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New Left Review I/213, September-October 1995

Frances Fox Piven

Is It Global Economics or Neo-Laissez-Faire?

For Ralph Miliband, socialism was more than an intellectual and theoretical preoccupation. [*] This is the text of a speech given at the conference, Socialism in an Age of Global Capitalism, held in honour of Ralph Miliband at the London School of Economics, 24 June 1995, and organized by the nlr, The Socialist Register and the Centre for the Study of Global Governance, lse. He was intensely concerned with socialism as a practical political project, and with the key element of that project, working-class power. I would be less than respectful of Miliband’s lifelong commitment if I did not acknowledge that, conceived in this way, the socialist project is foundering. The symptoms are obvious. Unions, the bedrock of working-class power, are on the defensive, and in most advanced capitalist countries have begun to lose members. [1] For recent data, see Bruce Western, ‘Union Decline in Eighteen Advanced Capitalist Countries’, American Sociological Review, vol. 60, no. 2, April 1995. Left parties are in disarray, and losing elections. Welfare-state protections are under assault in campaigns to make the labour market more ‘flexible’, with the consequence that coverage is being narrowed, and expenditures are falling, particularly for the crucial programmes that reach the active labour force. [2] The historical role of the working class in the construction of welfare states has been subject to a good deal of investigation, and the issue is disputed. For a good contemporary consideration of the arguments and the data that concludes that, variations in national political institutions notwithstanding, working-class mobilization was an essential and pervasive condition for the consolidation of welfare-state programmes, see Alexander Hicks, Joya Misra and Tang Nah Ng, ‘The Programatic Emergence of the Social Security State’, American Sociological Review, vol. 60, no. 3, June 1995. And economic inequalities are growing. In Britain, where the richest 1 per cent of the population owns 18 per cent of the nation’s wealth, fully half the population now lives in households that receive means-tested benefits. [3] Cited in the Economist, 20 May 1995, from a book by Frank Field, Making Welfare Work, Institute for Community Studies, London 1994. And in the United States, where wages have been falling steadily, especially for the less skilled, and real poverty is increasing sharply, the richest 1 per cent now owns nearly 40 per cent of wealth. [4] On recent trends in wealth inequality in the United States, see Edward N. Wolff, ‘How the Pie is Sliced: America’s Growing Concentration of Wealth’, The American Prospect, summer 1995. For a review of recent trends in poverty, see Celine-Marie Pascale, ‘Normalizing Poverty’, Z Magazine, June 1995.

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Frances Fox Piven, ‘Is It Global Economics or Neo-Laissez-Faire?’, NLR I/213: £3

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