Thursday September 21, 2017

Chapter 1: After the Welfare State

by Christopher Chantrill
March 5, 2005

We’re in favor of a lot of things, and we’re against mighty few —Lyndon Johnson, 1964
I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for —Howard Dean, 2005

WHAT WILL come after the welfare state?  After 120 years, at the turn of the twenty-first century, it is clearly showing its age.  Its great initiatives—universal education, universal superannuation, universal health care—have become corrupt monstrosities sucking up vast resources for a modest return.  Its devotees are reduced to more and more desperate stratagems to hold onto political power and to maintain the sinecures and the pensions of its functionaries and followers.  The welfare state is no longer a grand new vision, but a patched up expedient, an aging dynasty that may have lost the mandate of heaven.  Its strategy is all about hanging on.

Of course, back in the nineteenth century when the welfare state was conceived, nobody could have imagined how its vision would actually turn out after the glow of reform had receded and its taxes and benefits had become routine.  The brains behind it all, the German Marxists and British Fabians, had seen the misery of the workers and were determined to use other people’s money to relieve their sufferings.  The Marxists knew that the suffering of the workers was due to their oppression by the bourgeoisie, and the Fabians knew that it was due to the waste and inefficiency of Individualism and the higgling of the market.  A grand narrative was developed to explain the welfare state in the form of a three-act play.  In the golden age of the middle ages, the poor were treated with compassion and understanding, as the church led society by example to make proper provision for the poor and the indigent, formalizing its customs into the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601.  But this was followed by the Fall under the influence of the classical economists and laissez-faire ideology.  In the nineteenth century the poor were stigmatized as morally flawed, categorized into “worthy” and “unworthy,” and the indigent were barracked into the hell of indoor relief in union workhouses and county almshouses.  But a new age dawned as the nineteenth century progressed, the new age of the professional and national welfare state run by educated and compassionate activists and informed by modern social science research.

Despite the belief that the welfare state was established in the teeth of opposition from aristocratic reactionaries, the truth is that it was founded in Germany by the aristocratic reactionary Otto von Bismarck, who implemented the program of the Social Democratic opposition to cool the ardor of their supporters and increase support for the Prussian monarchy he served.  It wasn’t very long before Britain’s Edward VII added his royal approval: “We are all socialists now.”  Thus endorsed by progressives and reactionaries, the movement went from strength to strength in the first half of the twentieth century.  It organized the poor into great political machines, and turned government into a vast patronage operation to reward them for their support.  It also provided a vast and satisfying role for the governing classes: to cook up and serve the complicated menu of benefits that the welfare state would distribute.  By the 1920s an array of commentators had decided that mastering the growing complexity of life in the city was beyond capacity of the average citizen.  Experts would construct the complex institutions and programs that the average citizen needed but was incompetent to construct or to choose.

Even as the welfare state continues its inexorable expansion into the twenty-first century, sensitive observers have sensed a change in the wind.  Electoral success for socialist parties has begun to be difficult.  After winning one out of five presidential elections in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, moderate Democrats formed the Democratic Leadership Council to move the Democratic Party towards the political center and fueled the presidential candidacy of Bill Clinton.  After losing four straight elections in the United Kingdom, leader Tony Blair reinvented the Labour Party into “New Labour” as a party of the center rather than an orthodox party of the left.  A mini-industry of books has arisen to deal with the evident senescence of the welfare state political movement.  In The Politics of Meaning, Michael Lerner has attempted to find a new way for progressive politics to recover an identification with the spiritual and escape from its identification with material security and well being.  In The Radical Center, Ted Halstead and Michael Lind attempt to find a “radical middle” political ground for the plurality of Americans who identify neither with the Democratic party or the Republican party but that takes ideas from both parties: from the right, ending the corporate income tax and affirmative action; and from the left, a mandatory national health insurance and equalized school funding nationwide.  In The Underclass, Ken Auletta looks at the culture of the underclass and concludes that carrot and stick are needed to help the poor get off their “hustles” and get into the formal economy.  This movement represents an attempt to define a Third Way, a compromise between the perceived orthodoxy of welfare statism on the left, and pro-business bourgeois politics on the right.

