The State of Writing on the Canadian Welfare State: What's Class Got to Do with It?

By Finkel, Alvin | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

The State of Writing on the Canadian Welfare State: What's Class Got to Do with It?


Finkel, Alvin, Labour/Le Travail


SINCE 1979, THE MAJOR SYNTHESIS on the history of the welfare state in Canada has been Dennis Guest's The Emergence of Social Security in Canada. Revised twice, most recently in 1997, Guest's overview is a workmanlike presentation of the contexts that produced the major pieces of social legislation in Canada. (1) If Guest deals well with the debates surrounding the emergence of various programs, he provides little sense of the range of alternatives that were available to policymakers, and why some were dismissed as too radical while others were viewed as too conservative. Though the third edition registers a great deal of concern about the erosion of the welfare state in the last two decades of the 20th century, there is a Whiggish quality to the lament, a sense that a social consensus was reached at different junctures that allowed some new program to see the light of day, and that most, if not all, Canadians benefited.

But such a picture, which reflected the small literature on the welfare state when Guest first produced his book, no longer provides much of the flavour of the historical work that is now being published regarding the emergence and implementation of social programs in Canada. Marxists, feminists, critical theorists, postmodernists, and social activists outside the academy of various ideological leanings have all, in their turn, challenged earlier assessments in which the welfare state and each of its component programs are presented as unqualified achievements for all Canadians. Much of the theoretical base upon which the revisionist literature rests is derivative from the international literature on the history of the welfare state, and that in turn has been much influenced by the wide-ranging debates of recent years regarding the character of the state generally in a variety of types of society, but especially capitalist societies.

Sparked by post-modernist discourse generally, the latest academic fashion in explorations of the state focuses on "governance" and "governmentality." Though this work spans the ideological spectrum, its approach builds on earlier Marxist and feminist works that explored the relations between the various instances of the state and the various groupings within civil society. Marxists have tended to stress the double role of the state in capitalist economies of providing the institutional framework for conditions conducive to accumulation of capital, on the one hand, and legitimation of the system to the masses, on the other. With Marx's notion of the state as the "executive committee of the bourgeoisie," some theorists have focused on the state's capture by capitalists while others have emphasized a separation of state elites from the bourgeoisie that allows the former to structure state programs in ways that both mediate between competing interests of sections of the bourgeoisie and to keep the system legitimate in the eyes of important non-bourgeois groups. Feminists have emphasized the state's historical role in maintaining patriarchal social relations, patriarchy defined here not in the classical sense of complete male power over women but preservation of male domination.

But there are a variety of Marxisms and feminisms in writing on the welfare state, and many historians of labour and of social movements, including the women's movement, have demonstrated the successes of subordinate groups in winning important concessions from the state. While these leave capitalism unchallenged and male domination weakened but far from shattered, they demonstrate the need not to leap to supra-historical metanarratives of the state as a uniformly-behaving enemy of the working class or of women. Post-modernists build on these insights to point out that the state is largely an abstraction, a composite of competing discourses that represent the civil society upon which the state is built. As one summary of Michel Foucault's take on the welfare state indicates:

Power for Foucault is not possessed, like property, but is immanent, non-subjective and relational; it functions like a piece of machinery which includes its objects. …

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