The Politics of Solidarity: Explaining Real Universalism

How has feminism affected institutionalization of welfare provisions? How does the bureaucratic governance shape the possibilities to practice universalism? Halvard Vike in this text addresses questions pertaining to what made universalism in welfare provision in the Nordic possible.

How has feminism affected institutionalization of welfare provisions? How does the bureaucratic governance shape the possibilities to practice universalism? Halvard Vike in this text addresses questions pertaining to what made universalism in welfare provision in the Nordic possible.

Halvard Vike is an anthropologist working as a Professor at the Departement of Health and Social Science, University of Southeastern Norway (USN), where he also is head of the PhD program at the faculty. His research interests include local democracy, welfare state universalism and labor in modern organisations, always using a comparative and historical perspective. He has for several decades published extensively on these issues and one of his latest publications is the forthcoming co-edited anthology (together with Fagertun & Haukelien, – 2023): The Political Economy of Care.

This text is a part of the miniseries following up on the Crises of Care event organized by GRIP in collaboration with the Centre for Care Research west (HVL). This miniseries include texts that were presented at the event and engages with wider explorations of labour and inequality topic that GRIP currently focuses on.

In the academic literature, welfare state universalism is commonly understood as the principle of granting rights to benefits and a broad set of essential and free, high-quality services to all citizens, independently of social status (including kinship relations), and without comprehensive needs-testing and conditionality.

In my view, the fact that universalism in service provision is an exceptionally rare phenomenon makes it highly relevant to ask: how is it possible? How does it emerge historically and what characterizes institutions that are in fact able to practice universalism?

I argue that the highly decentralized structure of the Norwegian political system may provide some fruitful insights, and that feminist interest has played a major role in the emergence of universalism.



Even in the most ambitious of welfare states where ideals like equality and justice have broad support, universalism is best seen as an outcome of intense struggle and institutional tensions (Esping-Andersen, 1990; Kildal & Kuhnle, 2005; Vike, 2018). One important reason is that the implications of universalism seem unattractive for governing elites except in times of extreme growth and optimism. Universalism tends to engender great expense and challenge hierarchical control. Thus, unless governing elites are controlled through robust chains of representation, they seem to have plenty of political, economic, or administrative reasons to seek to establish some clear boundaries, relativize universalism, postpone it, or delimit it.

Long-term elderly care is an illustrative case in point. For a variety of reasons, such public services are extremely costly, unpredictable, and therefore very challenging in practical terms. Political and managerial interests emphasize the need to establish predictable standards. To prevent this from transforming services to minimum standards and deliveries, lower-level institutional interests involved in the business of interpreting needs and satisfy them according to codes of professional and/or political ethics, must be able to avoid absolute managerial control. Since the workforce involved in service provision is so heavily dominated by women, I argue that in analytical terms universalism and “feminism” constitute an underestimated pair.


Local autonomy

One fruitful point of departure may be what seems to be a gradual decoupling of the vision of public universal elderly care as a moral system and broad political compromise, on the one hand, and the purely instrumental implementation of bounded, bureaucratically defined techniques on the other (Kamp & Hvid 2012; Zacka 2017; Vike 2018; Narotzky 2021). Perhaps it is between these two visions we find the important keys. The institutional capacity to make universal elderly care (as well as other long-term services) real seems to depend on what I have called “a low level of gravity state” (Vike 2018). This “low gravity” is a type of local autonomy that enables local interests—street-level professionals, often in alliance with user groups, local politicians, and mid-level leaders—to challenge managerial governance from within institutional boundaries. In my perspective, the institutional tension arising from this is highly relevant to what Francis Fukuyama (2014), Bo Rothstein (1998), Tim Knudsen (2000), and others have referred to as “state capacity.” According to these theorists, the legitimacy of public institutions and people’s trust in them would appear to depend as much on their ability to deliver the goods fairly, efficiently, and flexibly as on more abstract democratic factors relating to political representation in the parliamentary decision-making process.

