Monday, June 24, 2013

Reclaiming "Welfare"

The vicious reaction to the invocation of “welfare” always startles me.  Conservatives’ blood roils when they talk about people “on welfare”.  Progressives fear to defend a “welfare state”.  Ronald Reagan practised dog-whistle politics, tapping both class and race hatred with characteristic skill when discussed “welfare queens”.  I’m ashamed to admit that I sometimes find myself grasping for a different word when looking to describe the set of social and political arrangements the word defines.

And yet a return to definitions suggests that the idea of “welfare” should be comparatively uncontroversial, perhaps even universally-acceptable, to the point that it might define a common starting point for our politics, both because of the affirmative definition and because of the alternatives that this definition suggests.

The Oxford English dictionary defines “welfare” as “the state or condition of doing or being well; good fortune, happiness, or well-being (of a person, community, or thing); thriving or successful progress in life, prosperity”.  For those seeking more, it also offers “a source of well-being or happiness; the good things of life”.  And finally, nodding to the institutional forms which emerged largely in the twentieth century, there is this: “the maintenance of members of a group or community in a state of (esp. physical and economic) well-being, esp. as provided for and organised by legislation or social effort”.

However hard one squints and probes at this definition, it is difficult to see what is so objectionable, horrifying, and threatening to the public about the word or the concepts it embodies. 

We are not just yet, I would hope, quite so mean-spirited and selfish as to wish to deny “good fortune, happiness, or well-being”, or the “good things of life” to our neighbours. Surely we are not so churlish as to believe that the conditions of “well-being and happiness” are the right only of some members of our society.  And could we really be so fuzzy as to believe the above but fail to see that in a complex society composed of many people doing much work which is valued differently by that agglomeration of interests we call an economy will require some larger agent imbued with the public’s power to achieve a measure of redistribution with the purpose of securing the well-being, or the “welfare” of the public. 

And yet progressives in the United States in general and California in particular seem afraid to use a word which could potentially be such a powerful tool for explaining what a social democratic agenda is all about.  Instead of talking about the public good, the welfare of society, collective endeavours, a common purpose, public institutions, or economic equality, they speak of discipline.  They invoke fiscal fundamentalism.  They impose constraints on progressive ambitions, which translate into shackles on progressive action. 

Fiscal discipline, fiscal restraint, austerity budgets...these have ceased to be things associated with creating particular material conditions in particular economic circumstances, and have instead become the things to which public figures who cast themselves as progressives—think President Obama or Governor Brown, to take the most dramatic examples—actually aspire. 

Philip Selznick, a sociologist who wrote about the Tennessee Valley Authority, put it very well, writing, “Democracy has to do with means, with instruments, with tools which define the relationship between authority and individual”.  He cautioned against a state of affairs in which we would experience the “tyranny of means and the impotence of ends”, suggesting that “means tyrannise when the commitments they build up divert us from our true objectives.  Ends are impotent when they are so abstract and unspecified that they offer no principles of criticism and assessment”.*

The embrace of constraints, limitations, and strictures on the means by which we manage our economy—a management which should be about achieving some social goal—has, as Selznick would suggest, come to drastically redefine the outcomes we can achieve, and not for the better.  At the same time, the social outcomes that discipline and constraint offer tend to be either prohibitively vague (using GDP instead of, for example, HDI as an index), increasingly untenable (“growth”), or reprehensibly harsh (“austerity”). 

Absent some conception of social or public welfare, what gains an un- or mis-regulated economy does generate accrue deliberately unevenly.  After all, we’ve had years of rising GDP that has brought no concomitant rise in the welfare or standard of living for most people.  “Growth” brings with it ecological and environmental damage which tends to impact the already-vulnerable in society.  And everyone should have noticed by now that the punishing programme of austerity—which has impacted the quality of public schools, the ability of the working and middle classes to send their children to university, the ability of workers to negotiate wages, the accessibility of healthcare and other basic needs—has left the wealthiest amongst us unscathed thanks to their ability to abuse our weak democracy in order to create a safety net of their own at the expense of the majority of their fellow citizens. 

It would be helpful to have the language to point out that what these people are doing, with the aid of their political bag-carriers in both parties.  The short-lived Occupy movement had some impact on the debate.  But tellingly, even when grassroots members of the Astroturf Tea Party organisations raged against corporate welfare, they proved unable to articulate that criticism in cogent language because of their allergy to the words “welfare” and “public”.

And yet surely that is what critics of the status quo who saw themselves as occupying the right, just as much as Occupiers on the left, were actually talking about.  A “welfare state” is, after all, a state that concerns itself with looking after the welfare of its citizens.  The alternative is something with which we’re altogether too familiar: a state which looks after its wealthiest members, caters to corporations rather than citizens, and which—under the regressive and security-minded Bush and Obama administrations of the last 12 years—increasingly sees the public as a threat to be managed rather than a constituency whose welfare it is bound to look after.

Reclaiming words like “welfare” and “public” won’t, in itself, get us anywhere.  But it might allow us to debate things like the purpose of government, the importance of institutions, and most importantly, the ends we envision with much greater openness and honesty.


* Philip Selznick, TVA and the Grass Roots: a Study of Politics and Organization.  Berkeley: University of California Press: 3, x.

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