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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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