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Social State as Home

by Heribert Pranti and Stephan Lessenich Friday, Mar. 12, 2010 at 7:06 AM

This society cannot afford to dismantle the social state. The social state guarantees inner peace. The strength of a people is measured by the well-being of the weak, those not born with a silver spoon. Solidarity, social justice and equal opportunities are key words and open doors.


The social state ensures inner peace. The social state does not give to one who has much and take from one who has little. The social state does not say: the snow shovel for you and the gift of millions for me.

By Heribert Pranti

[This article published 2/23/2010 is translated from the German on the Internet.]

A strong state is a home for those not born with a silver spoon. Such a state is called the social state.

In the debate over Hartz IV (German welfare reform that combined unemployment insurance and income support and drastically restricted the length of social benefits), the social state is said to be unaffordable. That is a dangerous rumor. The opposite is true. This society cannot afford to dismantle the social state. The social state guarantees inner peace.

The history of 60 years in Germany teaches: the police and the law were not guarantors of inner peace for decades. Criminal law paragraphs and security packages have not ensured inner security. The social state was the foundation of prosperity and good business; it combined political morality and economic success. A social state is a state that accepts the social risks for which the individual is not responsible.

The social state distributes because there are burdens and manna does not always rain down. The social state must economize when resources are scarce. But the one who is already strained must not bear the vast majority of burdens. A social state does not give to the one who already has and take from the one who has little. The social state does not say: the snow shovel for you and gifts of millions for me.

A modern social policy ensures that a person can be a citizen. It gives him or her basic security and basic certainty. A person’s freedom rights and political rights need a foundation on which they can develop. Democracy throws in the towel when it trivializes social policy. “The strength of a people is measured by the well-being of the weak.” This marvelous sentence can be read in the 1999 preamble to the Swiss constitution. This is also a courageous sentence because strength is often ascribed to very different factors. Some measure strength by gross domestic product and export surplus. Others speak of strong states and demand more police, criminal law and prisons. Too few speak of the strength of the state in achieving dignified minimum wages. Too few speak of the strong state in redressing social inequality, doing something against long-term unemployment and joining social- and educational policy together.

A strong state is a home for those not born with the silver spoon, a home for those suffering a bad patch because they are unemployed. Such a state is called a social state. The social state ensures that Germany remains home for all seniors and home for all young citizens. That is called integration, the opposite of exclusion. Integration creates home. The social state is the summary of all this.

The strength of a people is measured in the well-being of the weak. The great judgment of the German constitutional court on Hartz IV was the long version of this short marvelous sentence. The court ascribed an exciting task to the social state. The social state must be the fate-corrector for the poor and the relatively poor of this society, especially for the children.

To this end, the court formulated a new basic right, the basic right to a dignified subsistence. The state has a basic duty to guarantee and realize this minimum. This is a basic right for the poor. The importance of this judgment cannot be overrated…


Hartz IV recipients are often insulted as lazybones who seek an “effortless prosperity.” What is “prosperity”? The insulted lack the strength to resist and organize themselves against political and journalist denigration. They do not only lack work and social acknowledgment. Certainly there are recipients who have established themselves in social dilapidation and view the state as alien. The worst reaction to that is pouring out displeasure on all Hartz IV recipients.

Here is a little story. A few decades ago a pious woman, Madame de Meuron, lived in Bern. She was called the “last patrician” of Bern. Where she went to church one morning, a farmer came to her. She reprimanded him with sharp words: “Dear sir, in heaven we will all be equal but order must prevail here below.” That is not the order envisioned by the social state. The social state aims at dismantling the structural causes for the disadvantaged and does not only care for them. Solidarity, social justice and equal opportunities are the key words of the social state; they open doors.

Poverty in Germany is different than the poverty in the 19th century. There is no poor class any more that could join forces combatively. The megaphone that the union once was for the working class is lacking the poor of today. Price, self-confidence and team spirit are lacking to them. Each for himself alone is relatively poor. Poverty has so many faces today. There is the jobless academic, there is the casual laborer and the rationalized-away skilled worker, there is the single mother who cannot manage the leap into vocational life, there is the supermarket-cashier paid hourly, there are the long-term unemployed, there are the marginalized of society and there are the immigrant children who cannot escape from the ghetto. The German constitutional court wrote its decision for all of them.


The highest German court contributed to the “European Year against Poverty and Social Exclusion.” This 2010 European Union year has the motto “With new courage.” The political discussion after the Hartz IV decision has seemingly gone the wrong way. The courage of the German government consists in keeping basic security so low that tax gifts can be given to the well-to-do.

Must the social state be reinvented? Reinventing can be seen as a threat. The last “reinvention” of the social state by German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder led to more poverty and displeasure. The social state must be organized, calculated and arranged orderly; it does not have to be reinvented.

Democracy and the social state belong together. Citizens in a democracy need education and livelihood; they need a reasonably secure existence. Life will continue to begin unjustly and end unjustly. The social state exists so life will sometimes be just and everyone will have his or her chance.


Interview with sociologist Stephan Lessenich on non-existent jobs, basic income for idlers and antiquated belief in jobs

[This interview published in: Berliner Zeitung, February 27, 2010 is translated from the German on the Internet. Stephan Lessenich (44) teaches social and behavioral sciences at the University of Jena with main emphasis on the theory of the welfare state. Lessenich is a member of the Sanction Moratorium alliance and co-founder of the Institute of the Solidarity Modern Age.]

Professor Lessenich, were you ever unemployed?

No. After study, I worked in academic positions up to my present job.

Were you never forced to a job you did not want by a job center?

I was spared that. I spend a lot of time in job-centers in the scope of my research.

Some politicians are urging harsher punishments for the unemployed who refuse reasonable work. In contrast, you urge the complete abolition of sanctions. Would not that be a charter for idleness?

My basic position is: the whole discussion whether the sanctions are sufficiently severe or sufficiently strict diverts from the real problem.

What is the real problem?

There are simply not enough permanent jobs, not temporary jobs. This deficiency in jobs is recast in the inactivity of the unemployed in the job search. Structural problems are thereby reinterpreted in behavioral problems that should be punished. In all developed industrial societies, there is a growing and permanent shortage of reasonable paying jobs. Supply and demand for paid labor can no longer be simply balanced, however much the economy and politics try.

This balance is a question of price. If labor becomes cheaper, the demand will be greater.

A few jobs can obviously be created through lower wages but not enough jobs. Massive low wage sectors have been created everywhere. But unemployment remains high.

Many economists object that the low-wage sector is simply not big enough.

That is a way of admitting the failure of this strategy. The fact is we cannot solve unemployment as a structural problem that way. Even if labor is made cheaper, the wage level lowered and the low-wage level expanded, what jobs will arise? Do we want jobs where employees can hardly live above the subsistence level?

Two solutions of the jobs-problem are now seen by politics. You reject one, a larger low-wage sector. What do you think of the second, more economic growth?

That may be conceivable theoretically but not practically. Astonishingly we speak on one side about climate change, environmental burdens and the rapid consumption of finite resources like oil. On the other side, growth should save us all. How can these two orientations match? The growth logic is de-legitimated by the environmental de3struction and social dislocations that it produces.

Those are great words. Let us focus on the unemployed. What could be a solution?

We must get away from fixation on paid work in the conventional sense. We need a stable income security independent of paid work.

The social state and unemployment benefits exist.

The social state has long been based on the idea that unemployment is temporary and conditioned by the business cycle. If the unemployed are only encouraged and pressed a little, one hopes they will find work again. But this mechanism has not functioned for 30 years! Our social state is not oriented to permanent and mass unemployment. That is why the unemployed are permanently run down.

What is the solution?

On one side, we need a stable form of income security. Abolition of sanctions against the unemployed is only a first step. In addition, we must raise other questions: How much paid work do we want? Do we want people forced in paid work under all conditions? Alternatives to paid work must be considered. We must reflect how work can be redistributed and reduced – with partial wage adjustment. We must consider alternative income sources – useful activities that the state must finance.

Who should pay for a gigantic public jobs sector?

Our social budget is already huge. With a political will, much more could be accomplished with the same means than in the past. The problem is not that there is no proposed solution. The problem is that solutions are not discussed.

What do you think of citizen work – the obligation of Hartz IV recipients to charitable activities?

For some unemployed, that can be attractive and fulfilling. Others want to be left in peace – because they like television or endlessly write their doctoral the3ses as academics. Why don’t we leave them alone if they want that? Their labor power is obviously not needed. The unemployment figures show this. They don’t want to make available3 their labor power under prevailing conditions. No one can blame them for that. A highly productive rich land like Germany must be able to afford this. Ensuring the subsistence level is a legal claim, not a handout that the society can spare.

Doesn’t money without work contradict the principle of performance justice?

Often it is said: whoever works must have more than one who doesn’t work. That is not an obvious principle. It would only be obvious if unpaid works – for example, household-, family- or caring work – were taken into account and secondly if there were work for everyone. As long as that isn’t true, no one should tell me work must be more rewarding than non-work.

If one is no longer dependent on moneymaking through work, who would do the dirty work?

Firstly, most unemployed persons want a regular paid activity. That is a basic need for different reasons. Secondly, we must make “dirty work” less dirty. It must be paid better, for example through a minimum wage. “Dirty work” would be rewarding again.

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