Emmerich Tálos. Vom Siegeszug zum Rückzug. Innsbruck: StudienVerlag, 2005. 96 pp. (gebunden), ISBN 978-3-7065-4153-4.
Reviewed by Günter Bischof (CenterAustria, University of New Orleans)
Published on H-German (October, 2006)
The Slow Retreat from a Well-Heeled Welfare State
Whoever wants to do business with colleagues and officials in Austria, and especially in Vienna, had better know the vacation schedule of Austrians. Many of them will be on vacation (and thus will not answer e-mails and phone calls) for two weeks over Christmas/New Year, a week skiing with their children in February, another week over Easter, a couple of long Wednesday-to-Sunday weekends in the Tuscan hills in May/June, when the Catholic holidays are being strictly observed by most Austrians (many of whom no longer go to church) and of course four weeks during July/August (reserved for longer journeys to Brazil and so on). This tightly argued little book tells us why Austrians have had, since 1976, at least four weeks of vacation (and why many people enjoy up to two months off once they have been employed at the same place for many years). . Political scientist Emmerich Tálos is Austria's most eminent authority on the country's elaborate welfare state. This volume was written as one in a series of twenty small volumes dealing with the major themes of Austrian political, social, economic and cultural history solicited by the cultural office of the city of Vienna. In keeping with "red Vienna's" grand tradition of inspired Volksbildung, these volumes were first presented as well-attended public lectures in city hall by some of Austria's brainiest intellectuals and then published as handsome, affordable small volumes bound in telling red cloth. The occasion was the 2005 "year of commemorations" (Gedenkjahr), when numerous anniversaries (sixty years after end of World War II, fifty years after the signing of Austrian State Treaty, ten years of European Union membership) were celebrated by official Austria. Following the age-old Josephine state-directed tradition of governance, the conservative Schüssel government ordered a "year of reflections."
Tálos's summary of the postwar Austrian welfare state is straightforward, yet written in dense "social sciencese." In the first half of the book, his main argument is that ever since the late nineteenth century (and paralleling developments in Germany), Austria developed a growing network of social programs to protect industrial workers, Angestellte and state officials (less the self-employed and peasant farmers) against the risks of accidents at work, illness, unemployment and old age. These programs were increasingly hard to maintain during the era of huge unemployment in the great economic crisis of the 1930s, but rapidly expanded during the "golden age" of the welfare state after World War II (ca. 1955-80), when unemployment was minimal. The turning point in Austrian social security legislation--ringing in the "victory" noted in the book's title--was the Allgemeine Sozialversicherungsgesetz (ASVG) of 1955. It was the culmination of the "Austrification" of social policies (p. 18), under which social law was streamlined for workers and Angestellte and also became the model law for the self-employed. Structurally, the growing productivity of the Austrian economy and the postwar demographic explosion allowed a generous budgetary expansion in financing the Austrian welfare state. A balance of interests between the consensual grand coalition governments of conservatives and socialists, as well as labor and industry produced the Austrian model of "social partnership" (among political scientists also known as "Austro-corporatism," [p. 21]).
The principles of Austrian social policy were equivalency, subsidiarity and social security based on income-producing work (Erwerbsarbeit). Women and children were insured via their husbands or fathers. Stable marriages thus became the main insurance against potential descent into poverty. The equivalency principle meant that one's eventual milking of the system depended on the length and extent of contributions. Secure status against all odds of sickness, unemployment and old age was the ultimate goal. The subsidiarity principle meant that the state was the insurer of last resort. The establishment and expansion of the social security system was based on a "generational compact" in which the working population paid for retirees. In 1980, 93 percent of Austrian pensions were paid by the federal government, 4 percent by company plans, and only 3 percent by private pension funds (with no TIAA-CREF for federally employed college professors in Austria!). The expansion of the welfare state to provide social security for all (with the sole exception of prostitutes, p. 29) became increasingly costly for the Austrian government. In 1980 the federal government paid sixteen times as much for its social programs than in 1948 (p. 31). While in 1960, 17.2 percent of the gross domestic product was invested in social programs, in 1980 it was 26.7 percent (p. 33). These constant upward trends obviously could not be financed ad infinitum. Something had to give.
The second half of the book analyzes the trajectory of the gradual Austrian retreat from the status of one of the most generous welfare states in the world, which began after 1980. The rough winds of globalization and demographic change in the 1980s did not spare Austria. On top of it, Austria's accession to the European Union in 1995 put pressures on the Austrian budget with its tough "Maastricht" convergence criteria. The fledgling monetary union forced Austria into massive budget cuts--which eventually also spilled over into the arena of social security programs. Unemployment rates steadily rose throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Austria was not spared changing workplace and labor force concepts. Fewer people had steady jobs; more people (especially women) were forced into part-time jobs and flexible work arrangements. In contrast to Thatcher's Great Britain, the return of the "grand coalition" in 1986 produced a slow retreat from the welfare state in the 1990s. The advent of the neo-liberal Schüssel government in 2000 accelerated this new "restrictive course" (p. 69), designed to unleash a "slim state" (p. 59), in which people increasingly take care of themselves and reduce dependence on the government. Tálos, a hard-core, data-driven social scientist who does not touch upon the theme of mentalities, fails to mention here that this weaning from lavish government programs is something Austrians have a hard time adapting to--a particularly good example is the work force of the Austrian National Railroads, many of whose members took early retirement in their early fifties.
In this retreat from the welfare state, predictably, the "working poor" have become a phenomenon in Austria too, especially among people with handicaps and women. While the divorce rate was 13.8 percent in 1961, it has climbed to 43.1 percent in 2000, following Western European trends. As a result, more women raise their children on their own, thus finding it harder to land solid jobs and contribute to their future pensions (400,000 women above 60 will not have a claim to a pension of their own; p. 55). As in Germany, in the past five years the pension age has been pushed back to 65 for males; rates in health insurance and co-pays for doctors' visits and prescription drugs have been raised and tougher restrictions have been placed upon unemployment payments.
Tálos's final section is dedicated to the opaque theory of Sozialstaaten in an international comparative framework. Among the liberal, conservative and social democratic ideal types, unsurprisingly Austria is classified as a "conservative-corporatist" welfare state (p. 78). One would have welcomed a more down-to-earth comparison of basic data on social programs in (say) the European Union and other Western nations such as the United States, Canada and Australia. In spite of recent "neo-liberal" policies, Austrians still enjoy an amazingly generous social security network. The 1970s, when Socialist Chancellor Bruno Kreisky further expanded social programs, may well have been the culmination of the "golden age" of the Austrian welfare state, as Tálos implicitly suggests. Yet free school textbooks, reduced rates for students on public transportation and absurd bonuses for couples who marry also demonstrated that politicians hunting for voters could formulate over-the-top social policies.
For demographic and populist reasons, the only area where generous social policies have been maintained unabated is in the support of families and children. Husbands or wives can take up to twenty-four months of paid family leave, with their jobs secure, and still receive monthly government allowances for every child (Kinderbeihilfe). And, of course, generous vacation time will be the last bastion to fall in the cuddly Austrian welfare state. From the American perspective, where the "working poor" abound-- increasingly in the lower middle class, too--and people report taking fewer vacations due to rising gasoline prices, Austrians still seemingly wallow in the "golden age" and don't know it.
. Günter Bischof and Anton Pelinka, eds., _Austro-Corporatism: Past--Present--Future (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1996), which includes an essay by Tálos.
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Günter Bischof. Review of Tálos, Emmerich, Vom Siegeszug zum Rückzug.
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