In his MPIfG lectures, Francesco Boldizzoni addresses a central issue of our time from a historical perspective. The evolution of welfare systems in the Western world has been the product of cultural variables and material forces. The former include deep-seated attitudes toward poverty and concepts of the state that can be traced back to the early modern period. The latter are intrinsic to capitalist development inasmuch as it rests on Marx’s and Weber’s mechanical foundations. The interaction between the cultural and the material is itself problematic. It is largely responsible for the sense of instability that dominates our societies and, at the same time, warns the social scientist against the temptations of crystal-ball prediction. While history provides no guidance to the future, it can help make sense of this dynamic complexity.
The Reformation and the process of state-building that emerged from the disgregation of feudal power structures has cast a long shadow over the life of modern secularized societies. Decisions as to who should deliver welfare services and who should benefit from them in today’s market economies are embedded (often unconsciously) in centuries-old mental frameworks. The genesis of these great cultural divides forms the subject of the first lecture.