Asbjorn Wahl The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State, London: Pluto Press, 2011; 211 pp: 9780745331393 (pbk) 18.99 [pounds sterling]
The centrality of power relations to the content of society is well known by many historical materialists, but unfortunately ignored by those social forces most connected to the social-democratic welfare state, most notably the parties and the unions. Wahl wishes to remedy this unfortunate situation through a very readable and engaging study of the welfare state, understood almost entirely through the lens of power relations. Wahl seems heavily influenced by the Poulantzasian view of power relations, which sees the various state apparatuses as 'the material condensation of a relation of forces' between social classes 'defined precisely by struggle' (Poulantzas, 1978:151). This is evident in Wahl's statement that the Western European welfare states are seen to be the direct result of 'a comprehensive shift in the balance of power between labour and capital' which 'formed the basis of a redistribution of power and wealth within society' (p. 4). This comment exemplifies the theoretical basis on which The Rise and the Fall of the Welfare State is built.
Wahl argues that the progressive welfare state is in a dangerous period of decline, and warns against complacency, noting that attacks against the welfare state are always justified on the grounds of saving it for the future. Wahl does not judge the decline of the welfare state on levels of public spending, since this has not experienced significant change; rather it is the progressive content of the welfare state which is being eroded.
The once progressive welfare state that sought redistribution 'from the private to the public, from capital to labour, and from the rich to the poor' (p. 125) is now being used to discipline, cheapen and essentially recommodify labour. The contemporary welfare state cannot, in Wahl's view, possibly be progressive, as it reflects the prevailing power relations and is thus fulfilling the desires of capital freed from the constraints of organised labour. Because of this, a progressive welfare state cannot be chosen at will by centre-left political elites, but most be forged over time through a shift in power relations between the social classes. Evidence for the increasingly regressive nature of the contemporary welfare state is seen to be based in the fact that over the past few decades, inequality has increased significantly and the number...