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(en) DA #29 - Social Democracy & Other Myths - CloserLook:

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sat, 28 Feb 2004 08:42:49 +0100 (CET)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E
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* Titing the Hand We Feed
The defence of the welfare state has become the number one
battle cry of the ever rising number of Marxist parties currently
being formed in an attempt to take control of the political ground
vacated by Labour. The analysis is simple; the Blair government is
intent on dismantling the welfare state. All we need is to elect true
socialists and the welfare state will be returned to its former glory.
Obviously, these people think we are stupid, simple and/or born yesterday.
In propagating their ‘populist’ message, the Marxist
parties are doing those who wish to see social provision play a
central role in society no favours. In reality, the welfare state
evolved primarily to feed the interests of capitalism, during a time
of particular socio-economic circumstances. It was not so much
the Labour Party who pioneered the welfare state, but rather the
state acting (as it always does) in the interests of capitalism. But
time moves on.

The fact that state provision of welfare is rapidly disappearing has
nothing to do with the Labour Party betraying its socialist past, and
everything to do with the fact that the interests of capitalism have
now changed and the welfare state is no longer required. The myth
that Labour created the welfare state is peddled by Marxists
because it fits in with their proposition that, for the welfare system
to be restored to its former glory, it is merely a case of replacing
the “sold out” Labour government with a true socialist
government. And, hey presto, they are the people to do it.

* a century of bureaucrats

Unfortunately for them, most people know this to be nonsense. The
welfare state was first introduced in Britain by the liberals in 1906.
The primary reason for its introduction was that it was recognised
that the poor health and education of the British work force was
not only a check on economic performance, but was also putting at
risk the British state’s ability to maintain an army. Also,
crucially, it was seen as a means of controlling an ever more
powerful labour movement, which was out of control (i.e.
spontaneous strikes were breaking out everywhere, as unions and
workers’ organisations ignored union, labour and capitalist
bosses alike, and took matters into their own hands).

From the 1890s onwards, the more far-sighted capitalists had
come to terms with the fact that the workers’ movement could
not be defeated by brute force, and instead, it had be controlled.
From the introduction of the Industrial Conciliation Act in 1896,
capitalism sought to use state-sponsored conciliation mechanisms
to try an absorb union officials and use them to control trade union
militancy. The welfare state was seen as a means of extending
this social control. It was hoped that both Labour Politicians and
trade union officials would be sucked yet further into the system
through handing over to them the implementation and
administration of the new social programmes.

It was also hoped that the welfare state could be used as means of
modifying working class behaviour. The introduction of social
protection paid for by both management and workers (National
Insurance) was seen as a means of promoting a moral consensus
between labour and capital. The aim was to create the idea of a
common interest between the owners of capital and the workers.
Both were suddenly interested in alleviating the suffering and
hardship within society. The hope was that workers would see
themselves as part of the system and internalise more easily ideas
such as “hard work for the good of all”, and
“reasonable” and “proper behaviour” in the hope it
would insulate workers against anti-capitalist ideas based on
social conflict and direct action.

* social engineering

To back up this social engineering, most of the legislation
introduced contained coercive sanctions against anti-capitalist
behaviour. For instance, unemployment benefit was not paid to
those sacked for “industrial misconduct”. This measure
was aimed squarely against activists, militants and those
“guilty” of insubordination towards their employer.

As such, the introduction of the welfare state from 1906 onwards
was actually the start of a reasoned state corporatist strategy. It
was designed to pacify the working class by giving us something
to vote for, thereby undermining independent working class
organisation and culture through social and political absorption.
This strategy was being developed both in Britain and across
Europe and, to a lesser degree, in the US.

Though this process was disrupted in most countries during the
First World War and the inter-war years, it truly came into its own
in the post Second World War period, when the capitalist West
had to deal with a powerful communist state encamped on its
borders. Fifty years on, it is hard to imagine the fear that gripped
western capitalism, as they became paranoid that workers in the
shattered economies of Europe would turn to communist Russia
for solutions to their lives of daily misery.

As a check on the spread of communism, new social democratic
states were created, built on the ideas of state corporatism. The
state would organise capitalism to ensure ever-greater social,
political and economic equality, and so create a society in which
everyone had a stake and where individual needs would be met by
the state “from the cradle to the grave”.

Behind this myth of individual citizenship, workers were in fact
being constrained within a system of authority and deepening
exploitation. Most notably, this was seen in the union movement,
which was formerly the only form of organisation that brought
together workers as workers, and through which workers could
develop their own culture and independence in opposition to

Workers’ self-organisation withered in the majority of the
newly created social democratic states, as union structures were
absorbed into the state machinery.

Effectively, union officials were offered state bribes in the form of
a myriad of state and state-funded bodies and mechanisms.
Negotiation between employers and labour no longer took place by
workers in the workplace, but happened in remote locations and
was done by even more remote union bureaucrats, within tightly
controlled government procedures. The results were handed down
to the workers from upon high…

* corporatist hey-day

The form of the corporatist state differed from country to country,
but there was the common aim of keeping the west capitalist by
assimilating the workers’ movement into capitalist society.

