Seeing Like a Welfare State

Scandinavian countries are often taken to epitomize the well-functioning welfare state. They are among the most financially and socially egalitarian in the world, with a narrow field of class differences (Moene and Barth 2004). According to Esping-Andersen and Korpi (1987), the Nordic model is comprehensive, institutionalized, and universal. The welfare schemes are (in principle at least) available to all irrespective of social or geographical position. The safety net is strong and wide; comparably low levels ofunemployment are backed up by generous unemployment benefit schemes, liberal social welfare schemes, a universal right to secondary level education, a free public health care system, free and easy access to higher education, and so on. The level of what Rugkasa (2011) has called ‘welfare ambitiousness’— the scope of responsibilities the state assumes for the welfare of its citizens and the extensiveness of the welfare system—has been and (to varying degrees) still is second to none. Compared to almost everywhere else, the Scandinavian countries have high expectations when it comes to their goals of modifying and engineering social conditions so as to create a just and healthy society for all citizens, regardless of background—a factor that undoubtedly helps them consistently to do well on the UN Human Development Index.[1] In recent years some critics have registered a tendency towards increased income differences, but this is because the wealthiest have increased their relative wealth, not because the segment of the least well-off has grown or been marginalized further (Prieur 2003).

The neo-liberal decimation of the welfare state and the connected growth of the penal state reported in other countries (Bourdieu 1999; Wacquant 2001, 2008, 2009) has not happened in this northernmost part of Europe, at least not to the same extent and in the same ways as elsewhere. Wacquant employs Bourdieu’s analytical distinction between a left hand and a right hand of the state, where the left hand typically takes care of ‘social functions’ like public education, health, housing, welfare, and labour law, and the right hand is charged with enforcing budget cuts, fiscal incentives, economic deregulation, as well as managing the courts, the police, and the prisons (Wacquant 2009). In his analysis, under neoliberalism the left hand withers into a feeble and impotent version, a shadow of its former self. With a lack of symmetry typical of societies in a state of advanced neo-liberalism, the right hand is stronger than ever, becoming a pumped up and muscular version on steroids. Compared with many other jurisdictions, where such a focus on penal rather than social measures and workfare rather than welfare has been the trend, Norway may very well be seen as an exception. Wacquant himself employs the Scandinavian countries as exceptions to the rule (2009: 303). Other scholars, such as Lacey (2008) and Pratt (2008a, 2008b; Pratt and Eriksson 2011a, 2011b) also see the Scandinavian countries as exceptions to the international rule of convergence towards a more or less global punitive neo-liberal model.

The higher the degree of welfare state ambitiousness, the more state agencies will want to initiate schemes to normalize and civilize the subjectivities of citizens. The immigrant women in Rugkasa’s (2011) study, potential citizens going through a programme for foreign denizens to help them integrate into Norwegian society, were learning not only the ins and outs of Norwegian professional life but also taught that they should change their underwear daily and that deodorant is needed in a Norwegian workplace. In ambitious welfare states, generous care and intrusive social control often are two sides of the same coin. This is what Sejersted (2005) has called the paternalistic paradox. Such intrusions into personal life and integrity obviously need to be explained and made legitimate somehow. The Norwegian answer has been a welfare state ideal and ideology ofgoodness, good intentions, and the perfect society of equals (Witoszek 2011). As part of a project of ‘doing good’, the state has entered the private sphere in several ways: managing child rearing, the relationship between spouses, and citizens’ general way of life (Brochman and Hagelund 2010). This tendency is what prompted Huntford (1971) to give his famous analysis of Swedish society in the 1960s the title The New Totalitarians. More welfare-ambitious states interfere in citizens’ (and non-citizens’) lives more readily and more profoundly than states with lower ambitions.

There are (at least) two sides to everything. On the one hand, the familiar notion that care must be at a level low enough to make sure that only those who really need it and thus are morally worthy of help apply, has, in the Nordic model, been replaced with an idea of welfare state aid as a universal right. On the other hand, all welfare systems—even universally generous ones—need mechanisms to identify people in true need of assistance, and sort them out from the people who seek benefits illegitimately. A high level of welfare ambitiousness as a universal right is not universal in an absolute sense. Even the most generous forms of welfare aid, like the Norwegian maternity leave, is of course dependent on the recipient actually having a child at a certain age (Brochman and Hagelund 2010). In fact, every kind of social care system will need a form of optic of differentiation to be able to distinguish people eligible for a certain form of good/care/intervention from those who are not. As part of the construction of the wide and strong safety net, the state needs to produce knowledge, to gather information, to be able to focus its resources where they are actually needed (Foucault 2007). For a welfare state, part of ‘seeing like a state’ (Scott 1998) is employing a specific optic which makes it possible to focus on the truly needy in a way that makes them separable from people merely wanting to play the system. The more ambitious a state is, the more complex information it needs to gather for this purpose, and the more elaborate forms of social control it may want to employ.

The inclusive rhetoric of the Nordic model became hegemonic in the two decades following the Second World War (Brochman and Hagelund 2010). The array of welfare state responsibilities widened drastically with the increase in resources required with such a development. The welfare state became professionalized and institutionalized. The question of individual moral fibre has become manifestly less important in laws and official policy documents. The Norwegian welfare state now runs on need, not merit or social position, and, importantly, all forms of need are legitimate. Even though the state must still identify cheats and freeloaders, the focus has moved to a rhetoric of individual rights and individuals’ resources or lack thereof, not moral worth. A person cannot refuse to seek employment and then expect to receive unemployment benefits. But in contrast to earlier regimes and those in operation elsewhere,[2] the Norwegian welfare system looks for a solution for everyone, even people who refuse to better themselves. Or, in the words of Esping-Andersen and Korpi: ‘The welfare state is meant to integrate and include the entire population rather than target its resources toward particular problem groups’ (1987: 32).

  • [1] In the 2011 report, Norway is ranked 1, Sweden 10, and Denmark 16 out of the 187 countrieslisted. See .
  • [2] For example the logics underpinning the British or French systems, according to Prieur (2003).
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