Many view the maturity of a government or civilization in relation to how that community treats its most needy citizens. The UK government became a welfare state in the 1940s, (Taylor-Gooby 2004). There has recently been a shift in views on many aspects of welfare, with the future of many government programmes, or at least their scope, in question. The government and community’s struggle to improve the welfare system can be considered in light of two of the more prominent social ideologies, Marxism and conservatism. Both have strong opinions on welfare as a part of society, the role of the individual within such society, and how inequalities should be best addressed. These views are addressed more completely, however, by structural consensus theory.
Marxism sees human history as a class struggle, with oppressor and oppressed wrestling for control. The dominant class controls and owns the means of production or wealth generation, and the working class in therefore controlled by them. Welfare is a result of the strength of working-class resistance to exploitation, a concession the dominant class must make to maintain social order (Anon 2005). Programmes such as welfare and pensions help to legitimise the capitalist system with the working class. Welfare then becomes another vehicle for power and control by the dominant class. Its purpose is to placate rather than empower the poor, and seeks to reduce the individual to a state of dependency on those in power (Anon 2005).
According to Marxist theory, society has unfolded in a series of ever-progressing and better structures, as defined by their economic development and modes of production, from the primitive communal to slave-based to feudal to capitalist. The final stage was communism. This was predicted to be the best possible means of governance and structure of society, one that would erase inequalities and allow individuals to achieve their full potential and value within their community (Anon 2005). While communism has faded, at least as it was practised in the Soviet Union and similar countries, socialist ideas have strongly pervaded capitalist ideology, leading to the development of the capitalist welfare state common today.
Marxism viewed the individual as part of a collective organism, society. Inequalities in society resulted from distinction in classes, not particular individual decisions or behaviours. Conflict was between these classes, and rooted in struggle for power. Only when class distinctions were eliminated could individuals experience equality, although the theory still views them as part of a greater collective (Taylor-Gooby 2004). Marxism assumes the individual can and will contribute to the greater community as much as they are able, and will be motivated by the common good. When society has evolved or elevated itself to this place, inequalities will be dealt with appropriately (Anon 2005).
Important ideas of Marxist theory that relate to the current welfare system are the state’s responsibility to provide for its members and the need for redistribution of wealth. The idea of entitlement, that one must be provided for simply because one is a British citizen, is in keeping with these two ideas (Timmins 2004). Welfare is a good and natural occurrence in a mature society, and should be available as much as needed. If society is unable to provide a job, it should provide support; if a member of society is unable to support himself, the government should do so.
Difficulties in the application of pure Marxist ideology have led to a broadening of its doctrines. Marxism now represents a variety of ideas and opinions, grouped by their general opposition to the capitalist society. Supporters of these views have watched in dismay as welfare reform has been introduced in various countries, and at the success the US and other countries have had with the adoption of more conservative welfare policies (Barr 2004). The problem with broad application of Marxist theory is that individuals do take advantage. Easy welfare leads to many choosing to receive benefits when they could work, which weakens society. An example of this in our society is the explosion in the numbers of those receiving incapacity benefit; the number has doubled since 1993. It is possible for the unemployed to complain of mental problems say, stress or panic attacks, and be given a life-long sick note (Nelson 2005). Persons claiming incapacity when they are in fact able-bodied, then receiving government support, does not truly benefit anyone in the long term.
Well-meaning welfare provisions, such as giving increased benefit to single-parent households, has been shown to contribute to the breakdown of the family structure. An average family pays 5,000 pounds a year more in tax than they receive in benefits. If they break up, they claim 7,000 pounds more in benefits than they pay in tax (Nelson 2005). This serves as a disincentive for the poor to maintain stable family units, further eroding their independence from government support. Marxist theory would contend this is an example of a supposed benefit offered by the dominant class that really serves to oppress the working classes.
Conservative theory holds to very different tenets. Conservatives stress the need for social order and the responsibility of the individual (Taylor-Gooby 2004). Traditions, usually based on the values of the majority or dominant segment of society, are important and should be respected if not practised by all members of society (Taylor-Gooby 2004). The emphasis on individuality can also be interpreted as the assumption of inequality, that people have different abilities and motivations, and are therefore more or less able to succeed in society. Advancement is seen in terms of individual decisions and actions, rather than something dictated by society or its institutions (Anon 2005).
In regard to welfare, conservative theory minimises the need for welfare programmes, particularly those for the able-bodied unemployed and elderly who chose not to save or plan for their old age. The unemployed on welfare are often seen as lazy and unwilling to work (Johnston 2005). The individual’s ability to hold a job and succeed in society rests upon his or her own shoulders, and not working is deemed irresponsible. This opinion, voiced by Fraser Nelson in a recent The Business article, holds that welfare is not saving people from unemployment, but from unpleasant jobs (2005). Conservatives stigmatise welfare recipients, believing the stigma or negative perception by other members of society will facilitate their move off the welfare rolls. This type of mindset, at its best, leads to the creation of jobs programmes and other vehicles to assist the individual in rising above his or her need for welfare (Johnston 2005). The conservative considers individuals who do not take such opportunities as unwilling to work or become self-supporting. The social policy of the British government shifted towards conservatism under the Thatcher administration, although still providing a broad welfare programme (Taylor-Gooby 2004).
