The welfare state as ideological theatre of struggle

22 November 2013

The welfare state as ideological theatre of struggle

Ronald van Raak • The welfare state is an historic compromise, the outcome of a struggle between the leading political currents in our country. This ideological struggle continues yet, as is shown by a recently published collection on the future of social security (Mij een zorg! De toekomst van de sociale zekerheid), in which political parties’ research departments give their view of the welfare state’s future. The initiative for this came from the GAK Institute, a body which finances research in the area of social security. This collection will meet the need for a clear view of each party’s political line.

For the centre-right VVD, currently in government in coalition with the PvdA (Labour Party), income, health care and welfare are in the first place one’s own responsibility. The state must do something for those who fall by the wayside, but must not remove this principle of ‘own responsibility’. Socialists see responsibility as shared, with social provision offering people the chance to take their lives into their own hands. Religious parties see a role, in addition to the state, for social connections such as family, association and church.

This clear overview seems to have fallen into confusion now that the government of Mark Rutte has embraced the idea of ‘the participation society’. Ideologically diverse parties such as the VVD and PvdA are all distancing themselves from the ‘welfare state’ and use the same concept as a designation for a new future. This could mean that this government has put an end to a historical struggle. Mij een zorg, however, demonstrates that this is not the case. The struggle over social security appears in a number of cases to have moved to a location within the political parties themselves.

In this collection we hear the voices of the various party’s research departments and those ‘leading political currents’ are still clearly recognisable. The SP and the PvdD – the animal welfare party – defend the welfare state. Benefits, for the unemployed or otherwise eligible financially deprived people, people with disabilities, socialised medicine and retirement pensions are for these parties not a problem but solutions to a problem when people are out of work, sick, or getting on in life. It is precisely in times of crisis such as now that, in the opinion of these parties, the welfare state does just what it was designed to do.

For the religious parties, the centre-right CDA, the small centrist Christian Union and the more right-wing but even smaller SGP, the same economic crisis provides the occasion for a rethink of the welfare state. In this they are looking for new ideas: ‘welfare society’ (CDA), or ‘life circles’ (SGP). The most attractive is the hard-to-translate ‘noaberschap’ (Christian Union), which originates in a kind of tithe paid by people in rural areas via which their churches offered support to those needing it, and which means, roughly, ‘neighbourliness’. This last concept in particular, a reference to a traditional form of community thinking, expresses the need for more mutual involvement and for a less abstract form of solidarity.

The centre-right secular liberal current is also intact, with the VVD and the less right-oriented D66 arguing since time immemorial for less state interference and more self-reliance, or, in the somewhat different words favoured by D66 a ‘self-development society’. Newcomers 50+, which as its name suggests presents itself as the party for older people, is looking within this violent ideological battle to find its own place, but what would best suit it is the centre-right liberal current, with its advocacy of arrangements tailored to the specific needs of individuals. The other parliamentary party, the hard right, anti-immigration PVV, made no contribution to the collection.

The position of the PvdA and of the Green Left appears more problematic, with the latter seeming to follow in Parliament the right liberal line of its former leader Femke Halsema, yet in the collection its research department distances itself from this and returns to its old policy of advocating a basic income. Labour’s Wiardi Beckman Foundation makes an equally deviant sound, arguing for the preservation of the welfare state, precisely because of its advantages for the economy, distancing itself from the ‘participation society’.

Must social security be cut back in order to make people more flexible in a fast-changing world? Or does the crisis rather demonstrate that more social regulations are needed, because people have need of greater security? The discussion around the future of social security must be constantly conducted, and the public should be able as a result to expect that political parties make clear choices concerning it. This collection shows us that not all parties have as yet got that far.

This article first appeared, in the original Dutch, in Nieuwe Liefde (winter 2013).
www.denieuweliefde.com For the benefit of readers who may be unfamiliar with Dutch domestic politics, brief explanations of each of the political parties mentioned have been added by the translator. Ronald van Raak is a Member of Parliament for the SP.

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