Capturing the Welfare State Moment

By Cory Verbauwhede




[A] curious thing has happened to the welfare state on its way from the periphery to the center of scholarly concern. Historians and political scientists are now writing about the American welfare state, but they are not really all that concerned with the welfare state as such. For most, instead, the welfare state has become a convenient window into some larger relation of power—between blacks and whites, between women and men, between capital and labor. Nor, indeed, are most scholars really writing about the welfare state. Some concern themselves with public assistance for the poor, others with social insurance programs like Social Security, still others with labo[u]r policies, such as rules governing unions. An increasing number, in fact, are interested in policies well beyond the typical conception of the welfare state, such as tax policies and workplace benefits. In short, the near-perfect silence on the welfare state that once reigned has given way not to a single or harmonious tune, but to a cacophony of sometimes discordant notes that occasionally threatens to drown out the very subject of the melody.

— Jacob S. HackerJacob S. Hacker, “Bringing the Welfare State Back In: The Promise (and Perils) of the New Social Welfare History,” Journal of Policy History, vol. 17, no. 1, 2005, 125-154, p. 125, emphasis in the original.


Composite abstract notions are bound to inject confusion into any debate concerning what exactly they represent, what their limits are, what to focus on, etc. This is especially true with politically charged concepts such as the “welfare state,” and it is tempting to give up on the exercise altogether. However, for socially engaged scholars who are acutely aware of the fact that some of the recent places and times in which wellbeing became a matter of citizenship have been amongst the most civilized in the history of humanity, understanding the origins of the welfare state becomes a matter of its survival. Indeed, immersed as we are by the “cacophony” that Jacob Hacker describes, the notion that there ever even was a welfare state, beyond specific policies in specific places at specific times, becomes suspect, and so too does its defence.

As austerity forces generalize and as states unload social responsibilities onto less powerful actors, it is important to recall the context in which welfare states were wrought and the aspirations to which they gave an institutional form. This essay will contribute to such a program by attempting to locate the “welfare moment” in the history of the state’s formation. This moment occurred sometime between the onset of the Great Depression and the aftermath of the Second World War to varying degrees across the planet, though we will mainly focus on the North Atlantic. It was a time of great opportunity for social justice, in which political formations of all colours were forced to include social measures in their programs or risk becoming irrelevant. Where social forces were able to seize that opportunity, they helped implement institutions which, though they have been under attack in recent decades, still perpetuate a legacy inherited from that time.


The Absent State: The Problem with "Sociocentric" Accounts

As is implied by the quotation that opens this essay, the elephant in the room of welfare policy studies is an adequate consideration of the state. Writing in the mid-nineties, as it became increasingly apparent that the welfare state moment was over, Carol Levasseur voiced a similar concern from a different vantage point. The problem with the prevailing literature, Levasseur argued, was that it was “sociocentric.” According to such accounts, the welfare state developed, in more or less linear fashion, as a rational response to increased social insecurity. Without rejecting such explanations outright, he pointed out that the implementation of social programs does not necessarily denote a victory for social justice, as once some kind of intervention becomes desirable, there is still the crucial issue of whether it will be radical—i.e. promote social equality—or whether it will be wedded, as far as possible, to the status quo—i.e. reinforce social hierarchies.On this point, Andrew Stritch’s account of the implementation of workers’ compensation in Quebec is a useful case-study. His surprising conclusion is that, in the specific circumstances that led to Quebec’s first workers’ compensation program in 1909, its implementation was a move that favoured business, not workers. See Andrew Stritch, “Power Resources, Institutions and Policy Learning: The Origins of Workers’ Compensation in Quebec,” Canadian Journal of Political Science, vol. 38, no. 3, September 2005, 549-579.

