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This special issue is about the global and comparative history of the welfare state. The articles in this third volume of Zapruder World fit squarely into the philosophy of our action-oriented journal. They aim not only to interact with historiographical debates or to merely question aspects of mainstream literature on the topic, but they also seek to interrogate the welfare state in order to map the terrain with an eye to action and political alternatives.

We all face the dominance of neoliberal ideologies in our daily lives, seeing the consequences of attacks on public programs in areas such as health, education, income-transfers, and housing, among other areas. Moreover, as scholars we aim to consciously denaturalize “liberal thought,” which consistently downplays the role of welfare legislation and institutions. At the same time, we do not want to “celebrate” the welfare state in itself. By advocating for a critical appraisal of history as a space for conflict, this issue of Zapruder World challenges liberal-conciliatory descriptions of the past. We believe that an open debate on the origins of the welfare state, as well as a greater awareness of the transformations of both the notion of the Welfare State and its material organization, provide the necessary standpoint to critically reconsider its role for the future.

Finally, this special issue of Zapruder World, challenges the dominant focus on the “crisis” of the welfare state, inviting scholars and activists to a reflection on the many alternatives offered by the welfare state in responding to the needs of people in different geographical locations and at different times in history.


Our Methodological Challenges

With our “call for papers” for Issue 3 of Zapruder World, we invited article proposals for a global and comparative approach to the history of the welfare state. Moreover, our intent was to probe into the possibility of a transnational or supranational understanding of the mechanisms that characterized the origins of the welfare state during the Twentieth century. Almost all the proposals we received were about one national case study, or, at the most, two. After a very difficult selection, the result is a group of ten articles most of which focus on one or two national case studies, which are, in alphabetical order: Bolivia, Brazil, China, Germany South Africa, South Korea, The Netherlands, UK, USA and Zimbabwe. What we have been able to offer to our readers is an extremely wide selection of national case studies related to five different continents, but we were not able to provide a group of articles offering a transnational perspective on the welfare state.

The field of “welfare state studies” privileges histories of national experiences, this being the unavoidable result of the relationship between “welfare state” and “the State” itself. Nevertheless, it does not mean that research on national case study always supports nationally-focused approaches to the exclusion of comparative ones. In particular, we think that all the articles in this issue put the case study they investigate into a global perspective and all of them provide theoretical categories, interpretative readings, or longer term analyses that are useful to develop a transnational analysis.

In particular, this volume offers a number of perspectives aimed at overcoming the epistemological Eurocentrism that, consciously or unconsciously, has affected most investigations of the welfare state. For example, different chronologies are proposed, including a variety of historical linearities or non-linearities, as well as origin stories outside of the common narrative. At the same time, this process of emancipation from Eurocentrism is neither an easy or obvious achievement, nor is it a definitive result. It is often results in a different kind of comparison, to the European paradigms. Center/periphery approaches, as well as presence/absence of “typical” welfare state features still affect many studies, some of which are presented in this volume. In our opinion this is not a methodological or interpretative weakness per se. Our aim to investigate whether or not the welfare state was/is a global phenomenon with specific characteristics implies the existence of an analytical common ground, even if based on non-hierarchical point of views. The consequence has often been the critical and conflicting use of theoretical categories originally developed in European/Western contexts.

In the next sections of this introduction, we try to highlight the great variety of thematic foci and interpretative lenses proposed by the authors in this issue to develop a global and non-Eurocentric perspective on the history of the welfare state.


The Articles’ Focuses

Christian Garland, in his article on the UK, highlights how welfare reforms are a constituent part of Neoliberal ideology. In particular, he looks at the so called “workfare system” approach, that means to “make what was once universal, conditional” through processes of dividing and categorizing people (deserving vs. undeserving). This affirms the overall goal of making the unproductive productive. Garland underlines the role played by “workfare policies” in allowing the market into areas of life previously defined as off limits to it. Moreover, he highlights the punitive and disciplinary nature of workfare, based on the neoliberal ideological construction that unemployment is the consequence of a wrong attitude by individuals and the claim that this idea it not “ideology” but simple “realism.” Garland points out the consequences in terms of voluntary servitude to the “active labour market policies” delivered by the embrace of the workfare approach. His article gives the reader the opportunity of arriving at a deep understanding of the complexity of the proposition of workfare, a powerful tool which, behind the alleged positive-ness of its approach and the claim to empower those it serves, actually veils the real nature of Neoliberalism.

