The dismantling of social security

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The following article first appeared in Revolution Internationale, the publication of the ICC's section in France. Although many of the references are to specifically French phenomena, the basic points made in the article apply equally to the creation of the National Health Service in Britain as well as other systems of social welfare put in place after the Second World War. The ruling class wanted to justify the carnage of the conflict and to prepare workers for the ferocious exploitation of the reconstruction period. In the same way, the current moves towards dismantling the National Health Service and other aspects of the 'Welfare State' are by no means a particular policy of Blair's New Labour or a wish-fulfilment for Howard's Tories. As the introduction to the article in RI puts it, "with its new plan to 'safeguard social security', the Raffarin government is once again preparing to reduce the social wage. It's the turn of health to be cut in this new plan of austerity, after the significant attacks on retirement pensions last spring and on unemployment pay last January. Far from being a national specificity, these attacks are developing and generalising to all capitalist countries which set up the Welfare State at the end of the Second World War because they needed reasonably healthy workers to undertake the reconstruction of the economy. The present attack on the welfare system in France, as in Germany some months ago, and as in Britain for some years now, means the end of the Welfare State and explodes the myth of 'social gains'. This attack reveals that, faced with the deepening of the economic crisis and the development of massive unemployment, the bourgeoisie cannot continue to maintain the majority of the workforce. The survival of capitalism demands an intensification of the productivity of labour, the hiring of the cheapest workforce possible, while reducing the cost of its maintenance. For the great majority of proletarians, it is uncertainty and misery that faces them now - in some cases even death, as we saw at the time of the heat wave last summer in France".

These attacks demand a massive and united response by the whole of the working class (workers in work, unemployed and retired workers); but the unions and their Trotskyist and alternative-worldist accomplices are trying to turn workers' reflection away from the failure of capitalism and towards illusory measures to 'save social security' (or 'save the NHS' as the leftists clamour in Britain).

The defenders of state-funded social security lie to us that: "Social security is a conquest of the workers' struggle, acquired at the end of the Second World War, in continuity with the Popular Front of 1936". Faced with this falsification of history by the left, leftists and unions, it is necessary to re-establish the truth, basing ourselves on a brief historical outline of social security. Only a lucid marxist analysis will allow us to understand that the bourgeoisie is trying to hide the historic bankruptcy of the capitalist system with the fool's gold of social security.

From proletarian solidarity to the 'welfare' of the capitalist state

During the second half of the 19th century, in the phase of capitalism's ascendancy, the proletariat established its own strike and assistance funds, its own mutual organisations in case of sickness or job loss, in order to attain its economic demands (reduction of the working day, the ban on the exploitation of children, night work for women, etc.). Most often it was the workers' unions who managed this economic solidarity within the working class. But such solidarity also had a political dimension, because through these struggles for improvements in its conditions, the proletariat constituted itself as a class with the long-term perspective of taking political power and establishing a communist society.

With the bloody outbreak of the First World War, capitalism signalled the end of its economic expansion and the entry into its phase of decadence. This phase is characterised by the absorption of civil society by the state. The bourgeoisie must impose its class domination on the whole of economic, social and political life and it's the state that fulfils that role. Faced with the change in period, the unions became a force for corralling the working class in the service of capital.

"The state maintains the forms of workers' organisation in order to better control and mystify the working class. The unions become a cog in the state and as such are keen to develop productivity, that's to say increase the exploitation of labour. The unions were the organs of the workers' defence when the economic struggle had a historic sense. Emptied of this old content, the unions became, without changing form, an instrument of the ideological repression of state capitalism and of control over the labour force." ('On State Capitalism', Internationalisme 1952, reprinted in the International Review 21, 1980).

Thus the state directly appropriated, through the union police, the different mutual and assistance funds, and emptied the very notion of workers' solidarity of its political content.

