Has the British Welfare System been ‘Americanised’?

“The need of a constantly expanding market for its production chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections…it creates a world after its own image.”
(Marx & Engels (1848 {1976})

Policy Transfer, which Americanisation is said to be a process of, can be defined as “a process in which knowledge about policies, administrative arrangements, institutions (…) in one time and/or place is used in the development of policies, administrative arrangements and institutions in another time and/or place.” Dolowitz and Marsh (1996:347) pioneered the categorisation of policy transfer as a means to analyse the extent of policy and knowledge sharing and the different types of transfer. Conclusively, four degrees of transfer were decided from copying to inspiration, and a ‘policy transfer continuum’ differentiating the different types of transfer from voluntary to coercion. However, in a world of increasingly one dimensional free market dissemination, Dolowitz and Marsh’s (2000) octamerous classification lacks crucial economic content thus allowing a deep void in their analyse. This therefore proceeds to severely underestimate the scope of capitalist dominance within this topic. By focusing on this ‘economic cavity’ this essay shall attempt to ‘re-contextualise’ the concept of ‘Americanisation’ with regards to the British Welfare System and its integral role under the umbrella of capitalist evolution, where the process of ‘Americanisation’ is the current stage of consumerist capitalism.

By adopting a ‘Marxist’ accent with a ‘Bauman’ inflection this essay shall argue that instead of the dissemination of mutually exclusive concepts (with regards to policy transfers), there is currently instead an intentional evolution of capitalism from a producer society, where the welfare state played a key role in diminishing unemployment, to a consumer society where the unemployed have been re-oriented as ‘flawed consumers’ (Bauman 2005) leaving the welfare state role-less and subordinate to multi-national corporate governance. In this current epoch of capitalism all countries are in the ‘global trap’ (Martin and Schuman 1996) thus shedding new definitional ambiguity on Dolowitz and Marsh’s concepts of ‘voluntary’ and ‘coercive’ policy transfers.

The symbiotic relationship between welfare and capitalism has been present throughout the whole twentieth century and played a critical role in molding a disciplined work force (Gilbert 1983) within a producer society. The com modification of a labourer’s work allowed their production to be the means to create capital.This conversion to a capitalist doctrine needed every member to engage and marked ‘the end of the love affair between the craftsman and his work’ (Bauman 2005:6). This void of reason left the laborer without a rationality for the task. Bauman illustrates that under the guise of an ethic to work a discipline ethic was promoted. This ‘habitualised the worker to an unthinking obedience’ (ibid: 7) detaching his work from any understandable purpose but to see work as a moral value, where work became the main orientation point by which all other life pursuits were planned.

Crucially, America’s capitalist uprising saw work more as a means than a value to ‘the spirit of enterprise and upward mobility’. The system was accepted through a temporary subordination to the boss until they were boss one day in their own right. However, the stress on the cultural structure of gaining the American Dream becomes halted by the lack of institutionalised means (Merton 1938) leading to flaws and the need to secure virtues of working life through other avenues. Therefore believing in ‘the material incentives to work’ permits a consistent commitment to the rewards attached to the worker’s obedience. As Bauman (2005) highlights, this allowed the power conflict to be a struggle for the quantity of monetary income to define social existence. This moved human motivation and craving of freedom into the sphere of consumption and restructured the role of the welfare state. Gilbert (1983) discusses this restructuring in its premature days where capitalism realised the potential of the welfare state as ‘an untapped market’ . The first major commercialisation of the welfare into a social market happened under the Conservative Thatcher Government with the beginning of the privatisation of the National Health Service.

The major change towards a market oriented welfare happened in 1989 where the Government brought in the internal market allowing parts of the organisation to become providers selling their services (Fisher 2007). As Mechanic (1995) shows, this British reform resembles the public contracting of medical and social services within federal and state government in America. This marketisation also allowed General Practitioners to become fundholders and to purchase services from hospitals. This marked the first move of the citizen of a right to a consumer of a service.

