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Sustainability and the political economy of welfare

by Max Koch on June 16, 2016
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Welfare is commonly understood in socio-economic terms of equity, highlighting distributive issues within growing capitalist economies. In times when the unequal distribution of wealth in the ‘advanced’ capitalist world has returned to levels of the 19th century, the question of whether we can and should ‘afford the rich’ is indeed central. The traditional response of welfare researchers – that issues of inequality can be solved by redistributing the primary incomes of capital and labour within economically growing economies – however, is not only difficult to achieve in an increasingly unfettered global capitalism but is also controversial. While GDP, income growth and rising material standards of living are normally not questioned as political priorities, there is growing evidence that Western production and consumption patterns and the associated welfare standards are not generalizable to the rest of the planet if environmental concerns are to be considered. For that to happen we would indeed need four to five Earths.

Koch sustainability welfare

In an attempt to take planetary boundaries such as climate change, the nitrogen cycle, and biodiversity loss seriously, our new book Sustainability and the Political Economy of Welfare discusses the implications for ‘the’ economy and associated welfare standards. It raises the issue of what would be required to make welfare societies ecologically sustainable. In doing so, we regard the current financial, economic and political crisis and the corresponding recalibrations in Western welfare state institutions as an impetus to also considering environmental concerns. We are furthermore concerned with the main institutional obstacles to the achievement of sustainable welfare and wellbeing (especially the social structures of global finance-driven capitalism), how these could feasibly be overcome, and how researchers can assist policy-makers and activists in promoting synergy between economic, social and environmental policies that are conducive to globally sustainable welfare systems.

These are complex issues that tend to overstretch the terms of reference of single disciplines. My co-editor Oksana Mont and I felt accordingly privileged to have the opportunity to assemble an interdisciplinary team of researchers from five Lund University faculties as well as Kate Soper, Hubert Buch-Hansen and Ian Gough, who wrote the preface, and to work together for eight months at the Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies. We subdivided the book into three parts: conceptual issues of sustainable welfare, policies towards the establishment of sustainable welfare and emerging practices of sustainable welfare in countries such as France, the US, Sweden and China.

Our concept of sustainable welfare attempts to integrate the two previously separate disciplines of welfare and sustainability research. Taking environmental limits seriously in welfare theorising means, first of all, to ask whose welfare should be met. Distributive principles underlying existing welfare systems would need to be extended to include ‘non-citizens’, those affected in other countries and future human beings. Hence, sustainable welfare is oriented towards the satisfaction of human needs within ecological limits, from the intergenerational and global perspective. It is only at global level that thresholds for matter and energy throughput as well as for greenhouse gas emissions can be determined in order to effectively mitigate global environmental challenges such as climate change. At the same time, these biophysical conditions and global thresholds delineate the room for manoeuvre within which national and local economies can evolve and within which welfare can be provided. This suggests a new mix of private, state, commons and individual property forms with a much lesser steering role for the market than at present.

Sayer afford the richIn the policy-oriented second part of the book, several authors place emphasis on the detrimental effects of the financial system within the international political economy and highlight various degrowth visions of practical transformation strategies that could frame more specific policy packages. Here, research has a potentially vital role to play but can only do so in close dialogue with diverse societal actors – particularly if it produces insights into the mechanisms, groupings of actors and their institutional embedding as well as into the ways in which governments and governance networks may support voluntary and civic bottom-up initiatives. If sustainable welfare is going to be practiced at all, then it will most likely be in different ways in different countries due to their diverse points of departure in terms of the institutional particulars of market coordination and welfare systems. While research on the potential diversity of future welfare systems is still in its infancy, it is important to explore the opportunities and potentials that exist within current welfare systems since these must be built upon in any move towards sustainable welfare.

Part III of the book argues that a potential opportunity for the establishment of sustainable welfare lies in the diversity of perceptions about the ‘good life’ and the relationship between individuals and governments in initiating transformative processes and legitimizing sustainable lifestyles. People are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the consumer culture due to its growing negative side effects such as time scarcity, high levels of stress, traffic congestion and the increasing displacement of other pleasures of life and wellbeing through the shopping mall culture. We may already find seeds of alternative visions and practices in craft movements, the service economy, socio-ecological enterprises and forms of collaborative consumption. A ‘slower’ life and more free time should not be seen as a threat to the ‘Western way of life’ but as sources of individual and communitarian wellbeing, genuine individual fulfilment and opportunities for greater involvement with various social networks that have the potential of improving social relations and creating trust. This could also facilitate to breaking the link between resource-intensive economic growth and hegemonic perceptions of societal ‘progress’ – and to ending the monopoly of the prevalent consumer culture over alternative definitions of wellbeing and the ‘good life’.

Max Koch
Max Koch is a professor in social policy at Lund University. His previous publications include Capitalism and Climate Change: Theoretical Discussion, Historical Development and Policy Responses, Palgrave Macmillan (2012).

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