19 January 2018 **** Front page

Welfare state should be defended and expanded

By Tapani Lausti

Antti Jauhiainen & Joona-Hermanni Mäkinen, Hyvinvointivaltion vastaisku: Keskusteluja tulevaisuuden yhteiskunnasta. Like 2017. (“The welfare state strikes back: Conversations about future society”)

Finnish welfare state is often singled out as one of the best social systems in the world. Yet, rather than pushing it forward towards an even better society, it is widely seen as something that belongs to the past. The welfare state is under serious attack. Why?

In this excellent book the question is analysed in conversations with leading American social critics. The authors of the book talk to Noam Chomsky, Robin Hahnel, Matt Bruenig, Gar Alperovitz, Juliet Schor, Stephen Shalom and Michael Albert. The authors of the book say that they want to encourage a more farsighted social debate. They think it is time to take the welfare state to new heights.

In their conversations with the American scholars they highlight the undemocratic nature of today's societies. The majority of citizens are deprived of meaningful political participation. Work is organised in a hierarchical way thus denying people the possibility of psychologically satisfying work.

Noam Chomsky points out how current policies of inequality are being justified by the thinking of liberal philosophers of the past. However, their thinking is being distorted in a way that makes it difficult to understand that they believed in human freedom, not work slavery. Today's neoliberals swear by the name of the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith without mentioning – or perhaps they don't know – that Smith strongly criticised the capitalist division of work. He thought that a civilised society should abandon it.

Today in Finland there is a fierce debate about unemployment and the ways it could be reduced. In a curious twist the problem is seen not so much as unemployment as such but rather how the unemployed behave. Seeking ways to force people into work is becoming more aggressive. The unemployed are expected to react obediently to the authorities' tough demands on how to make oneself employable.

In Chomsky's view real democracy requires an extremely generous welfare state, even more advanced than the Finnish model. In his opinion, there are ways to achieve this. Citizens should be able to freely choose their working life in conditions of equality. Companies should be jointly owned by the workers. The decision-making system should be democratic.

The economist Robin Hahnel is amused by pessimistic attitudes towards the welfare state. Whilst visiting Finland he kept hearing arguments according to which societies cannot no longer afford a prosperous welfare state. Hahnel points out that in 2010 productivity in Finland was three times higher than in 1960. This means that public services and benefits could be three times more generous than 50 years ago.

So where does all the new wealth disappear? According to Hahnel a major part of this new wealth has gone to the wealthier classes of citizens. Much money has also ended up in the pockets of the share-holders of foreign companies. At the same time the tax system has been reformed by making it less progressive and company taxes smaller. This means that there is less money for public purposes.

In their conclusions the authors emphasise that to fight the idea that the welfare state is a thing of the past we need a vision of a radically better future. We need the kind of citizen activity which after the war campaigned with determination for a better society. We need experiments of local democracy. We need democratic work places, producer cooperatives and other ways to create democratic working life. The authors believe that the libertarian ideas of the past can inspire people of our own time to not only dream of a better society but actually create one.

Chomsky sums it up: “If Adam Smith was living today, he probably would oppose capitalism.”


Archive: International Organization for a Participatory Society , Social thinking, Occupy, Michael Albert , Noam Chomsky , Robin Hahnel



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