The knowledge society and the welfare state – modernisation and efficiency

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Investment or Cost?

The Role of the Metaphor of Productive Social Policies in Welfare State Formation in Europe and the US 1850-2000

Paper to the World Congress in Historical Sciences

Sydney, July 2005

Jenny Andersson

Department of Economic History, Uppsala university

In its present attempts to construct a transnational European welfare state, the European union defines social policy as a productive factor, a prerequisite for economic growth and efficiency and a European competitive edge in a global economy. This outlook on social policy as a productive factor is emphasised as something distinctly European and fundamentally different from American conceptualisations of social policy as a cost. European measures to promote employability and ‘social investment’ are thus not the workfare of the American model. This evokes an image of the European welfare state as built on the capacity to link the processes of economic progress and social modernisation - efficiency and solidarity - an image that is strengthened through representations of the American liberal market economy as the antithesis of Social Europe.

This paper explores the concept and metaphor of ‘productive social policies’ in its manifold European, and American, interpretations. With this concept as its point of departure, the paper will thus address the shifting discourses on the role of social policy for economic and national efficiency in processes of welfare state formation in Europe and the US from the Social question of the mid 19th century to the contemporary formation of the European social dimension. The transatlantic moment at the turn of the century will be contrasted to the emergence of two seemingly diametrical understandings of efficiency and solidarity, and the European interpretation of productivism as a value of solidarity and citizenship radically different from workfare will be put in critical light.


In the European Union’s effort to establish a social dimension following the Amsterdam Treaty and the Lisbon and Nice councils, social policy is defined as a ‘productive factor’; a prerequisite for economic growth and efficiency, and even the European ”competitive edge” in the global economy. A fundamental aspect of European social policies is said to be the status of social policy as economic policy, creating “virtuous circles” of economic dynamism and social cohesion in interplay with other sides of European integration, the Monetary Union and the Employment Strategy.1

In this contemporary political discourse, the idea of social policy as something productive is emphasized as distinctly European. The message is that in Europe, social policy is seen as a productive investment into human resources, in contrast to how, in the antithesis of Social Europe – the American liberal market economy – social policy is regarded as a cost necessary to mollify the spill over effects of the market. In this context, concepts like ‘social investment’ and ‘productive social policies’ are metaphors that distinguish European measures to promote employability from the workfare of the American model and represent them as something uniquely social and distinctly European, deeply rooted in European history and European values of social justice and solidarity.

Because this productivity discourse on social policy defines social rights as integral to market capitalism and growth, it evokes an image of Europe based upon economic progress and social modernization as processes hand-in-hand. In this sense the social policy discourse of the European Union reinvents a historical European welfare state defined by a high degree of interaction between economic and social policy, where social welfare objectives occupied a prominent position in economic policies whereas social policies had a distinct economic character as ‘activist’ or ‘productivist’. The very concept of ‘productive social policies’ illustrates this connection between the economic and the social. Its role in the construction of a European social dimension seems to be that of a guiding metaphor or a mobilizing concept, through which the EU hopes to create a common outlook on the role of social policy in the ongoing process of modernization of national welfare states and the parallel construction of a transnational European welfare state.

This paper focuses on the historic origins and contexts of the concept of ‘productive social policies’ and its role in the process of welfare state formation.2 The concept has a long European tradition, emerging in the German discussions of the “social question” during the latter half of the 19th century, referring to the social costs of industrial capitalism and the benefits of social regulation. It fell out of grace in the wake of the oil crisis in the mid 1970’s and the preoccupation with economic productivity that followed in European societies. Currently, as addressed, we see its return in the social dimension.

The ambition in this paper is to problematise the role of this European conceptualisation of social policy as a productive investment, in contrast to that of a cost in the process of welfare state formation in Europe and the US. This explains the paper’s focus on the formative moments in history following the social question at the mid 19th century and the gradual development from a ‘transatlantic’ social question to divergent reactions to social crisis and American “exceptionalism” from the 1930’s onwards. Second, the paper attempts to problematise this conceptualisation of social policy as something ‘productive’ from the perspective of social citizenship. The concept ‘productive social policies’ historically contains a variety of different (and differing) meanings in the history of the European welfare state, ranging in discursive setting from German Kathedersozialismus to Anthony Giddens’ idea of social investment. It follows that over time it has embodied very different ideas of the role of social intervention for the efficiency of capitalist societies and of the balance between the economic and the social in notions of progress.3 Intimately related to notions of efficiency and progress are the shifting historical meanings of solidarity and changing understandings of the relationship between community and individual, both in terms of the adjacent dichotomies rights-responsibilities and structure-individual in conceptualisations of social problems. In short, what kind of social contract does the concept ‘productive social policies’ denote in its historical contexts, what is its role in the process of welfare state formation in Europe and the US, and, taken as a key hole through which we may observe contemporary social policy discourse, what does the reinvented use of the concept in the European social dimension tell us about the ongoing renegotiation of social citizenship from the welfare state to the social investment state?

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