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Social Policy as Social Infrastructure

by Joachim Hirsch Thursday, Jul. 12, 2018 at 10:38 AM

Work and income must be uncoupled. In Germany, thanks to higher productivity and information technology, 30% more was produced from 1970-2010 with 30% fewer workers. Demonizing China will not resuscitate the Rust Belt. Social policy is crucial.


By Joachim Hirsch

[This article published in October 2003 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Several peculiarities in prevailing social conditions are striking if one’s view is not completely blocked by the all-pervasive neoliberal nonsense of politicians and journalists. Year after year, more goods and services – the so-called “gross domestic product” – are produced while the number of the poor grows simultaneously and social benefits are cut, pensions reduced and public budgets trimmed to an austerity course – at the expense of the supply of public goods, swimming pools, libraries, supporting- and supply institutions and much more that are sacrificed. The educational system decays although we live in one of the richest societies on this globe. While the number of unemployed increases, those still working are forced to longer and more intensive work.

Fewer and fewer workers are needed in immediate production but more and more are employed in palming off products for which a need would never have developed without advertising campaigns. This is called a service society. The result is that the racket grows louder. The countryside is paved and waste disposal represents a growing part of social work. That capitalism is a system that produces riches and systematically creates poverty is more obvious than ever.

Capitalism may have had a historical justification when it set out to free people from their immediate dependence on nature and from drudgery, hardship and misery and develop social productivity so material distress could be overcome. This state was halfway realized in some parts of the world through the struggles of social movements for improving living conditions and had to be arduously wrested from capital and by no means is a self-evident result of market forces. On the contrary, as Karl Polanyi showed, the capitalist market – and competitive system – incessantly destroys its own natural and human foundations as long as it is not stopped by organized social powers. A stage of social productivity was reached as a consequence of the workers movement so the forced labor of (nearly) everyone is no longer the condition of material survival. Marx once said a historical method survives when conditions of production becomes the shackles of productivity development. Productivity development has certainly not slackened. Rather, ever new technologies will be developed and entirely new products will be thrown on the market. Robust rationalization will occur and the skills of some workers will multiply. At the same time, others will be forced to ever more stupid work.

Thus, the problem is not the development of productivity but the fact that its destructive force is raised to a higher power while national living conditions are degraded and a rational and halfway self-determined life is almost impossible in a permanently fueled race of more labor and more consumption of less and less useful and necessary things. Strictly speaking, we have all become appendages of a technical-economic machine that we seemingly cannot influence anymore. This forced condition generates a widespread resignation, the idea that nothing can be done, and that participating in democratic political processes hardly has any effect. For a long while, financial jugglers, marketing strategists, and product designers defined the good life and not we the people.

What can change when people are satisfied? With what right can the “happy consciousness” emphasized by Marcuse and manifest in event-shoppers be cast out? The problem is that the commercialization of life in the general march of the market has unpleasant backsides. The material poverty in the world and the complex of violence, war and flight can be forgotten as long as the prosperity-fortress can be halfway closed and military interventions are staged when conditions at home become threatening.

Charitable gifts can soothe the conscience. Nevertheless, the precariousness of all working conditions occurs even in rich metropolitan areas. The social insecurities and inequalities dramatically take root and individual biographies are subjected ever more abruptly to the dictates of the market and competition. Many of the conditions necessary for a reasonable organization of life fade.

Let us return to Marx. Marx said capital cannot be exploited anymore when the necessary labor is reduced to a minimum as a result of technical progress. In his optimistic perspective, this meant the self-cancellation of capitalism and the possibility of creating a communist society. We have actually come near this state – at least regarding technical possibilities. The current production method can only be maintained through systematic wear and tear or attrition, impoverishment and different kinds of work pressure – carried out structurally through the “market” or through legal and administrative maneuvers. This is the background revealing the open violence of the capitalist system in many regards. The “real movement” desired by Marx that could repair this state is nowhere in sight. The prevailing socialization mechanism seems to prevent this as its irrationality comes to light. Should we resign to this? Is it enough to be content with individual repair measures? Isn’t it time to reflect about a fundamentally different orientation of society?