Accordingly, traditional accounts of ever-increasing social protection give rise to much confusion about the welfare state, because they lump both radical and status quo-maintaining policies into the same phenomenon. This is where an understanding of actual inequalities throughout history, such as is facilitated by Thomas Piketty’s team’s recent workThomas Piketty, Le Capital au XXIe siècle, Paris, Seuil, 2013., becomes useful: a quick glance at the level of inequality in a given polity provides one with a good preliminary picture of how deeply social programs have taken hold there and with what philosophical underpinnings. The key omission that has contributed to the confusion, according to Levasseur, is the avoidance of the question of the state as a force in and of itself and not as merely an instrument of diverse pressure groups vying for power. To fully grasp the treatment of the “social question” in the 20th century, he argued, it was essential first to understand the historical rise of that “apparatus which, unlike any other, operates under the principle of territorial monopolization [...] of a certain number of strategic powers: exclusive recourse to violence, tax collection, lawmaking, [and] decrees that are applicable to the whole population of a territory circumscribed by borders.”Carol Levasseur, “Gouverner l’insécurité sociale. La centralité du politique dans la construction de l’État-providence contemporain,” Lien social et Politiques, no. 33, spring 1995, 47-60, p. 48, my translation. One must, in other words, understand the processes and the institutions to which political confrontations give rise.


The Formation of the Modern State

According to Pierre Bourdieu, there is nothing intrinsically universal about the state, and indeed there is no such thing as the “public interest.” Bourdieu considered the rise of the modern state to be the result of two deeply contingent historical mechanisms. The first was the gradual concentration of power—a phenomenon that resulted in what Max Weber called the state’s “monopoly of violence,” which Bourdieu enriched by adding a symbolic dimension to what Weber had mainly envisaged as the army and police powers. For Bourdieu, it was a dual process of, on the one hand, “universalization” and, on the other, “monopolization.”Pierre Bourdieu, Sur l’État. Cours au Collège de France (1989-1992), Paris, Seuil, 2012, my translation. As local princes sought to dominate their peers, one of them was eventually crowned king. This prince of princes became, within his sphere of influence, the sole guarantor of social hierarchies—a kind of “central bank of symbolic value”—with the capacity to decisively increase or decrease the influence of any given token of status or power.Ibid., pp. 314 & 342, my translation. One king’s (or, rarely, queen’s) authority ended where another’s began and gradually more permanent borders were established. To get to that point, however, the institutions at the base of such power, like courts, schools, currencies, languages and even measures and weights, had to be harmonized and brought under centralized control. As the medievalist Marc Bloch observed, “royal justice started to insinuate itself into the whole of society.”Cited in Bourdieu, ibid., p. 331, my translation. Mechanisms of appeal were put into place that opened up the possibility of escaping local and regional influence—and ultimately even the transcendental reach of the church.

The second mechanism that Bourdieu identified originated in the intrinsic instability of dynasties. Its causes stemmed, on the one hand, from the problem of the reproduction of social structures at the death of the sovereign—which countless wars of succession amply illustrate—and on the other, from the growing challenge, as polities expanded and became more complex, from increasingly independent bureaucrats. While ruling families developed elaborate nepotistic strategies to ensure their survival through time, they had to contend with competing claims stemming from within. Thus Bourdieu noted that younger brothers in primogeniture systems were often sent into social exile and sometimes even murdered. But the historically more dangerous rivalry came from administrators, whose necessary training and education gave them immense influence that had to be kept in check: Bourdieu observed that before the breakdown of dynastic power, governmental servants were often “oblates”—social pariahs whose sole but significant influence derived from the administrative positions they held at the whim of the sovereign. In other words, “competing ‘reproductible’ claimants had to remain powerless, while competing powerful claimants had to remain ‘non-reproductible’.”Ibid., p. 414.

The emergence of the territorialized (as opposed to personal) and bureaucratic (as opposed to dynastic) state can therefore be read as the historic triumph of the technocratic over the hereditary:

the state sets itself in opposition to the family [...:] it replaces primary family loyalties with formal [ones ...,] it replaces direct, familial succession with school-based social reproduction, [... and] it replaces the self-designation of leaders [...] with a centralized appointment system.Ibid., p. 458.

At the end of this transformation, the battles between dynastic lineages became struggles for territorialized and bureaucratic places of power and for positions of delegated authority, which the advent of democracy did not fundamentally change.


