control of their lives has been entirely absent in the discussion and development of the welfare state over the past two decades. Indeed, the new ‘enabling state’, as Blair christened it, is a direct consequence of a diminished view of the capabilities of individuals and communities.

Where the welfare state was in essence an attempt to head off radical, working-class politics, the motivation for the transformation of the meaning of welfare in recent years has been a semi-conscious attempt by the state to engage with, connect to, and in numerous ways reshape and resocialise the citizenry. Let us consider two examples.

The case of children and families

One of the most progressive campaigns of the feminist movement in the 1970s and 80s was for the provision of universally accessible childcare on demand. At first sight, it might seem as if this demand has finally been achieved with Sure Start, the New Labour government’s ‘programme to deliver the best start in life for every child by bringing together early education, childcare, health and family support’. Sure Start provides children’s centres (‘service hubs where children under five years old and their families can receive seamless integrated services and information’), through a guarantee of free ‘early education’ provision for three- and four-year-olds, and the promise of childcare provision for every child between the ages of three and 14, from 8am to 6pm. The only party political disagreement over Sure Start today concerns who will do the most to increase its funding and ability to provides services.

However, two insidious ideas underpin the Sure Start initiative. First, the assumption is that most parents are at best ignorant of how to raise their children, and at worst are utterly dysfunctional. The second is a fatalistically deterministic view of child development – an idea that miscreant adults and broken communities are the result of ‘bad parenting’ from the earliest months of a child’s life.

Sure Start aims to create healthier children by ‘supporting parents to care for their children both before and after birth’ [my emphasis]. In reality this involves the state teaching parents about the moral ills of smoking and drinking during pregnancy, and ensuring that children are fed the recommended five portions of fruit and veg a day, amongst other things. Sure Start even provides instructions to parents on how they should play with their children.

Such intervention undermines the authority and autonomy of parents and encourages them to view child-rearing and family life as an activity which can only be undertaken under the careful guidance of state-sanctioned experts. More than any previous social-service interventions in family life, which were traditionally directed towards a relatively small section of very deprived families, Sure Start aims to engage with families across all social classes. Sure Start assumes that state intervention is essential to produce properly socialised individuals and to keep families together, while ignoring many other problems related to childcare provision, access to decent education and the financial burden of raising children. It is all about therapeutically redirecting the population towards the right way of thinking and behaving and parenting, rather than providing them with the things and finances they might need.

Unemployment and incapacity

Over the past couple of years, society has been going through a deep economic recession, with the official level of unemployment reaching nearly 2.5million people. Consequently there has been much material insecurity and hardship for a great many individuals. However, in our response to these hardships, we have moved a long way from the period of industrial labour militancy that dominated the recession of the 1970s, and which played a large part in bringing to an end the traditional postwar welfare consensus. As Brendan O’Neill has argued, unemployment has ceased to be a political issue to which we see the possibility of social and political solutions.

In response to the current recession, the state is not readying troops of armed men to maintain social order – instead it is training an army of counsellors and therapists to help the newly unemployed cope with their changed circumstances. NHS Direct call-centre operatives have been encouraged to listen out for signs of depression amongst callers who have lost their jobs, while Jobcentres have been given the authority to refer jobseekers for cognitive behavioural therapy, with a promise that such therapy will soon be offered onsite at Jobcentres themselves.

These initiatives are only an expansion of the government’s stated intention, planned before the recession, to provide psychological therapies to the unemployed, not simply to help them cope with unemployment, but to help them to ‘develop the confidence’ to get back into work. Unemployment, in other words, is now seen as a problem of individual psychology rather than social and economic organisation. The changing understanding of unemployment, from political failing to individual handicap, is reflected in the fact that of the five million people currently out of work and claiming benefits in the UK, over 50 per cent are drawing Incapacity Benefit – they have been redefined as incapable of working rather than as being denied a job by the current social and economic framework.

While political parties do still express concern about the rising bills for the expansion of welfare, behind their rhetoric there is no real attempt to encourage any autonomy or independence. Instead, the mechanisms through which the unemployed will apparently be ‘assisted’ back into work involve an ongoing process of training, mentoring and support, which will continue even once work has been found. In other words, the assumption is that state intervention and support will be needed in order to maintain an individual’s capacity for work and employment.

The widely held assumption that many unemployment and incapacity claimants are cynically manipulating the welfare system misses the extent to which individuals have been encouraged by the new welfare state to understand themselves in terms of their physical incapacities and psychological vulnerabilities. That unemployment has come to be understood as a problem of individual incapacity and community attitudes and culture, rather than of social organisation, is expressed in the Conservative Party’s diagnosis that ‘in many parts of the country, worklessness is being passed from generation to generation’. Here, the children of unemployed families are understood as being socialised by a degenerate culture; such children are seen as being less likely to achieve at school and more likely to end up as workless in the future. Like the assumption that the abused child becomes the adult abuser, unemployment is seen to be a psychological problem caused by a failure of appropriate parenting and poor socialisation. In some ways, this takes us back to the old idea of poverty as a moral failing (or in this instance a psychological failing) rather than as a social problem – the new therapeutic state is taking us backwards.

Towards a new future

The idea that society can and should provide material welfare for people who need assistance from time to time is a positive one. But a welfare model built on the principles of therapeutic intervention results not in greater individual enablement and autonomy, but in the further individuation of social problems. This outlook suggests that individuals are generally incapable of organising their lives – and this risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, as individuals really do come to be increasingly dependent upon the state to mediate, regulate and give counsel on the most common and everyday activities. The creation of a society in a condition of such dependency is a truly demoralising waste of people’s lives and energies.

However, for the state to try to change this situation, to allow people to act as capable and autonomous individuals, would be to challenge the very foundation upon which the state has sought to build its legitimacy in our post-political climate.

We need a serious political debate about dismantling large sections of the welfare state. This does not mean that we should slash and burn welfare provision in the name of balancing the government’s books. It means interrogating how the welfare state has come to have an almost entirely corrosive role upon the individuals and communities who are subject to it. Far from being an ‘enabling state’ as Blair suggested, what we now have is a disabling state.

The debate we must initiate needs to move beyond the limited political imagination that dominates both left and right. The state is neither the only institution that can guarantee the wellbeing of the citizenry, nor can we rely on the market consistently to provide for individuals. Rather than understanding the current situation as a reason for despair, we ought to embrace the very positive challenge that rejecting the interventions of the state would force us to confront: how we might begin to build a new set of public institutions and bodies, through which, acting in concert as citizens, we could begin to decide what kinds of welfare provisions we might actually need, and what kind of society we might really want to live in.

Those of us with any concern for a better future must not shy away from challenging the ideological underpinnings of therapeutic state interventionism. The current benefits gained from state welfare are not worth the very great social cost of accepting the redefinition of ourselves as individuals who are limited, vulnerable, and generally incapable of managing our lives.

James Panton is lecturer in politics at St John’s College, Oxford, and co-founder of the Manifesto Club. Contact James .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

#1: Frank Furedi on education

#2: Brendan O’Neill on immigration

#3: Mick Hume on left and right

#4: James Woudhuysen on innovation

#5: James Panton on the welfare state

#6: Jennie Bristow on parenting

#7: Brendan O’Neill on freedom

#8: Dr Michael Fitzpatrick on public health

#9: Sean Collins on capitalism


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