I’m packing up, having spent the last four months in the United States. While I’ve been in the US many times, it’s always been for short visits to major cities. Staying in the mid-west for four months has been incredibly useful in understanding what makes the US ‘tick’. Given the importance of the US to our planet it seems a useful exercise to try and understand the US.
It’s an endlessly fascinating country with huge variations and lots to admire. Obviously, I’ve only seen a small slice of this massive country, and have only encountered a tiny fragment of its debates, but one issue has made an enormous impression on me: the attitude towards welfare. For many Americans, and certainly for much of the political discourse that I have listened to, ‘welfare’ is regarded as a dirty word.
It’s important for me to back-up for a moment. I am a child (or grandchild?) of the Beveridge scheme, or the post-WWII social contract in which the population of the UK decided – democratically – to move towards a social democracy. That meant that they expected the state to take responsibility for many welfare tasks (primarily education and health), and in return they agreed to pay higher taxes. While Beveridge’s ideals have had many unintended consequences, and have taken a real battering from those who wish to pare back the state, the UK, Ireland and much of Europe can still be called ‘social democracies’. This status is under threat, but there is still a consensus that it is appropriate for the state to take responsibility for the most vulnerable in society.
Given that I have been inculcated with positive notions of welfare, the dominant US notion of welfare has come as something as a shock. Perhaps I’ve watched too much Fox News, and listened to too many Republican primary debates, but welfare is regarded as an evil. The ‘welfare mom’ has been socially constructed as a leech rather than as a valued member of society who must be helped. Much of the public political discussion of welfare fits neatly with the narrative of the ‘American dream’ or the idea that with hard work and self-reliance anyone can make it in this country. And, of course, there are some startling examples of success in the US. But the statistics actually show very little social mobility. If you’re born poor the chances are that you’ll work two or three jobs simultaneously and still stay poor. It can’t be a coincidence that most of the Republican primary candidates are immensely wealthy people (Romney has an estimated personal wealth of $130m).
In the dominant narrative, welfare and government spending is seen as a key factor in explaining the US’s woes. Some of these woes are real, others imagined. But what unites this narrative is broad agreement that that government is to blame and that the prescription is a rolling back of the state. These are familiar neo-liberal and libertarian tropes and can be found in European political debate, but they are brought to ridiculous extremes in the US.
Now what has this got to do with International Relations? Well, the US attitude towards the welfarist role of the state has been exported into post-conflict and post-authoritarian statebuilding exercises. It helps explain why the dominant model of newly built and newly reformed states is neo-liberal. The people of Iraq, for example, were never asked if they wanted a new social contract in which the state would perform an enhanced role of service provider. They had imposed on them a stripped down version of the business-orientated state. The social construction of the ‘welfare mom’ as sponger-extraordinaire on news channels in the US helps explain why post-peace accord societies are seeing the construction of states-lite, hollowed out shells that are of little use to citizens.
Given Europe’s economic crises, there is a danger that social democracy could be extinct in a few decades. People should take a close look at the United States and ask if this is the future they want. Over 40 million Americans are without health insurance. Many people work well into their 70s and 80s just to afford healthcare. People don’t take their full holidays because they’re terrified of being first in line when the next downsizing comes along. It’s easy to make a narrative that caricatures the French and Greeks as lazy or the British as scroungers, but critics should realise that these social contracts arose democratically. People want their societies to be ordered in this fashion. One of the lessons of the Eurozone crisis is that capitalism is intolerant of democracy.
One final point on the US and welfare is worth making. Aside from corporate welfare (in which the so-called free market is enormously supported by state hand-outs) there is one form of welfare that is tolerated in the US: security welfare. It’s an entirely different animal to people-centred ‘welfare security’. Instead, it refers to the massive support for the military and military-related business. Many Americans have lost faith in key institutions that used to offer them comfort. The media, Presidency, Catholic Church and the economy have all been beset by scandal. But one institution retains immense loyalty: the military. It is almost sacrosanct, and those who criticise it or the enormous military budget (78 times that of Iran) are often accused of a lack of patriotism. The military’s elevated position means that it is the recipient of huge resources, making it into a kind of military welfare state.
This model of security welfare has even been exported whereby the US and its allies have thrown large sums of money at the military and security sectors of societies emerging from conflict. So while the US supports the neo-liberal paring back of the state in many of its statebuilding interventions, it has also engaged in very Keynesian exercises of security sector reform. It’s an oddly contradictory combination. (My colleague Oliver Richmond has written more extensively on this point).
It’s worth rounding off by re-stating that there’s much to admire about the US and its people: the ‘can do’ attitude and work ethic are intact. So is the spirit of optimism that pervades everyday conversation and national debates. And any country that has produced Dolly Parton, the Simpsons, Wile E Coyote, Otha Turner and John Lee Hooker is blessed indeed.
Roger Mac Ginty