9781447306443The aim of this article is to review Beland and Petersen’s strong contribution to a welfare state scholarship that has, for quite some time (in no small part owing to Beland’s previous work Beland & Lecours 2008, Beland, Lecours & Kpessa:2011), slowly been eroding the confines of its traditional bread and butter – inequality (Vanhuysse & Cerami 2009).

Nation-building as the common denominator in social policy language in old and new “worlds of welfare”

Although J. Claude Barbier’s contribution notes that the welfare state as a word-concept is British-centric (p. 60), the book’s other contributors note time and again that in most countries the “Worthy” vs. “unworthy” poor debate was most of the times solved via notions of ‘imagined communities’ (to use B. Anderson’s famous coinage), that have more to do with national solidarity than market efficiency. Of at least equal importance, is that beyond the Anglo-saxon linguistic genealogy, Wincott claims that even original British observers were familiar with pre-existing German debates (p. 132), complementing what the literature had already established – a huge European-wide (at the very least) impact of the 19th century Bismarkian model.

All subchapters go to great lengths in showing how and why welfare states protected the poor not just qua poor (Baldwin 1992), but as collective action problems of the nation – both in the classical Nordic cases (Edling, Petersen, Petersen), Germany, France and the UK (Lessenich, Beland), more prominently in the CEE welfare states (Szkira et al), but also as far as away as Japan and it’s faint Bismarkian social insurance echoes (Beland & Petersen). In this line of thinking, all authors unearth long histories of social protection, predating the mainstream path-starting moments, and deeply intertwined with visions of community and solidarity.

International organizations and social policy

If to a certain degree the nation-building-welfare nexus had been at least shallowly analyzed at the level of nation-states, the identity-building-redistribution link pervading the discourse of international organizations is a major novelty of the book. Validating parts of the scholarship that claim some form of national solidarity is needed to create welfare states (McEwen 2010), the contributions about the OECD, World Bank, and IMF (Mahon, Vetterlein) show that the neoliberal change from the 80s was easily embraced because these IOs do not have any sort of identity discourse attached to their conceptualizations of redistribution. Although this is a forceful assumption about neoliberalism and welfare retrenchment, it does in a sense show that the tight interconnections between nation stake-holders and the fundamentally national accumulation of inequalities (Kaufmann 2012) are not accurately captured by macro-developmental goals set by international bodies.

By contrast, Barbier notes that EU social policy cannot exist without clear historical roots in nations (p. 73). Granted, the author does acknowledge that EU social policy is in no way a coherent body, but the essential point here is to show that redistribution in EU discourse is more than a macro-economic goal. While neither contributions clearly mark how and when discourses concretely count in major international bodies, the contrast between the two approaches should not be neglected, if one bears in mind that welfare is ultimately entrenched in all institutionalizations of the nation (Clarke 2005). The book could have benefited at this stage from a contribution on Latin American or South East Asian welfare states, in the context of international conditionality. Nonetheless, this collective volume does raise the important point that isomorphic institutional adaptation is not always linear, but subjected to competing interests.

All authors adequately note that within conceptual history studies of social policy are quite rare (p.5), and hence pursue an extremely wide scope – old and new “worlds of welfare”, nation-states and international organizations at the same time. The book tackles many of the problems that historical institutionalists have been facing with regards to the role of ideas in shaping politics, being at the same time sensitive to the role of agency. At the same time, there is however the lingering sense, as in other historical institutionalist studies, that change is not fully explained. All contributors rightly note the lack of awareness to language in existing research, but do not always go themselves beyond a type of genealogical history of certain concepts in social policy appearance. This does not however at all detract from the fantastic value of this study.