What is a Leftist or a Progressive? What is the Leftist/ Progressive View on Social Welfare?

nara_childlaborerSo what is the difference between conservatives, liberals, and progressives when it comes to the Welfare State? Since the New Deal Act of 1935, the political structure that provides for the welfare of its people referred to The Welfare State has been hotly debated. What I present here are some of my notes from Dr. Laura Curran’s Social Welfare Policy lectures at Rutgers University, summer 2012. As she observes, much of the vitriol results from differing beliefs and commitments concerning how political and economic institutions should interact or not. This post seeks to clarify some of the basic commitments and values that underpin leftist or progressive ideology and its social welfare policy. The same will be provided for conservative and liberal ideologies in posts 1 and 2.

If we think of conservative ideology on the right and liberal ideology in the middle, then leftist or progressive ideology obviously falls to the left.  At least in America, much of left-wing thinking is influenced by socialist thought and has its roots in the ideas of German philosopher Karl Marx. This is in comparison to the more general category of European leftist thought (Foucault, Althusser, and so on) which relatively speaking, makes American leftism look fairly conservative. Progressives are most concerned with creating an egalitarian community. They not simply concerned with equal opportunity; they seek relative equality in the fundamental conditions of life. It is worth noting that leftist/ progressive perspectives vary widely. Though there used to be a larger progressive movement in the United States, its has never been nearly as strong or radical as its European counterparts.

Progressive ideology constructs social issues not as a matter of personal inadequacy but as socioeconomic malfunction. Social problems certainly are rooted in inequalities such as class, race, and gender, but not so much in individual dysfunction or immorality. In stark contrast to the conservative perspective, individual dysfunction and immorality are what result from gross inequalities, and not the other way around. In this way, the engine that creates and drives social ills such as poverty, homelessness, drug use, and criminality is deeply connected to the demands and conditions inherent in capitalism as such.Thus, for leftists and progressives, capitalism is the inherent problem insofar as capitalism produces gross concentrations of economic power, and these depend on and further entrench other oppressive inequalities such as racism and sexism. This is why, according to leftists and progressives, the United States is one of wealthiest countries in the world yet at the same time suffers from gross economic inequalities.

Since leftists believe that capitalism allocates goods and services according to the economic power of buyers and not on the basis of need, they find inherently unjust. Since the marketplace is rooted in self-interested motives and competition, it cannot be expected to address or provide fundamental human needs such as health, education and housing for all. Consequently, they call on the government to counterbalance the flaws of capitalism because government, they argue, is the only entity with the power to modify economic forces in favor of the whole community.

Leftists and progressives seek to social welfare policies that will reshape basic economic and power relationships in society so that income is equalized through redistribution. They call for universal, high quality services such as medical care, day care, and education. In his book on global capitalism One World Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, William Greider argues that the major challenge of governments today is to influence banking institutions to behave in ways that are beneficial to workers who are being hit by the international economy. Leftists and progressives are generally concerned about issues of economic globalization, as rich nations are getting richer while poor ones are getting poorer.

Interestingly, many leftists and progressives are for what’s called the Social Control Thesis. While most leftists seek the expansion of welfare programs and universal benefits, some argue that at times social welfare benefits, particularly, selective, means-tested ones, actually function to enhance capitalism’s power. Since the accumulation of capital and wealth in some hands depends on it not accumulating in other hands, welfare state and its benefits actually function to protect dominant class interests. How does it do this? According to social control theorists, the welfare state:

First, the welfare state placates unrest. The welfare state functions to quell or pacify any opposition to capitalism by providing citizens with minimum benefits. Two very well known theorists, Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, argue in their now classic book Regulating the Poor that”Historical evidence suggests that relief arrangements are initiated or expanded during the occasional outbreaks of civil disorder produced by mass unemployment, and are then abolished or contracted when political stability is restored. We shall argue that expansive relief policies are designed to mute civil disorder, and restrictive ones to reinforce work norms.” (Piven & Cloward, 1972, p. 3)

Second, the welfare state ensures that production and reproduction occurs. Capitalism needs healthy and satisfied workers to function. Through various programs, the state gives just enough to ensure the reproduction of a healthy labor force.

Third, the welfare sate regulates the labor supply for capitalist production. Welfare policy moves people in and out of the labor force to meet the demands of capitalists. For instance, during periods of unemployment, when fewer workers are needed, it provides more welfare. When more workers are needed, like in the late 1990s, it shrinks its welfare program.

So while some leftists push for the expansion of welfare policies, they also argue that certain types of policies—and particularly residual ones—are a source of both social control and serve to perpetuate the power of capitalism.


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