Republican American President, Reagan, and the Thatcher Government saw the only role of the welfare state being ‘as guardian of order’ (Martin & Schumann 1997:109) sending the economy and its society ever closer to the free market (Hutton 1996:24) where capital and welfare played a crucial dichotomous relationship due to the necessity of positively positioning their selves to the superior corporate powers. The current capitalist consumer society engages with its members primarily as consumers. To allow maximisation of profits consumer’s satisfaction should be instant and should end the moment the time needed for their consumption has ceased (Bauman 2006:25). This has allowed a shift from the work ethic to the consumer ethic by installing an ‘insatiable desire’ in relation to commodities, which is essential to the survival of consumerism that breeds ‘terminal dissatisfaction’ where the world of the new compensates for what one already has. This breeds an individualised society where socialisation becomes competitive and commodified which in turn mimics the competitive face of the economy. “What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.” (Marx 1845:42). This wave of neo-liberalism becomes highlighted by the Government’s reluctance in playing a role in financially supporting the poor.

The Child Support Agency was set up in 1993 with a role to make sure that parents who live apart from their children contribute financially to their upkeep by paying child maintenance, thus diminishing the previous role being played by the state. The CSA was given the task of assessing payments to ensure consistency, with the powers to collect and distribute the maintenance payments itself and also the right to withhold welfare from parents who refused to cooperate. Dolowitz and Marsh (2001) argue that Thatcher learnt from the American experience, especially from policy experiments held in Wisconsin. Even though this system is failing, mainly due to differences in the two Government’s structures and goals, it continues to fight the moral crusade on rolling back the state and promoting neo-liberalism. As Bauman (2005) illustrates, in a consumer society, labour plays a secondary priority to capital production than consumption, leaving a lack of social function for the poor who were once defined by their unemployment but have now been placed into the position of ‘the plight of the flawed consumer’ (ibid:1). This reorientation has allowed the New Labour Government to restructure its philosophy regarding welfare and its role within work.

New Deal is an answer to this. New Deal is a welfare reform brought in by New Labour after its alliance with America’s Clinton Administration, seen as the ‘Third Way philosophy’.The reform moves those who are seen to be passively in receipt of benefit onto a work-oriented scheme. Failure to comply would lead to benefits being sanctioned. This Third Way takes a ‘work first approach’ arguing that ‘nobody should be written off or allowed to write themselves off” (DWP 2001:73). This reform has punitively targeted the disabled and lone parents most where welfare terminology has taken on a work-oriented approach (Income Support for lone parents is now Job Seekers Allowance and Incapacity Benefit for the disabled is now Employment and Support Allowance, DWP 2008).Walker & Wiseman (2003) argue that this policy bears a striking resemblance to the ‘Wisconsin Works’ scheme. This new relationship between neo-liberalism and welfare is growing ever popular even though “growing evidence (shows)that sustainable solutions to problems of unemployment and poverty lie outside the neo-liberal agenda of market-oriented workfare” (Peck and Theodore 2001:428). As Wacquant (1996) highlights, getting the poor into work is no longer about securing successful employment but turning them into the good invisible poor that ricochets between in and out of wage poverty. States are no longer independent policy makers but have been forced to adopt a “new role of state as mere host for transnational economy” (Martin and Schumann 1996). Hutton (1996) shows that tax reliance and decline in income has led to a structural crisis in public finance with New Deal part of the new solution. New Labour has therefore cut spending in areas where there are no powerful interest groups, for example, with social security. Therefore, declining benefits has effectively made the poor pay for this bottom to top distribution.

This ‘work first’ approach is defined as a workfare agenda where Peck and Theodore (2001:431) argue that this entails the imposition of mandatory work requirements with a view of enforcing work while residualising welfare. Williams (1997) argues that enforcing work fails to reduce their poverty, but through defining dependence as a reliance on welfare, and excluding capital/labour relations, current discourse on welfare policy has largely ignored the structure of low-wage work. Bauman (2005) adds to this by arguing that this silence has been justified through those who have ‘political muscle’ being the ones who do not need to rely on benefits. Terminology ‘borrowed’ from America has reinvented our language regarding the poor. The term ‘underclass’, Bauman contests, ‘evokes an image of a class of people beyond admission; people without a role, making no useful contribution to the lives of the rest’ (ibid:17). The use of language as a tool together with forcing the poor into low wage work as a means to transcend the moulded worker into a converted consumer is more than just an ’emulative and voluntary policy transfer’ that Dolowitz and Marsh (2000) suggest but an intentional process of capitalist evolution. “Capitalist economies must be seen as inter-related systems facing similar problems” (Hutton 1996:20).

