The coronavirus crisis highlights the need to update the European welfare state to a social-ecological state, able to socialise 21st-century ecological risks.
Exactly 30 years ago, the Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen proposed, in line with Richard Titmuss’ founding work, a new approach to the welfare state. According to him, this institution, born in Europe in the 1880s, was based on a common principle yet with differentiated regimes.
The common principle, identified by Esping-Andersen after Karl Polanyi, was that of ‘de-commodification’—the protection of labour from market logic by means of social policy, to aim for an ethically superior value of human wellbeing. With social protection, the idea that labour was not a commodity gradually gained ground.
This guiding principle became embodied throughout the world in distinct institutional logics, which gave it more or less strength. The Esping-Andersen typology, which has become classic, was, as with Titmuss, a tripartite one, which contrasted the ‘corporatist’ (as in Germany), ‘social democratic’ (as in Sweden) and ‘liberal’ (as in the United States) models—each characterised by a particular purpose, funding method and governance. At the end of the 20th century, Esping-Andersen therefore perceived ‘three worlds’ of what he called ‘welfare capitalism’.
At the same time, in the early 1990s, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development undertook a long-term work to measure the impact of ‘structural rigidities’—at their forefront the social protections which had strongly developed in Europe and beyond—on ‘labour-market performance’, assessed using unemployment and growth rates. The perspective of these studies was radically opposed to that of Esping-Andersen on two counts: work was relegated to its economic utility and convergence towards a single social model—a model considered almost exclusively from the angle of cost-benefit ‘optimality’— was promoted.
Thirty years on, it is clear that the debate on the welfare state has largely turned to the advantage of the proponents of economic efficiency, who have succeeded in convincing those in power—especially in Europe where it was born—that social protection is a burden rather than a boon.
This does not mean that the principles of the welfare state have become obsolete or that the resulting public policies have ceased to be effective and just. Rather, a simplistic vision of the functioning of the economy, which opposes a predatory state to a liberating market, has come to dominate public debate.
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From this point of view, a speech by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, on March 12th, amid the shock of the Covid-19 health crisis, appeared as an epiphany as radical as it was late: ‘What this pandemic is already revealing is that free health care, without condition of income, course or profession, our welfare state, are not costs or burdens, but precious goods, essential assets when fate strikes … There are goods and services which must be placed outside the laws of the market.’
All of this is true. It is also diametrically opposed to the policy conducted in France since the 2017 presidential election and during the previous mandate, when Macron exerted a considerable influence on the dismal presidency of François Hollande. It is also not precise enough. If ‘fate’ ‘strikes’ humanity today, it does not fall from heaven: humans, in the age of the environmental crises of the Anthropocene, have become the source of their own fatality.
The decade that is opening is indeed that of the ecological challenge: faced with climate change, the destruction of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems—visible and tangible everywhere on the planet—human communities must initiate a profound transformation of attitudes and behaviours to prevent the 21st century being one of self-destruction of human wellbeing. The first months of the first year of this decisive decade leave little doubt about the urgency of this collective effort.
First, Australia was ravaged by a succession of giant fires, which only rain eventually extinguished. Then the Covid-19 pandemic rendered inactive almost half of humanity and, with that, the global economy. Yet the worldwide health crisis is, at its origin, ecological: this virus—as before it SARS, MERS, Ebola and to some extent HIV-AIDS—is a pathology of the human-animal frontier. It is because humans have gone too far in the destruction of ecosystems, the conquest of biodiversity and the commodification of life that they are today affected, panicked and paralysed—in other words conquered in turn.
Faced with these ecological crises, for which we are fully responsible, we need to rediscover the equalising power of the welfare state, which alone can transform uncertainty into risk, hazard into protection, chance into justice. In short, we must mutualise social risks to reduce them in the name of human wellbeing—starting with health, the key interface between people and ecosystems.
This is where the concept of the ‘social-ecological state’ comes in. An extension of the genius of the welfare state, its guiding principle is denaturalisation—or, put positively, socialisation. This entails transforming ecological uncertainty into social risk, by means of public guarantees and insurance, to make the social consequences of the environmental crises of the 21st century as fair as possible and therefore, in principle, mitigate their natural violence.