This means bidding farewell to thinking in the categories of the “goods and work society” that dominates social discourse. At least in Germany, society has reached a state where the general work pressure and the related circle of work, performance and compensation-consumption are greatly relaxed. This is true for an increasingly smaller segment of society in the metropolitan zones of world capitalism. Work and consumption are under great pressure there. The rest are not allowed paid work and socially excluded in different forms and degrees. The excluded are made to believe they are responsible. They only need to push themselves more to gain jobs that will be rationalized away. Loosening the work pressure and making possible a better life for everyone would be entirely possible instead of this nonsense produced by the contradictoriness of capitalism. Creating the conditions encouraging useful and less estranged activities not honored by the market and not ruining the – natural – conditions of life is vital.

Individual paid labor cannot and must not be the standard of a reasonable and safeguarded material well-being in a highly productive society interwoven by division of labor. The capitalist market- and competition society has survived historically. Social possibilities allow a “social infrastructure” to develop that ensures a reasonable life for everyone without work pressure. This means more than a basic security in the sense of a guaranteed minimum income and otherwise equal conditions. The relation of individual and society, collective production and collective consumption, must be recalibrated. Expanding the supply of public goods and services is part of that recalibration. Paid work will still exist since needs go beyond the basic individual and collective provision. But paid labor can take more rational and more human forms.

Debates on social policy usually end by raising the “system question.” This is somewhat idle and unfruitful. Capitalism can exist in many forms. As historical experience teaches, capitalism can have different faces corresponding to the developing social power relations or pecking order. Moving at the height of the age, adopting a new idea of society opposing prevailing conditions, and gradually accepting this as practical – doubtlessly in the form of passionate social conflicts – is crucial. This underlies our reflections on “social policy as social infrastructure.” This is a proposal for reflecting very differently about society, the development of new forms of socialization and social alternatives and not a blueprint for another society.

This will undoubtedly be mome3ntous and far-reaching – when our reflection gradually becomes practical and the prevailing consciousness is given different dimensions


By Joachim Hirsch

[This article published in 2003 is translated abridged from the German on the Internet,]

Our reflections on social policy aim at building a comprehensive social infrastructure as an alternative to the social state based on paid labor. This discussion is not new but extends back to the 1980s. It started in the context of the unemployed movement and parts of the women’s movement. Neither the moment nor the political-social connection is accidental. The backdrop is the crisis of Fordism and the beginning of the neoliberal restructuring offensive in which the “Golden Age” of Fordism ended and the “dream of perpetual prosperity” was dreamt.

It was no accident that reflection about very different forms of social work and socialization developed bey8ond the established institutions, associations, social bureaucracies and parties. The neoliberal restructuring policy and the enforcement of post-Fordist capitalism led to increasingly manifest economic and social crisis and not to general progress and prosperity as originally propagated. The Fordist form of the social state is up for discussion. The criticism of “dismantling the social state” must be taken seriously because the traditional social system was not unconditionally worth defending with its disciplining, controlling and excluding effects. This criticism does not come from the superiority of neoliberal thought patterns. These criticisms are not new but have often been voiced. In addition, the economic and social changes have greatly undermined the conditions of the traditional social state – the Fordist work society. Therefore, a defensive attitude stands on a shaky foundation and is hardly suited for questioning the neoliberal ideological hegemony. Rather, more basic social alternatives are on the agenda. We want to participate in the discussion with our reflections based on many articles and stimulations.

Following a superficial realism that declares existing capitalist conditions unchangeable and assigns very different forms of work and socialization to the realm of utopia seems more oblivious than sensible. This amounts to the alternative between reforms without perspective and abstract revolutionary metaphysics. Instead, we should remember that capitalist society as assumed very different forms in the course of history. Economic laws and objective practical constraints obviously operate that cannot be simply covered up. Social hierarchies of power decide how and to what extent these laws and constraints prevail. It is possible to see beyond the edge of the plate of an increasingly one-dimensional society and to establish concretely that another world is actually possible – under the conditions of the prevailing neoliberal hegemony that declare existing conditions as unalterable facts of nature under the slogan “end of history.” To speak with Andre Gorz, “liberating from the thinking and imagination of ideological assumption of the dominant social discourse is vital, seeing the present collapsing society from the perspective of a very different society and economy marked out in the horizon of the current changes as its most extreme meaning. On one hand, this necessitates defining more clearly the meaning of these changes and the resulting outline of the future. On the other hand, we are experiencing a change through which capitalism destroys its own foundations of existence and creates the presuppositions for its own mastery.