Graeber & Wengrow, in The Dawn of Everything. A New History of Humanity (2021), have recently drawn attention to the significance of autonomy (as opposed to the category of “freedom” in liberal, democratic philosophy) in human history, and pointed out that the largely ignored question of “how relations that were once flexible and negotiable ended up getting fixed in place: (….) how we effectively got stuck” (p. 519). The freedom to relocate or withdraw, to disobey orders, and to negotiate relationships and change them (p. 503) seems essential and is precisely what gets lost in formal hierarchies in which the establishment of order is paramount and where personal dependency between leaders and subordinates becomes the foundation of the quest for order. In the examples above, all three aspects identified by Graeber & Wengrow can be observed, and this underscores the relational character of the factors that (may) make universalism a real, observable social practice in bureaucratic contexts. The first example illustrates how a reform that decentralizes a dilemma seems to depend on a chain of personal dependence in which there are few possibilities for negotiation; indeed, this is what makes it seem successful, even though clearly it undermines universalism. The “anarchic” order which it replaced, explored in the following descriptions, was one in which the key actors were able to reorganize social relations, establish mutual commitments, and mobilize these in ways that challenged managerial authority and the logic of prioritization defined from above.



The most basic, unique, and in some sense banal characteristic of the Scandinavian welfare state experiment is the combination of grandiose policy ambitions, high service intensity, and the decentralized nature of service-providing institutions. Equally important, but less emphasized and theorized, is the close to total dominance of a female workforce in service provision, especially in elderly care and social services. One argument in this text is that universalism and “feminism” constitute an underestimated pair. While much work has been done on how gender inequality gets modified—but also in many ways reproduced—in welfare state contexts, less attention has been devoted to how the gendered interest in institutionalizing care and making caring tasks a public responsibility gained an almost hegemonic position in some welfare states, and to how this process in turn influenced the workforce and its adaptation to—and ability to influence—the institutional realities of service provision (Seip, 1992). It seems reasonable to view the institutional dynamics of municipal service provision in the Scandinavian countries as in part an extension of the social organization of women’s movements.


Street-level bureaucracy

Given the key role of the municipal sector in forming “the state,” street-level bureaucrats in Scandinavia are not a marginal part of the state, but serve as the main interface between “the state” and the population (see Lipsky, 1980). The Scandinavian welfare states are among the most service-intense states in the western world, and the personnel working directly with patients, students, clients, etc. plays a major role in this interface (Papakostas 2001; Vike et al., 2002)—and thus in forming what I have called real universalism. Universalism, as a principle of inclusion, a mechanism for extending services according to professional service providers’ interpretation of needs, and as an aspect of the moral economy enabling local alliances to challenge governing elites, should be understood as a process: an emergent property of conflicting interests being played out in municipal contexts. In the great expansion period between 1960 and the 1990s, services and their scope expanded continuously, and there is reason to believe that they became strongly influential for popular imaginings of “the state” (Haukelien et al., 2015). Moreover, until quite recently, with the introduction of firmer administrative control through a massive enforcement of auditing, and of personal loyalty in hierarchical, administrative chains of command, the expansion seems to have given street-level bureaucrats a high degree of autonomy and space for maneuvering. The possibility to enjoy a relatively high degree of discretionary freedom seems to have been significant, as in this period their mandate was continually broadened, much inspired by the exceptionally optimistic welfare policies pursued by governments of all colors. The principle of universalism seems to have had a key role to play in reinforcing both this peculiar optimism, service intensity, and the decentralized nature of the public sector. Until quite recently, the emphasis on seeking needs to meet has been far more important than guarding institutional boundaries to protect limited resources. Thus, the role of the street-level bureaucracy as a key interface between the state and the population is hard to overestimate. Because of this, it may be fruitful to ask: how exactly is the street-level bureaucracy socially embedded in this interface between the bureaucratic inside and its outside, and what are the implications? This question did not concern Michael Lipsky, who inspired the analytical interest in street-level bureaucracy based on experiences from the US (Lipsky, 1980). As a matter of fact, it is not often asked in studies of bureaucracy either.


