Beyond the Welfare State: Social Democracy in Crisis

Scott Remer

Reviewed: Andrew Gamble, Can the Welfare State Survive? (Cambridge: Polity, 2016). 125 pp., £9.99.

At a time when Republicans slaver at the possibility of privatising American public healthcare and social security programmes, and after nearly a decade of punishing austerity and increasingly brazen privatisation throughout the West, books which seriously reflect on the welfare state and its prospects are welcome. The Western world confronts the same ‘five giants of Want, Idleness, Disease, Ignorance, and Squalor’ (p. 19) that the Beveridge report set out to demolish seventy-odd years ago. But this time round, at least in the US, well-funded corporatists are alarmingly close to enacting Constitutional amendments which would mandate ‘permanently balanced budgets and low taxation’ (p. 64) and sound the welfare state’s death knell.

Unfortunately, while Can the Welfare State Survive? is an excellent overview of the welfare state’s evolution, it falters when it attempts to address the welfare state’s flaws and their ramifications for contemporary politics. The book is forceful and clear. It covers a lot of ground for 117 pages. It is a spirited and eloquent defence of the welfare state against right-wing detractors. Gamble’s thesis – that the welfare state’s survival is a matter of ‘political choice’ (p. 10), as opposed to being a victim of some disembodied economic decree of execution; that ‘[m]oral issues’ (p. 33) are at the heart of welfare state politics – is spot-on. So far as it goes, I agree with his argument that the welfare state (and the solidaristic politics it represents) must be protected. But overall, his lack of political imagination is disappointing.

The book is structured logically, divided into four parts. First, Gamble gives a history of the welfare state’s origins and development, from the late 1800s to its present crisis. Readers familiar with European history will find nothing especially original, but his retelling is useful. Then, he surveys different philosophical views on the welfare state and discusses their influence on politics. This sets the stage for discussing the four challenges he perceives as most threatening to the welfare state’s continued welfare. Finally, he speculates about what a viable future would look like for the welfare state. As Gamble sees it, the four central challenges it faces are (1) welfare programmes’ affordability; (2) worries about Western economies’ international competitiveness; (3) a new socioeconomic landscape featuring casualised, precarious work and weak labour unions; and (4) strains brought on by population ageing.

In my view, the book has three flaws, flaws which are common to centre-left thinkers. The first is that Gamble assumes that capitalist ‘democracies’ are genuinely democratic. From this, he concludes that neoliberal policy changes which have occurred over the last fifty years have represented the will of the people, or at the very least the will of various national electorates. But this completely ignores studies like Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page’s 2014 review of American federal policy, which found that the US has functionally been an oligarchy since the early 1980s. Capitalist ‘democracies’ have numerous mechanisms of social control in place to fragment and frustrate the will of the people, from corporate-controlled media to corporate lobbying to parties which are heavily reliant on corporate money.
Gamble claims that the decline of labour unions, churches, extended families, and other communitarian institutions has happened because capitalism ‘has made [individuals] more independent and self-reliant, and less keen to accept dictates of authority’ (p. 84), ascribing the changes to individuals and not to systematic corporate efforts to destroy labour unions and policies imposed from the top down on a reluctant but demoralised population. Without offering any data, he claims that neoliberal reforms came about because of ‘the desire of citizens to exercise more choice and control over the decisions which affected them,’ and he projects onto the population at large a desire to have social services which offer the ‘flexibility and responsiveness’ of ‘supermarkets’ (p. 87).

‘Choice’ and ‘flexibility’ have been buzzwords for people who view the welfare state as a bugbear and any public good’s existence as a personal affront, but where’s the evidence that most people approve of the changes that have occurred over the past fifty years? Certainly, the strikes and protests of the 1980s, anti-globalisation protests of the 1990s, Occupy Wall Street, and all the events of 2016 suggest that many people fervently oppose the neoliberal order.

