David Simon and the End of the 20th Century Western Welfare Model

We all know the story by now, it goes like this: The world was good, back then, in the 1950s and 1960s. We had a nation state that cared for us, one that was actually capable of doing things: it built roads, provided decent schools and education, and, most importantly, it lessened poverty and social inequality. Why couldn’t it just stay that way forever? Why on earth did Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan have to come and clatter around our golden age of welfare paradise? Because so they did, around 1980, when Milton broadcast his famous, free-market advocating TV series Free to Choose, when Ronald gave speeches about choice and opportunity and when Maggie started her war on unions and state-owned businesses. Why couldn’t they just leave us alone?
As you may have noticed, I am slightly sceptical about that story. To me, it seems too simple, too conservative, and too centered on the development in the West, especially the US. This is not to say that it is utterly wrong, but rather that it is only a tiny shred of a much bigger story that is much more complicated and harder to grasp in all of it’s facets. I will hopefully explore this in a longer essay in the near future. However, what concerns me here is a new and very impressive piece by David Simon in The Observer. David Simon is the creator of The Wire, the best TV series of all times (even better, one might claim, than Friedman’s Free to Choose). As you know if you’ve watched it, it is about the decay of an American city, the great gap that divides American society, and the drug trade as a war on America’s underclass. If you haven’t watched it, just do it. Now. Nothing else matters. You can come back to this text once you’ve finished all of the incredibly good five seasons and 60 episodes of the show.


Hi there, welcome back again. So in his speech, delivered at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, Simon tells essentially the same story I told two paragraphs above, only with less irony – that is, with the severe seriousness this story really needs to be told with. Simon reminds us, or rather: reminds me, in all of his work, that there is indeed something broken in Western societies. There are way too many people who are being left behind, and it is not their fault. In the fourth and fifth seasons of The Wire (spoiler alert!), we witness the failure of a group of promising young boys to escape the hell that is their home, their neighbourhood, their city. Simon shows us the sheer impossibility of the “pursuit of happiness” for these boys who don’t stand a chance against their drug-addicted parents, the drug gangs and drug lords, and the white middle class that wouldn’t let them in. All of the odds are stacked against them and they don’t get to win, unless they are incredibly lucky. Whatever free-market ideology might tell you, this is not about effort, merit, or performance, it is about the circumstances and structures these people are born into and in which they have to live.
Simon is certainly not a Marxist. Rather, he advocates what in continental Europe is still perceived as a reasonable compromise between market and state:

I’m utterly committed to the idea that capitalism has to be the way we generate mass wealth in the coming century. That argument’s over. But the idea that it’s not going to be married to a social compact, that how you distribute the benefits of capitalism isn’t going to include everyone in the society to a reasonable extent, that’s astonishing to me.

He also makes some points that I regularly make myself:

Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It’s a great tool to have in your toolbox if you’re trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn’t want to go forward at this point without it. But it’s not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.

Exactly: Capitalism is a tool, not a “metaphor for society as a whole” (Daniel Rodgers). It’s a tool that is formidable to achieve some things, like allocating resources and goods, but quite disastrous when it comes to others – say, having an economy without huge periodic crises. It is good that Simon (and others, of course) reminds us of these basic distinctions. And it is even better that he reminds us of the actual consequences of the transformation of the West (and the world) for people at the bottom of our societies. We must not forget these consequences, and we must not forget these people.
However, Simon’s solution for these problems still strikes me as too easy, too simplistic, and too conservative. We can’t change anything, he states,

Unless we take stock of the fact that maybe socialism and the socialist impulse has to be addressed again; it has to be married as it was married in the 1930s, the 1940s and even into the 1950s, to the engine that is capitalism.

Is this really it? Just a simple throwback to Keynesian-style New Deal policies, and we will defeat the excesses and short-comings of capitalism? Isn’t there more that has changed during the past 70 years than only policy? Is it really just Milton’s, Ronald’s, and Margaret’s fault that we’ve got here? I have thought quite a lot (though certainly not enough) about this topic, and I tend to conclude that it is neither possible nor even desirable to just go back to where we were. Why? I’ll leave that to another post.

Image: David Simon, 2010, CC-by-SA-4.0, Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation via Wikimedia Commons

About Author: Sören Brandes

Geboren 1989 in Paderborn, hat Geschichte und Literatur in Berlin und Lund studiert. Master in Moderner Europäischer Geschichte. Promoviert derzeit am Graduiertenkolleg „Moral Economies of Modern Societies“ am Berliner Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung über die Mediengeschichte des Neoliberalismus. Lebt in Berlin-Neukölln und interessiert sich für eigentlich alles, insbesondere für Globalisierungsphänomene, den Einfluss der Massenmedien darauf, wie wir denken und leben, und europäische Politik. Mail: soeren@unserezeit.eu, Twitter: @Soeren_Brandes, Facebook: Sören Brandes View all posts by

4 Gedanken zu „David Simon and the End of the 20th Century Western Welfare Model“

  1. A gentle pat on the shoulder of your linguistic self: impeccable grasp of English, even use of idioms here and there. Also, comma placement – clearly, that alone deserves a mention. Overall spot-on!

  2. ok., die zielsetzung dieser überlegungen ist begrüßenswert: warum kommt es zu immer stärkerer ungleichheit und was läßt sich dagegen tun? aber hier läuft doch einiges schief: „end of the 20th century welfare model“? tatsächlich? in germany haut die große koalitition gerade wieder wohlfahrtsmilliarden raus: renten, mindestlohn z.b.

    m.e. ist die diagnose, bei aller zugegebenen problematik, nicht korrekt. david simon, ein gewiß guter autor und deshalb gewandt im schreiben beeindruckender wörter und sätze, urteilt auf der grundlage seiner beobachtungen der katastrophalen folgen von drogenkriminalität. das hat aber kaum etwas mit kapitalismus zu tun, sondern vor allem mit der illegalität des drogenkonsums, daher ihrer verbreitung etc. und dafür ist gerade nicht die „free market ideology“ verantwortlich – friedman hat die freigabe des drogenkonsums gefordert! – sondern es sind die verbotsapostel, oft, gerade in den usa, glaubensfundamentalisten. all die weltweite kriminalität, die aus diesem verbot folgt, ist nicht kapitalistisch, nicht marktideologie, sondern … (nach belieben selbst ausfüllen). (nur nebenbei: das ist doch marketing-sprech, rtl2-unsinn, vom „besten aller zeiten“ – egal um was es sich handelt – zu sprechen. derartige zuschreibungen können das beste argument erschüttern.)

    insgesamt haben wir es wohl stärker mit folgen der auflösung des ost-west-gegensatzes zu tun, der zu diadochenkämpfen der politischen systeme und führt und mit der durch technologische entwicklungen forcierten globalisierung.

    der blogbeitrag ist nevertheless spannend, und ich warte auf seine angekündigte fortsetzung, zu der ich ausdrücklich ermutigen möchte. meine o.a. ausführungen sind halt ein „kommentar“, eine wohl insgesamt eher dünnbrüstige textsorte …

  3. „The End of the 20th Century Welfare Model“ doesn't mean the end of welfare in general, but the end of the _20th century_ _Western_ welfare model. We are now in the 21st century, and much has changed. A transformation of the world is taking place in which the 20th century welfare model of the developed states – a strong nation state that helps to provide health care, schools, pensions, housing, roads etc. etc. – doesn't work anymore, at least not the same way it worked in the postwar years. You can certainly make the point that this development has taken fundamentally different paths in different groups of nations. There are different approaches to the new challenges: We have an Anglo-American, a continental European, a northern European approach. And I think you're quite right in stating that these transformations have a lot to do with globalisation (though, I believe, not as much with the end of the Cold War). This will be the main topic of my next post.

    Concerning David Simon and drug crime: The Wire has a good deal more topics than just the drug war. To begin with, where there's crime, there's poverty. You won't solve the problem if you simply allow drug trade (but it would certainly be a start). What David Simon observed in Baltimore is not simply the „War on Drugs“. In the beginning of the 3rd season, the city tears down the „projects“, the high rises in which a huge part of the drug traffic in the first two seasons takes place. They tear them down because they are a symbol of their own failure in achieving anything real against crime. But more importantly, the falling towers, the „jects“, are social housing projects built by the city long ago to provide flats for poor people. Nothing is erected in their place. I think this is quite a strong metaphor for what the end of the 20th century welfare state means in America – and I could name you a lot more, all of them coming from The Wire.

    „The best series of all times“ – well, I obviously don't know about the future, so that's an exaggeration (though an easily identifiable one) – but I think it stands its ground against most other high-rated new TV series, including Breaking Bad (which doesn't have the charm and the realism of The Wire). I do think that some exaggerations and verbal barbs are allowed in a blog post.

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