Liberalism and the Rise of the Social Question

Jean-Marie Fecteau has shown how the fledgling state made inroads into the social sphere by imposing a social minimum, in response to the “extreme misery, unemployment, [and] different agrarian crises[, ... which led to the explosion of] the numbers of those needing public aid to survive.”Jean-Marie Fecteau, “Une économie historique du minimum. Propos sur les origines de l’État-providence,” Lien social et Politiques, no. 42, fall 1999, 61-70, pp. 62-63, my translation. The standard was very low, and required only that people “not die of hunger or of cold.”Martin Luther, quoted in Fecteau, ibid., p. 63, my translation. The English Old Poor Laws exemplified such a system, and were principally aimed at restoring social order by forcing the able-bodied to work and punishing those who refused to do so, while providing relief to the young, the old, the sick and the infirm, and imposing alms on the wealthy.Karl de Schweinitz, England’s Road to Social Security, 1349 to 1947, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1947, chapter 3.

For Fecteau, the brief idealism stemming from the late-18th-century revolutions represented the first historic shift in the social question. Thus a report written by La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt for the Mendicancy Committee in 1790 attributed social ills to “bad institutions” and the first report of the Public Salvation Committee insisted that “in a well-ordered Republic, each citizen has some property, ... [and] everything must contribute to elevating each citizen above basic needs.”Cited in Fecteau, ibid. Though minimal, such aid was to be considered a right of citizenship and an “essential condition for the achievement of an improved state within the context of a changed horizon of possibilities.”Ibid., p. 64.

Indeed, the “pursuit of Happiness” entrenched in the American Declaration of Independence and the abolition of hereditary lineages in the hopes of checking dynastic power were emblematic of young revolutionary countries. According to Piketty, the French Revolution considered destitution to be an obstacle to the democratic ideal; he observed that the abolition of primogeniture and hereditary substitution on the one hand, and the establishment of equal rights in the Civil Code on the other, “caused considerable optimism [... on the part of] supporters of the Revolution, who were convinced that they held the key to future equality.”Piketty, op. cit., pp. 575-576, my translation. Similarly, Paul Durand pointed out that, in 1793, Robespierre went so far as to formally propose the adoption of a new Declaration of Rights that would have stated that “society [be] obliged to see to the subsistence of all its members, either by providing them with work, or by assuring the means of existence to those who are unable to work,” and that such aid be “a debt owed by the rich to the poor.”Cited in Paul Durand, La politique contemporaine de sécurité sociale, Paris, Dalloz, 1953, p. 52, my translation.

The so-called “classical” liberal moment was thus an “important restriction of the social perspectives opened by the Enlightenment.”Fecteau, op. cit., p. 64, my emphasis. With the advent of liberalism came also what has been called the

doctrine of less eligibility, [... according to which] the assistance provided for the person in need must be such as to cause his condition to be less desirable [...] than the condition of the lowest-paid labo[u]rer who was not in receipt of relief.Karl de Schweinitz, op. cit., p. 124, emphasis in the original.

In order to make sure that there was always cheap labour available, a double constraint had to be placed upon workers: a moral constraint of self-discipline, and a physical constraint to integrate the labour force or face starvation—aid could therefore be only for those who could not otherwise work.

“Poverty,” Fecteau pointed out, “became both an obligatory thoroughfare and the necessary incentive to work,” and the “poverty line” was therefore also both a motivating factor and a “diagnosis” of how far one was situated from the ultimate disqualifying status that was pauperism.Ibid., p. 65. Indeed, the gradual abolition of slavery between the French Revolution and the American Civil War was part of a larger movement towards the creation of an unfettered labour market which would internalize constraint, while allowing for the necessary mobility required by industry. Writing against both slavery and the Old Poor Laws in 1786, Reverend Joseph Townsend exemplified the liberal turn:

Legal constraint is attended with much trouble, violence and noise; creates ill will, [...] whereas hunger is not only peaceable, silent, unremitting pressure, but, as the most natural motive to industry and labo[u]r, it calls forth the most powerful exertions.Joseph Townsend, A Dissertation on the Poor Laws by a Well-Wisher to Mankind, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1971 [1786], pp. 23-24.

Far from being minimal, the 19th-century social state became an imposing leviathan shaped to enforce liberalism’s bright-line rule that separated the deserving from the undeserving poor with a “carceral archipelago” embodying the necessary “social space of extreme misery”—for the employable, such misery would push them into the labour market, however terrible the working conditions.Fecteau, op. cit., p. 66.

