Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Welfare State

Because I am busy and lazy at the moment, I wanted to copy a portion of an email that I sent to someone a week or so ago, as part of a discussion about whether the success of European welfare states compared to that of the U.S. can be attributed to better management:

Good management/competence is a reasonable hypothesis concerning the success of welfare states when one is operating under the premises that 1) "the government" or "the state" is a singe, coherent entity; 2) it has coherent aims; 3) in large part those aims concern the "common good"; and 4) stated aims more or less reflect true intentions.

However, I don't accept any of those premises, so that is why I do not reach the same conclusions. I believe that in this world most of the shots are being called by a group of corporate/capitalist elites with conflicting interests, and that the state is simultaneously a means of (sometimes sloppy) compromise as well as a reflection of competition. The intentions of people who are employed by or influence the state are incredibly diverse. The state is not a "container of power" so much as it is an effect (or "emergent property") of power struggles.

I do not believe that the state exists to serve the common good (I believe that is a lie propagated to generate consent). I do not believe that when an action is taken in the name of a state that the publicly proclaimed reason for that action reflects the true origin of the decision. Although I do not believe that the state operates like some monolithic Big Brother, I do believe that language is purposely employed to shape consciousness and influence behavior. For example, when American citizens are told that the troops are "heros" who are "risking their lives so that we can be free," I think that is a strategic way of getting people to willingly risk their lives for causes that do not benefit them.

Therefore, when I even hear the word "welfare," I am immediately inclined to consider what social reality the word may be distorting. Additionally, because I believe the state, as an outgrowth of corporate/capitalist power struggles, can only be understood in relation to the global economy, my first line of attack is to place the "welfare state" in a larger context in order to make sense of it.

For this reason, I cannot escape the fact that the examples of successful welfare states just so happen to be among the wealthiest nations in the world, while the U.S., though wealthy, has one of the largest income gaps in the world. To me this does not seem insignificant.

Moreover, I think the history of the welfare state is very telling as to its role in a global capitalist system. It emerged in its modern form as part of a larger project of protectionism among some European states, at the behest of industrialists, partially as a means of stemming the outflow of labor as well as subsidizing labor costs (including the training/education required for employment). This fits with the state's role within the capitalist system which is, in large part, diffusing risk (which continues to increase as a result of the exponentially growing investment requirements as capitalism evolves) through various sorts of subsidies and the like.

I think the U.S. has not had the same type of welfare state, then, not only as a result of the more widespread socio-economic inequality, but also following from its particular role in the global economy. At the same time that European states were employing protectionist policies, the U.S., on the contrary, was receiving labor and pursuing economic growth primarily through foreign investment and exports. In other words, U.S. capital flows were more externally-focused while European capital flows were more internally-focused, and I think that the European welfare state is a reflection of those dynamics.

Furthermore, I do not know if I can quite accept the claim that the welfare state has helped to reduce poverty. Not only are the numbers not very compelling, but I think it is difficult to reach any such conclusions based on the fact that the development of many welfare states occured during or immediately prior to periods of great economic expansion, and so it is difficult to say what would have happened if that were not the case.

I will grant that when welfare states have been constituted in Third World nations, for instance in Latin American countries, it has helped to mitigate some of the effects of global poverty. However, I would say this is partially due to the fact that nationalization of industries is also a means of putting those industries out of the reach of foreign multinational corporations, and thus preventing capital from flowing out of the country. In addition, such states have historically not been stable because of political/military pressure from the industrial north.

Overall, I am skeptical of the welfare state because it preserves the system rather than challenging it. While welfare states were developing in the industrial north, the gap between the wealthiest and poorest nations in the world was increasing starkly; the same processes that enabled economic "progress" and raised standards of living in the north concomitantly lowered standards of living in other parts of the world. So, I see the welfare state more as a privilege of the wealthy, just like "democracy."

I think that "the welfare state" is more a heterogenous set of policies and institutions managed by different people for different purposes, some beneficial, some harmful. Mostly, though, I believe those purposes support the status quo by pacifying anyone who might challenge the system, managing poor people (welfare recipients in the U.S. and abroad are notoriously monitored/spied on by the government), subsidizing labor costs, and in some cases helping to preserve the "natural" level of unemployment.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Kucinich Knows What's Up

I read this interview Dennis Kucinich yesterday (page 4).  It is definitely worth a read.  In particular, he makes a point that I have been trying to emphasize on this blog:  that the state is a tool of corporate interests, and that individual presidencies are largely irrelevant, surface-level distractions.

People who believe that Obama is Marxist, communist, socialist, or even just liberal are way to easily influenced by political propaganda.  Obama is just as much of a corporate puppet as any of them...

Monday, August 8, 2011

Political Wrangling is Corporate Wrangling

I can't help but feel that S&P's decision to downgrade the U.S. credit rating was a political move in response to the impending federal investigation of their practices (e.g. giving AAA ratings to all those bundled sub-prime loans).

I have contended repeatedly that the state is nothing more than a tool of capitalist interests. However, while one should not view the state as a coherent entity representing the will of "the people," distinct from the public realm of private property and the free market, neither should the capitalist class be viewed as a coherent faternal society secretly controlling the world. Usually capitalist interests are not completely hidden, but merely disguised as the "public good." More importantly, the carefully calibrated competition that is necessary for profitability includes competition among sectors and enterprises. What is good for one capitalist is not necessarily good for others, and the general conditions necessary to sustain the capitalist system may conflict with particular capitalist interests. The system that exists is a reflection of competition, conflict, and compromise. Though still, it benefits a handful of capitalists to the detriment of most everyone else.

The chess match between S&P and the U.S. government illustrates this well. An even more striking example is the way in which individual CEOs have run their own corporations into the ground so that they could run away with millions of dollars.

The allowed variance in public opinion (the political spectrum) in many ways, and very conveniently, reflects this type of capitalist competition. What is at stake is not the validity of the system, but what is good for one enterprise versus what is good for another, the general conditions required for sustainability versus immediate individual gain.

At this point, though, it seems that future options are limited and compromises may crumble under the gravity of the situation. We have the choice, at this moment, to decide we have had enough of the corporate oligarchy, to demand something better and more just. Or we can fall prey to squabbling over debt and budgets, arguing over solutions that are equally doomed to failure; watch ourselves descend into chaos; and see if what comes next is even worse than what we are leaving behind.

Monday, August 1, 2011

South Park and Marx

I was watching the South Park episode Margaritaville the other day, after a friend reminded me of a point that was made in that episode.

Specifically, that point was that the economy is not a sentient being. It has no life of its own apart from people and their daily activities. This was one of Marx's central points, though he applied it other abstract categories in addition to the economy (like history) and it has spawned an entire line of social inquiry (Praxis Theory). It also ties in with my arguments a couple posts ago (re: Inside Job) that economic phenomena cannot be properly understood apart from their productive/material base. (I.e. apart from reality). This is what is meant when Marx is desccribed as a "materialist."

On the other hand, I do take issue with the episode's contention that people just need to continue buying and spending, and everything will be okay. Yes, capitalist profitability demands a high level of consumption. But it has also reached a point of unsustainability that cannot be resolved by increasing demand. Furthermore, the reason that middle-class folks in South Park, Colorado (or real places like it) are able to spend money on frivolous things like the Margaritaville is because of exploitative processes that impoverish most of the rest of the world. So simply buying more useless junk is not a solution.