Back in the Lower Paleolithic (1983, to be precise) when I entered university, the student body at political science in Copenhagen was still embracing the last dying twitches of the neo-marxism of the 1970s. I think the flavour of the day was called French neo-structuralism or whatever.
Politically, the student neo-marxists of the 1970s and early 1980s were a curious bunch: They of cause hated capitalism (which may or may not explain why so many went on to become corporate advisors or proponents of New Public Management reforms) while they looked upon the state with a rather disagreeable mix of arrogance and dissociation. Yet, they expected the State to provide their livelihood as they went on to enlighten the masses of the evils of capitalism.
The thing is – or was – the State was not just the State. It was the Capitalist State or – if you really wanted to nail it – the Capitalist Welfare State. If the thing – or what it was, neo-marxists could discuss endlessly if the CWS was an organisation, a structure or a set of interactions – had at least had the decency to put the police and artillery in our faces, everything would have been so easy. But no: Those pesky capitalists had invented schools, social insurance and other kinds of welfare services to control the masses and obscure the true nature of the State.
If you have the impression that I have an axe to grind with marxism as such, you’re not quite right. If the school of thought had been applied sensibly, there were questions about inequalities in the social, economic and political sphere to be answered. Considering the role of interests in politics and the boundaries limiting – for better or for worse – state activity is still relevant to political science. The axe I might have to grind would be with the marxists, or rather the evangelical approach to academic discussions that characterised that age. Occasionally, classes and discussions reminded me more of Salvation Army meetings than academic seminars. But then, young people tend to be like that. There are benefits of growing older.
Anyway, what I really wanted to write about was a short but interesting book by the Swedish economist Andreas Bergh entitled Den kapitalistiska välfärdsstaten (i.e. The Capitalist Welfare State). As this is 2007, Bergh also has a blog.
You will not find much neo-marxism in this book, which is an accessible introduction to and discussion of the mainstream in economic and political science research into economic growth and social welfare applied to the Swedish case. Bergh does of cause have a wicked sense of humour because the title implicitly acknowledges the neo-marxist insight that the welfare state was born out of modern capitalism (even if he in line with contemporary research sees other factors at play than the marxists did) while criticising the received wisdom of the 1980s – and Social Democratic mythology – that the welfare state in general, and the Swedish welfare state in particular, was created against the forces of capitalism.
Bergh asks the questions: “How did Sweden become affluent?” and “How did Sweden become an egalitarian society?” and points out that the big leaps in affluence and economic equality came before the golden age of the Social Democratic Welfare State. In this perspective, the welfare state is the result rather than the cause of the social and economic development. Incidentally, international research tend to point to the era between 1870 and 1970 as the golden age of industrial capitalism while 1920-1970 was the age of the “great compression”. (For differing American views on this subject, see Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen)
Bergh also reminds us that what looked as a Swedish employment miracle during the 1970s and 1980s came at a price: There was a substantial trade-off between employment and affluence but it was made on the national level, though repeated aggressive devaluations of the Swedish Krona, instead of on the individual level through wage cuts. As a result, Sweden (and Swedes) of today is relatively less affluent compared with other West European countries than Sweden of 1970. Finally, Sweden also has a huge hidden non-employment thanks to the different social insurance systems. Social Democratic mythology would like to forget this – or blame right-wing pro-market governments for everything that has gone wrong.
In the book, Bergh touches on a wide range of subjects related to the welfare state and economic development, and as the text is only 140 pages it is inevitable that some discussions are a bit on the short side. (Also, the figure on page 87 is not exactly a wonder of clarity). I haven’t even tried to go into fact-checking the statistics but as far as I can see the presentations and discussions are reasonable and balanced – just to illustrate the point, Bergh isn’t entirely uncritical of some of the privatisations of health services that have been made by local and regional councils in Sweden. (Compared with the neo-marxism, I yammered about earlier, the book has one great advantage: The discussion is empirically based.)
You will probably need some knowledge of basic economics and political science (especially with regard to public administration) to really appreciate the book but I think it will prove useful in introductory courses in economics and political science as well as for study circles and readers with a professional or personal interest in public policy. At 125 devalued SEK – I’m sure Ratio has tied some money to each copy – it is as close to a free lunch you can get.
Andreas Bergh (2007): Den kapitalistiska välfärdsstaten. Stockholm: Ratio.