Framing the Problem: Viability vs. Effect
In the prevailing political and scientific discussion on welfare states in general and the Swedish welfare model in particular, the focus is on the question of the viability of the different welfare models (in light of demographic changes, globalisation, multiculturalism, citizenship etc.). By contrast, I believe that the basic question is not whether the Swedish model is viable – but whether it works.
In short, the model should not be evaluated on the basis of whether it will survive (i.e. on the basis of its specific features) but on the basis of whether it works (i.e. on the basis of effects or outcomes). Within a socialist perspective these outcomes can only be evaluated in light of socialist “values” such as equality (both in terms of classes, gender and ethnicity) and freedom as social control, peoples’ power (“democracy”) etc.
In the conventional understanding, the Swedish welfare state model is seen as a prime case of a “reformist socialist” strategy for socialism: “a democratic socialist regime”. The problem with this is not only that Sweden remains a capitalist welfare state but rather the misnomer “reformism”. The opposite of reformism is usually described as revolutionary (“undemocratic”) socialism. However, these concepts only make sense as different strategies for achieving the same perceived goal (i.e. socialism).
However, the real bone of contention within the left, to my mind, relates to different ontologies of capitalism, socialism and hence the welfare state. The welfare model in Sweden is therefore not primarily a reformist strategy, but an ontological understanding of capitalism and socialism as class collaboration, i.e. the idea that socialism grows from within capitalism with the socialisation of consumption and large-scale production. Socialism is seen as the “rational” outcome of capitalism, as the “full” or “radical” realisation of the hitherto failed liberal ideas of freedom and equality. “Socialism” can hence be realised together with capital rather than in opposition to capital. In this light, the opposite of class collaboration is not revolution but the ontology of class struggle, i.e. the idea that socialism can only be realised against capital – as the total overthrow of capitalist social relations. This is the real division of opinion within the left today, as regards the role of the welfare state.
In regard to the issues outlined above I would emphasise that the uniqueness of the Swedish welfare model does not lie in the model itself but in the political self-image of the model. The Swedish welfare state in the post-war era was seen as a particular strategy for socialism (“the Peoples’ Home”), what I have dubbed “the social-policy road to socialism”. This political project consisted of the following:
a. Class collaboration and “consensus”: the idea that the welfare state is the rational, gradual transformation of capitalist society – which in the end (almost invisibly – but inevitably) will lead to socialism. This is attained through:
b. The socialisation of consumption – rather than socialisation of production. The Swedish model is one in which private capital owns the means of production, but where strong unions and a strong (socialdemocratic) state, through wage-bargaining and taxes, social-security systems and “the socialisation of the family” (day-care, social services), socialise consumption. This is seen as the road to the gradual realisation of economic and social equality. Socialism is described as “fair distribution” (and we know what Marx thought of that slogan!).
c. The primacy of the government sector: i.e., since capital owns the means of production, the government sector is seen as providing the prime institutions to realise socialism. The social-democratic conventional wisdom talks of this as “states against markets” and of the idea that “the market is a good servant – but a bad master”. Hence the state is placed in the ontology of class collaboration – as something neutral – which can be democratically embraced by the working class parties to achieve socialism.
d. The national solution: Since the welfare state is the road to socialism in this perception the nation-state, as the locus of welfare, becomes the solution to socialism. A rhetoric of socialism as class politics and workers’ power is replaced by a vision of socialism as the realisation of the “full citizenship” of every citizen (see T.H. Marshall). In Sweden socialism is described in gradualist terms: first “political”, secondly “social”, and eventually “economic democracy”.
In most conventional wisdom, the Swedish welfare model is described as a prime case of an “institutional welfare state”, or as a decommodified welfare-state regime (Esping-Andersen). In the Swedish political debate it is often referred to as “general welfare”. However the Swedish welfare model consists of (at least) three different systems with different logics:
a. Social services: tax-funded and part of citizens’ social rights. This comes closest to the idea of a universalist welfare model. However in terms of outcomes these social services in Sweden have found it increasingly difficult to prevent growing regional, class and incomebased differences in the model.
b. Social security is for the most part wage-labour-based and a form of “workfare” rather than “welfare” – both in terms of qualifying to enter the system and of payments from the system. It is a national system financed through “social payments” (“sociala avgifter”) deducted from the wage. “Arbetslinjen” (“the work line”) is the prime feature of this part of the model.
c. Marginal/selective welfare, which consists of means and needs testing. It is tax-funded – but usually administered and financed at the local level. In terms of costs this remains a very small portion of social spending.
Within the Swedish left and social democracy, Esping-Andersen’s ideas of “welfare” as “decommodification” and “the social- democratic welfare regime” as the most decommodified model are very popular. However, I argue that this decommodification only relates to the individual level of distribution. At the level of collective production, Sweden is a deeply commodified society inasmuch as Swedish welfare provisions, both in terms of financing and qualification, are dependent on ever more (re-) commodification of labour power at a collective level. “Commitment to full employment”, the war-cry of Swedish social democracy, implies a fully wage-labour society.
