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Commentary :: Human Rights
Reforming or Dismantling the Welfare State
29 Nov 2006
The neoliberal residual state is more a criminal- than a welfare state. The welfare state that has a constitutional rank in Germany is now without intrinsic value for neoliberals and subject to the location logic of economic and power interests.

Changes of the Justice Term on the Way to the Alms- and Soup-Kitchen-State

By Christoph Butterwegge

[This article published in: NachDenkenSeiten, 11/23/2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, Professor Christoph Butterwegge is director of political science at the University of Koln.]

The current “reorganization” discussion involves the most extensive attack on the welfare state in its ten-year old form. A different state is on the political agenda, not merely a lesser state. What is occurring is by no means the liquidation of the welfare state but its reorganization according to a neoliberal concept with benefit reductions (e.g. “zero rounds” for pensioners), intensified claim prerequisites (e.g. raising the initial pension age), reducing applicability times (e.g. unemployment benefits) and re-individualization of social risks.


The welfare state is essentially changed in several regards by measures euphemistically called “reforms.”

From the welfare state comes a “national competition state” (Joachim Hirsch) intent on promoting the competitiveness of its “own” economic location on the world market, growth and employment by its policy. The welfare state that actually has constitutional rank is now without intrinsic value for neoliberals and subject to the location-logic of economic and power interests. This is manifest in debates on loosening termination protection and weakening collective bargaining agreements. Competition also enters the welfare state since almost all social areas are restructured in the course of economization, privatization and liberalization according to the model of the market (e.g. competition between free-non-profit and private-commercial actors in outpatient nursing services).

From the welfare state comes a minimal state. The “sleek state” as designed in neoliberalism is rather emaciated as to social policy though by no means free from bureaucratic excesses. Quite the contrary! Benefit cuts and intensified claim prerequisites go along with structural changes necessitating more state administration and not only more market.

The neoliberal residual state is more a criminal- than a welfare state because the drastic reduction of welfare forces repression of those groups who as modernization- or globalization-losers become victims of a backward-oriented “reform policy.” The less generous are the social benefits of a rich society, the more powerful must be its security apparatus. What is saved in welfare goes for measures against drug abuse, criminality and violence.

An “activating” welfare state no longer subsidizing the needy without return favors replaces the active welfare state strongly influenced by communitarism, an American school of thought. The “welfare state” changes to the “workfare state” when work pressure becomes the center of employment- and social policy. Those directly affected by unemployment are made responsible themselves for their fate in a jobs crisis where millions of jobs are lacking - not persons willing to work. Despite the nice-sounding motto “Promote and Demand!” that makes the benefit law dependent on return favors of the beneficiaries, the chances of the socially disadvantaged are not improved as in retraining when the German agency for labor (earlier institute for labor) concentrates on the highly qualified and relatively easily adaptable. The main problem groups of the labor market (long-term unemployed, seniors and vocational returnees) are practically excluded from the training- and incentive measures.

Since its founding by Otto von Bismarck, the German social (insurance) state aimed at protecting male industrial workers with their families from standard risks like death of the breadwinner, invalidity and poverty in old age. This state is made a welfare-, alms- and soup kitchen state that only grants a base provision without maintaining the living standard of its clientele. With its abolition of unemployment assistance, Hartz IV was very inadequately characterized as “consolidation with income support,” an important interim step and an historical turning point in the development of labor- and social law. While “personal responsibility,” “self-support” and “private initiative” are extolled, public irresponsibility and additional burdens of employees and pensioners occur.

In the following point, the social-political post-modern has medieval characteristics of a partial re-feudalization. The German society falls behind the political achievements of the 19th and 20th centuries through the gradual re-individualization, re-privatization and shifting of social risks to families. CDU general secretary Ronald Pofalla anticipated this with his proposal that parents should help their (adult) children when they are jobless and (adult) children should aid their unemployed parents.

At the same time the community is split in a welfare market and a welfare state. On the welfare market, citizens who are financially solvent buy the measure of social security within their means. The post-modern welfare state provides minimum benefits described as “basic security” preserving people from starving and freezing. Otherwise they are handed over to private charity. Thus charitable engagement, voluntary activity in the social area, readiness to donate and establishment of non-profit foundations are in a boom season.


Justice represents the standard for the (in-) equality accepted in a society. With the neoliberal plans for reorganizing or dismantling the welfare state (in concepts like the so-called Hartz- or Rurup commissions and Gerhard Schroeder’s “Agenda 2010,” the ideas of justice in effect in society for a long time are being basically changed. Reforms of this kind had hardly any chance of gaining mass acceptance. The dominant justice term was modified in several regards. Its content shifted from need- to “performance-justice,” from distribution- to “participation-justice,” and from social- to “generational-justice.”

Instead of need-justice, performance-justice is made the criterion for welfare state action. The neoliberal hegemony in society turns previously binding ideas of equality and justice upside down. While social balance between social classes and strata was previously the goal of state policy, the victor types are entitled to everything today and less and less is given to the “unwilling” or “unable” according to the official version. For neoliberal economists, established parties and politicians, social justice is essentially a location-risk. They prefer freedom interpreted as capital owners’ possibility of investing how and where they will. The whole tax system should be adjusted to rewarding so-called “performers” and relieving them more than ever to strengthen “location Germany.” Such a tax system is hardly compatible with the welfare state principle of the German constitution.

Simultaneously sharing or participatory justice replaces distribution justice as a traditional goal of welfare state policy. People should have equal access to educational institutions and the labor market. While expanding the justice term toward “participatory justice” may be sensible, the latter can hardly serve as a substitute since participatory justice is undermined by social inequality. No extensive political participation can occur without social emancipation. No participatory justice is possible without a greater measure of distribution justice. In our time when money is more important than ever in nearly all areas of life and is distributed more unequally than ever, its importance for sharing in social life should diminish. People must receive money in unemployment, sickness or old age as social- or pay compensation from the welfare state so they can live in freedom (from distress), satisfy their needs and realize their plans.

While the fronts of social-political conflict have worn off, new constellations arise that emphasize analysis. Deficient generational justice is decried. People often act as though the “classical” antagonism between capital and labor has been superseded by a new basic contradiction between young and old and class struggle by a “war of the generations.” What is involved is a dramatization of the social distribution battle that – fought on the backs of pensioners – diverts from the real problems like the unjust distribution of income and assets. Child poverty is misused to play the rising generation against the pensioner generation and demand renunciation on higher incomes or benefit cuts from the latter.

The social polarization, a consequence of a restructuring of almost all areas of life according to the model of the market, affects all age groups. Poverty goes along with growing prosperity and represents its backside, if you will. The dividing social wall does not separate young and old but runs more than ever between poor and rich – independent of generation!
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Welfare State?
30 Nov 2006
Since CORPORATE WELFARE cost the U.S. Taxpayer 10 times more than social welfare? Let's stop corporate welfare first.
Take off the blinders.