The problem with the conservative perspective is that it fails to fully consider the social, psychological, and economic depravity of certain segments of society or disadvantaged geographical areas. It expects everyone to be able to pull themselves up by their boot-straps, as the saying goes, regardless of whether society has afforded them the means or tools to do so (Barr 2004). Whilst some from a deprived environment will be able to self-equip themselves to the point they can compete, vocationally and other wise, with persons from advantaged backgrounds, this has historically not been the case for the majority.
The logic of and benefit to and individual getting off welfare in favour of a menial job is also questionable, at least from the individual’s point of view (Johnston 2005). If given the choice between working at a distasteful or unpleasant place or receiving the same monthly support from a welfare programme, many will logically take the welfare. The Centre for Policy Studies notes that A two-parent family with a stay-at-home mother on average income and a mortgage is only four pounds a week better off than a single-parent household reliant entirely on benefits (Nelson 2005). This makes encouraging the single parent to put his or her children in some type of care whilst they work a hard sell.
The Marxist and Conservative viewpoints are represented today as left and right wing politically. The left wing supports broad welfare programmes and public provision; it tends to function from a collectivist viewpoint. The Gordon Browns in this camp advocate expanding the current welfare system. The right wing supports only residual welfare, opposing public provision and championing individual responsibility (Anon 2005). The British populace has been progressively moving towards a more centrist view of welfare and public provision, although sweeping reforms are yet to occur (Johnston 2005). This gives rise to a functionalist, or structural consensus theory, attitude towards the future of welfare.
Unlike Marxism and Conservatism, Structural Consensus Theory focuses on the functional needs of society, and how society meets these needs (Taylor-Gooby 2004). It offers a future vision of society, based on ideals and agreeable relationships. These ideals include a central value system, holistic social order, stability, and that the functional needs of the society must be met. The focus is on society as a whole rather than the individual. Society is seen as having the right both to define common values and impose them on its members (Anon 2005). This strong social integration leads to social control and stability. The parts and institutions of a society contribute towards meeting the society’s functional needs. The cohesion required for these contributions is developed through shared experiences and relationship amongst members and institutions in society (Anon 2005).
It then supports aspects of both Marxist and Conservative theory. There is a legitimate, functional need for welfare in society. There will always be some people that are unable to work through no fault of their own. Society has a responsibility for the physically or mentally disabled person, for the widow with small children, for the poor older person who is past the age of employment. It has a responsibility to provide food, clothing, shelter, and schooling to children whose parents cannot or will not do so. These are widely agreed-upon needs.
The functionalist sees the institutions of society as both providing for these needs and integrating the individuals receiving support into the broader society. The unemployed on welfare are to be encouraged and included, not stigmatised, because doing so is the best course for returning them to work (Barr 2004). Inequality is not a given, but exists as a possibility. A balance between the responsibilities of society and those of the individual member of society are envisioned in balance.
Whether this future balance can be achieved is a contested topic. There is a growing concern about and resistance to immigration into Britain. Immigrants are seen as taking British jobs, for less pay, and sometimes rightfully so. A recent poll showed three-quarters of British citizens believe the number of immigrants should be cut back, up from two-thirds with this opinion in 1995 (Timmins 2004). More people are viewing immigration as a factor in increasing crime and disintegration of quality of community life (Timmins 2004). Some blame welfare recipients’ unwillingness to work as contributing to the immigration issue. Others foresee cultural changes they oppose as the number of immigrants rise (Johnston 2005). This type of divisive strife does not propel the country toward common values, stability, or social order. It also creates resentment amongst those required to foot the bill for programmes such as welfare, which they begin to see as undermining their way of life (Johnston 2005).
In conclusion, the British welfare state and social policy shifted toward conservatism in the 1980s, and is beginning to experience the effects of a more conservative mindset amongst its citizens. Whether all the tenets of structural consensus theory can be achieved remains to be seen, but the emphasis on focusing on the functional needs of society, and providing systems to meet these needs, will go a long ways toward achieving balance between the responsibility of society to its members and the responsibility of members to be independent contributors to their society.
Anon 2005. The politics of welfare. Robert Gordon University Centre for Public Policy and Management [online]. Available at www.2rgu.ac.uk, accessed 28 March 2005.
Barr, N., 2004. Economics of the Welfare State. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Johnston, P., 2005. Do we really not want to work? The Daily Telegraph, London, Features section, p. 23, 14 February 2005.
Neslon, F., 2005. How pro-poor policies are widening the welfare gap. The Business, 23 January 2005.
Taylor-Gooby, P., ed, 2004. New Risks, New Welfare: The Transformation of the European Welfare State. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Timmins, N., 2004. Hardening attitudes to benefits mesh with government policy. The Financial Times, London, National News Politics and Policy section, p. 4, 7 December 2004.