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The Future of Neocorporatism

 

In the mid 1970s it was plausible to argue that neocorporatist practices would spread into larger numbers of countries. Admittedly some authorities such as Lehmbruch doubted that neocorporatism could be adopted easily in countries where it did not already exist; neocorporatism was produced by long term influences that could not be short-circuited. However, the performance of the most-neocorporatist countries certainly seemed admirable. In the 1980s, the mostneocorporatist countries fared less well economically while intellectual tides turned against organised capitalism in favour of greater reliance on market forces. Indeed, it became plausible to argue that neocorporatist practices were doomed even where they seemed most entrenched. The ability of unions to operate neocorporatist systems was threatened by class decomposition. As more-affluent workers ceased to think of themselves as part of a wider working class, so the ability of union federations to agree to an economy-wide policy of wage restraint declined. Workers in successful industries were less likely to forgo wage increases in order to benefit colleagues in declining industries. Governments were less able to supply increases in the social wage to facilitate neocorporatist bargaining because of tax revolts and needs to reduce national debt. Corporations, faced with more severe international competition, would demand a move away from neocorporatist bargaining so that they could change production costs, techniques and content more rapidly. Interests not represented in neocorporatist arrangements would press for changes in policymaking processes that would give them greater influence.

It would be reacting too much to short-term trends to think that neocorporatism will disappear even if it is on the defensive. Political economies do not change overnight. Many of the factors promoting neocorporatism, such as political culture, change relatively slowly. The habits ingrained in policy makers during decades of neocorporatism about how to make good public policy will not be eradicated overnight. Public law — particularly in Austria — will continue to give special status to the interest groups most involved in

neocorporatism. Above all, the most-neocorporatist countries, in spite of an upsurge of conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s, remain countries in which social democracy and unions are unusually strong. Yet the most-neocorporatist countries are also highly dependent on trade and open to influences from world markets. It is hard to imagine any alternative to neocorporatism that could solve equally well the problem of reconciling the challenges to free market capitalism that unions and social democrats inevitably pose with the need of countries such as Sweden to be successful, competitive trading nations. Lehmbruch has reminded us that neocorporatist arrangements were very resilient in the face of the challenges of the 1980s.11 We can anticipate their survival throughout the 1990s.

 

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