Gamble’s politics appear social-democratic, but they’re of the market-friendly, capitalist-approved variety. His book illustrates the limits of such politics. In his discussion of crises facing the welfare state, he floats the possibility of cutting pension amounts or slashing pension eligibility (p. 96). He doesn’t challenge the underlying assumption of such moves, which is the faux collectivism of pro-austerity politicians’ calls for ‘shared sacrifice’: having ordinary citizens pay for the sins of the bankers and billionaires who have fleeced taxpayers for decades, leaving our exchequers empty.

He takes the  ‘creative tension’ (p. 104) between the welfare state and capitalist economy for granted; and uses neoliberal rhetoric about choice, self-reliance, and markets (pp. 109-110). He accepts ‘uncertainties created by the way markets, financial institutions, and large corporations operate’ (p. 113); never once does he challenge the justifiability of capitalism itself. He seems to fetishise the Nordic welfare model and largely ignores the ways that the Scandinavian welfare state has been under assault over the past few decades. His policy prescriptions – a universal basic income and capital grants for every citizen – fit squarely within a capitalist system. He pays lip service to the negative political consequences of adopting a universal basic income policy under neoliberalism (namely, that all other welfare programmes will be dismantled) and acknowledges the need for accompanying social investment in education and healthcare, but his discussion of why a universal basic income wouldn’t be used as a battering ram to destroy the rest of the welfare state wasn’t convincing.

Gamble’s exposition of the welfare state’s history suffers from being insufficiently political; what’s more, his policy prescriptions reflect a confusing unwillingness to fully incorporate the implications of what he himself had said in the preceding chapters. He says that modern welfare states ‘succeeded in taming capitalism and creating social democracies in which the majority came to enjoy not just civil and political but also social rights’ (p. 80), but this is obviously untrue. The welfare state has been gradually gutted throughout the West – precisely because it failed to tame capitalism, as Gamble himself acknowledges. The welfare state has been gored on the contradictions inherent in trying to de-commodify and publicise goods within an economic system that seeks to commodify and privatise everything. Revitalising the welfare state would, Gamble admits, ‘require a political culture which accepts the advantages of large transfers and therefore high taxation’ (p. 109). It would also require a culture with high levels of social solidarity and low levels of racism and xenophobia. That’s not the world we live in. Instead, we live in a world where ‘market libertarians’ (using Gamble’s term) seek to eradicate the idea of public welfare. Gamble doesn’t provide any concrete political analysis of how to get from our present to a world where reviving the welfare state is even on the table.

Bafflingly for a book published just last year, Can the Welfare State Survive? feels outdated. It discusses inequality as if we’re in the 1990s. Gamble writes, ‘If nothing is done, inequality may return to levels not seen since before the advent of the democratic era’ (p. 114). By most accounts, we’re already there. It discusses immigration as if rampant right-wing nationalism, racism, and xenophobia are just passing fads. Flashy new policy proposals aside, it mostly treats the welfare state like it can be resuscitated from some flash-frozen 1960s package. But the whole point of the history of the welfare state – and of our current conjuncture, when a neo-fascist American regime has thrown the gloves off and allows Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil, and the military-industrial complex to directly administer American politics – is that capitalism and democracy can’t coexist. There is no stable equilibrium between capitalism and the welfare state.

Social movement activism, most particularly actions taken by the labour movement, built the welfare state. Its strength has always been dependent on the balance of class power; when unions were strong and political participation rates were reasonably high, the welfare state was strong. Now that neither of those conditions hold, the welfare state is moribund. Even if popular mobilisation wins short-term victories, so long as capitalism reigns supreme, labour unions limp along, and non-market spheres of society are merely tolerated, capitalists will eventually try to finish off the welfare state.

So why not aim higher than Gamble does? Breathing life into a mostly dead body shouldn’t be our goal. We live in terrifying times, where the worst possible futures appear scarily real. Why not argue for democratic socialism, an economy run by and for the vast majority of people, and not the untenable compromise of social democracy?


Scott Remer is currently pursuing an M.Phil. in political thought and intellectual history at Girton College. He is focusing on the political philosophy of the Frankfurt School. He graduated Yale University in Ethics, Politics, & Economics and wrote a thesis on Occupy Wall Street and the history of American social movements. He blogs at