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have everything, but thats all we have: Outsourcing the welfare
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
University of Oslo/Free University of Amsterdam
presented at OCA conference,
London January 2006. Published in Verksted #6, eds. Martha Kuzma
and Peter Osborne.
There are several good reasons to discuss the welfare state, but its demise
is not one of them. At least in Scandinavia, the welfare state is alive
and thriving. In Norway, for example, probably more than half the population
has welfare benefits as their main source of income. (This is naturally
a huge problem, but it testifies to the strength of the welfare system
rather than to its incipient downfall.) The State remains responsible
for nearly all schools and hospitals, and there is an almost frightening
degree of consensus among political parties and voters regarding the desirability
of upholding an active and powerful welfare state. Notwithstanding a continuous
stream of complaints about deteriorating services, bureaucratisation and
tendencies towards privatisation, the welfare state remains strong and
legitimate among a vast majority of the public.
This is not to say that the welfare state does not have its problems.
In order to appreciate them fully, it is necessary to begin with a look
necessarily cursory and selective at the early 21st century
We live in an era of accelerated globalisation. Fueled by cheap air tickets,
satellite communication, migration and the Internet, capitalism
globally dominant since the late 19th century is fast becoming
an almost universal system of production and consumption. The journalist
Thomas Friedman, speaking of a levelling of the field in his
recent book The World is Flat (2005), imagines the emergence of
a global free market with intensified and universal competition, few if
any trade privileges and a consequent reduction of global differences.
Like Marx before him, Friedman underestimates the force of religion and
metaphysical forms of identity politics such as nationalism; he also seems
to neglect the fact that although capitalism produces wealth, it also
produces poverty and lives comfortably side by side with millions who
will never either be employed or become useful consumers, say, in India.
In spite of the shortcomings of such sanguine views of contemporary global
capitalism, they have their merits. Above all, there are many more players
in the transnational markets now, and Chinese and Indian companies in
particular are fast establishing themselves as equal partners in the world
economy. In addition, outsourcing of production and services, from microchips
to call centres, contributes to the creation of a more globally integrated
economy. Globalisation creates both opportunities and vulnerabilities.
I am writing this piece up just as the controversy over the Danish newspaper
cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad rages. In an earlier, slower, less connected
time, hardly any Muslim would have known about the cartoons, and there
would have been few if any feasible arenas for reacting. Nowadays, Muslims
can react against Denmark and Danes in many arenas inside and outside
of Denmark and the Arab countries. In a word, the world has shrunk, with
consequences for all of us. Long-distance nationalism is on the rise,
meaning that migrants and their descendants carry on politics in countries
where they do not have to live in Khalistan (Indian Punjab), Sri
Lanka, India, Ireland, Israel and many other hotbeds of conflict. When
you live in safe Toronto, it may be easier to support a violent independence
movement in Khalistan than it would have been had you lived in Amritsar.
However, one must keep in mind the trivial but easily overlooked fact
that globalisation does not mean that all are included. Side by side with
the broadband-connected South African businessman, there are people who
have never made a phone call and who are hard up providing their children
with a daily bowl of porridge. At the same time, in a few years we shall
realise that the present global attention to the so-called conflict between
the West and Islam is a mere interlude, justifying continued high military
expenditure and strengthening internal cohesion in the North Atlantic,
especially in the USA, in the period between the Cold War and the rise
of China as a global power.
If we zoom in on the North Atlantic part of the world, there can be little
doubt that if Marx was right in claiming that there are rising and declining
classes in every period in history, we, the privileged inhabitants of
the North Atlantic, are scarcely a rising class. Economic
competition with highly efficient low-cost countries is making itself
acutely felt: A newspaper recently wrote about a German car manufacturer
with two identical production plants, one in Leeds and the other in Györ,
Hungary. Photos showed an engineer in front of each factory. The Englishman
had an annual salary of £30, 000, while the Hungarian made £5,000.
Question: If the company has to close down one of the factories, which
one will it be?
As a result of growing competition and other worries about the near future,
politics in our part of the world is increasingly becoming a politics
of fear, to use sociologist Frank Furedis term (from his eponymous
2005 book), where one celebrates the victim, where one has lost belief
in progress, and where worries about climate change, terrorism, immigration
and the plight of the elderly are allowed to dominate public debate, rather
than positive visions and prospects.
Another important aspect of the contemporary North Atlantic world is what
could be labelled super-diversity. Unlike the situation in a city
like London only a decade and a half ago, when most immigrants came from
ex-colonies, the citys immigrants now truly come from everywhere.
This includes new flows of people that cannot easily be classified as
either this or that: students who have stayed on, getting a sweetheart
and a McJob; tourists who forgot to return; Polish seasonal workers; visitors
who are neither jobseekers nor not jobseekers. There is an increased degree
of imagination in the current movement of people, from Nigerian football
players and prostitutes to fake chemical engineers, young brides and grooms
from the home country, huge trade delegations and North Europeans who
settle seasonally in the Mediterranean. It is said that cities like Vilnius
and Kaunas are virtually emptied of people between 20 and 35 in the summer
months as they are all in the West, working or looking for work.
