ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Welfare State through a Haze

Postmodern Welfare: Reconstructing an Emancipatory Project by Peter Leonard; Sage Publications, London, 1997; pp xvi + 187, £ 37.50 (cloth), £ 12.95 (paper)

In medieval times, misery of an individual through poverty, ill-health and old age was considered a consequence of divine dispensation. It had to be endured unless mitigated by private philanthropy. In the age of Enlightenment dating from the 17th century, modernist ideas relating to the state and human rights emerged with misery of the individual seen in a very different light. This culminated in the flowering of the concept of the welfare state in the 20th century. By the 1930s, there came to exist in most well developed capitalist states some provision for old-age pensions, health and employment insurance. In the post-war world, especially in western Europe and Northern America, most countries extended these welfare services to include numerous other underprivileged sections of society. However since the 1980s this kind of massive provision of welfare has come under attack from neo-liberal economists in the wake of a runaway expansion in public expenditure as well as fundamental shifts in the age structure of populations.

The welfare state has also come under assault from another unexpected source, i e, the emerging school of postmodernism associated with the writings of a group of French philosophers like Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Lyotard and many others which question many of the modern notions spawned by the Enlightenment like justice, rationality and progress that are couched in universal terms. Not only does this postmodernist view of society take cudgels against capitalist forms of domination but also challenges the socialist view which believes in the possibility of erecting a universally acceptable civilised social order after a worldwide class struggle. As the welfare state came into existence as a result of the modernist notions that lie under the capitalist desire to compromise in order to save itself from destruction, and the socialist aim of improving the lot of the underprivileged, the very concept of welfare has been questioned by the postmodernist critics.

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