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Postponed-Social Justice, Remade? The Call for a New International Economic Order and the Decline of the European Welfare State, 1973-2008

September 8, 2020 - September 9, 2020

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Sponsored by the Jean Monnet European Union Center of Excellence for Comparative Populism, History, Sociology and others.

Between 1973 and 2008, Western Europe underwent a social, economic, and political revolution, as the idea and practice of state welfarism came under attack. Since World War II, state welfarism had been the norm, but by the early 1990s, Western Europe’s leading economies had cut social service spending, implemented regressive tax schemes, deregulated industry, and encouraged the privatization of publicly owned businesses. Though country-to-country differences were significant – with Great Britain and Germany, for instance, deregulating industry, reducing spending, and privatizing at a faster clip than Italy and France — the birth of a new way of casting state-economy relations was unmistakable.

Scholars have increasingly identified the decline of European welfare states as one of the most important developments in economics and politics since World War II. But they struggle to explain it. Did the change emerge because of the changing labor patterns and the decline of traditional working-class constituencies? Did it result from the forced imposition from outside of free market practices, in response to the acute stagflation crisis of the 1970s? Or was the end of state welfarism ushered in by an intellectual revolution, which cast the state as the enemy and the free market as an agent of positive change? This two-day conference will investigate all of these theories, but it will also add a crucial component of the story. Our concern will be to identify whether and how the decline of the European welfare state was also a response to the rise of decolonization and the declaration of a New International Economic Order (NIEO), which called for a large-scale redistribution of wealth from North to South, and represented the most serious challenge to the Western world since the end of World War II. In May of 1974, a group of 120 countries from the decolonizing world set the wheel in motion, clamoring for a New International Economic Order before the General Assembly of the United Nations. They denounced the existing international economic system as lopsided and only serving the interests of Western, wealthy, nations. They launched a campaign for the suspension of official debts, and called for the regulation of corporations active in developing countries. Its leaders — figures like the Chairman of the Revolutionary Council of Algeria, Houari Boumédiène, and the Mexican President, Luis Echeverría — proposed the scaling up of the European welfare state model via the redistribution of wealth not only within nation-states but between them, under the aegis of the United Nations. How did Europe’s politicians, labor organizations, and transnational business groups respond to the challenge? How, if at all, did this influence individual state welfare practices and various new forms of “welfare chauvinism” that began to emerge on the scene? Finally, how did decolonization impact how Europeans conceptualized the process and practice of European integration, particularly when it came to issues such as social spending, the regulation of industry, and taxation? These questions will be at the heart of this two-day conference.


September 8, 2020
September 9, 2020
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