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The Work of Politics: Making a Democratic Welfare State. By Steven Klein. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 250p. $99.99 cloth.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 September 2021

Benjamin L. McKean*
Ohio State University
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Critical Dialogue
© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

Steven Klein’s excellent new book, The Work of Politics: Making a Democratic Welfare State, aims to reorient our view of the contemporary welfare state by persuasively showing how welfare institutions not only reproduce bureaucratic domination but also provide emancipatory possibilities to bring domination to an end. Klein’s book productively intervenes in academic and political debate, speaking to both scholars and activists and helping them find “traces” (p. 172) and “fragments” (p. 16) of liberatory potential in existing institutions. He argues that today’s consensus view of the welfare state ultimately derives from the work of Max Weber, which incorporates antidemocratic assumptions that lead us to overlook these possibilities. Through careful and creative interpretations of Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, and Martin Heidegger, Klein urges us instead to understand the institutions of the welfare state as “worldly mediators” (p. 4) that are both the product of past democratic struggles and make possible new, shared democratic judgments and actions. He also provides a proof of concept for this account by interpreting historical episodes when German and Swedish Social Democratic parties struggled to transform and expand the welfare state, thereby offering “a usable past” (p. 179) that can inspire and instruct democratic actors today. Although I raise some doubts about his optimistic conclusion that the historic emancipatory mechanisms he identifies can effectively address domination today, Klein’s book undoubtedly puts outstanding scholarship to work on questions with urgent political stakes, making it of interest to a wide audience.

The Work of Politics is divided into four main chapters. Chapter 1 sets the stage by reviewing prevailing accounts of domination in the welfare state, arguing that each “shares an underlying, Weberian view of the relationship between political agency and domination, a view that reduces political institutions to structures of instrumental calculation and control” (pp. 26–27). Drawing from Habermas’s three spheres of validity, Klein distinguishes between “direct, structural, and abstract” domination, which correspond, respectively, to “empirically observable power,” “reflexive power,” and “constitutive power” (p. 29). Habermas’s influence is also apparent here in the way Klein’s argument proceeds through expert critical reconstructions of views that reveal their limits and show how his own theory subsumes what is best in them. He offers vigorous critiques of Frank Lovett’s neo-republican account of direction domination and Rainer Forst’s neo-Kantian account of structural domination, identifying their flaws that point to the need for a more complete account incorporating abstract domination. Klein associates the critique of abstract domination with a host of thinkers, including Horkheimer, Adorno, Foucault, and Marx, who see the welfare state as fundamentally dominating because of how it reproduces “the demand that individuals be responsible, self-controlled subjects” (p. 44). To sharpen the contrast with the more phenomenological approach he favors, Klein argues that these thinkers reduce social institutions to “inert, object-like instruments” (p. 53). He is undoubtedly correct that we can hear echoes of Weber’s lament about the iron cage of modernity in thinkers like Adorno and Foucault, but in a book that is otherwise so astutely dialectical, this reading seems somewhat one-sided. Klein worries that echoing Weber’s lament will also shore up “Weber’s efforts to present more radical socialist visions of the welfare state as dangerously utopian” (p. 54), but this reductive reading also evades those moments when these thinkers entertain the need for a radical break with the present, enabling them to imagine radical socialist visions beyond the welfare state. As I suggest later in my review, contemporary circumstances may make such a vision necessary.

In chapter 2, Klein gives a bravura account of Weber’s thought, deftly putting him in the context of political and intellectual history. He situates Weber in the lineage of the social liberalism of Lorenz von Stein and Gustav Schmoller, who offered elite-driven views of social change. Weber divides the world into everyday material needs, which can predictably be met through instrumental and institutional calculation, and extraordinary ideal needs, which can never be fully satisfied but which can drive us to develop a personality through imposing values onto the world. Klein persuasively argues that we should reject Weber’s dichotomous theory because it “obscures the structure of our everyday, meaningful involvement in the world” (p. 55)—and, with that rejection, open ourselves to rethinking the welfare state.

Chapter 3 offers Klein’s account of “welfare institutions as worldly things—as collections of objects, paperwork, buildings, material infrastructures—that render our material and biological needs amenable to shared judgment and action” (p. 57). He offers a lucid analysis of the ontology of early Heidegger, from which Arendt “breaks decisively” by incorporating and centering plurality in her account of worldliness (p. 108). In sharp contrast with Weber, for Arendt, “values arise, not from a subjective act of meaning-giving, but from how objects appear to others to be judged and esteemed, helping sustain the world and make it more permanent” (p. 112). Klein provides a creative interpretation of Arendt’s discussion of class, interest, and property along these lines, arguing for not only the economic but also the genuinely political import of, say, workers receiving pensions. Klein’s interpretation of Arendt as attending to “the worldly dimensions of the economic” (p. 99) is illuminating and original. His warning against “not the invasion of politics by economics but rather the reduction of economic matters to instrumental calculation” (p. 99) opens up new ways of thinking about resisting neoliberalism and economic democracy even beyond the welfare state that functions as his political horizon. For example, although Klein focuses on the Social Democratic parties’ struggles to change state policy, this account could also provide new grounds for valuing contestation in the workplace and the importance of labor unions.

