Socialism and Welfarism

Socialism consists not just in building a humane society; it consists not just in the maintenance of full employment (or near full employment together with sufficient unemployment benefits); it consists not just in the creation of a Welfare State, even one that takes care of its citizens “from the cradle to the grave”; it consists not just in the enshrining of the egalitarian ideal.  It is of course all this; but it is also something more.  Its concern, as Engels had pointed out in Anti-Duhring, is with human freedom, with the change in the role of the people from being objects of history to being its subjects, for which all the above conditions of society, namely full employment, Welfare State measures, a reduction in social and economic inequalities, and the creation of a humane order, are necessary conditions; but they are, not even in their aggregation, synonymous with the notion of freedom.  And hence they do not exhaust the content of socialism.

The conceptual distinction between a humane society and socialism comes through clearly if we look at the writings of the most outstanding bourgeois economist of the twentieth century, John Maynard Keynes.  Keynes abhorred the suffering that unemployment brought to the working class.  The objective of his theoretical endeavour was to end this suffering by clearing the theoretical ground for the intervention of the (bourgeois) State in demand management in capitalist economies.  He was passionately committed to a humane society, and believed that the role of economists was to be committed in this manner.  Indeed he saw economists as the “conscience-keepers of society”.

But at the same time Keynes was anti-socialist, not just in the sense that bourgeois intellectuals usually are, i.e. of seeing in socialism an apotheosis of the State and hence a denial of individual freedom, but in a more fundamental sense.  He too would have seen in socialism a denial of individual freedom, but his objection to socialism was more basic, and expressed in the following words: “How can I adopt a creed which, preferring the mud to the fish, exalts the boorish proletariat above the bourgeois and the intelligentsia, who, with whatever faults, are the quality in life and surely carry the seeds of all human advancement? . . . It is hard for an educated, decent, intelligent son of Western Europe to find his ideals here, unless he has first suffered some strange and horrid process of conversion which has changed all his values” (Essays in Persuasion, 1931).  Keynes’ objection in other words was precisely to the idea of the people becoming the subjects of history.  He was full of humaneness; but he baulked at this idea of freedom that would transform the people, led by the proletariat, from being objects to being subjects.

Even though welfarism and socialism are conceptually distinct, there is a dialectical connection between the two, which had, quite naturally, escaped Keynes, and which constitutes the real Achilles heel of his theory.  It is this dialectics which explains why the bourgeoisie is so implacably opposed to the Welfare State and why socialists must always vigorously fight for a Welfare State within a bourgeois society.  And it is because of this dialectics that the Welfare State cannot become some sort of a “half-way house” where the bourgeois system can get stabilized and stay forever: the bourgeoisie will always try to “roll” it back, and the socialist effort must always be to defend it and to carry it forward.

The reasons for the bourgeoisie’s opposition to the Welfare State, by which is meant here the entire panoply of measures including State intervention in demand management to maintain full employment (or near full employment), social security, free or near-free healthcare and education, and the use of taxation to restrict inequalities in income and wealth, are several.  First, it militates against the basic ethics of the bourgeois system.  Michal Kalecki had expressed this bourgeois ethics ironically as: “You shall earn your bread with the sweat of your brow, unless you happen to have private means!”  But his irony was directed against the basic position, expressed in much bourgeois economic literature, that the distribution of rewards by the spontaneous working of the capitalist system is “fair”, in the sense that each is rewarded according to his/her contribution, from which it followed that any interference with this distribution of rewards was “unfair”.  Hence, society’s accepting the responsibility for providing a basic minimum to everyone was contrary to the ethics of the bourgeois system and “unfair”.

Secondly, precisely for this reason, the acceptance of welfarism amounted to “no confidence” in the bourgeois system.  If it got generally accepted that the working of the bourgeois system yielded results that were inhumane, i.e. caused hardships that had nothing to do with any delinquency on the part of the victims, then the social legitimacy of the bourgeois system got ipso facto undermined.

It is the third reason however that is germane here.  Welfare State measures improve the bargaining strength of the proletariat and other segments of the working people.  The maintenance of near-full employment conditions improves the bargaining strength of the trade unions; the provision of unemployment assistance likewise stiffens the resistance of the workers.  The “sack” which is the weapon dangled by the “bosses” over the heads of the workers loses its effectiveness in an economy which is both close to full employment and has a system of reasonable unemployment allowances and other forms of social security.

