The proliferation of a concept seems to generate increasingly porous boundaries within the concept itself, stretching meanings, usages and theoretical frameworks. In mainstream debates, the term “welfare-state” oftentimes prompts referring to the “Scandinavian model”: universal high benefits, strong social safety nets, gender equality and so on. Ironically, with the on-going economic crisis it has become common to argue that “The American Dream is alive and kicking…in Denmark!”, strengthening the idea that there is more behind the curtain of “welfare-states” that there is in front of it. The historical isomorphism between welfare-state and nation-state in the present right-wing climate pervaded by anti-immigrant phobias (targeting particularly Eastern European and South-East Asians), creates a conceptual hubbub that one must navigate in order to try and strike some concrete points concerning the nature of the plethora of existing welfare-regimes.
Although vociferous arguments are being put forward against them, it seems rather unlikely that welfare-states will die out. My main argument here is welfare-states represent multivariate universes, exhibiting path-dependent evolutions (1). Despite the more theoretical nature of this brief article, I will not delve into a full-on assessment of existing research and typologies. What I will try to do is highlight the idea that looking at welfare-states via overarching depression economic lenses is not a yielding methodology.
Certainly, some could argue that welfare-state qua concept represents only the narrow reality of the Scandinavian states and most of the EU members, hence trying to analyze states such as post-Arab Spring Middle Eastern countries, or South-Asian states (to give just some examples) represents a fallacy. The simple refutation of this criticism comes from the fact that welfare-regimes must not be taken in a universal guise: redistribution schemes might have other aims drawing from religious or ethnic cleavages, but they still function as safety nets. Hence in a broader scope, even if one objects to the use of “welfare” state qua concept, this does not mean that redistribution mechanisms (that are the common denominator or welfare-regime definition) are not present.
The result of the crisis – mixing “worlds of welfare” with nationalism
Although much criticism has been raised to Esping-Andersen’s classical work on welfare typologies, the temptation to constantly look for the models he delineated is still very much present (2). The fascination with the Scandinavian model has blossomed into a virtual obsession, laced with nationalistic beliefs, under the umbrella of an European Union that is believed to offer unjustifiable benefits (to “unworthy poor”, a concept that seems to be on every politician’s lips in the past years. Interestingly enough though, when it comes to the “worthy poor” we see a very complex blend of typologies and degrees: on the one hand obvious members of the national majority are naturally seen as better recipients of welfare, while on the other hand distorted workfare ideologies based on some sort of liberal welfare-ism trample the aforementioned shades of exclusive types of nationalism, due to the simple reality that migration seems to be a vital fuel for most modern economies (the UK is a perfect example for this type of discourse).
This type of discourse pervades Western politics and prima facie proposes comprehensive solutions for reforming bankrupt welfare-states: austerity, (drastic) retrenchment of benefits, market supremacy and limiting an over-extended state-sector that seems to taking a heavy toll on the welfare-system etc. Solid as they may be, these overarching templates neglect important issues such as: historical biases of each welfare-regime, centrality of welfare-benefits in politics (such as in CEE countries), weak redistribution mechanism (such as in post-Arab Spring context), non-democratic governments and their distorted understanding of welfare (some South-East Asian countries) and so on.
The simple question that one can put to the aforementioned “solutions” is: What about the outliers? By outliers here I refer to the countries listed in the introductory paragraphs (CEE countries, Middle Eastern post-Arab Spring States and so on), that have strived to emulate Western models but exhibit very strong differences due to path-dependent processes. It is already well-established that CEE welfare-regimes fall outside the “worlds of welfare-regimes”, as do South-East Asian systems (including China), as well as the feeble government subsidy plans in the Arab World, hence pointing towards the direction that overarching solutions might backfire. To give just one very famous example: retrenching the over-grown CEE welfare-states will be political suicide for any Government as it will attack the very strong pensioner constituencies that comprise a large part of the electorate, due to the specific path of “divide and pacify” (3) adopted in the early 90s. Quite similarly, the classical templates for economic rehabilitation will also fail in the polarized wealth conditions, sometimes spanning deep religious cleavages, found in the Arab countries.
All things considered it is rather obvious that welfare-states represent complex political entities, with underlying complex evolutions, that seem to overflow the narrow borders of classical typologies. Certainly, to some extent welfare-ism quaideology is still thrown around in political competitions, yet it is safe to assume that competing state- and nation-building projects have continuously reshaped welfare-states, making them dynamic realities rather than umbrella-concepts.
Picture source: See 4