Washing their hands of the welfare state

The welfare state as prop for capitalism? This time-honoured communist critique is too catagorical, argues Jir Pehe. Any credible approach to reforming capitalism entails not attacking the welfare state but supporting its extension on a global scale.

The welfare state has long been criticized by neoliberals and conservatives, who would like to see it curbed substantially – either for ideological reasons, as an allegedly expensive residue of the global industrial era, or in response to the demands of transnational capital, whose circulation the welfare state impedes. Recently, however, the welfare state has increasingly found itself under fire from the Left.

Oversimplifying somewhat, the arguments of the radical Left can be summed up as follows: the welfare state has de facto served to prop up capitalism by significantly reducing the risk of social unrest. From this perspective, the issue is not so much whether it was the “exploited” social classes who have managed to secure the welfare state from capital, but whether the welfare state has merely been a sort of opium that capital offered the “masses” more or less voluntarily once the “tranquilizing” effect of that other opium of mankind – religion – had worn off.

Along with this line of criticism, it is often argued that by supporting consumerism the welfare state thwarts opportunities for “authentic existence”. Michael Hauser, for example, has recently revived Herbert Marcuse’s well-known argument about consumerist culture being repressive, since people enjoying material wellbeing don’t mind being subjected to anonymous economic forces and other forms of power.1
A critique of the welfare state from the Left is nothing new. In a way it was at the heart of the argument between the social-democratic and communist Left even before the concept of the welfare state was invented.

Whereas the social-democratic Left regarded it as its priority to “humanize” capitalism (initially in the form of various social entitlements and later through a coherent concept of the welfare state), the communist Left saw this strategy as evidence of the corrupting influence of capital. The social democratic Left had, so the argument went, accepted the existence of capitalism and chosen to wage its struggle within the confines of the system, rather than against the system itself.

This row flared up again in the 1960s in the guise of neo-Marxist and various radical left-wing theories. Now, having subsided after the fall of communism and the end of the bipolar world order, it has flared up again in the context of the critique of global capitalism and the struggle against neo-liberalism.

Hauser, for example, is surprised by what he sees on the part of the Left as an uncritical invocation of the welfare state as the only goal worth pursuing. He considers it illogical for the Left to criticize neo-liberal cuts that curb consumer culture (people have to economize, they are worried about their jobs…) while, at the same time, condemning, at least to some degree, consumer culture itself and the civic passivity that accompanies it.

Hauser points out what he sees as a contradiction that sometimes occurs in the critical minds of our day. The philosopher Vaclav Belohradsky, for example, rejects neoliberalism on the grounds that it seeks to dismantle the welfare state; at the same time, however, Belohradsky is critical of the growth of Growth, which is what forms the economic basis of the welfare state. Consistent thinking, Hauser says, shows that neoliberalism rejects the social welfare state and at the same time promotes growth, which in turn is stimulated by the welfare state. Following this line of thought, to criticize growth must also be to address the contradictory economic rationale upon which the welfare state depends.

It is, of course, possible to accept – at least partly – the kind of critique that paints the welfare state as part of the capitalist engine based on worshipping the growth of Growth, as well as underpinning consumerism, which not only fuels the capitalist economy but also creates a repressive consumerist culture which, in turn, stabilizes the rule of capitalism.

However, this leaves open the question as to what realistic solutions might be. Hauser quotes Slavoj Zizek, who has said that the Left today reminds him of a neurotic who compulsively discusses vicarious problems in order to avoid discussing issues that really matter. What really matters, namely, is a transformation of the entire global capitalist system, which is at the root of all other problems (the economic crisis, the dismantling of the welfare state, environmentalism, migration, social exclusion).

One might, however, object that no one on the radical Left, including Zizek, has offered any realistic proposal for changing the global capitalist system as a whole. “Solutions” such as world revolution can easily be dismissed, since nothing of the kind is likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

Nor does some kind of spontaneous, conscious transformation of the current paradigm that would result in people voluntarily limiting their consumption and returning to a local economy, starting to stress the values of a post-materialistic “authentic existence”, appear to be realistic. Such a change would not only have to entail a transformation of human behaviour, which rarely occurs without enormous pressure, but also, as a response to global capitalism, have to take place on a global scale.

This is highly improbable, even if the Internet has enabled social movements promoting this type of change to operate globally. Equally global, though rather more powerful, is the influence of mainstream media: as branches of global capital, the media are allowed to criticize various shortcomings but generally function strictly “within the system”, promoting the values of capitalism.

It is more realistic to expect the system of global capitalism to implode under the weight of the next economic crisis, through a shortage of energy resources, or as a result of an environmental disaster that triggers a demand for alternatives to the current mode of mass consumption and consumerist existence. However the question remains how conscious a transition to a new mode of existence can possibly be, and to what extent it would merely be the product of a new phase of global violence and chaos.

