Racism, Ethnocentrism and the Welfare State

Another thing that you tend to notice when looking at non-American politics is the extent to which conservative parties tend–more or less–to accept modern welfare-state policies that arouse hysterical fears and threats of revolution and sedition on the Right in this country. But some say that’s because other advanced democracies tend to be more racially and ethnically homogeneous. And thus continued waves of immigration into the EU may be threatening the working-class appeal of the Left. With his usual insight and economy of expression, Rich Yeselson describes the challenge to “cosmopolitan communitarianism,” which requires support from across the economic spectrum:

The migrant crisis in the Mediterranean is a tragic variation of a phenomena we have seen time and again around the world: the indifference, deep ambivalence or, at worst, rage directed at “others” from homogeneous, native populations in the advanced nations. This is a defining social condition of Western Europe, the UK, and Scandinavia today and there is no need to rehearse here the many episodes that fall into this category. Influential splinter parties from UKIP in the UK to the venerable National Front in France to the Danish People’s Party to the Netherland’s Party for Freedom have constructed potent working class voting blocs around anti-immigrant and anti-Islamist platforms.

In the United States, of course, the “splinter party” is, in fact, one of the two major parties, the GOP. Millions of white, working class Americans and owners of small businesses advance a restorationist ethno-nationalist politics, not only opposed to Latino immigrants, but also to native “others”, like African-Americans and single, sexually active women who, in their view, unduly benefit from government “handouts”, be it health insurance or birth control. All the while, elderly whites vehemently defend their own welfare gerontocracy of Medicare and Social Security, which they believe they have rightfully “earned….”

European welfare states/social democracies were created at a time when national populations were almost entirely native and white. For example, the Attlee/Bevan moment in the postwar UK occurred when the non-native population was less than 2%. Today it’s more than 13%. Could the NHS have been created in today’s UK or would it have faced the hysterical opposition that even the modest and incremental private insurance based Obamacare confronts in the US? To put it somewhat differently: If in 1951, the UK’s non-white population had been what it is today, would the Conservative Lion, Winston Churchill, in his last term as PM, have, instead of retaining NHS, rolled it back if he had encountered an aroused working class constituency who resented benefits conferred upon the non-white population? The same questions might be asked about the historical inception of Germany’s “social market” (with grim ironies noted) and the Scandinavian social democracies.

Now, ironically, openness to cultural and demographic change may depend on the cosmopolitan impulses of capitalism:

As Christopher Lasch noted decades ago (and, well, Marx, many decades before that), the capitalist class knows no national boundaries and now views any potential market, regardless of its demographic profile, as fair game. The cultural/gendered/racial anxieties of threatened workers and small business owners (who practice what the historian Steve Fraser has called a parochial “family capitalism”) are, simply, bad for transnational corporations. We need look backwards only a few weeks to the controversy over the passage of Religious Restoration laws in Indiana and Arkansas to see a salient example of this: the titans of corporate American, from Eli Lilly to Apple to even “down home” Walmart, rallied to oppose anti-gay discrimination—really just another way of imposing the hoariest of business nostrums: “The customer is always right.”

But there are limits to cosmopolitanism:

Of course, while capitalism is very good these days at expressing this kind of anodyne cosmopolitanism, it has never been so good at the communitarian portion of my post’s title. This is supposed to come from “the people,” via the second phase of Polanyi’s “double movement,” designed to tame a market economy that threatens to devour civil society and the family itself. But if the people are themselves riven by age-old fears of difference—some cultural, some economic, some, in context, entirely understandable—where will the communitarianism and its political cousin, egalitarianism, come from in the 21st century? In short, can nation who have constructed communitarian economies and cultures sustain them in the face of threats from cosmopolitanism? And can those—perhaps principally the United States—who have, in may ways, enviable, if still fraught, multi-ethnic/racial societies, ever attain the levels of communitarianism and egalitarianism reached by many European nations when they were, in fact, far more ethnically homogeneous than they are today?

I’d add to Rich’s analysis that the cosmopolitanism of capitalists is not always a first-order priority for them. A classic example is the Koch Brothers, who formally support immigration reform and criminal justice reform and even spend some money promoting these goals–even as the bulk of their vast resources and influence are devoted to placing a reactionary nationalist party in power everywhere.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.