Friday, September 18, 2009

Welfarism as a substitute for imperialism

(This is an expansion of a comment I made here.)

That imperialism and capitalism have no particular connection to each other is perfectly obvious from history. The Soviet Union was an imperial state, as was Mao's China.

What capitalism—a system where the means of production are substantially exchangeable in markets—did do is make imperialism easier. Capitalism is very good at producing capital, the produced means of production. The more resources—particularly, the greater the organizational capacity—a society (and more particularly the state) has at its disposal, the easier various forms of public policy become. What is striking about Western imperialism is both its extent—controlling most of the globe at its height—and its comparative ease. Western states conquered most of the globe even though their armed forces were mostly kept at home facing off other Western states. They could do so because their effective organizational capacity—the technology they could use, the control they could exercise, the resources they could deploy—was greater than the peoples they dealt with, even without disease advantages.

Even more to the point, imperialism is simply what rulership typically does if it can. From the earliest days, when rulership developed, it would seek to increase its control of peasants, trade nodes and trade routes to increase its power and wealth. The notion that there is a "proper" territorial limit to states—beyond just their capacity to control territory—is something of a modern invention.

What we lack is much sense that there is a proper internal limit to the ambit of state action. Welfarism is, in a sense, internal colonialism. Indeed, the sort of people who built careers in imperial administration and spruiked for imperialism are not so very different from those who build careers in welfare bureaucracies and spruik for expanding public social welfare programs. And foreign aid programs.
The period when "de-colonisation" began was also the period of the Marshall Plan, of LSE socialism in the UK which fed into, for example, India’s permit raj. As de-colonisation marched along, it did in conjunction with the postwar expansion of welfare states. It is hardly surprising a very state-led notion of development became dominant. After all, a very state-led notion of the way to social improvement was dominant in domestic public policy too.

So, as Western states abandoned the notion of imperial expansion, or even imperial control [imperialism have been particularly discredited when Europeans themselves experienced the Nazi version of it], and retreated back to their “proper” territorial boundaries, they expanded their ambit within their own societies. The former imperial states became welfare states colonizing their own societies.

The notion of welfarism as internal colonialism may seem confronting, even offensive. (Though, perhaps, less so to those who have read some of Theodore Dalrymple’s jeremiads.) So, let me give an example where the pattern of internal colonialism is patent.

In Richard Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die—which should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in indigenous policy—there is the illustrative tale of the Galiwin ’ku fishing industry in the Northern Territory of my own country.
The Galiwin ’ku fishing industry consisted of several small fishing boats made from local timbers at Galiwin ’ku by the Yolηnu and mission staff. The Yolηu named these boats with holy names from their clain or riηgitj nation alliance. The boats were owned by the mission but were skippered and crewed by different clans. Some small clans would come together in a riηgitj alliance to make up a crew. …

These clan groups would use the boats and sell their catch to the mission for processing and re-sale to other places. The people clearly understood that what they caught was theirs until they sold it to the mission and they benefited directly from their catch. From the point of sale on, it belonged to the mission. This arrangement satisfied the legal requirements of both the Yolηnu and Balanda systems of law.

When the mission at Galiwin ’ku handed the fishing industry over to the Yolηnu council in 1974, everything proceeded well for a while because the mission staff also transferred to the council. For most Yolηu nothing really changed. Then in 1975 it was decided to get a loan from the government to develop the industry. The Aboriginal Development Comission ‘decided’ to bring in a consultant to look at the viability of the loan and how it could increase the efficiency of the industry. Following the consultant’s recommendation, one big, modern fishing trawler replaced the small boats. In the dead of night, the small boats were burned on the beach and one was cut adrift, to ‘convince Yolηu of the need to move up to the big boat’. Within six months the whole fishing enterprise at Galiwin ’ku had collapsed and Galiwin ’ku became an importer rather than exporter of fish products.