From the 1880s onwards, “the workers’ movement, nascent sociology and certain ideological currents” started to challenge the prevailing order, but the development of probabilistic reasoning and piecemeal social insurance programsSee François Ewald, Histoire de l’État-providence. Les origines de la solidarité, Paris, Grasset, 1986. enabled the state to continue developing the labour market without putting into question liberalism’s bright-line rule:

A double line of exclusion was [...] created, according to whether one had to provide proof of one’s misery [... by way of a means test] and whether one was considered apt to participate in the community [at all].Fecteau, op. cit., p. 67.

Since William Beveridge played such an important role during the welfare state moment, to which we will turn next, it is telling to note that he had once been a fervent liberal, as the following statement made in 1906 attests to:

The ideal should not be an industrial system arranged with a view to finding room in it for everyone who desired to enter, but an industrial system in which everyone who did find a place at all should obtain average earnings at least up to the standard of healthy subsistence [... . T]he line between independence and dependence, between the efficient and the unemployable has to be made clearer and broader[; ...] those men who through general defects are unable to fill such a whole place in industry, are to be recognised as unemployable. They must become the acknowledged dependents of the state, removed from free industry and maintained adequately in public institutions, but with a complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights including not only the franchise, but civil freedom and fatherhood.William H. Beveridge, cited in Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship Between Classes in Victorian Society, London, Verso, 2013 [1971], p. 335.

Though turn-of-the-century liberalism had a progressive taint to it in that it sought to deal less with the problem of the unemployed as with that of unemployment, it still aimed to distinguish the “casual residuum” from the “respectable working class.”Jones, ibid., chapter 18.


The “Darkest Hour” and the Welfare State Moment

If the welfare state’s history was just one of gradual, predictable expansion, it becomes difficult to explain the wild enthusiasm with which a report by the very same author was met and was circulated within continental resistance movements at the end of one of the darkest years of the Second World War, despite its dull title, Social Insurance and Allied ServicesWilliam H. Beveridge, Social Insurance and Allied Services, London, HM Stationery Office, 1942.:

On November 20, 1942, only seventeen months after the appointment of the Committee, it was ready and signed. On December 2, it was made available to the public, and seen at once to go even beyond the expectations [...]. [I]t was an eloquent cry to end poverty, disease, and unemployment, and purported to supply the means of doing so. Its appeal was instantaneous. Queues besieged the Stationary Office in Kingsway. Not only the Press but BBC news bulletins summarized the Report. Brendan Bracken, the Minister of Information, needed only a few hours in which to perceive its enormous propaganda value, and soon it was being trumpeted across the world in many languages. At the cost of 2s, the then normal price of a government White Paper, it immediately became a best-seller at home and abroad, the subject of leading articles, letters to the Press, speeches and discussions at every level of society. Beveridge himself explained his Plan to millions on the radio and on the cinema screen, as well as addressing countless meetings. In twelve months 256,000 copies of the full Report were sold, 369,000 copies of an abridged edition, 40,000 copies of an American edition. Permission was given for translation into Spanish, Portuguese, and German. Translations were published in Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, Mexico, and Switzerland. Parts I [the summary] and VI [on social security and social policy] were translated into Czech, the abridgement into Italian and Chinese.Pauline Gregg, The Welfare State: An Economic and Social History of Great Britain from 1945 to the Present Day, Harrap, 1967, pp. 19-20.

Beveridge’s daughter account of a tour across Europe with her father is eloquent:

We learned after the war that it had not only been to the British Army that the Report came as a message of hope and encouragement, promising a world worth fighting for. If Britain in the worst days of the war was making plans for a better world in peace, she had no doubts of ultimate victory. To those heroic men and women in every underground movement it was a clear call to stick it out to the bitter end. To get copies of the Report for translation and distribution became a matter of the first importance. No danger was too great to face. Wherever we went in Western Europe, William found himself greeted and thanked by former members of resistance movements who had stories of incredible ingenuity and resourcefulness to tell. In Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, France—everywhere these intrepid patriots, men and women, came to tell him that he had given them the most powerful weapon of all for their use against the enemy.Janet Beveridge, Beveridge and His Plan, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1954, p. 202.

