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)


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.