We are not witnessing a “crisis” that could be solved by restoring earlier conditions. Thus, we try to practice a realism that considers the technical and human possibilities of present society and its real productive forces. But at the same time, we must recognize that this society falls into contradiction with the prevailing conditions of production. The current social organization is out of proportion with the present social potentials. A different, more radical form of reflection is necessary.

No finished blueprints or guidelines of political strategy can be offered. Effective alternative social concepts develop out of practical discussions involving human experiences and needs. Other forms of socialization are possible and not only conceivable. A new social movement in which more concrete social concepts could be developed and carried out would be clearly different in forms and contents from the old workers’ movement. New forms of social work are possible and no longer only the improvement of conditions for paid work. There are beginnings and initiatives for this on a global scale. But a movement can only develop successfully if it radically puts in question the existing ideological hegemony, that is escapes the logic of dominant “uniform thinking” (Bourdieu). For that, connecting practical initiatives with theoretical discussions is indispensable.

Our thesis is that the capitalist work society as it developed in the second half of the 20th century in the form of Fordism has already largely lost its foundations. The neoliberal attack on the Fordist class compromise described as “globalization” has encouraged a technical-economic development that fundamentally revolutionizes working conditions. Traditional normal paid working conditions enforced in long social struggles crush the possibility of a lasting full employment and ultimately prove to be an illusion. Other forms of social relations are vital.

We start from two assumptions

Firstly, societies at least isn’t he developed capitalist parts of the world have reached a measure of productivity that considerably reduces the work required to produce the necessary goods and services. Their actual and potential wealth allows them to abandon the general work pressure as a basis of their reproduction. Under capitalist conditions, this development is expressed in that unemployment and marginalized employment conditions expand more and more while people must work ever longer and more intensively in the core production sectors. Thus, social work is distributed extremely unequally. Poverty increases with the growing wealth of society. The material inequalities and economic growth no longer go along with rising mass prosperity as in Fordism. That capitalism produces poverty through riches is clearer and clearer in its centers. A growing amount of social work is unused, wasted or serves harmful goals. Think of the tremendous amount of work, material and energy to save a half-hour travel time on the train from Hamburg to Munich.

Secondly, we must realize the social division of labor has reached a degree of complexity that makes it ever harder to gain material income for individual work. The “higher-paid” in the core economic sectors can only do their “work” because they can fall back on a growing abundance of products and services that are paid badly or not at all, from housework and various personal services to the production of fast food. The work of environmental activists who try to limit the damage permanently inflicted by the work of the “achievers” is unpaid. The income distinctions are maintained through a complex system of exclusions and discriminations that is controlled by the educational system and gender and racist discriminations. Therefore, the existing conditions of division of labor require at least a relative uncoupling of labor in the sense of normal paid working conditions and income.

Our concept of social infrastructure is grounded on these assumptions. In its center are public goods and services available free of charge to all people. This extends from education, training and health care to housing and transportation. These are also part of the infrastructure necessary for capital. A “de-commodification” in clear contrast to the present privatization policy carried out in individual states and on the international plane is crucial. This infrastructure should be organized de-centrally as far as possible so it can be influenced and controlled immediately by the actors.

The people should decide themselves what institutions and services they need and should not be treated as dependent clients of the social state and its experts. This aims at a fundamental transformation of the institutions and the dominant form of bureaucratic or budgetary socialization. The existing system of income support and social insurance could be replaced by a general basic security for everyone financed through taxes. The new system would guarantee a life of dignity, free development of personality and comprehensive social participation and would not be limited to a material subsistence level. In addition, higher pensions for seniors would then be regulated individually and privately. The basic security would cover the needs that cannot be satisfied by the developed social infrastructure. From this point of view, a close connection exists between “infrastructure” and “basic security.”

In many discussions, we are confronted with objections insisting that our concept cannot be realized in the scope of given capitalist conditions and therefore is utopian. These objections should be taken seriously and closely scrutinized.