But to characterize the Third Way as a movement is misleading.  Both in its incarnation in the United States under the guidance of the Democratic Leadership Council and in the United Kingdom as New Labour, the Third Way is a top-down expedient, an effort by political leaders to rescue their parties from the political wilderness: to stop losing at the polls.  Both in the United States and the United Kingdom the model of left-wing progressivism—a working class party led by the best and the brightest—was breaking down, losing contact with the great mass of voters that were no longer working class in outlook or as responsive to the class war politics that had proved such a potent winner in the middle years of the twentieth century.  The Third Way is best understood as an attempt by savvy political leaders to head their political parties away from the precipice, to return them to power and keep them there.  It is, in fact, the progressive movement in its Tory phase, a strategic retreat by a mature power hierarchy, maintaining power by brilliant strategic maneuver, but slowly yielding ground step by step to the wave of the future.  It has not yet asked itself whether its strategy negates the whole socialist vision.  It has certainly not conducted a dialogue with the rank-and-file progressives who remain deeply suspicious of their modernizing leaders.

In The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism, economist and Nobel Prize laureate Robert William Fogel got as close as any progressive has dared to the root of the problem.  A liberal iconoclast who was not afraid to write about the economic benefits to the American slave owners, he understood the perilous strategic position of the progressive forces at the end of the twentieth century.  Though proud that the progressive political program had improved the material condition of the poor dramatically over the last century, he had to admit that it failed in its central promise.  The progressives had claimed that the “social question,” the scandalous material deprivation of the huddled masses in the great industrial cities, could be solved by material improvement.  The idea that the poor were drowning in vice, and needed a program of character building and embourgeoisification, was a vicious canard.  What the poor lacked were material resources that had been denied them by an oppressive and uncaring political system.  The poor were like the cultivators of parched fields denied water in a valley drained by a great river.  A small dam, a modest network of distribution canals was surely all that stood between misery and prosperity.  Why not do it, make the desert flower, and raise the poor to prosperity?  With a helping hand the poor would soon rise, not just to middle class standards of living, but recover to the natural sense of community that they had lost when pitched into industrial servitude.

All this was done, and more.  Indeed, a massive program of irrigation was undertaken that flooded every acre in the valley.  Yet despite all the effort, something went wrong.  The violence and vice in the inner cities did not go away.  Indeed, it got worse.  All those benefits and programs may have done wonders for the material condition of the poor, but they did not do much for their moral and spiritual condition.  “Such problems [in cities] as drug addiction, alcoholism, births to unmarried teenage girls, rape, the battery of women and children, broken families, violent teenage death, and crime are generally more severe today than they were a century ago.”  “Oddly [sic], the sharpest increases in indicators of moral decay came after, not before, the ‘war on poverty’ of the 1960s and 1970s.”  Fogel is frank about the reason for the failure: “Poverty [was seen by the social reformers as] not a personal failure, but a failure of society, and evil would have to be seen, not as a personal sin, but as a sin of society.”  In other words, the political philosophy that undergirded the great social reforms of the twentieth century left out a crucial factor.  The teeming masses of the industrial cities were not just poor in material things, they were also poor in spirit, and the progressive program did nothing to help them with that.

In Life at the Bottom, Theodore Dalrymple has reported on just how poor in spirit the masses have become—no longer the working class but now the “underclass,” because they no longer work.  A hospital and prison psychiatrist, Dalrymple has written extensively on his personal and professional contacts with the underclass in Birmingham, England.

In the British underclass, marriage has collapsed.  Almost all underclass women live a series of tormented relationships with a succession of violent and abusive lovers.  Maintained at state expense, they live a life of diminished consequences.  If the current boy-friend trashes his lover’s apartment in a drunken rage, the police will give him a ride back to his own apartment and the state will supply a new apartment for the woman and her children.  With no employment and self-respect, the men are insanely jealous, and encouraged by drink, get into endless fights, often “glassing” their opponents with the shards of a smashed beer glass.  There’s no consequence to that either, since the emergency services will rush them to the nearest emergency room to repair their wounds.  These monsters live a life peculiarly lacking in agency: “the knife went in,” is how they report stabbing a victim at the pub.