Scandinavia, a peaceful, well-organised and prosperous corner of the world,
even by North Atlantic standards, has its own twist on the ubiquituous
discussions about current and future anxieties. Many of these debates
concern the future of the welfare state in an increasingly globally integrated
world. Although the Scandinavian economies remain surprisingly competitive
in spite of high taxes and a high degree of emploment security, there
is a widespread feeling that this may not last. The world is catching
up with us at last. And if Marx and Engels were right in saying that the
proletariat is a powerful force because it has nothing to lose but its
chains, it is safe to conclude that the Scandinavian proletariats have
a lot more to lose than their chains: their vacations, their condos, their
cars, their cottages, their generous pensions, their short working hours...
Intellectuals in the Scandinavian countries have begun to ponder what
could possibly form the normative basis for solidarity and trust in a
near future, given the more fragmented and transnational nature of their
societies. In Sweden, they still believe in the law and in social democracy,
while in Denmark there has been an increased, and often aggressive, attention
to the cultural norms and values that immigrants, especially Muslim ones,
are believed not to share, thereby undermining the normative foundations
of the welfare state.
This finally brings us to Norway, which again is a privileged and peaceful
corner of the world, even by Scandinavian standards. The richest country
in the world by the latest count, number one on the UNDPs latest
Human Development Index, Norway is conspicious for its lack of visions.
Its politicians behave like managing directors; its intellectuals argue
about hijabs, politically correct language and the subvention system in
the publishing industry; and there is general consensus that we (Norwegians)
live in the best of all possible worlds and that the task of the politicians
(or whoever is in charge around here) consists in ensuring that things
remain exactly the way they are, only a little better, with cheaper booze,
longer holidays (and not least )more exotic holiday destinations), and
better childcare. So far, they havent been doing too badly, although
the income disparities have been growing steadily since the mid-1980s
and a growing number of people are excluded from the labour market.
Oil has been the curse of contemporary Norwegian society. Norway today
is like the Big Bad Wolf after he has devoured the three little piggies,
wondering what he is going to do next. In fact, I remember a story in Donald Duck & Co., one of the most widely sold weeklies in
the country for many years, where the wolf finally succeeds in trapping
the pigs. Tied together with a thick rope, they are lowered into a huge
kettle, the firewood burning briskly below. The sensible pig (the one
in the blue overalls) then proceeds to ask the wolf what he is going to
do tomorrow. In a rare moment of philosophical reflexivity, the wolf panics
and releases them, only to regret it the next moment.
Well, Norway did not release the pigs. Instead, it succeeded, in the 1970s,
in expropriating a large part of the North Sea, thereby securing most
of the oil and gas. Money, thus, is no problem in Norway these days. Most
of the oil money is salted in the global financial system, but everyone
knows its there. Not having a country to build any more, and leaving
its maintenance to others, Norways adolescents these days want to
become media personalities, not doctors or engineers. One of the most
difficult lines of higher education to get a place in, is journalism.
The country reeks of deindustrialisation. Old factories are turned into
cultural centres, shopping malls, expensive flats, colleges
and enterprises in the infotainment business (Microsoft, book club corporations
and similar). The typical member of the Norwegian working class is no
longer a chap in oily gear, a rollup in the corner of his mouth, but an
individual who spends much of his/her working time in front of a computer
or in meetings.
In a labour market dominated by new work (IT based work, much
of it flexible) it has been calculated that there are
more people in Oslo employed to think up catchy slogans than the number
working in construction many become superfluous. Many who might
have found a place in the old, slower and more versatile labour market,
as unskilled or semiskilled workers, are redundant today. They can easily
be fed and housed and equipped with Playstations by society, but they
do not fit into the current labour market. The number of Norwegians who
are on long-term sick leave or are temporarily unemployed
went up from 400,000 in 1995 to 600,000 in 2005.
The welfare state rests on certain historical conditions and certain normative
assumptions. In the 20th century, it was based on a belief in economic
growth and stability, planning and social engineering; in short, progress.
There was also a notion, now obsolete, that your income was somehow supposed
to be related to your labour input. That link has been severed. Everybody
knows by now that how much you earn does not depend on how much you work.
Moreover, the welfare state rested on a social contract reminiscent of
the communist notion from each according to ability, to each according
to need. However, the belief in progress has been lost Norwegians
now live in an everlasting present whiling the days away with consumption
and, well, perhaps a bit of work which is not always really going anywhere.