Even more telling of the rise in stature and importance of the social question, across the political spectrum, is the fact that the Nazi high command took the threat posed by the popularity of the Beveridge report very seriously. In a document classified as secret, which was found in Hitler’s bunker in 1945, civil servants were told to ignore the report as far as possible and, if they absolutely had to comment, to argue that it was:

a product of the needs of war, designed to mislead the English public and the public of the world as to the real war aims of England (catchword: shopwindow propaganda). It is music of the future whereas German Social Insurance has been a reality for more than fifty years.Quoted in Janet Beveridge, ibid., p. 196.

More surprisingly, they were instructed—probably by Joseph Goebbels himself—to avoid “detailed comparisons between our [the German] social system and the measures envisaged by the Beveridge Plan.”Ibid. A second document reveals the reasons for this: in the Nazis’ assessment, the plan was “superior [...] in almost all points.”Ibid., p. 198.

It was truly a battle for hearts and minds, setting one system of social protection against another, as is evidenced by the German Ministry of Labour’s translation of the report, whose April 1943 preface “blazon[ed] the backwardness of English social legislation in letting these private organizations [the industrial life offices and societies whose operations Beveridge described] exploit the poor.”Ibid., p. 195. Beveridge was aware of his new place in history, stating that “[a] revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patchwork” and that “democracies, like the armies of Cromwell, should know that for which they are fighting and must like what they know.”William H. Beveridge, op. cit., p. 6 and William H. Beveridge, quoted in Dennis Guest, “World War II & the Welfare State in Canada,” in Allan Moscovitch and Jim Albert, eds., The “Benevolent” State: The Growth of Welfare in Canada, Toronto, Garamond Press, 1987, 205-221, p. 208. It is also significant, for our purposes, that it was precisely in its greater redistributive effect that the report was considered to be superior, a characteristic which the Germans called its “social balance”:

Beyond doubt, the Beveridge Plan is based on the principle of welfare. This explains also the relatively low contribution of the insured person as suggested by the plan. [...] In the current German Social Insurance system, the social balance between the earners of lower and higher incomes is attained by a sliding scale of contributions yet equal receipt for all insured, whereas this is attained in the Beveridge Plan by the State contributions, which essentially derive from taxes.Quoted in Janet Beveridge, op. cit., p. 201.

The “principle of welfare” was the principle of redistribution, but where in the German system such redistribution was effected amongst workers and their families, in the proposed system it would operate on the broader level of citizenship. It was, in Beveridge’s words, “revolutionary,” since it effectively took from the rich to give to the poor—even to those who were able to work but unemployed (though it sidestepped this issue in part by envisaging full employment).See William H. Beveridge, Full Employment in a Free Society, London, Allen & Unwin, 1944. There is a world of difference between this and the first social programs, and thus between the German social insurance system of the 1880s and the British National Health Service of the 1940s.

Writing less than a decade after the war, Paul Durand, a French jurist, drew a portrait of emerging global policies of social security.Paul Durand, op. cit. The only regions he did not cover were the colonies, whose legislations were wholly dependent on the undemocratic overrule of their respective colonizers, and certain parts of Asia, whose economies he saw as too rural to have been affected by the global movement towards social security. Paying close attention to recent changes in both national constitutions and international agreements, he was ready to declare that a qualitative leap in social policy had occurred since the beginning of the 20th century, one that broke away from the reactionary and deliberately piecemeal approaches that had been the norm until the Second World War.

From the vantage point of 1953, there was something entirely new about contemporary social security policies. Table 1 illustrates this sea-change. According to Durand, the “advent of social security” was anticipated by the American Social Security Act of 1935 and “affirmed in an international movement [...] during the 1939 war [that finally] found its most remarkable expression in the report of Lord Beveridge” in 1942.Ibid., respectively the title of section III of chapter I of part I & p. 96. According to this account, the decisive break—that of broad-based compulsory social insurance, no-fault liability regimes covering workplace accidents and universal family benefits programs—separated his present from the liberal past rooted in the 1793 constitution of revolutionary France, which, after some hesitation, had “affirmed traditional ideas: ‘Public assistance is a sacred debt. Society owes subsistence to its miserable citizens’.”Ibid., p. 52 (italics are in the original).


