Is the welfare state sustainable?


David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, recently opined, "The current welfare state is simply unsustainable and anybody who is serious, on left or right, has to have a new vision of the social contract."

Brooks comment gets my back up, but before I tell you why a few words about the welfare state seems in order. It has a negative connotation in the minds of some people, but it is no more than the set of institutions, agencies, social programs, laws, and rights won in the course of powerful mass struggles that protect and promote the economic and social well-being of the American people.

It doesn't perform flawlessly as the current crisis reminds us; many people fell and continue to fall through its cracks and gaps. But notwithstanding that, it does buffer some of the worst aspects of capitalist exploitation and crises.

Which brings me back to Brooks who is eager to retire the welfare state. He doesn't seem to think for a moment about what the impact would be on the lives of tens of millions.

That is reprehensible, but what is really troublesome is the fact that his sentiments are shared by every, or nearly every, section of the capitalist class. They too believe that the welfare state is out of sync with the times in which we live, that the American people should no longer expect its steady expansion. Indeed, they should expect less.

If there are differences among them, they are over the degree to which the "welfare state" should be downsized. Some say that the "welfare state" has no place whatsoever in the 21st century. And it's not only because the country and government can no longer afford it. They argue that the "welfare state" was a mistake from the very start.

Others spokespeople for the capitalist class take the position that the "welfare state," while still necessary, should be scaled back in light of economic realities, that is, an intensely competitive and globalized economy.

Neither position has any merit.

After all, we remain a wealthy country, in fact the wealthiest in the world. We have enough resources to provide every American a decent standard of living, a healthy social, cultural and natural environment, and a broad set of democratic rights. But this fact seems to be lost on the main sections of the capitalist class.  

Not surprisingly, driving their campaign politically (capitalists prefer to hide behind the scenes) is the extreme right. This political grouping has shamelessly turned the debt crisis into a Trojan horse to wreck the welfare state.

Insisting that austerity measures cannot be delayed to a later time when the economy is recovering, right-wing extremists are demanding immediate, deep, and sweeping cuts in the welfare state in exchange for their agreement to lift the debt ceiling.

The plan of Speaker of the John Boehner cuts spending by $3 trillion over 10 years - a big chunk of which would come from Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social safety net programs.  The New York Times describes it as "irredeemably awful."

As bad as this plan is, it should be seen as only a down payment for much deeper cuts that would virtually eliminate the institutions, agencies, programs and rights of the welfare state that provide protection from the vagaries of the capitalist market.

It is true that the plan of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is nothing to write home about, but neither he nor his colleagues are powering this assault.

So what is to be done? First, contain the damage of this right wing contrived debt-ceiling crisis.

Beyond this immediate horizon, the main task is to further build the labor led people's movement. Such a movement, if it gains in reach, influence and unity can turn this right wing led capitalist offensive around.

It wouldn't be the first time that a mass, energized, sustained and multi-racial movement repelled an attack and went on to extract major concessions from the corporations and capitalist state.  

Indeed, the struggles 1930s and 1960s remind us that a powerful people's coalition, up against seemingly impossible odds, can win historic victories. 

Photo: (PW/John Bachtell)

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  • You all have your bias partisan goggles on! Go take a few political science classes, both democrats and old school republicans (not so much the new face younger republicans) are crocks! Both exploit the people in need. Obama is way worse than Bush ever was though (Not that I cared for bush either. I am a independent, libertarian and consider myself a constitutionalist, FYI.) Lets not forget, Obama and/or his administration were behind... 1.) Fast & Furious (Holder) 2.) Benghazi (Clinton) 3.) IRS targeting conservatives (Politically Appointed Lois Lerner) 4.) AP Scandal (Holder) 5.) Extended the Patriot Act (Obama) 6. Enacted the NNDA (Obama) 7. Expanded the Fisa Court & NSA Spying on Americans without Warrant (Obama) 8.) Prolonged end date of the war (Obama) 9.) Droned and killed 100’s of civilians and children in middle east 10.) Now wants to go to war with Syria (Obama)... I could go on forever and anyone who says "Obama isn’t responsible for any of that" is just plain stupid and Naïve (This list doesn’t even include all his unconstitutional executive orders). We THE PEOPLE need to stop voting for ether party. As long as we have only a 2 party system, were going to be suppressed. And for the "welfare state", yes we must help those in need "moderately". Meaning people can’t just stay on welfare (entitlement attitude), and our current system is not sustainable and must be reduced while forcing people who can work to actually work. If our system gets bigger it literally could collapse our economy and monetary system! Then what? Sorry if this offends anyone but sometimes the truth hurts as they say… Can just keep barrowing money from other countries with interest or printing money. Both only make temporary relief while guaranteeing some hurt later down the road. And to force tax the rich, though might sound nice to you and me is just as unethical as them not freely willing to help society through donations.