The outsourcing of the welfare state announced in my title takes two main
First, we are exporting bits of Norway to places where it is more pleasant
or interesting to be. Students, pensioners and various service providers
migrate seasonally, some permanently, to more temperate places. The numbers
of retired Norwegians who spend part of the year in southern Europe (especially
the Costa del Sol) is uncertain but rising. They have no interest in Spain
as such, and make sure to get their Aftenposten every morning,
participate in Norwegian clubs and organisations, get Norwegian nurses
and dentists to look after their medical needs, and have even succeeded
in opening Norwegian schools in their preferred areas. Norwegian students
increasingly do part of their study in other countries, Australia being
the country of preference currently not because of the quality
of their universities; Australian universities are, on the whole, neither
better nor worse than their Norwegian counterparts but for other,
obvious reasons. Some even bring their teachers and reading lists with
them; in March this year, Im teaching a score of young Norwegians
a course on Latin American history and globalisation in Cuba. They left
Norway in January and are returning in late May for their exams.
The Norwegian concept of Syden (lit. the South), used
in tourist jargon, does not refer to other countries, but to bits of Norway
that have been transplanted to other geographical areas.
A different, but similar phenomenon is the transmigration engaged in by
many immigrants to Norway and their descendants. Spending part of the
year in their country of origin if they have the opportunity (Iranians,
for instance, usually dont) and can afford to, many immigrants have
developed attachments and obligations towards two places in disparate
countries, and it can be argued that certain parts of Pakistani Punjab
have been just as Norwegianised as the Norwegian-dominated villages in
The second, more important kind of outsourcing consists in making others
do the work. It is striking and puzzling to observe how the oil wealth,
in principle public wealth, is being converted into public poverty and
unequally distributed private prosperity. Schools lack basic equipment
while very many individuals visibly can afford to upgrade their houses,
their boats and their second homes in ostentatious ways. Part of the explanation
is likely to be the fact that private firms increasingly perform public
services, and that the state and local administrations rely on consultancy
firms and specialised private companies to carry out many of their duties.
Telecommunications, railways and postal services are partly, and in different
ways, privatised now.
Even more fundamentally, Norway, Inc. relies increasingly on foreigners
doing the work. A few years ago, the shops suddenly began to fill up with
all kinds of goods; everything was really cheap and it was all made in
China. Simultaneously, thrifty and reliable Poles are visible in construction
now in Western Europe to such an extent that there is a shortage
of construction workers in Poland, where one now has to subcontract Ukrainian
entrepreneurs to get buildings finished. (One wonders what they will eventually
do in Ukraine; the answer is probably Chinese companies).
There are three fundamental dilemmas facing the Kuwait-like, aestheticised
and anaestheticised Norwegian society in which we live today. An inability
to deliver public services is not one of them.
1. Where are the limits of solidarity? The nation-state, and certainly
its welfare state version, presupposes the existence of a demos which simultaneously comprises the providers and the receivers. In a more
integrated world, the self-enclosed welfare state is neither possible
nor defensible in the long run. In the far North, it is difficult to recruit
young Norwegians to work in the fish processing industry. Theyd
rather go south and do something in the media. Yet, there is resistance,
even among social scientists, against the idea that one should invite
poor Russians from across the border in order to get the job done. The
notion remains that the welfare state is for a Norwegian demos only, and it is becoming indefensible. And I havent even mentioned
the intricacies involving asylum-seekers, refugees, immigrants and their
2. The welfare state is being deterritorialised. When, in 200405,
the tsunami struck in South-East Asia, the Norwegians (and other Scandinavians)
stranded on the beach, deprived of their Visa cards and suntan oils, were
screaming bitterly for the state to come and sort them out immediately.
Forgetting that they were in Thailand, which is in a certain sense a different
country from Norway, they took it for granted that the Norwegian state
should appear and help them out. In a similar vein, Pakistani-Norwegians
who retire to Pakistan, or ethnic Norwegians who retire to Spain, are
still Norwegian citizens endowed with a string of rights that their neighbours,
with a different citizenship, could only dream of ever achieving. In such
transnational situations, when they intensify and become ever more widespread,
tensions are bound to arise. In brief, it has become more difficult than
ever to build a state which functions as a physically gated community.
We have everything, but thats all we have.Research on people
who win enormous sums in lotteries tendes to indicate that the money ruins their lives.
If gambling should be legal, it should be so out of consideration for
those who never win. They remain hopeful. The winners are destroyed because
they lose hope.
Research on well-being (e.g. Richard Wilkinsons The Impact of
Inequality, 2005) indicates that above a fairly low threshold, around
£ 6,000 a year at a national average, income rises do not affect
the quality of life either way. Other things are needed, and what is needed
more desperately than anything in Norway is a collective project, an optimistic,
future-oriented, visionary project. Something to get us away from the
travel catalogues and the Playstations.
A possible scenario for the near future, given a continuation of the current
development, might look like this: Norwegians return to the country only
for their three-month summer holidays and their three-week Christmas holidays.
The rest of the year is devoted to studies or being retired or providing
services to those who study or are retired in other parts of the world,
or providing high-profile services for the state, such as development
aid or peace negotiations. Meanwhile, the country is run on a daily basis
by Russians, Tamils, Poles and Pakistanis. Eventually, they may even be
asked politely to send emails and sit in meetings on our behalf.