"The bourgeoisie has taken political solidarity away form the hands of the proletariat in order to transfer it into economic solidarity in the hands of the state. By splitting up wages into a direct payment from the boss and an indirect payment by the state, the bourgeoisie has powerfully consolidated the mystification consisting of presenting the state as an organ above classes, the guarantor of the common interest and the guarantor of social security for the working class. The bourgeoisie has succeeded in linking the working class, materially and ideologically, to the state" (IR 115).

From the very beginning, attempts to set up social security systems had the aim of boxing in the proletariat. In the 1920s, the proposals for social security were part of an attempt to establish social peace through the participation of the workers in the running of the country, as the Cerinda Report underlined: "In the administration councils of the social security we will establish the rapprochement and fraternal collaboration of classes; wage earners and employers will not defend antagonistic interests here. There will be unity in the same aim: combating the two great scourges of the workers, sickness and poverty. This permanent contact will prepare for the closer and closer association of capital and labour." (Quote in Governing Social Security, Bruno Palier).

Despite the political will of the state and the unions to implement this plan of compulsory social obligations, it was only during the Second World War that the National Council for the Resistance focussed on the organisation of a general regime of social security.

1945: the creation of social security, a mystification in the service of national reconstruction

It was during World War II that the bourgeoisie, conscious of the millions of victims that the military conflict would provoke, of the inevitable destruction and ravaging of the world economy, rushed to justify its barbarity: "In a solemn message to the Congress pronounced on January 6 1941, President Roosevelt gave the first moral justification to the conflict by assigning to it the objective of a 'liberation from want' for the masses. This movement culminated in May 1944 with the Philadelphia Declaration of the International Labour Organisation, through which the member countries would make a priority objective of setting up a real social security after the war. Consequently, social security figured high in the aims of the war defined by the Allies" (History of Social Security 1945-1967, Bruno Valat).

In Britain in 1942 the Beveridge Report, in its attack on disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness, the obstacles "on the road of reconstruction", laid the basis for a system of family allowances and national insurance. This was accepted by the Churchill government and implemented by the subsequent Labour regime. In 1944, Belgium set up an obligatory system of collective social security under the control of the state.

In France, while a part of the bourgeoisie was in Vichy, the other part in exile, with General de Gaulle at its head, took up this preoccupation. He declared in April 1942, in a solemn message to the Resistance: "National security and social security are for us imperative and inter-connected aims". Also, it's not surprising that the programme of March 1944 of the National Council of the Resistance, where the Stalinists had a majority, called for a complete plan of social security aiming to guarantee every citizen the means of existence.

So, far from being a workers' victory, the origin of the systems of social welfare came from the capacity of the international bourgeoisie to foresee the need to fence in the proletariat at the end of the war, and thus to ensure the success of economic reconstruction. The years after the war were terrible for the living conditions of the proletariat. In France, wages were frozen, there was galloping inflation and a still flourishing black market; rationing, which had existed since the occupation, was maintained up to 1950, including electricity and petrol. The bread ration, which was 200g in the summer of 1947, was only 250g in June 1948. GNP in 1948 was still lower by 4% than in 1938. To meagre wages and food shortages can be added appalling standards of health. Infant mortality was more than 84 in a thousand and the adolescent population suffered from rickets. Faced with this situation, the bourgeoisie knew that it wouldn't be able to increase national capital with such a weakened working class. This was all the more true when you take the human losses of the war that reduced the number of available workers. The creation of social security, the nationalisation of health services, was thus the bourgeoisie's way of giving itself a workforce capable of carrying out the tasks of reconstruction. In exchange for super-exploitation (the length of the working day in 1946 was 44 hours and 45 in 1947), the proletariat had access to a social security cover that allowed it to reconstitute its labour power. Pierre Laroque, an official charged in October 1945 with setting up the social security system, was explicit in these objectives, even if he wrapped up the goods with fine words: "The aim was to assure the mass of workers, and to begin with wage-earners, of a real security for tomorrow. That went along with a social and even economic transformation; the effort that one was demanding from them to get the economy working had to have a counter-part."

