The knowledge society and the welfare state – modernisation and efficiency

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Concluding Remarks

In a historical perspective, the concept ‘productive social policies’ can be seen as a founding concept in the history of the European welfare state. This paper has discussed the invention and reinvention of the concept in relation to ideas of social crisis – in moments in time where the link between the economic and the social is broken and progress in the economic sense has lead to social destruction. As the social question and the institutions it created was a result of the industrial revolution, laissez faire capitalism and globalisation, so the social dimension is a reaction to the liberal era of the 1980’s and 1990’s and European economic integration. Embedded in the concept is the idea that the economic and the social are interrelated spheres, where developments in one have inevitable effects on the other. Social policy, in these social-economic articulations, stands out as a means to reconstruct the vital link between economic efficiency and social progress.

The discourses on the productive role of social policy that have been discussed in the paper have also articulated different ideas of a social contract between individual productive participation on the one hand and solidarity and social rights on the other. Where social policy discourses of emerging nation states were influenced by mercantilist ideas of national competitiveness and little concerned with rights, social policies of the welfare state were organised around labour as the central factor of production and social rights were negotiated in terms of labour market prestation. The social dimension, in turn, seems to contain a conditional element, that has been discussed here as workfare, but also the extension of social rights to groups previously outside of labour markets. These changes are reflected in the concept ‘productive social policies’, but in paradoxical and contradictory ways. The Welfare state conceptualised social policy as an investment in social resources and social rights as central for productive participation and social inclusion, whereas the Social investment state of the social dimension seems to be based on an underlying assumption of social policy as a cost – but a cost that can be transformed into a ‘productive factor’ through a process of modernisation that establishes the centrality of work over the right to welfare.

Is this, then, the Americanisation of European welfare, a process of welfare formation built around ideas of social policy as a cost for productive resources, fundamentally breaking with the legacy of the Social question and shifting the burden for risk and security on to the individual? Or is the ‘European social model’ in a new formative moment from where it will emerge as a protector of solidarity, social justice and individual security and rein the process of economic structural change? Is this even a valid dichotomy for the present, or rather a process of mutual othering and mythbuilding? These are still questions for the future, but some things seem clear. The worldview of the social economists, that the economy had to be controlled in order to recreate social efficiency, seems to have been put on its head. In contemporary social policy discourse, it is economic efficiency that needs to be restored and the social is left to be fine-tuned, restructured, and rationalised. The centrality of work has crowded out other, rivalling, articulations of productive participation, even if this is, in Europe, a contested field. The idea of a dichotomous social order between in- and excluded is not challenged as a market effect, but as a social phenomenon. And social policy as a ‘productive factor’ or ‘social investment’ is inherently about reducing its costs.


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1 See EU social policy documents such as the White Paper on social policy, European Social Policy, a Way Forward for the Union, DGV COM (94) 333; The Lisbon European Council – an Agenda of Economic and Social Renewal for Europe; CEC, 2000, Social Policy Agenda, p. 5, 6.

2 The methodological perspective informing this paper is that this concept can be regarded as a political, cultural, and economic metaphor incorporating a particular set of ideas on social policy at each given point in time. It is thus part of a varying historical discourse around the welfare state. The paper does not address the actual effects of social policy on economic growth. This issue is arguably one of the most central ones in contemporary policymaking and it is consequently highly contested as well as theoretically fragmented. For overviews of the existing arguments see Gough, 2003, and Midgley, 2001. Reflections are also offered in Salais, 2001.

3 The categories of the social and the economic are themselves constructions, and the distinction between them “cannot be assumed but is in itself a division that needs to be studied”. Walters, 2000, p. 10. See also Magnusson-Stråth, 2001.

4 On the role of economic metaphor, see McCloskey, 2001 and Samuels, 1990. Schön-Rein, 1993, have developed insights in the role of metaphor for social policy discourse.

5 Productivity is commonly defined as a relationship between input of labour or capital and output. Standard definitions of productivity are based on the price mechanism and presuppose market transaction. Consequently, the productivity of social production and reproductive work (public sector social services or household production) is conventionally defined as zero or close to zero.

6 The concept ‘social economy’ was signifier of the paradigmatic critique of laissez faire political economy of the time, often defined as Manchester economics or English economics, concerned with the accumulation of industrial wealth but not with its social effects. See Grimmer Solem, 2003; Rodgers, 1998, p. 8-33, p. 97; Koot, 1987.

7 Steinmetz points out that within Wilhelmine discourse, national efficiency was understood as a social construction, a matter of social organisation, in contrast to the ‘biologisation’ and racialisation of the idea of national efficiency under Nazism. Steinmetz, 1993, p. 65; also Eley, 2003, pp. 16-24.

8 A lot of research has been devoted to the problem of American exceptionalism. Explanations tend to point to the weak federal government, a culturally rooted skepticism of public responsibility, and the residual streak in American social policy, where social protection targeted “soldiers and mothers” (Amenta, Skocpol-Ritter, 1995). In addition, one could argue that the redefinition of the social question in the US from an individual one to a collective and structural one was never complete, but that moralistic and disciplinary approaches have remained at the core of American social policy thinking (see Katz, 1989, Mink, 1998). The very term welfare capitalism in American discourse signifies corporate social paternalism and not institutionalist responses to social problems (Jacoby, 1997). I am grateful to Dominique Marshall for drawing my attention to Bruno Théret’s interesting discussion of the role of federalism for Canadian social policy, and Canada’s divergence with the US in the period of the New Deal onwards (Théret, 2002).

9 Swedish Social Democrats were strongly influenced by the concept of rationalization as it was promoted by the Austromarxist Otto Bauer, but also applied the idea of rationalization to the household sphere. The idea of rationalization embedded in Myrdal’s concept ‘productive social policy’ also contained a highly authoritarian engineering element. Myrdal and his wife Alva became the protagonists of sterilization as a method of eliminating ‘asocial’ (unproductive) elements, all in the name of national efficiency. See Runjis, 1998, and Witoszek-Trägårdh, 2002.

10 Myrdal, one of the most prominent names of the (younger) Stockholm School and later Nobel Prize laureate, was a disciple of the deeply conservative Gustav Cassel, who in turn had studied in Berlin with Schmoller’s disciple Adolf Wagner.

11 See Stråth, 1992 and Trägårdh, 2001, on the role of the folkhem metaphor for Swedish attitudes to European integration.

12 Walters, (2000:7,121-143) points to the rise of the idea of barriers to participation, along with the focus on margins of the labour market and marginal groups, and interprets this discursive change as a downplaying of questions of the wider social system in favor of personalized and subjective approaches to the social problem.

13 This representation of groups and individuals as a community lacking essential skills and capacities is of course in itself a discriminatory practice.

14 See Walters, 2000:130, who suggests that this may be seen as a transformation from a Beveridgean social contract characterised by sets of dependencies, to a social contract based on individual independence.

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