What’s so great about the welfare state?

Defenders of the welfare state seem blissfully unaware of how it encourages growing numbers of people to become permanently entangled in a supposed ‘safety net’.

Dave Clements

Topics Books

Asbjorn Wahl is a trade unionist, director of the Campaign for the Welfare State and Norwegian. While you shouldn’t judge a book by the biog of its author, far less his nationality, it is fair to say that when I opened his new book, The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State, I wasn’t expecting much.

He begins, as all defenders of the welfare state must, with a bleak account of the public; that is, of the welfare state’s helpless, vulnerable clients and potential clients. There is a ‘feeling of powerlessness and apathy among people’, says Wahl, a feeling of ‘tragic stories’ too numerous to mention. As well as discovering an ‘unexpectedly large number… of victims of workfare’, he finds other people suffering ‘bad health and ever-more demanding work’. He tells us ‘stories of people who struggle with their health, then their self-confidence and their self-image’. As I heard a man on a picket line tell a Sky News reporter recently, everyone is ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired’.

Does Wahl blame the ‘machinery of the welfare state’ for this sickening trend? No, far from finding fault with a set of institutions that actively undermine people’s sense of autonomy and self-reliance, he chooses to blame the left’s favourite bogeyman: neoliberalism. ‘Since neoliberal reforms increase economic and social differences and social differences in turn create larger social and health-related problems’, explains Wahl, ‘the conclusion must be that neoliberalism is both a health hazard and socially destructive’. And not just for put-upon workers or welfare recipients. So formidable is this mysterious force of neoliberalism that it is even ‘turning the welfare state into a highly vulnerable victim’, too.

This is not to make light of the welfare problem. Even putting aside the plight of those living in the crisis-ridden Eurozone’s periphery, like Greece and Spain, over a million young people are out of work in the UK alone. And many more people are on sickness and disability benefits of one kind or another. But blaming ‘the system’ is a frankly adolescent response. ‘Illness, disability and a loss of work motivation’, Wahl tells us, are ‘rational and understandable responses to the brutalisation of work and the increasing inequalities in society’. But why should working conditions be considered inevitably illness-inducing as opposed to radicalising? Especially if one considers the kinds of deprivations earlier generations of workers endured without exhibiting such symptoms.

Wahl understands that the fate of the welfare state is inextricably linked with the declining fortunes of the political creed with which it will forever be associated: social democracy. He is critical of the morphing of what were ‘mass organisations for the workers’ into not very effective ‘bureaucratic and establishment… election machines’. They are cut off from the masses, he says, and as a consequence subject to ‘ever-deeper political and ideological crisis’. The trouble is that his own ‘radical’ brand of state-socialism-cum-anti-neoliberalism is no better. Indeed, it has a lot in common with the ‘anti-austerity posturing’ that Brendan O’Neill has argued on spiked is increasingly evident across Europe, most notably with François Hollande’s Socialist government in France and the left-wing Syriza party in Greece. Regardless of Europe’s economic woes and the political fallout, the left, as Wahl himself argues, is in crisis across Europe: the trade-union movement is weak and defensive, and there is a ‘lack of ambitious alternatives’.

Wahl is good on the origins of the welfare state, situating it in a historical conflict between the interests of labour and capital, both at home and abroad. It is, he rightly says, the institutional outcome of a historically specific compromise. From the Boer War to the Bolshevik revolution, this new role for the state was driven both by elite concern at the declining ‘stock’ of the working classes, and by the threat of radical change posed by their politicisation. These ‘social reforms were intended to stem the tide of socialism’, he says. The ruling class was helped in its attempt to ward off socialism by a set of relatively strong economies, the continued exploitation of former colonies, and the political stand-off of the Cold War. Taken together, this all ‘helped to damp the radicalism’ of the left in the postwar years.

That much of the European left associated itself with Stalinism, the despotic variant of state socialism that kept social transformation on ice for so long, is somewhat neglected by Wahl. Indeed, while he also says the welfare consensus began to break down in the 1970s as the economic growth that ‘gave room for’ it faltered, it was the crumbling of the political consensus after the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade or so later that was to have the greater impact. The disorientation and social pessimism that resulted, not only for social democrats but across a political spectrum denied the old poles of left and right, meant that the welfare state also lost its moorings. Today’s financial crisis has only added a sense of urgency to the need to resolve the welfare problem. For all the ‘radical’ posturing of leftist groupings across the continent, this is no bad thing.

Yet rather than confront the welfare problem, Wahl prefers to delude himself about the wonders of welfarism. He claims the welfare state is regarded ‘positively’ by the people of Europe, because it is ‘identified with a more secure and better society to live in’. It is part, he says, of the ‘humanisation of society’.

In reality, everything from the riots of last summer to efforts by the UK Lib-Con coalition government to arrest the decline in education standards suggests that the welfare state – in the UK at least – has become something of a liability. Across the continent, as Wahl’s account inadvertently suggests, the welfare state is not serving as a sensible arrangement for the maintenance of social security and delivery of public services. Instead, it has fostered dependency – both material and moral – and encouraged a growing section of society to become permanently entangled in the supposed ‘safety net’.

Wahl also complains all too defensively that the public sector is ‘presented as meaninglessly bureaucratic, laborious, [and] rigid’ by its detractors. As a long-serving, otherwise left-leaning and latterly redundant local-government officer, I regret to confirm that it is all of those things. Consequently, I have found myself at odds with the none-too-inspiring fightback against public-service cuts. Wahl is critical of the shift to arms-length arrangements, from contracting-out ostensibly public services to the outsourcing of decisions about the economy to the EU, IMF and World Bank. But his obsession with neoliberals under the bed means that he sees the rise of quangos (which are alive and well in spite of the UK government’s supposed ‘bonfire’), and the dominance of unaccountable supranational institutions, as an alien invasion by big business. He fails to see that these developments are a consequence of the long-standing diminution of politics in favour of the impositions of a managerial state.

Still, Wahl at least recognises the ‘historic defeats’ visited on the labour movement and how this plays itself out today. Just a quarter of the European workforce is unionised, he admits, noting that even this fraction is a consequence of public-sector expansion and not politically engaged labourism. Yet still he hopes against hope that something or somebody might animate a movement that has long since entered a state of rigor mortis. He thinks rather wishfully that ‘a certain radicalisation’ of the trade unions is occurring in response to the economic crisis. While events on the continent may well have ‘flung the door wide open’, it is far from clear what is on the other side.

Nevertheless, the historic role of the trade unions with regards welfare is instructive. Wahl refers to the ‘benefit funds, burial clubs and similar solidarity schemes’ that existed before the welfare state. They provided the model for welfarism insofar as they provided social insurance for their members.

As Wahl says, today’s trade unions are more likely to be found representing (or rather counselling) individuals suffering ‘increased stress’ or poor self-esteem. But rather than make these individuated experiences of the workplace intelligible – beyond blaming the market, that is – he uses psychiatric jargon as if it needs no further explanation. This betrays the extent to which the problem is driven as much by the left’s own intellectual disorientation as it is by the organisational collapse that Wahl attributes to a mythical neoliberal onslaught. He even wonders whether the ‘brutal working life’ to which many are apparently subject ‘tends to undermine rather than strengthen welfare’ or whether it is worth the resultant economic growth. (Er, what economic growth?)

Wahl is critical of both the anti-democratic tendencies of the European Union and the imposition of the ‘economic straitjacket’ resulting from the attack on living standards in the Eurozone periphery countries. But his call for the ‘stimulation of the economy, investment in infrastructure and in productive activities’ can hardly be taken seriously given his doubts about the benefits of economic growth. While attempts by Europe’s governments to counter the financial crisis, and in so doing to create public debt crises, have, as Wahl says, been ‘exploited as an excuse to make massive, intensified attacks on the welfare state’, this does not in itself invalidate the attack. His view that capitalist excess is responsible for all of Europe’s ills is also his blind spot when it comes to seeing the damage done by an increasingly therapeutic welfarism. In truth, the welfare problem is not something dreamt up by neoliberals (whoever they are). Rather, it is symptomatic of a political culture that robs people of their agency, something that you might expect somebody like Wahl to be opposed to. Far from it. ‘Good social security’, he says, ‘gives people that much-needed self-confidence boost that enables them to become active players in society’.

As this back-to-front and patronising rationale makes clear, today’s welfare state infantilises people. It tells them that they are too damaged to function without its official hand-holding and belittling interventions. Any ‘progressive’ movement would surely endorse the contrary view that people should be treated as morally independent beings, responsible for their own actions? But to say as much is to invite the charge that you are horribly right wing and endorse ‘welfare-to-work’ policies (which, incidentally, sound rather more like the unforgiving and austere welfare state envisioned by its founders than that proposed by its supposed critics).

Whatever the rhetoric on either side, we should be far more concerned by the initiative-sapping and ever-indulgent welfarism that Wahl would evidently like to see more of. Instead of meeting people’s need for periodic support in difficult times, the welfare state has increasingly come to institutionalise a dysfunctional, and increasingly therapeutic, relationship between state and society which neither can afford. Worse still, it is a dead weight around the neck of anybody that wants to criticise how society is, and come up with a vision of what a better society might really look like.

Dave Clements works in social care, writes on social policy issues, and is co-editor of The Future of Community: Reports of a Death Greatly Exagerrated. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He is speaking at the debate Pop-up communities: here to stay? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 20 October.

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