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The need for societal visions in welfare states


I live in Denmark, a small country in Scandinavia, which, as I’m writing this, is a welfare state. We have free health care, high wages, progressive taxation, sustainable energy production, strong unions, democracy in universities, public-paid liveable income for students, a safety net for the unemployed, rent control, clinics for addicts, protection (though modest) for sex-workers, CO2 fees, fees on cars, massive public transportation investments, a culture of bicycling, public care for the old, public and liveable pensions, union representation in industries, a non-state interference policy between unions and employers, cooperative domination of industries such as milk-production, grocery stores, insurance companies and even banks. We Danes live in a country where the social democrats have won.

But something is wrong. There is tax-cuts for the rich, stagnation of wages, lowered income for the old, the unemployed and students. The rent in major cities is unliveable for the working-class. Our public energy is being sold to Goldmann Sachs. The fees on sport cars is being removed. Union membership is decreasing on an American scale. Our cooperatives is being sold to corporate elites. For a small time, Denmark was the better example. Social critics like Bernie Sanders looked at this rich country and said, “That’s what we want!”, but all that is starting to disappear. Why did this happen? What can be learned?

First and foremost, the US is not Denmark. The welfare we Danes have, compared to US citizens is still unfathomable. Even a major tax-cut for the rich will still make us one of the most tax-progressive countries in the world. As an example: Higher education is completely free, there is rent-control, the wages are high, and despite all that, all student gets what is approximately 1000 US dollars a month as an income, plus the public pays a part of your rent, if it’s high compared to your income. I can’t think of a better place to be a student. So having established an understanding of the difference, I hope you can imagine having all that, and then having it removed piece by piece. So why is the reaction happening?

Partly because of corporate globalization. The outside pressure on nations to subordinate to the rules of corporate globalization has taking its toll, but even though globalization sure do has its share of the blame, I really believe the root of the problem is strategic – we were reformistic!

The social democrats’ analysis of society is, that capitalism sucks, but we can make it work for us. If we just make a welfare state everything will be wonderful. That’s what happened. We did win major gains. We did create a welfare state. We did not remove the root of the problems: Capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy or authoritarianism. We didn’t even talk about it as problems. Or maybe we did, but we didn’t have as vision a new society. It’s like building a house on a rotten foundation – it’s not sustainable. As you think about it, it is incredibly that the Scandinavia welfare states haven’t collapsed yet. Of course, capitalism is trying to get rid of anything that threatens profit maximization. That’s capitalism 101. So, what can be learned?

First: Visions work. If the social democrats didn’t have as vision a welfare state, then they would have never established the strategies to get it, or formulate the demands to achieve it. We fought and won a welfare state in a little more than 20 years because of vision. Imagine what can be done in the next 20 years with fully shared global vision.
Secondly: Reformism doesn’t. We cannot expect to try to change society without changing the structure of it. So, we need flexible societal visions to guide our actions in the present.

I have yet to see a more flexible and detailed (but not too detailed) societal vision for the future economy than participatory economics. ParEcon is an alternative to capitalism and centrally planned socialism like the Soviet Union. Much have been written about ParEcon, so I won’t go into more detail about it, but if this is your first time reading about it, I seriously suggest that you do an internet search on it.

For an alternative to the political vision there is council democracy, which in its structure is basic. Everybody is in a neighbourhood council where they live. The neighbourhood council makes decision that affects the neighbourhood alone. All decisions that affects other neighbourhoods is made by the city council, which is a council of mandates by the neighbourhood councils in the city. Then we have the next layer of councils, and the next one, and the next one, and it follows the same structure: Power from the bottom up. Some might recognise this democracy from their student councils, others might not. Of course, in real life it should be more complicated and acclimated to the specific situation, but that is what visions are for.

So what visions are next? How should the kinship sphere without patriarchy look like? What social institutions can replace white supremacy, and solve cultural, racial and religious conflicts in the future? How can we have a judgemental system without the ills of authoritarianism? What international institutions, which evens out global inequality, should replace imperialism? We have a long way to go, but we won’t get there unless we take the first big step, which is creating fully shared, easily understandable societal visions. Luckily for us, it might be the easiest. All it takes is some people suggesting societal visions, and other people refining it.

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