    Posted by Ryan, 09/20/2013 4:20pm (2 years ago)

  • Lets stop clinging to the idea that a capitalist politician can be something other then a capitialist politician

    Posted by Harvey Smith, 08/11/2011 8:56pm (4 years ago)

  • The big ugly elephant in the room is the Empire. Can
    we sustain the military industrial congressional complex constantly pushing for even more bases around the world fueling this permanent state of war
    and occupation ? Isn't the current president and democratic party as duplicitious as the repubs in
    neglecting to ask this question as part of the debate.
    it's bad enough that they have the bully pulpit but
    can barely summon a semblance of outrage over the
    most obnoxious concentration of wealth in the history
    of the nation and then fail to respond to the thin gruel
    coming from the right about increasing taxes would kill job creation. this list of outrageous issues not being used to counterattack makes one suspicious of their complicity. for instance, social security being solvent until 2037 would bury all the baby boomers, and a small tweak/increase of taxes on moderately
    high incomes would continue it indefinitely; so let's discuss the envy/theft being orchestrated by wall st
    and the repubs, stealing from the common good to advantage and feed the greed of the wealthy. or let's
    talk about the pointless reduncancy of so called homeland security, balooned to around 70 thousand employees now, and redundant and pointless considering we already had around 16 well financed security agencies. not that i want to kill anybodys jobs, but it's stupid redundant pointless work pumped up like the red scare during the coldwar.
    The point being, there are more than enough wasteful counterproductive boondoggle departments and tax dodges to help wright the budget, but they are all the sacrosanct revolving doors that politicos of both parties use to enrich themselves and are evidently considered more of a third rail than social security at the moment; i think they'll be proven wrong. But unless somebody gets on the bully pulpit and starts hammering some issues, they will just shamelessly keep pushing their agenda. Can anyone believe that after all the harm nafta has caused american workers and our economy they are pushing the same deal with columbia and s korea. i think we
    have to quit kidding ourselves, this president is a trojan horse. he has backed himself into this losing hand with the debt ceiling by not allowing the bush
    tax cuts to expire for everyone if that's what had to happen, which would have embarassed the repubs and exposed them like the cockroaches they are. So now we are supposed to be calling our congresspeople to support his budget deal debt ceiling thing, which is basically giving away the house, the big 3, without ever raising the real issues
    of Empire, tax fraud, and this attempted republican theft of the commonweal. Perhaps the tea partiers are
    right, blow up the government, bankrupt it, lose our
    fiat currency, throw us all into the abject poverty we have foisted upon the third world unfortunates, our colonial slaves, and hopefull end the Empire, bring the
    military home from the over 700 bases in around 100
    different countries. Paul craig roberts says they are going to be so broke, our govt, that they will strand the troops, unable to pay them or afford the gas to fly them home. what a thought huh.

    Posted by e Humphrey, 07/29/2011 11:02pm (4 years ago)

  • I agree with Sam. I would add that in the future we will need a Labor led People's party. But for now it's very important that we support President Obama and the Democratic Party in 2012.

    Posted by Lance Cohn, 07/29/2011 1:57pm (4 years ago)

  • I'm out defending the 'welfare state' almost daily--over at my Blue Dog congressman's office arguing for stopping cuts on social security, defending medicare, expending unemployment and so on.

    That's necessary and understandable.

