It is hard to see how the United States can avoid a recession. Unemployment insurance claims have already surged, and this week's numbers look to be in the millions. All indications point to one of the fastest plunges of GDP in US history. Facing this, we may want to turn to previous American recessions to think about our immediate future. But the dynamics of this recession will be different in at least one major way from the recessions of recent memory: services. In most recessions, services are basically acyclical—they just don't move up and down with the booms and busts of the economy. The exception here is the Great Depression (see Figure 1 below), but there the decline in investment is much more severe, as is the upward swing in the recovery. Services, it seems, just don't fall that much—even in the Depression.
The politics of welfare in the 21st century
In his 1990 book, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (TWWC), sociologist Gosta Esping-Andersen identified three categories of European welfare regimes: liberal, conservative, and social democratic. In Esping-Andersen's account, these welfare regimes developed according to the sorts of coalitions formed by working people: social democratic regimes are based on associations between agricultural workers and industrial socialist organizations; conservative regimes emerged through an alliance between labor organizations and religious groups; liberal regimes are ones in which strong workers movements never managed to significantly structure bargaining institutions.
The dynamic and historical account of welfare state development which TWWC proposes continues to influence our understanding of how distributional conflicts can shape political institutions. However, Esping-Andersen's categories were based on full employment and high growth—a paradigm that no longer holds. In a lesser known but more recent book, the author attempts to adjust his model to postindustrial labor markets.
From the introduction:
"This book is an attempt to come to grips with the 'new political economy' that is emerging. One premise of my analyses is that 'postindustrial' transformation is institutionally path-dependent. This means that existing institutional arrangements heavily determine national trajectories. More concretely, the divergent kinds of welfare regimes that nations built over the post-war decades have a lasting and overpowering effect on which kind of adaptation strategies can and will be pursued. Hence, we see various kinds of postindustrial societies unfolding before our eyes.
Contemporary debate has been far too focused on the state. The real crisis lies in the interaction between the composite parts that, in unison, form contemporary welfare 'regimes': labour markets, the family, and, as a third partner, the welfare state. What most commentators see as a welfare state crisis, may in reality be a crisis of the broader institutional framework that has come to regulate our political economies. Our common tendency to regard postindustrial society as a largely convergent global process impairs our analytical faculties and our ability to understand the radical shifts in government and power which have taken place in recent decades."
Link to the publisher's page.
- Esping-Anderson's analysis rests heavily on the Polanyian notions of decommodification and double movement. In a recent book chapter, sociologist Michael Burawoy elaborates on the persisting relevance of these concepts for understanding social movements in market societies. Link.
- Philip Manow uses the historical framework developed in TWWC to explain the success of communist parties in Southern Europe: "Conflicts between the nation-state and the Catholic church in the mono-denominational countries of Europe’s south rendered a coalition between pious farmers and the anticlerical worker’s movement unthinkable, leading to the further radicalization of the left." Link.
- "How can the social categories which are commonly called 'middle' class be situated within a conceptual framework built around a polarized concept of class? What does it mean to be in the 'middle' of a 'relation'?" In his 2000 textbook, Class Counts, the late Erik Olin Wright develops a theoretically rich account of class relations and their relevance for understanding historical change. Link.