Table 1: The Welfare State Moment
    Characteristics Pros Cons
Individual protection Savings Individual planning Flexibility/liberty Inadequacy/exclusions
Protection by others Civil liability Fault-based Full compensation Very low success rate
Private assistance Charity/solidarity Community-building Inadequacy/paternalism
Public assistance Aid of last resort Legal rights Minimalism/humiliation
Risk pooling Mutual aid Collective planning Some risk pooling Inadequacy/exclusions
Grassroots insurance Collective planning Larger group/reinsurance Inadequacy/exclusions
Group insurance Actuarial planning Employment contract Inadequacy/exclusions/costs
Social insurance Mandatory contributions No selection/public subsidies Fragmentary/exclusions/costs
Welfare state Social security Rights of citizenship Universal protection  


These events marked the advent of a new type of state mission in the social realm, which implied the planning of the economy. The Beveridge report—and similar documents elsewhereCanada’s equivalent was Leonard Charles Marsh, Report on Social Security for Canada, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1943.—called for protection (albeit of variable intensity) of all social risks and recommended the establishment of a universal public health service, economic policy aiming at full employment, and the distribution of family benefits financed by income taxes to all families with children—in other words, it undermined liberalism’s bright-line rule.

In parallel, one could observe the decline of the moral conception of social conditions and the rise of its sociological counterpart, which emphasized citizenship rights. John Maynard Keynes was a key figure in this transformation. Durand devoted several pages to his policy of full employment and the economic analysis that accompanied it, which “[broke] with the classical theories of employment.”Durand, op. cit., p. 541. He saw in the planning of the labour market one of contemporary social policy’s “most striking features.”Ibid., p. 512. He also made an assessment of other social security systems whose foundations had been laid during the Second World War, demonstrating that it was a global phenomenon with few exceptions. Starting with the Atlantic Charter of 1942, which promised social security for all, he went on to cover the Interamerican Conference on Social Security organized by Latin American countries that same year, as well as the multiple International Labour Organization meetings leading up to the 1944 Declaration of Philadelphia.Ibid., pp. 114-17. In a comprehensive survey of advances in social policy following the Beveridge report, he covered Belgium’s and France’s social security laws—respectively of 1944 and 1945, as well as various similar measures in Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and Scandinavia, going on to Eastern Bloc countries, the United States, Canada and Latin America, and the more-developed Commonwealth countries.Ibid., pp. 117-63.

Though there were attempts in the African colonies to “separate out a working class acculturated to the workplace and urban residence from the rest of the African population,” Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper note that “the implication that these working men (as they were assumed to be) and their families would need social security provisions led to a drawing back from such plans.”Ann Laura Stoler & Frederick Cooper, “Between Metropole and Colony: Rethinking a Research Agenda,” in Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997, 1-58, p. 24. In another article, Cooper shows that at the time Durand was writing, there was still a vigorous labour movement fighting for social rights in the French colonies, but that it was nationalism that put an end to what might otherwise have proven to be a strong base for the development of broad social security measures.Frederick Cooper, “The Dialectics of Decolonization: Nationalism and Labor Movements in Postwar French Africa,” in Tensions of Empire, op. cit., 406-435. More generally, the decasualization of labour that the developed countries experienced and which facilitated large-scale state intervention in social and economic matters which in turn led to a period of unprecedented growth, never happened in the colonies.

Contradictions were of course present from the start, as can be easily imagined, given the apparently complete about-face operated by Beveridge between 1906 and 1942. Indeed, in 1944 the International Labour Organization’s Declaration of Philadelphia asserted, in its very first article, that “labour is not a commodity,”Durand, op. cit., p. 115. For pleas for a return to the values and aspirations of the Declaration of Philadelphia, see Alain Supiot, L’esprit de Philadelphie. La justice sociale face au marché total, Paris, Seuil, 2010 and the documentary by Ken Loach, The Spirit of ’45, London, Why Not Productions, 2013. thereby putting into question the very notion of a labour market. It is this fundamental tension between labour and market which lays at the heart of the welfare state’s ambiguous policies. Focusing on the material conditions of social reproduction, Michel Aglietta and the French Regulation School have explored at length how a salaried workforce within homogenized environments of production and consumption became the temporary solution to the internal contradictions of capitalist accumulation, whose existence is always subject to its capacity for finding outlets for the goods it produces.Michel Aglietta, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience, New York, Verso Press, 2000. According to this analysis, crisis was inevitable, and the welfare state model was already deeply compromised as of the second half of the 1960s.Ibid.