The comment of Bruno Palier is also illuminating: "In 1945, it was also an immediate political investment, which had to allow the participation of wage-earners in the work of reconstruction (�) This dimension of the French social security plan was a counter-part to the efforts of reconstruction (and to the moderation of direct wage increases), which appeared as a sort of social contract of the Liberation." (Ibid).

Faced with the criticisms of some parliamentarians, who considered the cost of social security to be excessively high, the Socialist Minister of Labour, Daniel Mayer, responded: "Every industrialist considers it normal and necessary to deduct from his returns the indispensable amounts to maintain his material. Social security, in large measure, represents the maintenance of the human capital of the country, which is as necessary to industrialists as machines. Inasmuch as social security contributes to conserving human capital, to developing capital, it brings an aid to the economy that shouldn't be underestimated" (Bruno Valat, idem.).

It is for that reason that, initially, social security was reserved for wage earners because the bourgeoisie counted on them to put the country back on its feet. It later applied the welfare regime to the non-salaried population. One can thus measure the lie of the left and the unions that the creation of the Welfare State was a workers' victory: this 'concession' was given at the price of unprecedented super-exploitation. Thus, in 1950, French industry had almost recovered the level of production of 1929. As in 1936, it was the Stalinists, thanks to their engagement in the Resistance, who went on to play a decisive role in dragooning the proletariat for the reconstruction. Several Communist ministers were present in the government of General de Gaulle, calling on the proletariat, through the voice of its leader, Thorez, to "roll up its sleeves" for reconstructing the country and denouncing strikes as "an arm of the trusts". At the same time the CGT had a monopoly in presiding over the social security funds up to 1947. Subsequently, other unions succeeded the CGT.

The end of the welfare state

In the years which followed the war social security spread to the whole of the population; but from the beginning of the 1970s came the first signs that the economic crisis was ringing time for these social policies. Social security itself could only function when capitalism could guarantee full employment. The development of unemployment meant that social costs increased more quickly than GDP. Faced with this situation, the bourgeoisie responded with Keynsian measures to re-launch consumption, particularly by creating and increasing new family allowances. From the point of view of the management of capitalism, these measures increased public deficits considerably. Henceforth, from 1975 up to today, the bourgeoisie hasn't stopped running after deficits, with a social security hole which looks like a bottomless pit, despite the permanent increases in social costs and the constant lowering of social allowances. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, successive governments of the right and the left came up with all kinds of ingenious ways of inventing new taxes, of making the sick pay for their treatment and medicines, of cutting unemployment benefits�. Not only have workers still in employment seen an ever-growing part of their pay tapped in order to finance deficits and other complementary mutual funds; on top of this, the care system is being constantly degraded by the reduction of workers in the health sector and endless austerity plans.

Thus, far from being a victory for the workers, social security is on the contrary a real organ of state imprisonment. Thanks to the participation of the unions in managing sickness, retirement and unemployment funds in company with the boss, this system of management merely provides the illusion that a policy is in place which defends the interests of the workers.

More than ever, the new attacks on healthcare signify the bankruptcy of the capitalist system, the end of the Welfare State and of the myth of social welfare "from the cradle to the grave". If revolutionaries show solidarity with their class faced with attacks on both direct and social wages, at the same time we denounce the myth of a system of state social security which is supposed to be above classes and for the wellbeing of the workers. The preoccupation of capitalism in 1945 was to have workers in good health in order for its reconstruction efforts to succeed. In 2004 capitalism sacrifices a growing number of proletarians in order to maintain the workforce at the lowest cost and leave the rest to rot.

"There's no need to underline that if socialist society defends the individual against illness or the risks of existence, its objectives are not those of capitalist social security. The latter only has sense in the framework of the exploitation of human labour and in terms of this framework. It is only an appendix of the system." (Internationalisme 1952, reprinted in International Review 21).

Donald 20/6/04.

General and theoretical questions: