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The Future of the Social State

by Chirstoph Butterwegge Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011 at 2:45 PM

The extended family as a kind of "self-help group" replaces the social state in the backward-oriented utopia of liberal-conservatism. Nothing hurts families more than the "rebuilding" or dismantling of the social state and the marketing of interpersonal relations.


By Christoph Butterwegge

[This article published in: Ossietzky 20/2011 is translated from the German on the Internet, . Christoph Butterwegge teaches political science at the University of Koln. His latest book “The Future of the Social State” appeared in its 4th edition in October 2011. Professor Butterwegge is also the author of “Migrants and the Mass Media.”]

For decades, the social state founded by Reich chancellor Otto von Bismarck was a model imitated by other states and praised by the people in Germany. This changed in the course of the 1974-75 worldwide economic crisis when neoliberalism promoted to a social philosophy from an economic theory gained public opinion hegemony even in Germany. Since then the Bismarck social state was stubbornly “rebuilt” or reduced under changing government majorities and with different accents.

According to what principles is this happening? What will be the form of the future social state? Whether its decline over decades continues or a reorganization triumphs (perhaps through a solidarity universal health care) depends on the overall social conditions, socio-economic developments, the political hierarchy of power and parliamentary majorities which are changeable and c cannot be predicted exactly.


A “national competition state,” as the political scientist Joachim Hirsch calls it, comes out of the welfare state as known in the past. Outwardly the competitiveness of the “economic location” on the world market is promoted. Inwardly the market mechanisms and organizational principles of performance competition and operational efficiency are transformed to its own organizational structures. Thus the social loses its intrinsic value and is subjected and subordinated to the economic. “Location security” turns upside down the relation of economy, state and politics. Politics is degraded to a dependent variable of the national economy. The competition state marked by neoliberal principles no longer accepts responsibility for all social “collateral damage” of the capitalist economy but intensifies the social inequality and prepares the ground for processes of social exclusion and ethnization. Directed to extensive liberalization of capital transactions, deregulation of the labor market, flexibility and differentiation of job conditions and privatization of public necessities, neoliberalism approvingly accepts the deterioration of working- and living conditions of a large part of the population.


A base provision granting no more than the poverty level appears in the neoliberal minimum state in place of the need orientation and living standard protection in the welfare state as known in the past. Severe budget cuts in the social area are mostly passed off as austerity efforts although the costs of care (as in the health care system) are often not lowered but only shifted from the solidarity community to the beneficiaries. Neoliberals seek to drastically reduce social benefits and concentrate on the “truly” needy.

Benefit cuts occur in the modern welfare state concretely and permane3ntly where they strike the most vulnerable and least resistant groups of the population: (long-term) unemployed, seniors, the sick, disabled and migrants and their children.


The less social security is granted by the welfare state, the more inner security is emphasized. The state answers the increasing social inequality on account of the redistribution from bottom to top over decades, the gulf between poor and rich and the social insecurity spreading to the center of society with a development of the surveillance- and repression machine. The neoliberal state appears emaciated and weak when guaranteeing social security and public essentials is vital. But it is a strong state inwardly and outwardly in safeguarding the existing economic and social order. Instead of combating poverty, the afflicted are fought. The poor are expelled by police raids and displacements from downtown areas and increasingly warehoused in prisons. Toward the poor, the neoliberal minimum state is more a criminal- than a social state because the benefit reduction (allegedly necessary for reasons of international competitiveness) forces repression toward groups of persons who can be termed globalization- or modernization-losers and victims of its backward-oriented “reform policy.”


The social benefit state becomes a mere guarantee state. Social services that the welfare state provided are increasingly privatized, not only public enterprises and personal existential risks. According to the model of the privatized postal- and telecommunication sectors, the social state in the future will merely guarantee that indispensable services and payments in kind are provided in the scope of public essentials for millions of people and the society altogether. This task will be left to nonprofit or profit-oriented suppliers whose work is certified, monitored and controlled. Thus the traditional responsibility of the state to fulfill social tasks is replaced by a mere warranty-guarantee to insure that the clients mutating to customers are served on the newly created (quasi-) market by private suppliers who on their side want to earn as much money as possible.


An activating social state subsidizing the needy with return favors increasingly replaces the active social state as known in the past. Assumption of “personal responsibility” means the opposite of self-determination of citizens. The term “activating labor market policy” basically slanders the jobless as too passive because otherwise they would not need to be “activated.” The “return favor” of a petitioner (or his readiness to make a return favor) fulfills the state service obligation instead of neediness in the active social state. The needy cease to be welfare state citizens with legal social claims and become objects of an administration demanding concessions from them and then degrading them.


Under the catchword “personal responsibility,” the socially-disadvantaged person either burdens himself or assigns to his/her family (referring to the subsidiarity term) as an obligation what the welfare state reformed according to neoliberal principles cannot afford any more because the necessary funds are withheld and what the market cannot provide. The subsidiarity principle experiences a remarkable renaissance in a neoliberal garb while the solidarity command can no longer be realized in the performance-, knowledge- or competition society and therefore is slandered as antiquated. The extended family as a kind of “self-help group” (Kurt Biedenkopf) replaces the social state in the backward-oriented utopia of liberal-conservatism. Nothing hurts families more than the “rebuilding” or dismantling of the social state and the marketing of interpersonal relations justified with the keywords “globalization” and “location protection.” A capitalist high-performance-, competition- and elbow-society interested more in professional careers and stock prices than soup kitchens, child poverty and baby carriages does not give a secure foundation of existence to socially disadvantaged families. Flexibility, venturesomeness and social insecurity as “turbo-capitalism” (Edward N. Luttwak) demands from its workers or precarious employees are the deadly enemies of the family. The “flexible person” (Richard Sennett) cannot afford a family any more, whether on account of financial problems or because of that geographic mobility that managers of transnational corporations demand. The task of guaranteeing social security is delegated back to the family and not only assigned to the market.


The community threatens to fall apart in a welfare market and a charity state. On the welfare market, citizens who can financially afford this buy social security (for example old age pension schemes through insurance policies). However the “postmodern” social state only makes available minimum benefits called euphemistically “basic security” that keeps people from dying of hunger and freezing to death and leaves them to the care of charitable organizations and private benefactors. The state of private donors and sponsors replaces the social state. With some sarcasm, one could see a deeper political meaning that the European Year of Voluntary Work (2011) followed the European Year to Fight Poverty and Social Exclusion (2010).


That wage earners were insured against general life risks was characteristic for the German welfare state since the social reforms of the Wilhelmian Empire. By paying contributions in which employers later shared, they gained – constitutionally protected – claims that had to be fulfilled. The security system of Germany referring to wages and payments on the basis of the equivalence principle (balance of benefit and return favor), payments in legal pension security to each other in a causal connection largely corresponds to the dominant performance-ideology and a merit-based understanding of justice. Nevertheless the social (insurance) state directed since Bismarck at protecting from standard risks threatens to end as a care-system on one hand financed less by contributions from employers and the insured than through tax funds and on the other hand no longer maintains the living standard of its clientele but only gives them a base provision (mere existential security).

Parallel to this, the social acceptance of poverty and social exclusion increases while the acceptance of the poor themselves declines because of prosperity-chauvinism, social Darwinism and location nationalism. Therefore a stricter poverty regime is installed and relations with the socially disadvantaged, above all with “aggressive beggars” and the “anti-social,” harden.


Butterwegge, Christoph: “Education as Tranquilizer,” 2010

Butterwegge, Christoph: “Migrants and the Mass Media,” 2001

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