Here the whole gamut of human folly, wickedness, and misery may be perused as leisure... Here are abortions procured by abdominal kung fu; children who have children, in numbers unknown before the advent of chemical contraception and sex education; women abandoned by the father of their child a month before or a month after delivery; insensate jealousy, the reverse of the coin of general promiscuity, that results in the most hideous oppression and violence; serial stepfatherhood that leads to sexual and physical abuse of children on a mass scale; and every kind of loosening of the distinction between the sexually permissible and the impermissible. (Dalrymple 2001 p.xi)

When the sturdy working class of Great Britain has descended to such a hell, there is no longer a scandal of physical degradation, as the progressives have maintained for over a century, but a nightmare of personal degradation.  And since the progressives had promised that the only problem the poor faced was the root cause of oppression and marginalization, they faced the bankruptcy of their great enterprise.

Of course, the bankruptcy of the progressive dream had been prophesied for years, both its political version and its economic version.  The British parliamentarian Edmund Burke had seen how the wholesale, revolutionary politics of the Terror and the nation in arms had certain disadvantages when compared with the retail, evolutionary politics of a nation of shopkeepers.  And when Karl Marx attempted to give socialism an economic basis, his labor theory of value as developed in Capital was refuted by the marginal theory of value developed in 1870 by Menger in Austria and Jevons in England.  The Austrian Jew Ludwig von Mises demonstrated in the 1920s that socialism was impossible because it couldn’t produce market prices.  F.A. Hayek in the 1940s showed that the welfare state was The Road to Serfdom because its government-directed benefit programs inevitably concentrated more and more power in the government and stripped citizens of their right to direct their own lives.  More specific studies by American conservative policy analysts in the 1970s, most notably Charles Murray in Losing Ground and George Gilder in Wealth and Poverty, showed that the poor were particularly disadvantaged by the progressive political agenda.  The welfare state with its subsidy for failure was encouraging a collapse in working class families and creating an underclass of single mothers married to the state and angry young men detached from fatherhood, responsibility, and work.  In 1989, Murray went to England and predicted that the same culture was developing in the United Kingdom.  He predicted increased violent crime and single parenthood for a nation that had experienced extremely low rates of violent crime in the twentieth century.  And it turned out he was right. (Murray 2001)  A decade later he returned to Britain and found that crime rates had actually exceeded the rates in the United States that had horrified Europeans decades before.  In the spring of 2002, Tory opposition leader Iain Duncan Smith could rise in the House of Commons and ask Prime Minister Tony Blair what he proposed to do now that the crime rate in London was higher than the crime rate in Harlem in New York City. 

If Fogel is prepared to face the truth about progressive politics, he is not prepared to deal with the consequences, for a book about the future of egalitarianism is not about to admit defeat for the progressive movement and cede the political high ground to evil Republicans, who had argued from the earliest times that the problem of the poor was their culture, not their material deprivation.  But it is a measure of the seriousness with which he regards the situation that his solution to the problem is to abolish the establishment clause of the First Amendment and institute an established government church.

Experiencing the moral decay of the poor is a “maldistribution of spiritual resources” Fogel calls for government action.  The nation should develop a program to provide the poor in spirit with spiritual values such as a “sense of purpose,” a “vision of opportunity,” a “sense of the mainstream of work and life,” a “strong family ethic,” “a sense of community,” “a capacity to engage with diverse groups,” a “sense of benevolence,” “a sense of discipline,” a “capacity to focus and concentrate one’s efforts,” a “capacity to resist the lure of hedonism,” a “capacity for self-education,” “a thirst for knowledge,” “an appreciation of quality,” and “self-esteem.”  Experts and elitists will provide “spiritual enrichment of nursery and day care” for, after all, “some young mothers and fathers are too deprived, or too young, to call on their own life experiences to transmit a sense of discipline” etc. to their children.  In the new millennium, people will be less focused on “earnwork,” work performed primarily to earn money, and more upon “volwork,” work done to satisfy their personal needs and interests. We will need a program to dismantle standard working hours, fund abundant leisure, health care, lifetime learning, and democratize self-realization.  “At the dawn of the new millennium it is necessary to address... the struggle for self realization, the desire for a deeper meaning in life than... consumer durables and the pursuit of pleasure.”   What is such a program but an established church of positive self-esteem?