Real universalism

What I term “real universalism” in long-term care services is a hallmark of the welfare state experiment that was carried out in western democracies after the Second World War, and which is clearly being transformed into something much less ambitious than what was originally intended. We still lack a proper analytical understanding of both these phenomena. Since our understanding of the welfare state has been heavily influenced by state-centered perspectives, as is, for example, evident in Esping-Andersen’s influential contributions, many scholars may have lost other insights in his and other related works. Perhaps the most prominent among these insights relates to what Peter Baldwin (1990) aptly calls the “politics of social solidarity.” In my view, the politics of solidarity should direct our attention not only to the building of political (class) alliances, but also to the constitution of public institutions and the forms of social dynamics and bureaucratic practices emerging in them. Real universalism only seems possible within state formations that allows the politics of solidarity to be played out within the context of relatively autonomous local institutions. Centralized states may initiate it, prioritize it, pursue it for a while—but we have simply no evidence suggesting that they are capable of upholding universalism in the long run (at a decent level of quality, that is).


Politicization of care

The role of women in production has always been significant, and this role took a twist and was gradually transformed into a more specialized, reproduction-oriented one. In one important sense it made the gender divide greater, but because reproductive tasks became so collectivized and taken over by the public sector, this effect was significantly modified by other factors. The most important was perhaps cultural: it involved the politicization of care. Not only did caring become political; it emerged as the prototype of the collective good, policy, and institutional responsibility (Orloff, 1996; Nagel, 1991; Fraser, 2022). Childcare and elderly care (and several other welfare tasks) were not constructed as purely feminist interests, but rather as shared concerns. Therefore, women’s definitions of what the problem was, in terms of making services good and available, had a real influence. Universalism appeared logical because, initially, it seemed to be both practical—in terms of administrative implementation and as a materialization of equity people identified with—and to make political common sense, independent of gender.


However, in the longer run this transformation was not as well-grounded institutionally as many liked to believe, and from the 1990s onwards it gradually backlashed in the form of a renewed version of what we may call “the old state.” Municipalities, which had become the stronghold of the politics and institutionalization of care, came firmly under the control of the central state and largely lost their power to set the agenda and influence policy by institutional means (Vike, 2018). Politically, care was redefined as reproduction and as a financial burden (as opposed to production); institutionally, the female-dominated work force succumbed to standardization and demands for organizational loyalty; and street-level service providers in care work were overburdened with the responsibility to compensate for lack of resources (Lyon & Glucksmann, 2008). Thus, it seems reasonable to argue that the enlightenment, modernist visions of welfare policy involving the municipalization of responsibility are gradually being replaced by centralizing managerial visions and techniques of goal realization and control that transform the institutional conditions that made the welfare state experiment possible in the first place (Scott, 1998).


Reduction of autonomy

It appears striking that, at least in the Norwegian context, “institutional influence” in the municipal sector depended so heavily on autonomy. If so, through highlighting Graeber and Wengrow’s (2021) important idea that it is precisely the dramatic reduction of autonomy—the freedom to relocate or withdraw, to disobey orders, and to negotiate relationships and change them (p. 503)—that must be explained along with the question of what was achieved during those short periods in modern history when autonomy has thrived. This perspective also seems to necessitate a closer look at how, in contemporary public institutions, elite networks seem increasingly well-equipped with the means to reintroduce clientelism in a revised format and free themselves from claims from below. The possibility to negotiate and change relationships has been severely curtailed, and public commons are increasingly controlled through chains of command rooted in imaginaries of firm governance and leadership. It seems reasonable to assume that only broad alliances of relatively autonomous actors with direct access to public commons can prevent such seizures. Long-term care in a universalist format is an interesting case in point because, in Scandinavia, over a long period of time it involved—and, most probably required—a decentralized institutional structure and system of authority. It enabled public institutions to assume an unprecedented type and amount of responsibility to commit and to remain sensitive to forces beyond its own control.



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Other Texts from the Crises of Care Event: