Western European Society Research Paper

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Scholars of Europe have long been driven by an infrequently stated question: what confluence of social factors   accounts   for  the  fact  that   this  small  subcontinent  came effectively to dominate  the world  by the  end  of  the  nineteenth   century?  This  question predates  the  advent  of ‘Western  European  studies,’ but Western European studies have nevertheless had to come to terms with it.

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Weber’s assertion that Western Europe’s position in the  world  was  the  product  of  a  unique   and  un-repeatable   set  of  economic,  cultural,   and  political factors   that   together   produced   a  novel   form   of advanced  industrial   society  forms  a  frame  for  the present examination of how Western European studies have approached ‘society.’ The strengths as well as the fault lines of the field are still shaped by Weber’s claim, even  as  the  society  Weber  took  as  his  model  has changed almost beyond recognition. Some contemporary  scholars  go so far as to question  whether  the very foundations of European dominance—industrial capitalism and the nation–state—can any longer meaningfully be said to exist in a Europe  characterized by post-industrialism and supra-national integration. Others insist that both the nation–state and the set of complex social relations that developed along with the rise of industrial  capitalism,  however modified by late twentieth  century  transformations, continue  to form the basis for a distinctive Western European society.

1.    Models Of Western European Social Development

Beginning in the mid 1960s, Western Europe’s extraordinary world  historical  success was taken  up with renewed vigor among social scientists. This new wave of socio-historical scholarship  set itself against earlier modernization literature and its frequently  unhistorical assumptions regarding  the portability to the developing world  of the modern  Western  nation–state form.  It  returned  to  Marx’s  and  Weber’s insistence that  attention to historical  specificity and  nuance  be drawn into the service of effective theory building.

1.1    Determinants Of European Dominance

A  catalog   of  determinative  societal   features,   the unique  combination of  which  is found  in  Western Europe,  includes:

(a)  the  formation of  highly  centralized,  authoritative, and bureaucratic national  states;

(b) the homogenization and integration into nations of disparate  regional subcultures  that,  crucially, were already less stratified  than outside Western Europe;

(c) the development  of citizenship;

(d ) the  rise of capitalist  industrialization and  the attendant destruction of traditional ways of life; and

(e)   conflict   between   aristocratic,   commercial  bourgeois,  urban  working,  and rural peasant  classes.

1.2    State Building

That   the   formation  of   strong   states   preceded— historically  and logically—the construction of coherent  nations  has  become  widely accepted.  Powerful, centralized  states evolved out of the feudal system of ‘parcellized  sovereignty,’  as  Weber  characterized it. For Anderson  (1974), these absolutist  regimes of Western  Europe  represent  a ‘paradox’  of social and political  development  central  to the idea of Western modernity:  absolutism  protected  aristocratic privilege and  property, yet also provided  the opportunity for rising urban commercial classes to promote  their interests. Tilly (1975) elaborates  the characteristics  of absolutist ‘stateness’ as the formal autonomy of government, differentiation from nongovernmental organizations (such as the church), centralization, and internal  coordination, and agrees that  the benefits of strong states were not the monopoly of the states themselves: rights  and  privileges also  accrued  incrementally to subject classes. These social and political rights—the  unplanned offspring of absolutism—were protected  by the increasingly bureaucratic apparatus of states, forced by the logic of their own development to recognize  procedural norms.  Tilly also highlights how extraction  of taxes from the bourgeoisie  helped build state structures.

With extraction  comes repression.  One of Moore’s (1966) many  contributions is to  insist that  violence, both on behalf of and against ruling classes, be given its due place in understanding Western state-building processes. Where absolutism eventually led to distinctively Western  liberal  democratic  outcomes,  violence was a key part of the process. In England,  enclosures eliminated  a traditional peasant  way of life, and  the Civil War  beheaded  a king. The French  Revolution made war on the landed  elites. (This model does not hold  for  all  contemporary democracies  in  Western Europe.  As  Tucholsky  1973 said  in  1930, ‘Due  to inclement weather the German  revolution  was held in music.’) The winner—ultimately throughout Western Europe—was   the  bourgeoisie,   whose  interests   no longer had to vie with traditional elites for state protection.

1.3    Nation Building

Strong states only developed into nation–states where social and  cultural  integration occurred  within  their boundaries. This process of nation  building has been the subject of an enormous  and diverse literature. Why did it happen  in Western Europe?

Some commentators ask  whether  this  is even the right question,  suggesting that  a previous  generation of scholarship  depicting  nation  building  as part  of a vast process of modernization exaggerates  the depth and extent of national integration. Grillo (1980) argues that  there  are few, if any,  states  in Western  Europe where integration is complete, and finds the ‘European repertoire’   from   which  the   concept   of  nation   is constructed to be arbitrary. Rogers (1991) shows that even in France, the archetypical  case of a homogeneous,  integrated  nation,  enormous  local  and  regional  socio-cultural differences persisted  late in the twentieth  century.

New research,  however,  continues  to demonstrate that Western European societies are indeed more fully integrated than most others. In a comparative study of demographic integration, Cotts Watkins  (1991) looks at how the process of national  integration in the nineteenth  century  was accelerated  by the expansion to the national  level of previously local networks  and institutions, such as transportation, communications, education,  and labor  organizations. Diverse patterns of fertility began to converge, and in turn spurred  the processes of state building and market  integration.

Again,  why in Western  Europe?  Anderson  (1983) offers an explanation linked to the development  and dissemination of national  print languages that in their adoption superseded  both  Latin  and  spoken  vernaculars. These languages, combined with the distributive technologies  of capitalism,  allowed  for  dramatically increased  communications among  nascent  bourgeois classes. These classes formed the basis for assimilative ‘imagined communities,’ or nations: constructed, perhaps even artificial,  yet nations  nonetheless.

Elias (1939), largely unread  and unrecognized  until the 1970s, takes a very different approach to the question   of  European  particularity in  constructing homogeneous nations.  Elias places his startlingly detailed empirical account of the development of manners  within  a  broader theoretical   discussion  of civilizing and  state-building processes that  subjected entire classes to new codes of ‘civilized’ social conduct. By his account,  bourgeois  civil society could develop within the confines of the absolutist state only because it adopted certain recognizable social features of court society.

1.4    Social Dimensions Of Citizenship

The  realm  of  civil society  in  which  citizenship  developed is contained  within the classical nation-state form. The rights and obligations of citizenship are enjoyed  by members  of the  ‘nation,’  subject  to  the structuring influence of the ‘state.’

Habermas (1962) makes a distinctly social case for the development of citizenship within a uniquely Western   European  public   sphere.   He   notes   that ‘public’ was long synonymous with ‘the state,’ but that the  structure  of absolutist  societies  in England  and France allowed for a parity of educated persons— bourgeois   as  well  as  aristocratic—to  engage  one another  as social equals outside  the confines of state structured (court)  relations.  These social innovations had   direct   political   consequences,   but   Habermas argues  that   the  public  sphere  could  only  emerge through the  impetus  of a new form  of society  that allowed citizenship fully to develop.

The very social bases of citizenship,  according  to Pateman (1988),  rest  upon  civil society’s  gendered foundations, firmly embedded in the theoretical  premises of the social contract  itself. This has far-reaching consequences  for the conduct  of social life, including derogating   the  importance of  the  familial.  The  establishment  of   the   originary   social   contract    on gendered grounds exposes supposedly ‘universal’ categories—liberty  and  equality,  for  example—as inherently particularistic and misogynist.

Gauthier’s  (1977) critique  of the social contract  is even more damning.  For Western European societies, the social contract is far more than a theory; according to Gauthier contractarianism is an ideology,  a deep structure  that  orders  every aspect  of social life. This ideology justifies rights, duties, and institutions, both between  persons  and  between  persons  and  society. The central  institution justified by the contract  is the market,  acquisitive participation in which is the hallmark   of  Western  European humanity. For Gauthier, the central problem with the social contract as  ideology  is that  it  is designed  both  by  and  for bourgeois men. Not only women, but workers as well have been denied full access to its institutions, and can therefore  be regarded  as less than wholly human.

2.    Consolidation And Inclusion

If the  socio-historical processes  leading  to  the  construction of Western European nation–states were unique, equally so was the nature of the consolidation of those  states  after  two world  wars. Western  European studies have lavished attention on the nominally inclusive quality  of this period.  The explosion  of industrial  capitalist development  was more regulated in Western Europe than elsewhere in the First World. Economic prosperity  allowed for the institutionalization of  social  services that  would  have  been  considered utopian    by   nineteenth    century   social   democrats. ‘Abstract,’ ‘exploited’ labor, previously subject to the destructive   market   forces  that   Marx   and   Weber agreed typified capitalist  society, might  now become ‘social’ labor,  secure in a network  of meliorating  and compensatory social, economic, and political compromises.

The term ‘bounded capitalism’ is frequently used in Western European studies to denote a distinguishing set of institutional attributes, including unemployment insurance,  healthcare  systems, social security,  industrial policy and relations, macroeconomic policy, national  financial  institutions, and social bargaining. As Gourevitch (1986) argues, despite important differences among Western European countries in the extent to  which  they  adopted   these  institutions, bounded capitalism became the norm rather than the exception in the postwar  period.

2.1    The Welfare State

The postwar  Western European social compact  built around bounded  capitalism,  in contrast  to the purely abstract  universal   inclusiveness  of  social  contract theory and the socially exclusive attributes of contractarianism  discussed above, promised  fully to integrate once  excluded  classes.  Indeed,   one  of  the  welfare state’s initial successes was to mitigate the demographically  disruptive  effects of postwar  industrialization  by  absorbing   displaced  rural  populations. In addition, welfare policy helped redistribute social risks from the community  and the family to the state.

Modernization theory  holds  that  welfare  filled  a ‘functional’ vacuum  created  by the encroachment of the  market   into  household   and  community   based economies.  The functionalist argument continues  to find  adherents. Kaelble  (1987), for  example,  argues that  the generous  welfare states of Northern Europe developed  out  of necessity where older people could not rely on the family for support. Given the extended family structure  of Southern  Europe,  in contrast, less state support was necessary. Modifying functionalism, Korpi  (1983)  finds  that  generous  social  policy  developed in Sweden because groups who needed it were able   to   mobilize   themselves   in  its  support.  The comparative strength and ‘resource power’ of national working-class movements, in this analysis, are decisive in  determining   diverse  welfare  outcomes.   Marxist critiques,  in  turn,  suggest  that  the  origins  of  mid- twentieth century social policy lay in the conservative cooptation of trade union demands  by Bismarck and other  late  nineteenth  century  Realpolitikers,  thereby further legitimating class domination. These origins at the confluence of private capital, wage labor, and state policy, says Offe (1984), are reproduced in persistent structural  contradictions between  the  incompatible needs of capitalist  accumulation, social security, and state regulation.

Another   approach  to  the  political   economy   of welfare states situates social policy regimes within an analysis  of  class  coalitions   and  other   institutional factors. Esping-Andersen (1990) delineates three principle types:

(a)    ‘social    democratic’    (Scandinavia),     which achieved  a high degree of ‘decommodification’ (i.e., protection  of  citizens  from   the  insecurity   of  the market)  and extensive cross-class support;

(b)   ‘conservative’   (continental   Europe),    where somewhat   lower  levels of  decommodification  were nevertheless fairly comprehensive, and supported by a broad  social consensus; and

(c) ‘liberal’ (Anglo-Saxon   countries),  where  individualist  social  traditions prevented  political  agreement on generous benefits.

Rhodes   and   Meny  (1998)  add   that   continental policies were strongly influenced by church and social reformers.    An    important   contribution   of   such approaches is to  suggest that,  during  the heyday  of welfare capitalism,  the social contract  was effectively rewritten  in some parts of Western Europe,  and only modified in others.

2.2    Interest Representation

The  literature  on  interest  representation that  dominated scholarly discourse from the 1950s to the 1970s, based   on   an   Anglo-Saxon   pluralist   model,   took interests, their representation, and the mediating  role they  played  in  the  social  structure   as  given.  The pluralist model, derived from liberal individualist principles, assumed that all interests were theoretically equal, and equally capable of being represented within the social system. More recent studies, based on European evidence, have tended to problematize interest formation and representation.

An important result has been the corporatist model of interest representation (Schmitter 1979). Corporatism describes forms of associational behavior in which organizations are less competitive  than  in pluralism, and where certain types of interests—especially  labor and  capital—are  status  prioritized  within the system of interest  representation. The  corporatist model  is most  useful in describing  the  inclusive, mid-century phase of Western European development.  Its applicability to late twentieth century social structures  is significantly more controversial (see below, Sect. 3).

For  Touraine  et al. (1984) the conflict between the workers’ movement and the interests of capital lies at the  very  roots   of  European  modernity. If  market capitalism is characterized in part by its socially disintegrative  force, then  the outcome  of the labor capital  conflict  will alter—for  better  or  worse—the structure of social solidarities and stratifications. Until the economic  crisis of the 1970s, Western  European labor  and  capital  got along better  than  in any other part of the world. To the extent that this was achieved largely outside the bounds of a formal plebiscitary process, some argue that the outcome came at the expense of full democracy.  As Berger (1981) puts  it, interest groups in Western Europe perform crucial functions  that  were  once  the  exclusive province  of political  parties  and  governments,  which suggests a fundamentally new and expanded  role for ‘society’ as against  markets  and politics. If this was once so, the economically  and  politically  driven process of European  integration has  since  altered  the  structure   of interest representation.

2.3    New Social Movements

Another way to look at the putative rise of society is as a fusion of the political and nonpolitical spheres. The so-called New Social Movements  (NSMs) that  began in Western  Europe  with student  unrest  in the 1960s moved a wide array of ‘social’ issues into the ‘political’ realm, and mobilized new classes and generations  of social-political  actors.

NSMs are considered by most commentators to be new above all in comparison with the classical social movements,  especially labor.  These older movements were defined by their relation  to the power structure (disadvantaged), their  goals (class benefit),  and  their methods  (institutional pressure)  (Tarrow  1989, Tilly 1978). NSMs,  in contrast, often work outside formal channels  of political  pressure,  are driven  by profuse mobilizing agendas not necessarily linked to the direct advantage of  the  social  actors  themselves,  and  are frequently  made up of the economically  and  socially privileged.

NSMs are seen as reformist and parochial, without the socially transformative potential  that labor represented. Offe (1987) sees the movements  emerging out of growing affluence and the interests of social actors ‘peripheral’ to the labor market whose mobilization is enabled by the generosity of the welfare state. Tarrow (1989) suggests that  the  fused  social  political  structures of the 1970s and 1980s created opportunities for the  expression  of new grievances.  Habermas (1981) sees NSMs as a defensive reaction to the encroachment into private life of threatening capitalist and bureaucratic  structures.  Kreisi et al. (1995) argue that 15 years’ worth of NSM activity corresponds directly to altering party alignments in different countries, that is, the movements arose due to political opportunity structures.  Inglehart  (1990) sees these opportunity structures as opening because of intergenerational change and ‘postmaterialism.’

3.    Decline Of The Nation-State?

The  coherence  and  authority of  European nationstates,  and  the  way  in  which  social  life is ordered within  them,  have  been  subjected  to  powerful  tests since the 1970s. Restructured economies,  the decline of the labor movement, European integration, immigration,  welfare and demographic crises, increased social inequality,  and a host of other  challenges have assaulted  the stability  of the boom  years and eroded the social compact  that  characterized postwar  bounded capitalism.

Some scholars  ask whether  the structural integrity of the nation–state, and  the modified  social contract premised upon it, can survive such supranational pressures.  Wieviorka  (1992) suggests that  three basic components of Western European social life— industrial society, an egalitarian state, and national identity—have become distorted to such an extent that dangerous   obverse  tendencies  are  gaining  ground: ‘postindustrialism’ has produced  social selfishness and declining solidarities; state institutions find it difficult to act on egalitarian  principles due to fiscal pressures; and nationalism has become increasingly linked with xenophobia. Others,  most  notably  Milward  (1992), argue that Western European responses to recent challenges,  at  both  the  national   and  supranational levels, have  actually  strengthened the  nation–state’s social legitimacy and authority.

While   the   denationalization  of   economic   production and the decline of Fordist industrial structures may  or  may  not  have  produced   a  ‘postindustrial’ society  in Western  Europe,  it is widely agreed  that exogenous change in the form of European integration and globalization have reduced the abilities of national governments to effect socially bargained,  market correcting  economic  policies and  to counteract increasing social inequality. The extent to which these changes have undermined the bases for corporatism is the subject of a lively debate (Scharpf 2000).

3.1    Crisis Of The Welfare State

Welfare states  throughout Western  Europe  have cut their benefits, and face fiscal and demographic crises of varying  degrees. Aging populations create  a shift from system contributors to recipients, deindustrialization and ‘Eurosclerosis’ have produced high unemployment, and the labor market has been transformed  by  the  growing  proportion of  nonstandard work and the mass entrance of women into the workforce.

Central  to recent literature  on the welfare crisis are issues of gender  and  family. Feminist  scholars  have criticized the political  economy  approach to welfare state studies because in concentrating its attention on the  state  and  market,  it ignores  the  family  and  the structural ramifications of women’s unpaid  domestic work, and in focusing on ‘equity’ without considering gender,  it falsely universalizes  equality.  At  an  even more  fundamental level, Orloff  (1993) asks whether welfare  state  scholarship   is correct  to  assume  that welfare  states  actually  promote   overall  social  wellbeing  and  security,  since its premises  are  putatively sexist.

Because of two trends, even ‘mainstream’ Europeanist welfare state scholars must now acknowledge the issue of women’s role in the labor market  and the family.  First,  many  women  entering  the  workforce take part-time or fixed term employment, and are penalized because benefits are geared toward men working  full  time  (Rhodes  and  Meny  1998). Nonstandard work is also becoming more common among men. Second, fertility rates have plummeted  since the 1960s. Rates are lowest in countries with low levels of female employment  and  stingy welfare benefits (e.g., Italy and Spain). From  a rationalistic economic point of view, argues Becker (1981), families decide to have fewer children  as it becomes more expensive to raise them. By extension, in Scandinavia, where the welfare state is supportive  of women’s work and child rearing (through day-care  facilities, healthcare, etc.), fertility rates have not dropped as dramatically through the late 1990s.

3.2    Immigration And Exclusion

As populations age and fertility declines, immigration becomes increasingly crucial to Western European societies. Since at least the 1960s, ‘guest workers,’ at the invitation of governments,  have filled holes in the job market  and replaced falling birth rates. Their role has been complex: needed for their labor, but resented for their  ‘otherness,’  guest workers  and  other  immigrants have challenged norms of inclusion. In spite of Western Europe’s liberal, pluralist, universalistic premises, cultural  differences have at times been racialized as part  of an  exclusionary  ideology  and  derided  as impediments  to civic incorporation.

Migration patterns, especially in Western  Europe, were established in the 1960s by two flows: guest workers,   most  of  whom  came  from  southern   and eastern  Europe  (including  Turkey)  at the implicit or explicit  invitation  of  states,  and  immigrants   from former colonies. With the significant exception of southern  Europe,  which changed in the 1980s from a region of emigration to one of immigration, these patterns  still largely hold through the end of the century (Miles and Thranhardt 1995).

Rates of naturalization among European countries vary considerably.  Brubaker  (1992) attributes France and   Germany’s   sharply   different   rates   to   fundamentally different conceptions of sovereignty and assimilation. The French,  Brubaker  says, understand the nation  as the creation  of the state,  while for the Germans  the nation  is the basis of the state.  Soysal (1994),  in  contrast, argues  that  postnational  international  norms have led to ‘deterritorialized’  notions of  rights.  She  challenges  the  assumption that  citizenship is imperative to membership, since many social rights are enjoyed by noncitizens.

The rights of immigrants, regardless of how they are acquired or conferred, are often shown to be in conflict with  actual  social  treatment. Racist  conceptions   of otherness  tied to immigration, according  to Taguieff (1988), are ‘differentialist’ in their invocation  of fundamental cultural   distinctions   between  ‘natives’ and ‘foreigners’; this contrasts  with an older ‘inegalitarian’ notion of biological differences. Indeed, racism has accompanied immigration  throughout the region, even while some commentators (e.g., Wieviorka 1992) see important national  variations.  Others see Western European-wide patterns  of racism and exclusion emerging. Balibar  and  Wallerstein  (1988) argue  that the most effective defense against  this trend  is a solid conception  of universal  civic equality,  which should replace more problematic notions of national  identity and belonging.

3.3    Social Policy

The  extraordinary process  of  European integration that  began  modestly  in the early postwar  years and accelerated  toward  the sweeping treaties of the 1990s was primarily  economic  and  secondarily  political  in motivation, structure,  and outcome.  Yet, an accompanying   social  aspect   of  European  unification   has begun   to  receive  scholarly   attention,  namely,   the nature  of social policy within the authoritative structure of the European Union  (EU).

Europeanists ask whether the elevation of economic and  political  authority to  the  EU  level will find  a correlate in social policy. Leibfried and Pierson (1995) argue  that  a  ‘social  Europe’  already  exists,  and  is actively engaged in policies of redistribution, thanks in part to the efforts of transand cross-national pressure groups percipient  enough to recognize that  in certain issue areas power resides in Brussels, not national capitals.  Ireland  (1995)  notes  that  on  immigration issues, EU administrators have taken an activist stance to protect foreign workers and their families, stepping in where national  governments  have failed to uphold human  rights. But Streeck (1995) cautions,  first, that EU  intervention in a  few areas  does  not  reflect  an ideologically driven reformist agenda. Second, the EU is beholden to market interests, and will withdraw any move toward social intervention if it threatens  market dominance. Streeck’s view implies that corporatism at the  national   level has  been  defeated  by  European integration (for a counter argument see Scharpf 2000); indeed,   he  claims  that   labor   was  present   in  the integration process  only  insofar  as  it  represented  a European-wide market  for labor.

3.4    Collective European Identity

Does  a  transnational European social  constituency exist that might eventually force the EU to take more aggressive  steps  to  alleviate   market   produced   inequities and nationalistic exclusionary practices? More abstractly, is the idea of vesting citizenship and collective identity  in ‘Europe’ far fetched? Given the horrific record of twentieth century European nationalisms in protecting human rights and maintaining peace, might superseding  the nation-state not  be an evolutionary advance?

Scholars  occupied  less with  policy  analysis  than with theoretical  questions of identity and membership have recently addressed these questions. Habermas (1996) argues that the nation–state is mortally ill, and has  been in decline since it began  to  repudiate  and exclude everyone regarded  as foreign. The process of moving  from  national  to supranational regimes and governance should be viewed as part of the unfinished historical   process  of  modern   nation   building.  The initial  steps of nation  building  in Europe,  when the nation  replaced disintegrating traditional ties of early modern  society, Habermas asserts,  is precisely analogous   to  the  present   situation   in  which  national sources of solidarity and the moral bases of society are eroding.   But   what   is  to   replace   problematically national  sources of identity and belonging? Habermas suggests that  pan-European attachment to  a shared political culture  in the form of an enlarged  and fully inclusive public sphere may develop, and that it is the only alternative  to  increased  particularism in multicultural  states.

National identities historically  evolved through simultaneous inclusion and exclusion, such that every ‘us’ was defined against  an opposing  ‘them.’ Delanty (1995) questions  how a collective European identity might develop without asserting an exclusionary ‘Fortress Europe,’  geographically  defined by the shifting borders  of the EU.  The contemporary idea of Europeanism is not morally neutral,  suggests Delanty,  but rather  constructed through technocratic and  mediadriven agendas  that  can neither  replace national  nor constitute  collective identity. Smith (1997) articulates a  view  widely  held  among   Western  Europeanists: firmly entrenched  national  identities  will continue  to trump  supranational European identity  because  the affective bonds that  support  nationalism do not exist for Europe  as a whole.

Whether and how such pan-European bonds might develop will occupy scholars in coming decades. The social bases of European nation–states did not grow organically;  they were constructed along with the nation-states themselves. The interplay  between national  form  and  social content  has been based  in part  on national, regional,  and global power factors. These dynamics are fluid, as the process of European integration demonstrates. If economic  and  political integration can  find  an  inclusive  social  correlative, exclusionary nationalisms may indeed be mitigated.


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