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Asbjorn Wahl, The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State.

Asbjorn Wahl, The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State, Pluto Press, London, 2011. pp. 246. $44.00 paper.

As with so many social sciences, mainstream policy studies has been host to a succession of fads. In the 1960s, 'structural functionalists' treated the rise of the welfare state as a progressive, rational mechanism that emerged inevitably as modern societies dealt with social problems like poverty or unemployment. In the 1970s and 1980s, Marxists, and later feminists, treated welfare states either as implicated in the reproduction of capitalism or patriarchy, or else as expressions of a mass of contradictions. Most recently academic writers have talked about various 'regime types' of welfare states (liberal, laborist, corporatist, social democratic, etc) treating these as geological strata are by geologists, or else, if they have an eye for politics, treating them as active volcanoes are treated by vulcanologists.

Whatever the fads however, it always seemed as if Claus Offe got it right back in 1984 when he said that the 'welfare state was an irreversible achievement'. That judgement seemed especially true for the Nordic welfare states (Sweden, Denmark and Norway). Just possibly that judgement has been rendered more suspect by the effects of the great global financial crisis (2008-09), by the subsequent Great Recession (2010-12), and the current sovereign debt crisis gripping the European Union. Certainly that is the view promoted vigorously by Asbjorn Wahl. As Wahl insists, 'the welfare state is now under threat'.

Wahl argues the welfare state is under threat from a combination of 'deregulation, the increased power of capital, neoliberalism and their legitimate offspring the financial, economic and social crises'. Yet Wahl insists it is also threatened by the inability or the unwillingness of policy analysts, journalists, politicians, and the broad labour movement to engage in the kind of intellectual analysis which he says alone can make sense. That analysis begins, says Wahl, when we insist on identifying how the origins, present status and future prospects of the welfare state all reflect the fundamental relations and structures of economic and social power.

The book is an impassioned and insightful argument for paying much more attention to interest based power struggles. While his evidence is drawn from the Nordic states his conclusions seem broadly applicable to places like the UK, USA and Australia. It is a case for putting the politics back into policy making. Wahl is especially compelling when he shows why the failure to ask how contemporary power relations and power structures affects the present and future prospects of the welfare state, means that citizens cannot get beyond the more or less well meaning political rhetoric and good intentions that pass for political debate in places like Australia. His point, translated for Australians, is that academics and reformers promoting 'welfare reform' and 'social inclusion' have damaged the well being of millions of low income Australians. As the 2011 OECD study Divided We Fall shows, while Australia spends more on income support than ever before, the mix of policies that affect the creation of jobs and the supply of education, health and income support is producing a society which is becoming more and more unequal. Anyone who dares even refer to this evidence will be accused of promoting class warfare. Wahl is surely right to insist that ours is period of 'social revenge' 'where the economic and political elite have gone on the offensive in order to reconquer privileges they have lost through the democratization, regulation and redistribution of the welfare state' (p. 18).

Wahl has written a lively, well-informed, polemical, political book that ought to be a 'must read' for activists, trade unionists, academics and their students. Like Harry Braverman, whose book Labour and Monopoly Capitalism (1974) became a classic, Wahl is an intellectual, trade unionist and activist. The book both positively rewards and demands a wider audience than is usually able or willing to read modern policy books. Against the tendencies evident in so much modern social science writing, which Alfred Schutz got right back in 1940 when he pointed to its lethal mix of 'intellectual vacuity and ethical nihilism', Wahl makes a refreshing change. His political analysis is as clear as his prose, which is blessedly free of cant. Wahl never retreats into the meaningless neologisms ('risk society', 'social inclusion' or 'evidence based policy') beloved of contemporary academics who knowingly or otherwise proselytise for the neo-liberal agenda. For that we should all be profoundly grateful.


RMIT University
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Author:Watts, Rob
Publication:Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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