The concept of “workfare” is a also central point in Su-dol Kang’s article on South Korea. Kang argues that workfare patterns were not the consequence of a neoliberal transition from a universal model, but the result of the inability of the working class to develop its power to enforce a transformation to a substantial welfare society in this “semi-peripheral country.” In the project of the ruling class, the birth of the punitive Korean workfare pattern at the end of the 1990s was aimed at avoiding so-called “welfare misuse.” This process has been part of a long-term path in Korean history, whereby the post WWII decades of economic development can be seen as akin to a process of destruction of pre-capitalistic, collective, and autonomous welfare relationships. Kang highlights that it has not been an automatic process but had to face the resistance of a market-led society. Although focusing on an experience of defeat, this article also highlights the role played by the South Korean working class movement and trade unions as protagonists in the creation of a welfare state system, a feature shared with many other national experiences.1

Similar to Kang’s article, working class movements, as well as the process of proletarianization and class dynamics, are the central focus of Elena McGrath’s article on the Bolivian experience. She proposes a structural approach connecting social conflict to the development of the Bolivian model of dependent capitalism. Interestingly, her piece looks at the articulation of ideologies of state-building, social welfare, and revolution from a supposedly peripheral point of view of a copper mining community.

Also, Paolo Rizzi’s article on China after the crisis of 2007 focuses on workers’ action. It reviews the organizational forms of the Chinese working class, including both official state-led trade unions and various forms of self-organized and non-Governmental Organizations. Rizzi analyses the pattern of industrial relations in China and the process of unionization, comparing top-down and bottom-up experiences. The multifaceted relations between the Socialist legacy and the new “just in time” production model, as well as the generational conflicts within the working class, afford a complex picture of class conflict in contemporary China. The article also stresses the importance of institutional discrimination by the Household Registration Record that, although undergoing reform, still enforces a rural-urban divide within Chinese society.

The role played by Apartheid and racism in the genesis of the welfare state in South Africa and Zimbabwe is the central point of Mark Malisa’s article. He describes the welfare state as a byproduct of capitalism and racism and argues that prior to European colonialization there was little evidence of welfare-oriented policies in South Africa, since the political, legal, and economic framework was designed to meet the need of all the people in a society where there was minimal private ownership of the means of production, including land and water. Like Kang in the Korean case, Malisa also highlights the existence of historical alternatives to the European welfare state. In this case, he points to the pre-colonial African pattern of public ownership of all natural resources and its ideological background, the so-called “Spirit of Ubuntu”. In South Africa and Zimbabwe the welfare state was introduced together with capitalism to preserve and promote the interests of the white ruling class against the black majority. At the same time Malisa underlines the ideological complexity of the white welfare state in South Africa and Zimbabwe: a combination of colonial philanthropy, tools of social control, and a desire to meet the educational and social needs of the white people. He underlines the relationship between the welfare state and capitalism (as well as colonialism) offering his analysis for a global perspective.

Drawing a similar conclusion to Malisa, Fabiane Santana Previtali, Cílson César Fagiani and Carlos Lucena highlight the links between capitalism and the history of the welfare state. The starting point of their analysis is the role of the State as a political form of the capitalistic mode of production. In their perspective, both the welfare state and Neoliberalism are expressions of the dynamics of class struggle. In particular, according to Previtali, Fagiani and Lucena’s approach, class compromise supported by social democracy (i.e. the welfare state) was a way to limit class conflict and was led by a sort of fetishism of the State. The welfare state ensured the necessary measures of accumulation and expansion of capital, while its crisis is nothing but the rupture of a relatively stable class-domination pattern.

Gurglielmo Carchedi’s article on the United States also connects capitalist trends and the experience of the welfare state. He presents a convincing relation between, on one hand, the evolution of the welfare state and the emergence of Neoliberalism in the US, and, on the other hand, the movement of the average rate of profit and especially its long-term tendency to fall over time. Carchedi provides a coherent Marxist interpretative pattern associating economic reproduction to the role played by structural factors, and the meanings of their trends in terms of the development of the welfare state. By pointing out the cardinal function of labor as the only value- and surplus-value-producing factor, his approach provides us with a model that is applicable and verifiable both in comparative studies and global analyses.

A very different approach is proposed by Paul Van Tright in his article focusing on the experience of the Netherlands. He proposes an analysis of the evolution of the relation between the concepts of human rights and welfare state, a conflictual relationship that has global meanings. Van Tright argues that until the 1970s both the welfare state and human rights were part of a Western ideology, since they had a common source in the concept of “personalism”, that is, “human dignity.” For Van Tright the 1970s represented an ideological turning point precisely because of the replacement of “individualism” by “personalism.” Human rights movements aiming to combat violations of individual freedoms have also inspired Neoliberalism; both movements share the same individualistic inclination. In examining the conflicting relationship between human rights movements and welfare state, Van Tright underlines that on one hand human rights movements often have nothing to say about socio-economic inequality, while, on the other hand, there has also emerged a sort of welfare chauvinism, that is, a tendency to exclude “strangers” from ethnic homogenous welfare states. We see in this article the emergence of an implicit question: has the progressive combination of “human rights and welfare state” been historically replaced by a hopeless conflict posing “individualistic neoliberalism vs. the racist welfare state”?