1st objection: These reflections go in the same direction as the neoliberal social state “reconstruction”…

In our reflections, the social infrastructure is central and available free of charge for everyone and must be administered de-centrally and democratically. Basic security only makes sense in the context of this material infrastructure. These principles are vital: basic security must be sufficiently high to cover far more than a minimal material subsistence level. It must be available for everyone and be unconditional, that is without proofs and controls. This hardly reflects neoliberal conceptions and myths.

2nd objection: The concept cannot be financed

A fundamental reconstruction of the publically financed social infrastructure including an adequate basic income would doubtlessly entail considerable costs. Implementation of this concept cannot happen without political-social struggles. Enormous costs are already devoured by a rather inefficient health system and a gigantic complex of controlling bureaucracies that largely would not be needed anymore. The huge social insurance costs would fall away according to our calculations.

In any case, a drastic increase of taxes on incomes and wealth would be necessary. In the last years, these taxes were lowered again and again if not abolished without any economic or social reason… Our central argument is that this society is rich enough to finance such an infrastructure with a reasonable organization of public revenues and expenditures. This means – considerable redistribution must be combated – against the dominant trend – and redistribution must be horizontal and not only vertical between “capital” and “labor” and “rich” and “poor.”

3rd objection: Paid labor will be abolished and no one will work anymore

In fact, the pressure to paid labor will be reduced but not abolished. Ending labor would mean the end of capitalism. While this would be desirable, the conditions for this do not exist. We do not have a convincing model of a social regulation that manages without private property and the market economy. Therefore, paid labor – or also independent labor for the market – remains necessary for satisfying “needs that go beyond” basic security. Loosening the paid labor pressure means people should not be forced to accept any work under any conditions. This is a claim that can be realized in view of the social and economic development. Unpleasant and hard work will be done if they are paid adequately. The assumption that people will not work anymore if they are not forced means a forced or coerced relation that arose historically is declared an anthropological constant. On the other hand, people want to realize themselves through work whether paid labor insofar as it is satisfying and sensible or through other forms of activity. Loosening paid labor pressure could lead to countering a throwaway society ruining the environment. Creating work conditions where people could develop more freely would release a considerable social innovation potential. That would have its rationality in the capitalist sense.

4th objection: The concept is limited to the developed capitalist metropolitan areas and deepens the global inequalities

This objection should be taken seriously. The necessary change of the economic world order with its conditions of inequality and dependence presupposes far-reaching revolutions of lifestyles and production methods in the capitalist metropolitan areas. The notion of a more just world economic order remains illusionary as long as conditions remain as they are, particularly when the commodification of social relations and needs is emphasized again and again.

On the other hand, we can assume that changing economic-social conditions in metropolitan areas will radiate to the periphery since the economic relations between centers and peripheries will also change. The objection is raised that location competition in a globalized economy could destroy individual state efforts from the start. Firstly, the argument of location competition is an essential neoliberal propaganda argument. Secondly, larger economic zones like the European Union are able to go their own ways. Neoliberal globalization is not a natural law but a political project that can be thoroughly revised or modified. A re-regulation of the world economy is on the agenda anyway on account of its ever-clearer crisis-proclivity. The question is only in whose interest it happens. The economic-social constellation s and hierarchies of power in the metropolitan areas play a crucial role. Another social policy must aim in this direction.

5th objection: Such a concept cannot be realized under capitalist conditions.

Caution is necessary with this argument. The capitalist accumulation dynamic contains essential rules, regularities and laws. This can be established theoretically and historically. However, their extent depends on a multitude of factors, cultural norms, values and social power relations. Capital must make profits so the economic reproduction does not collapse as long as society is not revolutionized.

“Radical reformism” is the aim of our reflections on building the social infrastructure. This is marked by a fundamental change of socialization relations, of the form of work, the division of labor, gender relations and consumerism among others. This is only conceivable as a gradual process because it involves changing values and behavioral routines. Therefore, the realization of this concept could fail if it is carried out “from above” over the heads of people. A social movement is needed that becomes effective in everyday practice and does not only develop political power. That changes are necessary and possible must be spelled out concretely. Whether and how they become concrete depends on carrying out new thought horizons and new forms of social praxis in society.

Related Links:

Friedhelm Hengsbach, “Housing is not just another commodity,” 2014,

Andrej Holm, Non-Profits versus Profit Maximization: For a New Social Housing Policy, 2016,

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