Klein completes his view of how emancipatory social change occurs in chapter 4, and it is here where I think the most pressing questions arise about whether his view can effectively guide political action today. Adopting terminology from Habermas, Klein uses “the causality of fate” to refer to “the peculiar manner in which structures of domination seem natural or necessary” and “the dialectic of morality” to describe “the political dynamic through which critical self-reflection potentially overcomes structures of domination” (p. 134). Klein here offers a particular picture of how social transformation occurs, as domination can be denaturalized and made to appear contingent and contestable when one group “alienates itself from the common moral context implicit in its claim to legitimacy” (p. 140); for example, when the ruling class engages in exploitation that undermines its own claim that market society is free and equal. On Habermas’s early view, the ruling class as a collective actor can be treated analogously to a criminal, offering a focal point for reflective, immanent social critique; Habermas himself moved away from this view as he saw class domination superseded by abstract domination, but Klein offers a view in which direct, structural, and abstract domination all persist in intertwined ways and thus remain vulnerable to the dialectic of morality. He presents the political history of Swedish family policy to demonstrate this possibility, but as he acknowledges, the story fits imperfectly because, in his retelling, Swedish men have avoided “acknowledging their status as the exploiter (criminal)” (p. 168), leaving Sweden with very gender-segregated labor markets.

Despite this apparent gap between theory and practice, Klein optimistically closes the book by arguing, “The breakdown of the postwar settlement…also provides the groundwork for building a more genuinely inclusive and democratic welfare state” (p. 176). Yet I have three doubts about whether we currently enjoy a sufficiently shared moral context for the dialectic of morality to proceed effectively. First, the transnational character of class domination poses a major challenge to Klein’s account of how the dialectic operates. If the ruling class is exploiting workers across borders, do national welfare states create sufficient shared moral context to contest their power? Second, while Klein briefly argues that his account applies to conditions of US racial domination by pointing to the history of community engagement during the War on Poverty, I am not sure the book takes the full measure of how white supremacy poses a challenge to its account. In contrast to the book’s careful contextualization of Weber’s thought, Heidegger’s and Arendt’s views are here presented largely apart from their own problematic political commitments, which are acknowledged in footnotes but not adequately addressed in the text. Although Klein explicitly breaks with Arendt’s account of the social, perhaps a deeper engagement with the exclusionary effects of these concepts’ original uses by their author would help the book address how white supremacy’s challenge to a shared moral context could be overcome.

Finally, neoliberalism is not just an economic doctrine that has led to austerity policies but also a pervasive way of seeing that has changed how ordinary people think of the public realm and how they relate to the very prospect of solidarity. Now layer on top of that political polarization amplified by distinct media environments and the rise of social media, making it easier than ever for unwelcome facts to be decried as “fake news” and replaced with pleasing conspiracy theories. In this context, it is not obvious that the institutions of the welfare state provide sufficient conditions for shared judgment, even domestically. Although Klein’s engagement with Arendt and Habermas is detailed and imaginative, it is notable that neither Arendt’s “Truth and Politics” nor Habermas’s Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is discussed; perhaps the book’s account could be extended by employing these texts to consider how possibilities for raising public consciousness of conflicts in ways that hinge on shared beliefs about the world have changed in recent decades. This context also makes the question of political organization especially acute. Klein says he is addressing social movements, but the main political actors of his histories are actually Social Democratic political parties. That seems like a consequential difference, and one wonders how much of the work of worldly mediation is being done by state institutions and how much by the parties themselves. Do the apparent decline of political parties generally and the compromises with neoliberalism that have discredited many traditional Social Democratic parties imperil his hopeful reorientation to the welfare state? Could any national political party offer an adequate solution to transnational domination, or must we move beyond the political horizon of the national welfare state?

Ultimately, these are political challenges for anyone who cares about democracy and are not problems specific to Klein’s book. What Klein has given us is an important work of political theory that lets us see these challenges with fresh eyes and useful new theoretical tools.

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The Work of Politics: Making a Democratic Welfare State. By Steven Klein. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 250p. $99.99 cloth.
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