As mentioned previously, constant consumption works best where there is no rigidity.This is very different to the ‘work ethic’ producer society that diligently built social identity and took working skills and career schemes attached to employment as its major determinants thus allowing lifelong identity construction. However, Bauman argues that this durable working career is no longer a widely available option. It is now rare to find a permanent identity through the job performed. Welfare policy continually uses the term ‘flexibility’, especially within the New Deal programme. “This increasingly fashionable notion stands for a game of hire and fire with very few rules attached” (ibid:27). These flexible contracts play an integral role in a consumerist labour market. Managers have, Bauman continues, a cheap reserve capacity to which they can turn to depending on the state of market. “Companies introduced just-in-time production to order, thereby removing need for costly stocks” (Martin & Schumann 1996:200). This has seen a massive decrease in downsizing, also highlighting the inefficiency of the New Deal where in the end of 2008 there were approximately 600,000 job vacancies but 2,000,000 unemployed (National Statistics Database 2008).

In a consumer society, manpower is decreasingly needed when we have machines to do it for us. Therefore the role of the welfare state diminishes. Martin and Schuman (1997) predict we will soon live in a 20:80 society “where 1/5 of all job-seekers will be enough to produce all the commodities and to furnish the high-value services that the world society will be able to afford (…) where the 80% will be pacified by ‘tittytainment’ (Martin & Schumann 1997:3). Instead in a hunt for higher returns, corporations buy labour from the poorest countries that are still being subordinated into the producer society. Developing countries’ labour is bought as a means to create capital and the fruits of their labour are sold on the capitalist market for us to consume. This has led many countries to be caught in a ‘global trap’ thus making Dolowitz and Marsh’s classification of ‘voluntary policy transfer’ null and void. This is the time of the American Empire.

“Globalisation, is understood as the unfettering of world market forces and the removal of economic power from the state, is for most nations a brute fact from which they cannot escape. For America, it is a process that its own economic and political elite deliberately launched and keeps in motion.”
(Martin & Schumann 1996:216)

To conclude, this essay’s aim was to understand whether the British Welfare System had been Americanised. Much of the literature argues that there has been a definite ‘borrowing’ of knowledge and policies from America, especially with regards to welfare. Dolowitz and Marsh (1996:2000) pioneered an analysis to classify policy transfer into different categories varying from voluntary to coercion insinuating that policy transfers are mutually exclusive thus setting a theme of calculation and comparison. However, this essay argued that by aligning the concept of ‘Americanisation’ within our current epoch of consumer capitalism and crucially the role that welfare policy plays, Dolowitz and Marsh’s conceptual analysis suffers from new definitional ambiguity.

Holding the discussion on a Marxist foundation with a theme of Bauman (2005) a move to capital being primarily defined by consumption and completely restructured not only by the British Welfare System but also all nation states who uphold the capitalist doctrine. By understanding Martin and Schumann’s (1997) theory on the global trap where the American Empire has the less developed countries trapped as producer societies and the more economically advanced countries as consumer societies there is less of a place for voluntary policy transfer. As Bauman argues, the poor are no longer defined as unemployed but as a flawed consumer. In a world plagued by capital-oriented technological innovation full employment is no longer a goal. Additionally, governments are increasingly becoming subordinate to supra-national corporate governance where flawed consumers are more useful in low wage poverty than part of an ‘untapped underclass’. This process of divide and rule together with combining an ’empty motivation’ to work with a false perception of gaining choice within consumption in return justifies the imperial and barbaric nature of current Western Capitalism, holding America as its pioneering model of success.

Reference List

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