The received neo-Marxist critiques of the welfare state can broadly be divided into three different perspectives:
a. The welfare-state bribe: i.e. the idea that the welfare state fulfils the function of legitimising capitalism and hence buys the working class into the system (correlated to the idea of Fordist production regimes and ideas of “mass consumption”).
b. The fiscal crisis of the state (e.g. James O’Connor). The idea that the welfare state is contradictory in the sense that the “legitimisation function” is crowded out by ever increasing state expenditure through under-balancing of the state budget, leading eventually to a fiscal crisis of the state (the idea of “profit squeeze”).
c. The marginal welfare critique: i.e. the New Left trend of criticising the welfare state as repression of the margins of society (e.g. on the basis of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation) or at the level of the margins of the system (criminal policies, drug policies etc.). This is often the consequence of the belief in a. above, i.e. that the broad majority benefits from the welfare state and hence accepts capitalism… (Variants of the “humanist”, alienation critiques, so popular in the 1960s and 70s, are a subgroup here.)
I argue that for all their partial merits, all of these perspectives provide a weak basis for a contemporary Marxist critique of the Swedish welfare state: As regards a. (what I call “Hyena Marxism”) the history of the labour movement points in the other direction: the more welfare reforms the working class has achieved the more radical and anti-capitalist we have become. As regards b., Sweden and the rest of the social-democratic welfare regimes have extremely stable state and government budgets. There simply is no “fiscal crisis” of the state. As regards c., this form of critique of the welfare state has relegated both the critique as well as the Marxist left to the margin of society at best; at worst it leads to a specific form of “Salvation Army leftism”, which transforms the social critique of capitalism into a view of society in which the “well off” feel “empathy” for “the poor” and “unfortunate” – rather than a working-class based solidarity.
Which leads me to strategy.
Current Strategies on the Left to Meet the Challenge of the Welfare State Here I outline the varieties of strategies in three groupings:
a. “The Third Way” (Giddens – Blairism, “Neue Mitte”…) This strategy adapts its “socialism” to what is perceived possible in the era of globalisation, sometimes under late modernist/post-modernist catch phrases such as “pluralism”, “civil society”, “community work”, “empowerment”…
b. “Global social policy” (including its EU versions – “social Europe”). A form of pseudo-internationalism, which in its most well- nown form finds its philosophical basis in Hardt/Negri’s Empire, but which is also common in much globalisation literature and the ideas of global citizenship (e.g. Ramesh Mishra, David Held…)
c. Delinking and “rehabilitation” of “the national welfare state” (e.g. Attac, Tobin Tax, anti-EU left…), which is the most common form of “defence” of the Swedish model within the left in Sweden…
To make a long story short, I argue that all these strategies suffer from the limits of accepting the theoretical and political foundations of “the social-policy road to socialism” – but fail to move beyond them. That is, all three current strategies are implicitly or explicitly trying to answer questions of how to achieve a stable and robust form of “welfare state” for the future. That is also why the discussion has come to focus so much on the “viability” and “stability” of the welfare-state model in Sweden (and elsewhere in Europe?…). More seriously, all of these strategies tend to build on two exaggerations in the perception of the Swedish model. First, the exaggeration of the idea of equality – actually Sweden never was an egalitarian society (just a bit less unequal than the rest), nor was it ever on the road to becoming one. Second, there is the exaggeration of the current “systematic changes” (“systemskiftet”) in the model. However, as most research on the matter, both in Sweden and the rest of Europe, has shown (see Francis Castles, Paul Pierson, Leibfried et al., Heikillä et al., Palme et al…) surprisingly little has happened in the way of systematic changes in the European welfare models. Moreover, divergence rather than convergence seems to be the rule.
But what if the question is wrong? What if there is no “viable” or “stable” welfare-state model under the current phase of capitalism?
I argue for two distinctions here – to try to break the impasse of the debate within the Swedish left and the labour movement:
1. The welfare model in Sweden is NOT socialism; it is not even a road to socialism. However, current welfare struggles in Sweden are vital for the movement towards socialism as a whole, not least because these popular struggles to defend the institutions of the Swedish welfare model are almost spontaneous and have a unifying social/political function.
2. There is no stable welfare model to achieve socialism or even socialist values such as equality and social security. The data on the Swedish model suggests the following paradox: As a model, the Swedish welfare state remains quite stable and viable in achieving some socialist goals such as equality and social security. However, the welfare model is quite clearly failing. Income inequalities, social insecurity, “flexibility” of the labour market etc. are ever clearer features of Swedish society, despite the stability of the model. As a viable model the Swedish case remains a success; as regards outcomes, however, it is failing.
This leads me to the political conclusion – or rather a change of viewpoints:
The left’s political strategies and the correctives it proposes to the current trends (or crisis?) of the Swedish model should not depend on how we perceive a possible, stable welfare model in the future (there isn’t one, anyway, so we can stop looking!) – nor even on what we perceive socialism ultimately to be. The connection established by the ontology of class collaboration and “the social-policy road to socialism” between current welfare models and our vision of a socialist society of equality, freedom and peoples’ power can thus be broken. That is, the current politics of the left regarding welfare models do not even have to resemble what we believe to be the features of socialist society – the only measuring rod to have in mind is the unification and strengthening of the labour movement and the left as a whole – the ultimate condition for socialism. It is only to this end that current welfare struggles have value for socialism – especially in Sweden. If this is granted, then strategies to defend and build upon the achievements of the Swedish welfare model also become independent of locus or level (a discussion in which much of the debate on the left has reached an impasse). No place of struggle becomes unimportant, superfluous or impossible, since our aim is not the creation of a stable model at the “right level” (national, European, regional etc.) but the unification of the socialist movement wherever it defends previous welfare achievements.
Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, School of Health and Society, Malmö University.