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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

Print version ISSN 0041-4751

Abstract

SCHOEMAN, Marinus. The liberal welfare state: democracy or meritocracy?. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2010, vol.50, n.1, pp. 01-14. ISSN 0041-4751.

The advent of the modern welfare state witnessed the rise of a powerful new elite - the "New Class" (Alvin Gouldner), i.e. the class of professional experts and managers. Their investment in education and information, as opposed to property, distinguishes them from the rich bourgeoisie and the old proprietary class. The rise of this new elite has basically led to a new form of meritocracy, which constitutes a real danger to democracy. This new elite's overriding interest is to secure their own position of power and influence and to escape from the common lot - the very definition of meritocratic success. The meritocratic tendency of the current welfare state can be traced back to the triumph of the therapeutic approach to society, which forms the cornerstone of the new class ideology. This ideology views the well-being of individuals as growing from an environment composed of professionals and their services. It envisions a world where there is a professional to meet every need and where the fee to secure each professional service is a right. This vision is epigrammatically expressed by those who see the ultimate liberty as "the right to treatment". The definition of social problems in therapeutic or medical terms creates the condition for a process where individuals become second rate citizens, permanently excluded from mainstream society and degraded to the inferior position of being "clients" or dependants. No matter how many resources and "services" these people are "entitled" to receive - in the last instance nothing can compensate for this humiliation which they are made to suffer. The therapeutic ideology naturally has a political function. It serves to legitimatise the power that new class professionals and managers exercise. In the words of Christopher Lasch: "The power to label people deficient and declare them in need is the basic tool of control and oppression in modern industrialized societies. The agents with comprehensive labelling power in these societies are the helping professionals. Their badge bestows the caring authority to declare fellow citizens 'clients' - a class of deficient people in need." Efforts to reform the liberal welfare state would appear to be futile. What is needed is a departure from the therapeutic model and the rehabilitation of a community centred approach. Clients of the service industry should become active citizens again. The therapeutic ideology, along with its underlying ethics of compassion, places too much emphasis on the alleged deficits of clients. It thereby overlooks the possibility that these so-called clients can make a meaningful contribution to society. The professionalisation of compassion has not resulted in a kinder, gentler society. Instead it institutionalises inequality, under the pretence that everybody is "special" in his/her own way. Furthermore, it has led to the disruption of community life and the rise of a "cult of the victim" along with its politics of hate and resentment. Under such circumstances democracy cannot survive. A true democracy should always resist the idea of double standards, which is a sure recipe for second rate citizenship. There should be a constant effort to raise the general level of all citizens' competences and abilities, instead of being content to institutionalise competence in the caring class, which arrogates to itself the job of looking out for everybody else. In this regard we can learn much from the tradition of populism with its appreciation for values such as self-reliance and independence, its respect for honesty and hard work, its egalitarian opposition to entrenched privilege, its insistence on plain speech and on holding people accountable for their actions. An ethics of respect - as an alternative to the ethics of compassion which underlies the welfare state - should build from these and other elements of the populist tradition.

Keywords : modern welfare state; New Class; professional experts; liberalism; populism; democracy; meritocracy; respect; compassion; citizenship; community; therapeutic ideology; cult of the victim; resentment; self-reliance.

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