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In Memoriam: Tony Judt on the Future of Decadent Europe

Could Europe’s social welfare system actually provide political and economic stability to the continent?

August 24, 2010

Could Europe's social welfare system actually provide political and economic stability to the continent?

The conventional wisdom holds that Europe today is economically or socially dysfunctional. According to this view, Europe — with its long vacations and generous pensions — is in many ways a better place to live than the United States — but that level of comfort cannot last.

Even if the European social model is desirable, the argument goes, it is unrealistic — and, sooner or later, doomed. In my view, this assertion of Europe's doom derives from the association of technological change and globalization with inevitability or necessity.

And yet, when we assume the necessity of efficiency and the inevitability of economic primacy in the shaping of our future, we ought to be aware that we turn ourselves into slaves to 19th century economists, including, of course, Karl Marx.

The primacy of politics

Rather than focus exclusively on efficiency, we need to pay a little more attention to politics. The European state after 1945 transformed itself quite rapidly from a tax-raising, military-spending machine of the kind it had been since the 17th century into a social state, spending huge amounts of money on health, education, pensions, housing, welfare and public facilities.

The state was doing something quite new. But it was not doing this because there had been some sort of socialist revolution. The efforts were essentially prophylactic.

A state of welfare

More specifically, they were an attempt to prevent a return to the past. The liberal welfare states of Europe were not built as a vision of a utopian future. They were built as a barrier to Europe’s 20th century — as it had just been experienced.

In this context, bear in mind that most of the men who built the welfare states in Europe were not young social democrats. Most of the people actually implementing this program after 1945 in Western Europe were Christian Democrats — or liberals rather than socialists of any kind. Indeed, they were old — very old — liberals.

William Beveridge, who wrote the famous 1942 report that became the basis of the British welfare state, was born in 1879. Winston Churchill, the man who commissioned that report, was born in 1874. Clement Attlee, the prime minister who actually implemented it, was born in 1883.

Aging leaders

The story elsewhere in Europe was the same. The men who actually invented the post-war states went back a long way. In France, they included people like the senior administrator Raoul Dautry, born in 1880, who ran both the railways and the health ministry.

And there were Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet and De Gasperi, the fathers of the European Union, born in 1886, 1888 and 1881 respectively — and Luigi Einaudi, the president of Italy, born in 1874.

Security revolution

All of these men were adults before 1914. They had grown up among the late 19th century reformists, but they also remembered a Europe before the catastrophe, before the cataclysmic events of 1914-45.

They saw themselves as realizing not only the completion of the great liberal reform projects of the end of the 19th century, but also a barrier, as they understood it, against the return of depression, civil war and extremist politics.

They all shared Keynes’s view, expressed just before his death in 1946, that after the experience of World War II there would be a craving for social and personal security in Europe. And there was. The welfare state was constructed primarily as a security revolution — rather than a social revolution.

Physical vulnerability

Fast forward to the present. It is very clear that a state that can actually provide security is going to be more necessary in the 21st century than it was in the final years of the 20th. This does not just refer to security that protects against terrorism and the like, but also to security that responds to the fear of economic and physical vulnerability.

Statism — the belief that the state was the best available actor to perform certain required social undertakings — wore itself into the ground in the mid-1970s in most European countries, and the social security state retreated somewhat. Post-statism is now wearing itself into the ground as well.

Fear of the future

The reason for this is a predictable return to the degree of insecurity, uncertainty and fear of the future that people felt, not in the 1990s, 1980s or 1970s — but in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

It is precisely in a globalizing age, to use the cliché — a time when there is no choice but to accept the cross-border movements of people and money and goods, when immigration is both inevitable and necessary — that the state becomes more, not less, necessary.

The European state in the post-war period displaced the forms of community and security that most Europeans had relied upon for many decades — either organization by work, by class, by region or by religion. Europeans, in most cases, have none of these now.

Residue of legitimacy

What they have is the residue of the politically legitimate state, the nation-state which is recognizably an expression of their interests and recognizably able, in a way that neither local government nor Brussels is, to protect them against unpredictable changes.

These unpredictable changes that have to happen, what outsiders describe as the inevitable reforms, may well be inevitable, but they can only be undertaken with political prudence in the context of the European welfare state. Abandon both the state and the old forms of job security or protection, and the result will not be a happy one.

Europe's 20th century

Admittedly, this is an extremely European manner of understanding the problem that stems from the fact that Europeans and Americans lived through very different 20th centuries. The second half of the century seemed to be one that bound us together in this common West, in which we think we have common cultural, political and moral references.

But in fact, the 20th century experience of Europe and America is utterly different. Even in Britain — the European country closest in its experience of the 20th century to America — when I was a child, everyone talked about July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

That day, 62,000 British soldiers fell. That is nearly one-quarter of the total American losses in the entire Second World War. There was a powerful sense of loss — and this is in a Britain which in World War II only lost one person for every 125 people in their population.

Most East European countries lost something like one in five in Poland, or one in eight in Yugoslavia, or one in 11 in Greece, 24 million people in the Soviet Union and so forth.

The European model

This makes for a very different experience of recent history. And it explains why the European model of social organization is not just a sort of randomly selected body of socialist projects and programs put in place after World War II.

And it creates a widespread assumption across nearly the whole political spectrum, until very recently universally shared, that we cannot go back to “that.”

And “that” can be prevented, among other ways, by what we think of as the European model of social and political organization with the special role that that entails for the state.

The preferable and the detestable

I admit, this is a very skeptical way to think about politics. But as far as I can tell, there are great risks inherent in what might be called the optimistic American Manichean worldview.

It divides the world into the past and the future — with the assumption that, insofar as they are different, the future is better.

Before 1989, the world was also divided into socialism or capitalism, stagnation or growth, them or us. More recently, of course, it has been divided into with us or against us. But above all, it is always divided into good or evil.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on The Globalist on June 2, 2006.


These unpredictable changes have to happen. But abandon both the state and the old forms of job security or protection, and the result will not be a happy one.

The liberal welfare states of Europe were not built as a vision of a utopian future.

Europe's liberal welfare states were built as a barrier to the 20th century as it had been experienced on the continent.

The men who built the welfare states in Europe were not young social democrats, but old — very old — liberals.

We are witnessing a return to the degree of insecurity, uncertainty and fear of the future that people felt not in the 1990s or 1980s — but in the 1920s and 1930s.