Friday, July 6, 2012

The Western Welfare State: Its Rise and Demise and the Soviet Bloc

By James Petras


The single biggest blow to the welfare programs as we knew them, which were developed during the four decades from 1940’s to the 1980’s, was the end of the rivalry between the Soviet bloc and Western Europe and North America. Despite the authoritarian nature of the Eastern bloc and the imperial character of the West, both sought legitimacy and political advantage by securing the loyalty of the mass of workers via tangible social-economic concessions.
Today, in the face of the neo-liberal ‘roll back’, the major labor struggles revolve around defending the remnants of the welfare state, the skeletal remains of an earlier period. At present there are very few prospects of any return to competing international welfare systems, unless one were to look at a few progressive countries, like Venezuela, which have instituted a series of health, educational and labor reforms financed by their nationalized petroleum sector.

One of the paradoxes of the history of welfarism in Eastern Europe can be found in the fact that the major ongoing labor struggles (in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and other countries, which had overthrown their collectivist regimes, involve a defense of the pension, retirement, public health, employment, educational and other welfare policies – the ‘Stalinist’ leftovers. In other words, while Western intellectuals still boast of their triumphs over Stalinism, the real existing workers in the East are engaged in day-to-day militant struggles to retain and regain the positive welfare features of those maligned states. Nowhere is this more evident than in China and Russia, where privatizations have meant a loss of employment and, in the case of China, the brutal loss of public health benefits. Today workers’ families with serious illnesses are ruined by the costs of privatized medical care.

In the current world ‘anti-Stalinism’ is a metaphor for a failed generation on the margins of mass politics. They have been overtaken by a virulent neo-liberalism, which borrowed their pejorative language (Blair and Bush also were ‘anti-Stalinists’) in the course of demolishing the welfare state. Today the mass impetus for the reconstruction of a welfare state is found in those countries, which have lost or are in the process of losing their entire social safety net - like Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy- and in those Latin American countries, where popular upheavals, based on class struggles linked to national liberation movements, are on the rise.
The new mass struggles for welfarism make few direct references to the earlier collectivist experiences and even less to the empty discourse of the ‘anti-Stalinist’ Left. The latter are stuck in a stale and irrelevant time warp. What is abundantly clear, however, is that the welfare, labor and social programs, which were gained and lost, in the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet bloc, have returned as strategic objectives motivating present and future workers struggles.
What needs to be further explored is the relation between the rise of the vast police state apparatuses in the West and the decline and dismantling of their respective welfare states: The growth of ‘Homeland Security’ and the ‘War on Terror’ parallels the decline of Social Security, public health programs and the great drop in living standards for hundreds of millions."

No comments: