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The Work of Politics: Making a Democratic Welfare State, Steven Klein

Reviewed by Thimo Heisenberg

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There is a certain view of welfare institutions and policies (unemployment insurance, health insurance, paid family leave, etc.) that has the rare distinction of being held by critics across the whole political spectrum. According to this view, welfare institutions and policies act as anonymous and overly bureaucratic structures that turn citizens into passive welfare recipients, thereby decreasing their sense of agency and autonomy. Accompanying the rise of welfare institutions like a steady drumbeat, this view has fueled anxieties about a loss of individuality and personal responsibility (on the right), as well as (on the left) anxieties about a technocratic takeover of social concerns that forecloses possibilities for radical social change.

In his new book The Work of Politics, Steven Klein sets out to refute this image of the welfare state. Based on historical evidence as well as on theoretical considerations, Klein shows how welfare institutions, far from blunting the force of political and democratic agency, can present a site for such agency and have, in fact, done so in the past. For example, by codifying implicit social norms into explicit regulations, by supplying a categorial language for social phenomena, as well as—at the most basic level—by providing institutional and physical places to which organizers can address their demands, welfare institutions offer important crystallization points for collective action. It is precisely for this reason, as Klein demonstrates with great clarity, that welfare institutions have indeed often galvanized political movements—even if they were implicitly intended to do the opposite (for example, in Bismarckian Germany).

Klein places this insightful core analysis into an ornate setting of theoretical discussions, bringing together Weber, Heidegger, Arendt, Habermas, and modern theories of domination. Klein's explanations here are unfailingly impressive and instructive, making it so that some of the chapters could also easily be read as stand-alone essays. Chapter 1, for example, presents a dialectical analysis of modern theories of domination (although he does not quite put it in these words): Klein offers charitable overviews of neo-republican, neo-Kantian, and poststructuralist conceptions of domination, showing their respective insufficiencies and strengths. His suggestion, certainly worth considering, is to understand these accounts less as mutually exclusive conceptions of the same phenomenon, and instead as compatible accounts of different forms of domination, corresponding with different facets of the modern social world.

Occasionally, the reader wishes that the balance between the elaboration of Klein's core theory of the welfare state and its theoretical “embedding” had been shifted more decisively toward the core: in some instances, Klein's elaborate conceptual genealogies take up space that could have been used to tackle some philosophical questions that his interesting account raises. For example, given that Klein admits that some welfare institutions engender political agency more effectively than others, one would have expected a somewhat more extensive account of the institutional qualities that bring about such efficacy. But Klein only turns to this question briefly and at the very end of the book (p. 178), thereby passing up a chance to draw, from his philosophically rich account, the prescriptive implications for institutional design that this account could yield. Nevertheless, The Work of Politics should be required reading for anyone interested in welfare politics from either a practical or theoretical perspective.

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