What do welfare states have to do with Europe's colonial past?

Colonialism and solidarity

Today's social policies are first and foremost the result of the workers' movement that fought nationally and internationally to give a decent life to people who have nothing more than the strength of their arms.

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Colonialism is difficult to write about. History is highly political since, always written by the winners while the voices of the losers are smothered.


More than five hundred years after the 'discovery' of America by Christopher Columbus and the conquest of the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan, discussions still continue as to whether the 'black legend' of the cruelties committed by the Spaniards is deserved, and whether the Mexicas correctly understood the intentions of Hernan Cortés. The writings of the chroniclers are not necessarily trustworthy. Columbus, Cortés, Bernal Díaz, all may have tried to give a much rosier picture of their undertakings than what occurred in reality. We know that De las Casas described many events he did not witness himself. As for the indigenous voices, one has to wonder how free they were to speak without risking the Inquisition.


What we know for sure


Two things, however, will not be contested.


First, the conquest of the Caribbean islands, of Mexico and of South America was extraordinarily cruel, as was the colonisation that followed it. The original people in North and South America were not peaceful and nature-loving either. War was an inherent fact of life. For the majorities who had survived the conquest, imported and unknown illnesses put an end to millions of lives.


Second, a huge amount of gold and silver was shipped to Europe. Spain used this wealth to wage wars and embellish its churches. It was not channelled towards efforts for modernisation; on the contrary, it strengthened the feudal structures of the country. In France, England and the Netherlands, foundations were laid for great fortunes, mainly thanks to the slave trade. The new money also helped to finance the nascent industrial revolution. Later, with the beginning of the colonisation of Africa, Leopold II of Belgium, my country, was able to beautify its capital, Brussels. Any debts, however, were loaded onto the government.


The 'discovery' of a new world caused a real shock in Europe. The world, as understood hitherto, suddenly looked very different. At the beginning of the Renaissance, people were introduced to an 'other' that had to be given a place in their world view. Hence, with the Enlightenment, the idea of a single humanity emerged, although the discourse on that humanity's solidarity was not accompanied by solidarity in practice.


On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the 'meeting' or 'clash', a whole literature has emerged with a new interpretation of events and especially of the consequences of colonialism. This means that for many intellectuals in the South, it is now seen as the cause of modernity and therefore of capitalism, slavery and the racism that goes with it.


Many questions can be asked about these analyses, but in this article I would like to take a closer look at one point. Those who dare to speak of social justice or of welfare states with economic and social rights are often faced with the answer that this would never have existed in Europe without colonialism. What is meant is that it was the wealth from the colonies that made it possible to pay better wages and pensions and provide health care for all.


This completely ignores the history of social policy and the agency of the emerging labour movement in the 19th century. It goes without saying that colonialism has contributed to the enrichment of Western European countries, although each one to very different degrees, and that the continent's dominance is due to it. But does this wealth and dominance have anything to do with social policy? Nothing could be further from the truth.


The Name of the Rose


We can begin history at the time of the late Middle Ages and the rise of capitalism in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Actually, there is an excellent description of this in Umberto Eco's wonderful novel, The Name of the Rose, where it is explained how ecclesiastically acclaimed poverty - the poverty of Christ - suddenly became problematic and a conflict arose with the followers of Francis of Assisi. The merchants of the time became rich and wanted to legitimise their new status, which is why the church started distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary, individual and collective poverty. Beggars were still tolerated, but gradually a very negative approach developed and they were persecuted. In any case, helping the poor was a task for church authorities, and rich people could use it to pay for their sins.


This changed with the onset of modernity. On the one hand, Charles V largely weakened the guilds - which protected people from the cradle to the grave - and shifted responsibility of help for the poor to local authorities; on the other hand, the beginning of 'enclosures' cause peasants to move from the countryside to the cities, where they quickly become impoverished. It is there that they also gained a particularly bad reputation as criminals, prostitutes and spreaders of disease, as a 'dangerous class'. This went hand in hand with the emergence of a work ethic in which any idleness was severely condemned. Poor people began being locked up all over Europe.


It is clear that the view of poverty is heavily influenced by social power relations and, as Geremek explained, in every period there are 'deserving' poor and 'non deserving' poor, those who need to be helped and those who need to be punished.


The image of poverty changes radically with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. A realisation dawned that poverty was not a phenomenon of nature but of civilisation. François Ewald explained that it was the new awareness of risk, in particular, that was at the root of the first social security. Workers - and children - who died in the factory were not victims of their own mistake, but of an industrial risk, and so collective insurance was needed.


The Labour Movement


Incidentally, it was not only in Western Europe that workers were organising and fighting for better working conditions. This was also happening in countries like Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Central America. Major strikes broke out just about everywhere, resulting in heavy repression and many deaths.


