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Home Opinion The Danish centre left needs an alternative to the ‘competition state’
State of the Left Denmark

The Danish centre left needs an alternative to the ‘competition state’

Kristian Weise - 29 January 2015

Ahead of this year’s election, Social Democrats should remember that the welfare state revolves around a moral obligation. It is not just a means to an end

The debate on the Danish welfare society changed in the summer of 2013. A couple of years earlier, Ove Kaj Pedersen had published The Competition State, which is a description of the transformation that the Danish state has undergone over recent decades. That summer, however, the analytical and descriptive concept of a ‘competition state’ became normative.

Indeed, a fierce discussion of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ the competition state started. Even within the government and its coalition partner, there were severe differences over whether Denmark should be seen as a competition state or not, though Pedersen would argue that that is a mistaken discussion: Denmark has already undergone fundamental changes that cannot be denied and which should been as moving it towards the characteristics of a competition state.

The competition state has developed alongside a new international economy, where it is increasingly believed that nation states compete against each other. The primary goal of the state is therefore to promote private sector competitiveness by implementing institutional reforms to mobilise labour, capital, technology and material resources for the competition with other states.

Though the competition state is a contentious concept on the Danish left, it has to a large extent been adopted by the present centre-left government.

Indeed, when the debate on the future of the Danish welfare state changed in 2013 it was because the social-democratic minister of finance, Bjarne Corydon, had said in an interview: “I believe in the competition state as the new welfare state”. Moreover, a majority of the reforms that have been pursued and pushed through by the current government can been seen as exactly pursuing the aims of the competition state.

Most of these reforms have made good sense. And many of the changes related to the competition state are no doubt favourable. It is definitely wise to ensure that employment and labour market policies assist workers in staying competent and in getting back into work as quickly as possible if they become unemployed. It is also preferable that more and more policy on health is aimed at preventing people from becoming ill rather than just treating them when this happens.

If the state intelligently can ensure that countries stay competitive and is able to lay the foundation for high living conditions, then that is obviously to be applauded.

Yet, it is at their own risk if the centre left is left with only the concept and narrative of the competition state as their answer to how the welfare state should develop in the future.

If the competition state is elevated to an ultimate norm and ideal, the welfare state might very well lose its original purpose. The cost of having all eyes on competitiveness could be that our society becomes more one-dimensional, only prioritises what can be monetised and neglects values of community and life outside of the market. Then utilitarianism will rule.

This is not just a distant fear but an already present consequence of the changes that are happening. In most of Europe almost all policy initiatives are measured by their effect on competitiveness, growth and fiscal sustainability. There is a general belief that quality of life, social cohesion, security and most attributes related to a successful welfare society are the result of a strong economy. In this view welfare is something that should “be afforded”.

That is the case in Denmark too. But it is basically an understanding of society and welfare that speaks to conservative and neoliberal values.

The social-democratic welfare state revolves around a moral obligation. It is not just a means to an end. It cannot be justified alone by its economic results or what it achieves in economic terms.

The changes to the welfare state and the discourse surrounding it will likely have consequences at the ballot box. If the welfare state is seen to evaporate in the hands of social democrats or the social-democratic parties fail to provide more than technical answers for the future of the welfare state, then the progressive centre left will be unable to convince the electorate that it should be entrusted with the responsibility of running our countries. If social democrats are unable to present a vision of a welfare state that combines material wealth with social security and progress, then voters might as well opt for conservative or liberal alternatives or look to the extreme left or right.

The right can talk the language of economics too. They can even get economic and employment policies right at times and create wealth, full employment and rising living standards. But their notion of freedom is flawed, their understanding of community limited and their sense of solidarity a joke.

So if the social-democratic welfare state is reduced to ensuring competitiveness and economic growth, it is hardly different from what could be realised by champions of other political traditions and ideals.

Denmark’s centre left will head into elections within the next nine months. It would undoubtedly be in a better position if it not only promised to spend more money on welfare than the rightwing opposition, but also had a more unique vision of and language on the future of the welfare state.

Kristian Weise is director of Cevea

A contribution to State of the Left - Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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