In Britain, the move towards the corporatist state gathered pace
during the Second World War. Trade union leaders found
themselves in Cabinet, while union officials were
‘elevated’ to innumerable committees dealing with
anything from war production to the administrating of rations. The
assimilation of the trade union movement was such that in the
words of one war historian “the annual reports of the Trades
Union Congress began to read like the records of some special
government department responsible for co-ordinating policy in the
social and industrial spheres”.

After the war, the newly elected Labour government, far from
tightening control over capitalism, quickly moved away from the
state-controlled wartime command. They immediately handed back
control of the economy to the private capitalists. Instead of a
state-socialist model, Labour quickly adopted the corporatist
approach in the rest of Western Europe, aimed at pacifying the
workers’ movement and restoring British capitalism to its
former glory.

The corporate state form of government proved to be highly
efficient, but its system of social control based on ever higher
standards of living coupled to ever higher levels of state social
provision was considered by the greedy forces of capitalism to be
mightily expensive. It was maintained for several decades by
capitalism partly because of the continued but diminishing threat of
communism, and also because of the long post-war capitalist
boom, which guaranteed ever-rising profits for everyone. After the
1960s, the level of capitalist profits began to flatten. The fat cats
response was to plunge the West into a long period of economic
crisis that is more-or-less still with us today.

* Britain leads race to bottom

As capitalist rates of profit fell, they unleashed successive
attacks on workers pay and conditions. To get away with this, they
turned to the state as the main means of defeating any
workers’ resistance. The late 1970s saw the beginning of the
end of post-war corporate state, with Britain at the forefront of the
decline. The British working class had a deep mistrust of the state
and this deep mistrust manifested itself in militant workplace
organisation. Even after several decades, there were pockets of
resistance which had refused to be absorbed into the state

As a result, while in many European countries strike action had
dropped to a historic low, in Britain, unofficial wildcat strikes
began to increasingly plague British capitalism. Hence,
British-based capitalists were far more ready to abandon
corporatist means of social control and risk a full attack on an
unruly trade union movement than in other European states.

Thatcher arrived with immaculate timing, to help the state drive
home the attacks through the use of draconian legislation backed
by a powerful, centralised police force. It all ended in bitter defeat
for organised labour, as trade union influence within the state was
expunged and trade union officials found themselves sacked from
the countless state bodies. As capitalism realised its
confrontationalist strategy was working, confidence grew. They
dropped the worker assimilation idea of state corporatism, in
favour of coercion – and launched all-out attack as the new
means of controlling workers.

The welfare system itself soon became an instrument of state
coercion. The benefits system was transformed into a means of
regulating a vast army of workers no longer needed by capitalism,
and condemned to a lifetime of intermittent employment
underpinned by welfare payments. As it went with benefits, so it is
now going with the rest of social provision. As the better paid flee
state schools, pensions, schools and health, welfare is becoming a
permanent poverty trap to be endured by the bottom third of
society and feared by the rest – much like in the US.

* reality check

The current state of affairs has not come about because the
Labour Party in government has sold out, but because capitalism
has decided it can no longer afford (and no longer needs) the
corporate state. When state corporatism worked, it was a sense of
security that capitalists wanted workers to feel. Now, it is a sense
of permanent insecurity that is required, in order to drive down
wages and conditions and to discipline labour, in the search for
ever greater profits. This simple mechanism lies at the centre of
the free market ideology now eclipsing social democratic
corporatism around the globe.

The heresy that lies at the heart of Britain’s rapidly forming
social democratic Left is laughable in the face of capitalist reality.
The idea that all that is needed is the election of ‘old’
Labour-style, socialist politicians to ensure the return to state
corporatism is no more than a flimsy illusion. The welfare state
was created by the state to meet the needs of capitalism and is
being dismantled by the state to meet those very same capitalist
needs. The state is not neutral, and a socialist government cannot
simply gain power and hope to use the state against capitalism.
Indeed, the reverse is true; capitalism will either use the state to
corrupt or absorb socialist politicians or, ultimately, it will use the
state to smash government.

There are plenty of alternatives to the dead-end politics of Left
electoralism. They all revolve around the idea of workers’ and
communities’ self-organisation. People coming together to take
control of their own struggles and using direct action to force
capitalism onto its back foot, is the only way to reverse the cuts in
welfare provision. The day-to-day struggle must be constantly
linked to the need to defeat capitalism by creating our own
structures and rejecting those of capitalism and the state.
Ultimately, we must look to take control of welfare and social
provision away from the hands of the hierarchical state
bureaucrats, and administer it by and for the workers themselves,
under the democratic control of society as a whole. For now, there
are dozens of ways in which we can repeatedly bite the hand that
we feed, to reverse an untrueism.

Direct Action is published by Solidarity Federation, the British section
of the International Workers’ Association
DA is the Solidarity Federation magazine which is about getting
real change with anarcho-syndicalism.

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