But what moves a liberal like Fogel think that matters are so urgent that the First Amendment needs to be suspended, and that the federal government—meaning presumably Fogel and a corps of like-minded policy analysts—should be empowered to institute a top-down program of national spiritual enrichment?  The answer lies in the first half of his title: The Fourth Great Awakening.  Fogel believes that the United States is presently in the middle of a great spiritual awakening, similar to the Great Awakening of 1748-50 that set New England ablaze with religious fervor and that, in the opinion of many observers, lit the fuse that exploded into the American Revolution. 

The modern Great Awakening has two major currents, according to Fogel.  There is a movement of “old lights,” enthusiastic Protestants like Billy Graham, the TV evangelists, the thousands of independent evangelical and Pentecostal churches, the pro-life movement, the “religious right,” and Christian media phenomena like the Left Behind series.  And there is a movement of “new lights:” the human potential movement, New Age Christians, positive self-esteemers, yoga practitioners, and followers of Zen.

Fogel’s concept of the Fourth Great Awakening is derived from Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform, in which religious historian William G. McLoughlin proposed that religion is the engine that powers US politics.  He identified five religious outbursts that set the agenda for a generation of politics.  The Puritan outburst of 1600 propelled the first colonists to New England; the First Great Awakening of 1748-50 led to the American Revolution a generation later.  The Second Great Awakening led to the birth of the Republican party and the Civil War.  The Third Great Awakening and the Social Gospelers launched the progressive politics that has dominated the twentieth century.

If, as McLoughlin and Fogel propose, the United States is indeed in the middle of a Fourth Great Awakening that started between 1950 and 1960, then it is a matter of great moment to those occupying the commanding heights of politics and culture.  If the wrong side wins, the present incumbents could be thrown out of power and reduced to a rump mouldering away in distant university sinecures, all their dreams of money, power, and the love of beautiful women gone up in smoke.  In such an emergency, the suspension of the establishment clause of the First Amendment is merely a necessary expedient.  The progressives must co-opt and control the Fourth Great Awakening to preserve their power to do good, and prevent the United States from falling into the hands of “old lights” and reactionaries who would turn back the clock to 1930 or earlier.

To the observer of establishment culture, it is startling to encounter an establishment author who suggests that religion is a critical factor that drives politics.  It is more usual to encounter the columnist who confidently affirms that America faces a “continuing struggle to move from a Puritan, pioneer, outlaw heritage of fighting for basic survival needs... to a civilization that is nonviolent, fair, and respectful of others,” or to sit at dinner next to a man who bitterly rails for hours against Puritanism, repression, and hate.  In the educated circles of the United States, it is received wisdom that organized religion is, if not a superstition, at least obsolete.  The Protestant ethic was all very well back in the nineteenth century, but the complexities and diversities of the modern era require something more flexible than the dualism of Heaven and Hell.  There must be a better way of socializing people than scaring them to death with shame and guilt.  And yet enthusiastic Protestantism is growing rapidly in the United States and elsewhere in the world.

In the 1950s, all church denominations in the US experienced a growth in membership.  However, from the 1960s onwards, only the enthusiastic denominations increased rapidly.  By 1980, the new enthusiastic Christians had appeared on the radar of national politics; by 1990 evangelical Christians had become part of the base of the Republican party.  By 2001, Tony Carnes reported in The Wall Street Journal that a new Pentecostal church was opening in New York City every three weeks, so that “a local research institute has officially identified 3,800 Pentecostal churches in New York, but believes that even that number is an undercount.”

Things were getting so bad that The New Republic sent Hanna Rosin down to South Carolina before the presidential primary in March 2000 to report on the religious right.  What she discovered sheds useful light upon the notion of a Fourth Great Awakening and upon the people caught up in it.  And it elevates the question why, after a triumphant century of the welfare state, people on the road to the middle class should still be thronging into the enthusiastic Christian churches.




Christopher Chantrill blogs at