Susanne Maurer’s piece on Germany invites us to acknowledge the interrelations and interdependences between gender and welfare regimes. With an emphasis on the German experience, Maurer claims that the relation between welfare state and women’s agency, in the sense of their political agency, derived from specific power relations. These power relations both constrained and promoted women’s political agency, and must be characterized more precisely in studies on the welfare state. Maurer’s article begins this work, focusing on the concept and praxis of “organized motherhood.” She wants “to propose a complex and multi-layered point of view, stressing the radical-critical and utopian aspects of “organized motherhood” itself. At the same time the article aims to show that a feminist politics within the origins of welfare states cannot be reduced to “organized motherhood” but comprises a wide spectrum of ideas related to “the social.” These ideas could be re-deployed and critically recognized in the service of visions of a more just and livable society.

Cory Verbauwhede’s piece about the identification of the welfare state “moment,” summarizes this complex picture of welfare states that emerges from reading all the articles in this special issue. She argues against socio-centric accounts of welfare state history and monocausal explications of welfare policy developments, as well as against the myth of linear-chronological growth of social protection. Verbauwhede maintains that linear descriptions underestimate the violent battles that were required for even the smallest gain in social coverage. The outcomes were far from predetermined, and the varieties of welfare state experiences described in this issue of Zapruder World confirms this.


A Complex Challenge

The articles of this volume speak to the controversial and conflicting assessments of the history of the welfare state within non-neoliberal approaches. There are not only disagreements, but intense debates that are punctuated by possible misunderstandings making discussions among scholars very cumbersome. The search for a global approach makes things even more complicated. Even the use of seemingly unproblematic words and concepts presents problems in an interdisciplinary conversation. Language that defines long-term chronologies may carry different meanings or interpretations, affecting the debate on the history of the welfare state. This includes categories such as pre-capitalist era, Feudalism, industrial revolution, industrialization, making of the national State, post-Fordism, globalization and so on.

The history of the welfare state is characterized by a complex combination of several laboratories of different and not homogenous conflicts, some class-related, others gender-related, or ethnic-related, or otherwise. In this volume, the existence of a system of welfare state in itself is described as a goal (successfully or unsuccessfully) pursued by social movements or, on the contrary, a means employed against their more radical demands. As a result, the articles propose (implicitly or explicitly) top-down or bottom-up explications of the origins of the welfare state. Yet, in both perspectives, the role played by the State, and its very essence, is questioned.

While seeking to give an account of the complexities of the phenomenon the set of articles proposed in this welfare state issue of Zapruder World support structural analyzes based on the idea that Capitalism, in all of its varieties, is a common background faced by all the national experiences described in this volume. To some extent, and paradoxically, we cannot but agree with Esping-Andersen: if the welfare state is an attempt to marginalize the market “as the chief determinant of peoples’ life chances,”2 its very existence is connected to the existence of a market society. We remain therefore firm in our conviction that the welfare state was and is a consequence of the structural contradictions specifically featured in the capitalist system. Two articles in this issue (Malisa and Kang) make explicit reference to the absence and futility of a welfare state system in pre-capitalist societies not based on private ownership relations.

The crucial issue emerging from this issue is therefore whether the welfare state can be re-conceived as or turned into a challenge against the capitalist social order (e.g. a tool to promote social equality), or it can only work to support and implement the status quo (e.g. to reinforce social hierarchies)? The case studies in this volume suggest different and often contradictory answers to this decisive question, and some even reject the dualistic nature of the question. More precisely, while the historical relationship between capitalism and the welfare state is a transversal and central issue in many articles, what emerges from some is the very ambiguity of this relation: the welfare state is described alternatively as a necessity, a support, a consequence, a byproduct, a limitation, a challenge, or even an alternative to capitalism.

Processes such as de-commodification, social mobility, expansion of the public sector, recognition of the existence of universal rights in connection with basic needs, limitations in the domain of supply/demand relations in the labor market and so on, which work in the direction of emancipating aspects of society from market mechanisms, have all played significant roles in the national experiences investigated in this issue. However, they all ensued from the spread of social conflict related to class, gender, ethnicity etc…, but their implementation could have opposite aims: either to enlarge or to limit the achievements of the subaltern actors of the social conflict. The historical reality of the welfare state in capitalistic societies described in this volume results in a multilevel oxymoron in which both radical instances and status quo-maintaining policies coexist as part of the same phenomenon.

The different and often opposing paths which have led to the building of the national experiences of welfare states presented in this issue highlight the combinations of systems of oppression, domination, and discrimination that structurally affect Capitalism and created the needs for new social policies. A combined reading of all these articles suggests that historically the welfare state has been a tool to either overcome or crystallize existing social hierarchies in capitalistic societies, as well as an attempt to solve the contradictions created by the intersections of a variety of social identities (including class, race, gender, or age) and related forms of oppression.3



  1. See for example the concept of “Union-Based Welfare State” introduced by Stefano Agnoletto for the Italian case study (Stefano Agnoletto, “Trade Unions and the Origins of the Union-Based Welfare State in Italy (1950s-1970s)” California Italian Studies 3:2 (2012), available at: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/6xz0x8qj).
  2. Gosta Esping-Andersen, Politics against Markets: The Social Democratic Road to Power  (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 245.
  3. Here we are consciously referring to the concept of intersectionality, a concept originally introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and widely employed in subsequent feminist literature. See Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” The University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989: 1, 139-167.