… from a Yolηu perspective the collapse happened because the separate clans and nation alliances found it impossible to work under one Balanda boss on the trawler, as the trawler captain now had to be licensed. Moreover, Yolηu were insulted and grieving over the destroyed boats. With no clear lines of ownership the people could not see that any authority had passed to them.

To expect all the clans at Galiwin ’ku to believe they collectively owned the fishing company was like telling twenty-six Balanda companies that they collectively owned an industry incorporated as an association. … But this is not how community structures were set up. … The Yolηu fisherman did not see themselves as working for their own gain anymore; in fact, many now thought that the captain of the new trawler would reap the dividends. They had just become wage earners, and the incentive to work and build the industry for their own benefit was gone.

On top of all this, people had become confused about where these wages came from. In the past they saw a clear trade with the mission—so much fish for so much money. This trade was what the Yolηu were used to. Now they got wages no matter how many fish were caught. The steps in the development of a cash economy, with its system of wages-for-labour, are many. The Yolηnu were catapulted into the cash economy with little preparation.

With all this confusion, only conflict could occur, and economic development through industries like fishing was lost. (pp47-8)
By any measure, that is “development” colonialism at its worse, and it was done by the government of a very successful liberal democracy to its own citizens. (As it continues to do.)

Limits to the effective internal ambit of state action exist: if we learn nothing else from the history of the Soviet Union and the failure of Leninism, we should learn that. But, just as in the heyday of imperialism those who attacked imperialism as fundamentally wrongheaded were often a despised minority, so it is today that those who cast doubt on the effectiveness and appropriateness of welfarism are dismissed as wrongheaded. The notion of wise and beneficent officials bringing benefits to the needy and benighted is a beguiling one. What, after all, is foreign aid but welfarism for foreigners (with much worse accountability than the domestic variety: hence its appalling record of failure).

Welfarism has had some apparent success in reducing aged poverty: success elsewhere has been less notable. Almost 130 years of welfarism in Germany, for example, has failed to eradicate poverty. (Via norm, who categorises the issue as a failure of capitalism, a common outlook that insulates "good intentions" welfarism from effective accountability [since without acknowledgment of the possibility of failure there can be no accountability].) One notable study found reasonable evidence that increased public spending up to 1960 (which was mainly on various forms of infrastructure) seemed to be associated with improved socio-economic outcomes: spending since 1960 (which has increasingly of a transfer variety) has been much less clearly beneficial.

One can also wonder about the other effects of welfarism. For example, murder rates in England have been declining for about seven or so centuries. Since the 1950s, they have about doubled (pdf). As the British state has expanded its ambit of operation, its performance in a basic public good (protection from crime) has clearly deteriorated. Doing more and more is not conducive to maintaining levels of accountability in any particular area. That is without considering whether policies are working at cross-purposes, something more likely to occur the wider the ambit of state action.

Not that critics of (domestic) welfarism have had no sway at all. Welfare reform in the US could not have happened unless critical voices had some persuasive effect. But the US is unusual among developed democracies in the openness of its policy debates, the extent to which domestic policy is subject to public pressure and the richness of its social analysis research. Moreover, such reform was mainly concentrated in areas where most citizens did not feel themselves to be actual or potential beneficiaries.

Rulership tends to expand its ambit until it meets some constraint. If people believe the state has unlimited capacity to “do good”, then there is no limit to its proper ambit of action. It is only a sense of limits to state action—either moral limits or capacity limits—combined with the willingness and capacity to enforce such limits, which can stop rulership doing what comes naturally to it: expanding. The welfare state is a manifestation of that principle. Democracy does not stop that principle operating. On the contrary, by identifying state action with the popular will it undermines the legitimacy of limiting state action. Though the notion that democratic accountability is both so complete, and so elastic, that it can function with equal facility no matter how large the ambit of state action gets, hardly bears much in the way of serious consideration.

Someone once said that history does not repeat, but it does rhyme. That the age of Western imperialism was followed by the age of Western welfarism (both domestic and foreign) is not as much of a change in underlying dynamics as people might think.

ADDENDA Additions in [square brackets].

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