In short, resistance by the workers and other sections of the working people gets stiffened by the existence of Welfare State measures.  The famous Bengali writer Manik Bandyopadhyay in a short story “Chhiniye Khayni Kyano” (“Why Didn’t They Snatch and Eat?”) asks the question: why did so many people die on the streets without food in the Bengal famine of 1943, when within a few yards of their places of death there were restaurants full of food and houses with plenty of food?  Why did they not raid these well-stocked places and snatch food from them to save their lives?  His answer, that the absence of nourishment itself lowers the will to resist, has a general validity.  The will to resist gets stiffened the better placed the workers are materially; and Welfare State measures contribute towards this stiffening.

This stiffening of the will to resist is itself a part of the transition from being objects to subjects.  Hence welfarism and socialism, though conceptually distinct, are dialectically linked.  Socialists must support Welfare State measures, not just because such measures are humane, not just because such measures benefit the working people, but above all because such measures stiffen the will of the people to resist, help the process of changing them from objects to subjects, and hence contribute to the process of sharpening of class struggle.  And since the bourgeoisie wants precisely to avoid this, since it wants the people enchained in their object role, since it wants them weakened, cowed down, divided, atomized, and transfixed into an empirical routine beyond which they cannot look, it carries out a continuous struggle for a “rolling back” of all Welfare State measures.  Even when under the pressure of circumstances it has had to accept in a certain context the institutionalization of such measures, its effort is always to undo them.

The fact that Keynes did not see it, and hence could not visualize the collapse of “Keynesian” demand management under pressure from the bourgeoisie, especially the financial interests, constitutes a weakness of his social theory; conversely, the fact that this collapse occurred only underscores the strength of the socialist theory that he so derided.  True, the collapse of Keynesian demand management did not occur in the same political economy regime within which it had been introduced.  It had been introduced within a context where the nation-State was supreme, and the area under its jurisdiction cordoned off from free flows of goods and finance; but it collapsed within a regime where there was globalization of finance and hence far freer flows of goods and finance.  But this changed context only provided the capacity to capital to “roll back” Keynesianism; the fact that it wished to do so had to do with the insurmountable contradictions that the dialectics of welfarism generated within the bourgeois order.

The foregoing has a relevance to the current Indian context.  Under pressure from the Left during the period of the Left-supported UPA regime, a number of measures like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme had been adopted, against strong opposition from the leading exponents of neo-liberalism within the government.  The fact that the same exponents subsequently claimed credit for these measures is ironical; but let it pass.  Not only do they claim credit for these measures, even while quietly whittling down many of them (restricting the people’s access to food under the guise of a Right to Food Act is the latest, and most ironical, example of this), but they actually use these as the fig-leaf to cover the pursuit of blatantly pro-rich policies.  The government stokes the stock market to produce overnight billionaires; it hands over further largesse to these billionaires in the name of “development”; but if anyone objects, the response is: “Don’t you know?  We have an NREGS in place!”  The welfare measures, even as they are being whittled down, provide an alibi for doling out largesse to the rich.

And these measures themselves are seen essentially as acts of generosity on the part of the government.  Several of these measures, like the NREGS, are nominally rights-based, but in practice no different from the earlier programmes whose effectiveness depended basically upon the discretion of the implementing government.  Hence, even as they provide some succour to the poor and working people, they confirm the people in their role as objects.  And the entire self-congratulatory discourse that has developed among intellectuals loyal to the ruling class, especially after the elections where the Congress Party is supposed to have done well because of programmes like the NREGS, is one that is laden with this objectification of the people.

The stiffening of the will to resist among the people, which Welfare State measures can bring about, has to be made practically effective through the intervention of the Left, since the Left’s agenda precisely is to overcome the objectification of the people.  The Left therefore must both act energetically for the implementation of these Welfare State measures like the NREGS, preventing all backsliding on them by the bourgeoisie, and at the same time use the context of the material succour provided by such schemes to help in strengthening the resistance of the people, in intensifying class struggle, and also in overcoming the objectification intrinsically attached to such schemes themselves.  The Left fights not just for welfarism but for socialism, with which welfarism is dialectically linked, but whose content is qualitatively different.

Prabhat Patnaik is Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Planning Board and Professor, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning (CESP), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.  This article was first published by International Development Economics Associates on 25 August 2009; it is reproduced here for educational purposes.