    But the basic flaw in the welfare state is that the capitalists remain on top while the rest of us remain subordinate. In a nutshell, it's limited to re-distributions.

    What we as Marxists have to add to the equation is appropriate advocacy of structure reforms, micro and macro, that alter power relations. That means workers taking charge of their factories, their political instruments, and everything in between.

    Posted by Carl Davidson, 07/29/2011 12:20pm (4 years ago)

  • This article sums up beautifully exactly what's going on - the increased theft from the American working class of a greater and greater share of the products of our labor. I do think, however, the use of the term "welfare state" distracts from that understanding. To most Americans the term "welfare" unfortunately connotes getting something for nothing or charity and that is not the case with the US working class which has and continues to work very hard for everything of value in this economy. The poignant sign held by the protester in the photo says "Need Welfare? Start a corporation" He ironically uses the word "welfare" to say that corporations get government charity. This illustrates what the term welfare has evolved to mean.The programs in question - from Social Security to education - are NOT government charity; they are one of the avenues that the people of this country collectively receive the benefits of their labor. The real question is who do the government and the country's resources exist for - the people or the ultra rich and corporations. Let's have a "government of the people, by the people and for the people," or a "people before profits" system. We don't need to use"welfare state" to describe what we need.

    Posted by Bobbie, 07/29/2011 12:11pm (4 years ago)

  • It is the "all-profits-and-social-wealth-to-the-few" state
    that is not sustainable.

    There is no "capital" without the labor that produced it.
    Not only proved long ago by Marx, but can be deduced
    from the housing disaster in which "imaginary wealth" was
    siphoned off by the banks. That wealth never existed
    in real life which is why the housing crisis is so slow to be
    corrected. Since in so many cases, the Courts can't
    figure out who owns the houses because the "new"
    mortgages were cut up and re-sold to investors, people
    should be allowed to stay in their homes, or move in to
    homes now abandoned. Stay 5 years and it is yours!...
    a modern "homestead act"....

    Posted by Betty Smith, 07/29/2011 11:53am (4 years ago)

  • It is excellent that congressman John Conyers, Sam Webb, and David Bell are in unity and propose unity of action.
    It is extremely disturbing that as Sam says, because of the truth of it. "First, contain this right wing contrived debt-ceiling crisis."
    This is because what all four(include the PW editorial bo ard)of these sources are writing is perfectly true: this crisis is a made-up trick by capitalist rulers and tea-party flunkies to further steal the food, clothing, and shelter from the working people-setting us up for more "bad checks"and theft once we are weakened.
    What the rulers have orchestrated is an deadly and vicious economic attack to add to its political attack to take collective bargaining from the working people along with voting power and unionization rights.
    The whole working people unified,organized and mobilized is the only short and long term solution to this all-out attack.
    Let us all help to complete this by working with each other more closely, and working with people and their organizations more closely-including churches,synagogues,and mosques- small and large-not forgetting shelters, food pantries and temp-employment agencies-even high schools and universities-and especially shops.
    As David and the great people's representative Conyers says"...We've got to educate the American people and the president...",before we re-elect the 44th President of the United States-Barack Hussein Obama-in an important sense, the president of the North, South, East and West.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 07/29/2011 10:25am (4 years ago)

  • I think Sam Webb is correct when he states that all sections of capital are attacking the "welfare state" with the ultra-right using all means to end it now.

    However, what complicates the fightback is Obama's willingness to also tie entitlement cuts to reducing the deficit and increasing the debt ceiling. I believe many people will not act because they feel between a rock and a hard place even though they recognize the role of the ultra-right and its agenda.

    Congressman Conyers noted, "We've got to educate the American People at the same time we educate the President of the United States. The Republicans, Speaker Boehner or Majority Leader Cantor did not call for Social Security cuts in the budget deal. The President of the United States called for that. My response to him is to mass thousands of people in front of the White House to protest this."

    Although President Obama did not bring the crisis to a head, perhaps a mass demonstration at the White House would send a united message to all not to mess with working class rights.

    Posted by David Bell, 07/28/2011 5:54pm (4 years ago)

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