None of this is intended to question the legitimacy of the quest for alternatives to the current system of global capitalism. Nevertheless, a certain amount of caution is in order.

Hauser, following Zizek, says that, “the hopelessness of present-day life is linked to the fact that we persist in behaving like neurotics. We sense that a fundamental social change is essential but we don’t want to believe it is possible.”

The claim of the “hopelessness of present-day life” is itself somewhat categorical. We could just as easily claim that, however repressive consumer culture might be, and however much the welfare state has been in cahoots with the growth of Growth, it was the certainties of the welfare state that ensured that the masses enjoyed hitherto unprecedented levels of dignity and security.

This security has also equipped them politically to strive for change, if change is what they desire. Members of the radical Left like to claim that attempts at real change within the system of liberal democracy are bound to fail, since ultimately the only possible policies are those dictated by capitalist rule. Yet this is a little as if we had claimed three hundred years ago that the introduction of elements of constitutional monarchy and market economy would not effect any changes in feudal rule, let alone bring it to an end.

In other words, we cannot avoid the question as to whether social change necessarily has to occur in the form of revolutionary upheaval. Nor does anyone know what exactly the impact of such a change would be, since a definitive answer is complicated by too many variables, from the rapidly evolving context of international politics to the growing influence of new technologies and revolutionary scientific discoveries.

History teaches us that changes in the social order, or even entire civilizational paradigms, have sometimes taken the form of a revolution, but at other times have also happened by evolution, with elements of a new system seeping into the old and eventually prevailing, displacing the previously existing paradigm. Whenever such changes did occur, they ended up being quite different from those theorized, since the number of variables was even then already too large.

That is why we ought to avoid judgments that are too categorical. Vaclav Belohradsky has recently written that “capitalism with a human face” is not possible. That, however, would mean that alternatives to present-day capitalism could be sought only outside of it.

Journalist Vaclav Zak was right to object: “Is rejecting capitalism really our only option, as Belohradsky claims? Or is it the case that there can be very different kinds of capitalism? Is Greek capitalism the same as Danish capitalism?”

If we accept that capitalism can be gradually reformed through political action within the system of liberal democracy, it is here that the democratic Left has a great chance to take the initiative. The key practical task the Left faces today is reforming “real existing capitalism”, which is still at work on a more or less global scale, into a “capitalism with a human face”, which the Scandinavian countries have managed to implement quite successfully on a national scale.

The point, therefore, is to ensure that global capitalism does not exceed the requirements of advanced political democracy in combining freedom, equality and solidarity.

The first task is to bring global capital under political control. Provided global capitalism does not resist such control it will prove reformable. It will then be possible to have a meaningful discussion – even on a global scale – on matters such as sustainable growth, even about the limits of consumption and consumerism.

Yes: there is capitalism and capitalism. As long as capitalism continues to exist on a global scale in a “Latin American” form, as it does today, we will continue talking of a rich centre and a poor periphery, or of social incompatibility. If global capitalism continues in the Scandinavian form, i.e. as a social market economy, we are talking of a completely different global social order, in which it may even be possible to have a rational discussion on how to make the evolutionary step beyond the system that we currently, and rather simplistically, refer to as capitalism.

A further key argument needs to be borne in mind. The Left, perhaps even the radical Left, cannot resist the pressure of global capitalism to transform by washing their hands of the welfare state, in the vain hope that the pauperization of the formerly well-off might provoke some kind of a revolt. Unfortunately, the philosophy of “the worse, the better” is all too obvious in the arguments of some radical Left thinkers.

The Left ought to close ranks, not only in order to defend the welfare state at any price, but also, possibly with the assistance of transnational institutions, to enable it to expand to those parts of the world where it does not yet exist. No matter how much some of its impact, for instance consumerism, can be criticized, the welfare state is one of the fundamental bastions that may eventually help win the fight against global capital.

Published 31 January 2011
Original in Czech
Translated by Julia Sherwood
First published by Referendum, 27 October 2010 (Czech original); Eurozine (English translation)

© Jirí Pehe / Eurozine


Related Articles

Cover for: A quintessentially twentieth-century life

Born in Hungary before becoming a communist in Germany, then a French Foreign Legionnaire, then a wartime propagandist for the British government – but, above all, a writer and thinker – Arthur Koestler was one of the most intriguing intellectuals of the twentieth century. Michael Scammell, the author of his official biography, ‘Koestler, The Indispensable Intellectual’, spoke to Eurozine partner journal Letras Libres about Koestler’s life.

Cover for: Now who’s living in truth?

The dissident vocabulary of anti-politics is currently in vogue, but often misconstrued. The anti-political critique of ideology moves comfortably across the political spectrum, and today’s anti-politician can become tomorrow’s ideologue.