Conclusion: A Bright, Fleeting and Ambiguous Moment

Bourdieu was interested in the state because he understood that welfare policies were under attack and wanted to understand what lay at their heart. Through his attempts to understand its workings in historical perspective, he came to see governmental commissions as particularly revealing of its processes. Such commissions, he discovered, had similar ceremonial functions as the much less elaborate amusnaw, the soothsayers of traditional Kabyle society that he had studied at the beginning of his career, in that they were both institutions that permitted the unthinkable to be stated, with the view of effecting fundamental social change. Armed with that conceptual tool, he spent years trying to understand how, in the 1970s, France had moved, in less than a decade, from a model of housing finance based on “aid-to-stones” to a liberal one based on “aid-to-persons”—i.e. personal credit—thereby effectively dismantling a key element of the postwar welfare state. His intricate analysis attributed this feat of realpolitik to the neoliberal Barre commission, which was up against phenomenal forces, including whole sectors of the civil service which derived their raison d’être from the aid-to-stones paradigm.See Pierre Bourdieu and Rosine Christin, “La construction du marché. Le champ administratif et la production de la ‘politique du logement’,” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, vol. 81, no. 1, 1990, 65-85. Bourdieu’s discovery demonstrates the importance of understanding the inner workings of the state and their link to policy formation: by piercing the state’s public-interest veil, one is able to better understand a process that is too often cast in reductive instrumental terms.

According to Eric Hobsbawm, the Second World War marked the pinnacle of the labour movement which led to the welfare state. He saw the years 1939 to 1945 as representing the high point of “working class consciousness,” which started to decline thereafter, in line with the profound transformations of modern societies.Eric J. Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, London, Michael Joseph, 1994, p. 308. Though the Beveridge report was far from embodying all of the labour movement’s decades-old demands, it was a high point of their legitimization within government discourse. In the years after the war, Hobsbawm described how urbanization, increased productivity, the green revolution, the development of suburban public transportation, compulsory primary education, the proliferation of university students, women’s emancipation and the massification of society undermined the cohesion of the industrial working class and the labour parties that were connected to it. On the eve of the long period of crisis that he saw beginning after 1973, social movements were no longer able to mobilize a working class that, even on its own terms, “was no longer poor.”Ibid., p. 306.

For Hobsbawm, the end of the corporatist control system also marked the end of social democracy, which in Britain was confirmed by the “secession of skilled workers” from the Labour Party which Margaret Thatcher counted on to come to power in 1979.Ibid., p. 308. For Aglietta, it was the inherent contradictions in the post-war system of Fordist regulation which, in purporting to reconcile social justice with a thirst for extracting ever-expanding added value, eventually led to the overturn of the primacy of full employment, opening the way to the “new” social question, in which the “developed world” experienced the rise in disposable labour that the so-called “developing world” never had escaped. This had the effect of bringing back many of the punitive and exclusionary elements of prior systems of social assistance.Ironically, the 1970s also saw high-level French proposals to abolish social assistance in favour of social security, since “a system of food aid that is specific to excluded populations is contrary to the very principle of social solidarity and creates a sociological opposition between ‘assisting’ citizen and ‘assisted’ citizen”Michel Laroque, “L’aide sociale : réforme ou suppression ?”, Revue française des affaires sociales, vol. 30, no. 1, 1976, 17-46., but it proved to be a mere remnant of the welfare state moment which had already passed. In Canada, there is a particularly powerful symbol that roughly marks the beginning and the end of this moment: while the federal Conservative Party added the label “Progressive” to its name at the end of 1942, it dropped it in 2003, after a decade of electoral defeats.