Review of 'The Social Europe We Need', editor Robin Blackburn, Spokesman £9.99
The welfare state is under attack across Europe. Pensions, benefits for the poor and unemployed have been cut back and the whole basis on which they are provided has been brought into question. Simultaneously this is being accompanied by the wholesale privatisation of health, education and other social services.
The attacks by national capitalist classes are being replicated by their club, the European Union. The EU is committed to a neoliberal agenda whose goal is to boost the competitiveness of European capitalism by driving down workers' living standards. This was the aim of the Stability and Growth Pact and the creation of the euro zone.
The draft EU constitution may refer to full employment and welfare provision, but the operative clauses are those that commit Europe to free markets and flexible labour. The only value of healthcare, education and employment policies for the EU is how far they contribute to worker productivity and the profits of big business.
In this book, Andre Brie, MEP for the Party of Democratic Socialism in Germany, does an excellent demolition job on the myths put forward to justify the attacks on pensions. The projected increase in the ratio of the retired population to workers over the next 50 years is much less than that experienced during the first half of the 20th century. That increase was comfortably met by the rise in labour productivity. This is likely to be the case in the future as well, particularly after 2050 when the proportion of the population over 65 is expected to decline. The ageing population also means that the increased proportion of retired workers will be partly offset by the fall in the proportion of children.
A fully employed workforce on decent levels of pay and pensions would find it much easier to support the non-economically active sections of the population. This is something we do not have despite Gordon Brown's claims to have delivered full employment in Britain. An interesting analysis of unemployment figures in the book shows that an estimated 1,130,000 people currently claiming incapacity benefit would be working if there was genuine full employment.
Brie and former Labour MEP Ken Coates rightly point to the European Social Forum, the anti-capitalist movement, the struggles of the trade unions and the left political tendencies that look to these as the basis for an alternative to the neo-liberal consensus. However, the assumption throughout the book is that real change in the interests of working people will have to come through the structures of the EU. Robin Blackburn, joint editor of New Left Review, contributes a piece on new ways of funding welfare spending on a European scale through a system of taxing dividends from shares. Blackburn admits that an attempt to introduce a similar proposal in Sweden was blocked by the ruling class. The EU is controlled by capitalist classes with an even greater commitment to neoliberalism.
Brie argues for a return to Keynesian welfare corporatism at an EU level. He claims that the EU is an almost enclosed economy from which globalisation could be shut out. The history of the US and the Soviet Union shows that no economy, no matter how large or apparently self-contained, is insulated from the impact of the world economy.
Brie rejects socialist revolution as inevitably leading to a rerun of Stalinism. The fact remains that whether the EU remains a cartel of national capitalist states or develops into a European superstate, workers' struggles on a massive scale are the only way in which the welfare state can be defended. International workers' revolution, the destruction of the capitalist states and their replacement by societies based on workers' democracy and a planned economy is the sole means by which the interests of the majority of the people can be assured on a permanent basis.