But, as with the welfare state, this principle varies widely from one country to another—indeed from one region to another—as regards the demand and capacity for socialisation. Different social-ecological state systems are thus emerging, according to at least three criteria: vulnerability (exposure to risks, state of health of the population and so on), protection (development of social protections, degree of social inequality, etcetera) and resilience (social cohesion, trust, quality of institutions). Using these three criteria, four different regimes appear on the planet—four ‘worlds’ of the social-ecological state seem to emerge.
Bio-techno power is the first such world. What Michel Foucault called half a century ago ‘the power over life’ is today combined with digital-control tools whose omnipotence he could not imagine. In the beginnings of the Covid-19 crisis, a mode of socialisation of environmental crises emerged which combines strong exposure to risk, authoritarian power, civil discipline and digital surveillance.
South Korea is the most emblematic country of this model but China has prefigured and applied it on a larger scale. The admiration for this social-ecological regime—palpable in European countries whose populations are considered less reliable and governments deemed too lax—disregards what ecological authoritarianism has cost the whole world: the initial alerts on what was then only a regional epidemic were fiercely repressed by the Chinese autocracy in the autumn of 2019. The ‘effectiveness’ of bio-techno power is thus doubly doubtful, from the factual and the ethical point of view.
The second world is that of ecological neoliberalism. In Brazil, the United States and Australia, market fundamentalism takes the place of social-ecological policy. Environmental regulations as well as health protections are weakened in favor of a small minority who have captured political power and exploited it as a source of rents, to extract huge profits from health privatisation and environmental degradation. Yet, in these countries, exposure to environmental risks is high and collective protection is already weak and fragile, as the unfolding health tragedy in the US makes clear. The political development of Australia in the coming years will be a good indicator of the viability of ecological neoliberalism.
Secondary and superficial
Economic naturalism appears as the third world of the social-ecological state and it is the prerogative of European countries. Unable to define together a new social-ecological regime calibrated for the 21st century, they have opted for a naturalisation of the economic system they have built in common since the 1950s—notions borrowed from the living world, such as growth and competition, ending up governing human societies and social systems. We can see today how secondary these superficial economic realities are, conditioned by human wealth and social co-operation.
The health crisis triggered by Covid-19 hit the French healthcare system, for instance, at the exact moment when political power—not ‘globalisation’ nor ‘demographic ageing’—was pushing it, knowingly, to its breaking point. The national madness of the budgetary ‘rationalisation’ of the social system is the reflection of European rules which seem to have as their objective collective ill-being.
The fourth and last world of the social-ecological state is that of natural regulations. Even if the welfare state were to continue its global expansion, it still encompasses only 30 per cent of humanity. In most of Africa and Asia, human communities simultaneously face very high exposure to environmental risk while enjoying very little social protection. Take India, where annual health spending per capita is around $60 (70 times lower than that of OECD countries).
Humans there need to rely mostly if not solely on natural protections, such as the heat, varying with the seasons, with its power to destroy many viruses. More generally, the regulatory services provided by ecosystems protect humans: climate regulation, purification of air and water, tsunami mitigation, destruction of parasites and pathogens, and so on. These natural regulations, more or less degraded by humans since the industrial revolution, are in India both enemies and allies, with heat waves appearing when viruses are absent and mangroves protecting land submerged by human-induced climate change.
The major difference between this rudimentary typology and that, much more sophisticated, of Esping-Andersen is in its temporality: Esping-Andersen conceived his Weberian ‘ideal types’ after a century of evolution of the welfare state, while a strong path dependency had helped stabilise its different regimes. The four worlds of the social-ecological state, as we can see them today, are still in their infancy. Far from being crystallised, their internal contradictions will make them evolve rapidly.
In fact, as with the nascent welfare state of the late 19th century, the social-ecological state remains largely to be invented. From this point of view, the Covid-19 crisis is not an ‘opportunity’—it has neither ‘interest’ nor ‘merit’ nor ‘virtue’. It is a human disaster whose response breeds another human disaster.
But there are consequences of this crisis from which we can hope to draw useful lessons for the future, to avoid further shocks and to mitigate the shocks we cannot avoid. One of these is that human communities around the world have converged at staggering speed towards the underlying universal value of humanity, revealing that their common priority is health and not economic growth. We are hence called to a double revolution: putting health back at the heart of our public policies, while putting the environment at the heart of our health policies.
Éloi Laurent is a senior research fellow at OFCE, the Centre for Economic Research at Sciences Po in Paris, professor at its School of Management and Innovation and visiting professor at Stanford. He is author inter alia of The New Environmental Economics: Sustainability and Justice (Polity Press).