Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: Ideologies of Welfare

[John Clarke, Allan Cochrane, and Carol Smart. Ideologies of Welfare: From Dreams to Disillusion. London: Hutchinson, 1987.]

This book examines the approaches of several key political traditions to social welfare issues at three different moments in the evolution of the British welfare state. It looks at liberalism (in its classical, "new" quasi-Fabian, and reborn Thatcherite variants), Fabianism (a kind of top-down, planning-based, idealistic, school of thought that grafted itself onto the Labour Party quite early on and that combined both "new liberal" and socialist elements, somewhat similar to the League for Social Reconstruction that existed in Canada in the '30s and '40s), feminism, and socialism, and it does this both by summarizing some of the key aspects of each in the authors' voice but also by presenting extensive excerpts from primary texts by thinkers in those traditions in each era. It does not present a detailed history of the evolution of the British welfare state but it does draw some attention to the quite different ways that each tradition related to state practices over time.

If my book project was about the British context, this would be an extremely useful resource because it is both an overview and a way to access key primary sources. Its actual relevance to me is a bit less obvious, given that I am currently preparing to write about the Canadian welfare state, but of course Canadian political culture has always existed in dynamic relation with the British and U.S. scenes, and this area is no exception. The point of closest contact is perhaps the report issued by Sir William Beveridge in 1942. That document was the blueprint for the post-World War II British Labour government's creation of the modern welfare state in that country in the course of a single, five-year term of office. In Canada, the welfare state that resulted after World War II was quite a bit more partial and was created over about 20 years, with certain differences in organization from its British counterpart. Nonetheless, the Beveridge Report was tremendously influential in Canadian circles during and just after the war.

The other eras covered by the book map less closely between the U.K. and Canada than the post-WWII moment. Certainly the meaningful challenge to the hegemony of laissez-faire liberalism that had begun in Britain by the first decade of the twentieth century was not matched in Canada, which was still in the process of industrializing at that point. And the onslaught of neoliberalism has had quite different trajectories in the two countries, though the general trends are much the same.

The relative weight and complexion of the ideologies discussed in this book have existed in some crucially different ways in the two countries as well. There seemed to be different elements of tone and emphasis in British feminism in the three eras compared to what I would expect in the Canadian context, though much basic underlying similarity. The post-WWII welfare state in Britain might be described as Fabianism that was dominant and that cloaked itself in more socialistic garb than it ever actually embodied at its heart, and that had distinctively "new liberal" origins and outcomes; whereas in Canada the compromise was actually the push that caused liberalism to jump the way from its classical origins to "new liberalism," in large part by cherrypicking key ideas from the Canadian equivalent of the Fabians (the League for Social Reconstruction and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation). And Canada has never really had as much of a tradition of socialist discourse on the welfare state that was clearly non-Fabian, non-Communist Party, and interested in making practical policy suggestions, or at least only more recently and quite sporadically. I thought the socialist (and feminist) contributions from the most recent era were actually among the most interesting material in the book because of their emphasis on making the welfare state more participatory, more based in community control, more deliberately aimed towards prefiguring a new society rather than towards preserving current social relations.

Anyway, it's a book that I think only people with quite specific interests will want to read, but in that context it is a valuable resource. And, no, I don't know whether the author who bears the name of "John Clarke" is the same one who has been an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty for many years -- he did move to Canada from England and I have no idea what he did before he emigrated, but it is not an uncommon name, either.

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