It is enough to refer to the revolts of the 'canuts' (silk workers) in Lyon, the many peasant uprisings, the Haymarket Square massacre in Chicago in 1886, the 'General Strike' in the U.K. of 1926, the 'Patagonia trágica' of 1920 in Southern Argentina, and the banana plantation strikes in Costa Rica, Honduras and Colombia against United Fruit, to name but a few.


Some of these actions were more successful than others, but it is clear that it was not the employers, nor the governments who were happy to open their wallets to help the workers. All existing rights had to be fought for, and this is the case even today.


Moreover, the first solidarity funds that were set up worked with contributions from the workers themselves. Mutual funds were formed to help each other in case of death, illness or unemployment. It was mainly this working-class solidarity that was a thorn in the side of the employers, which is why they preferred to pay a contribution themselves and thus take over the management of the funds.


It was, however, this solidarity, this collective wealth, that made the workers into owners and therefore citizens with rights and social citizenship, as T.H. Marshall called it. It was workers’ solidarity that caused the first serious crack in the capitalist monopoly.


After the Second World War, this system was further expanded and made more universal in Western Europe. But it is by no means a purely Western European phenomenon. In countries such as Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, too, social insurance systems began to be developed in the 1920s. In Asia, the systems of social protection were clearly geared to the pursuit of development. In Africa, on the other hand, it was a matter of national sovereignty, and education was used, for example, to strengthen national cohesion. Most leaders of the newly independent states in the 1960s, however, wanted to work first towards building powerful nations and only later towards the welfare of the population. Throughout the world, social justice was on the agenda.


Political and economic power relations


In short, if colonisation is at the root of Western Europe's wealth and global dominance, it is by no means the case that welfare states are a direct consequence of this.


Today's social policies are first and foremost the result of the workers' movement that fought nationally and internationally to give a decent life to people who have nothing more than the strength of their arms: decent wages, prohibition of child labour, limitation of working hours, week-ends and annual leave, health care, pensions, unemployment benefits ... Many workers have given their lives for these basic achievements.


That the first solidarity funds were replaced by a system in which employers also contribute and the government plays a regulatory role is due to the self-interest of employers who need a healthy and stable labour force. For governments, other elements also played a role, such as the need for healthy soldiers and later, obviously, the fear of socialism and communism.


Today, social security is in many cases jointly managed by workers, employers and government, which means workers have a voice in all debates about economic and social rights.


Neoliberal dismantling and reconstruction


The transition from charity to solidarity, from helping the poor to social protection, also has everything to do with the shift from mechanical to organic solidarity, as Durkheim called it. Solidarity goes beyond one's own group and one's own community. Today we show solidarity with people we do not even know.


For labour law, the system of collective bargaining is also a second important crack in capitalism because it seriously limits the commodification of labour.


Today, all that is in jeopardy. Over the past 30 years, social policies have been severely curtailed under the influence of the ruling neo-liberal policies. Rights have been eroded, and the focus is once again on poverty and a few basic needs.


However, that debate is now entirely in the hands of economists and right wing forces. It is they who have introduced a new paradigm for a 'new social contract' that completely ignores the achievements of the labour movement and is at the service of markets. The structural horizontal solidarity that had emerged from the welfare states is over. Co-determination and joint management have been written off, and even employers' contributions are in question.


In this context, it is particularly sad to see that part of the Left unwillingly plays into this by linking social policy to colonialism and rejecting it. Social protection, I hope to have shown, is not a consequence of colonialism and is still desperately needed. All people, in all times and places, have the same needs and can try to satisfy them in a thousand different ways. But collective protection is needed, preferably in the form of rights and duties and with solidarity, from all and for all.


For the 21st century, the concept of social protection and social justice will undoubtedly have to be re-thought, but this is a task that should not be abandoned to the right. More than ever, the link with environmental and climate justice must be made, and it is precisely in this way that social protection can become truly transformative. In the end, the more than one hundred years’ old statement from the Constitution of the International Labour Organisation still applies: there can be no lasting peace without social justice.


The millions of people taking to the streets today, all over the world, are asking for exactly that: that their dignity be respected, that they be able to survive in a healthy environment, to build a future for themselves and their children. Those who believe in the need for emancipation today will continue to defend modernity, economic and social rights and solidarity through thick and thin. Now that the Covid-19 crisis has once again exposed our interdependence, the struggle for social justice is a global urgency, in the same way as is environmental justice. They go hand in hand.


22 November 2021


- Francine Mestrum has a PhD in Social Sciences from the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. She worked at the European institutions and several Belgian universities.





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