October 18, 2010
I've always been troubled by the neo-liberalism's approach to welfare especially in the context of poverty and the working poor resulting from the global financial crisis. The neo-liberal mode of governance is characterized by paternalism, the close supervision of the poor, mutual obligation and viewing people ''doing it tough'' as examples of moral failure. Behind it sits the idea of the minimalist state and the social structure of the free market.
Behind this mode of governance is the idea that welfare, although designed to prevent poverty (by protecting individuals from the vagaries of the market) actually discourages work. Neo-liberalism aims to counter this trend by promising opportunity and success to all those willing to work hard and play by the rules: the deserving poor. This mode of governance is structured around greater marketisation, privatisation, and contracting out of social services; plus seeing welfare recipients as passive, and therefore less worthy, citizens.
Under this mode of governance the unemployed need to prove themselves deserving by acquiring a work ethic that offers them pathways to employment. Economic growth is deemed to be the best means to counter unemployment. It provides limited training and education since it is the personal characteristics of the unemployed, rather than general labour market imbalances, that are held to be the source of the continuing unemployment problem.
My unease with neo-liberalism's central focus on personal responsibility and stigmatising the individual unemployed person as ‘at fault’, is that it detracts from the underlying structural causes of the problem. In the 1980s the underlying structural causes were de-industrialisation and globalisation; since 2009 it is the deflationary consequences of the global financial crisis.
The lack of good skills training to enable the unemployed to find work in structurally changing markets implies that government's fail to uphold their end of mutual obligation. How then are the unemployed to acquire the skills to gain employment in the market?
Neo-liberalism as a mode of governance requires a particular form of subjectivity; one in which self-sufficient or independent individuals are deemed to be the centre of morality, agency, and intentionality. The nonworking poor lack rationality in that they do not not work when there are opportunities to do so; and they suffer from, or are afflicted by, a mentality of defeatism and helplessness. They require norms to be enforced and control in order to reform their subjectivity so they participate in the marketplace. Under this neo-liberal regime of self the unemployed are then deemed to be free, and so have self-respect and independence.
So the problem under a neo-liberal mode of governance is not capitalism, but the way we govern ourselves; and so policies are directed at the reformation of individuals rather than structural relations.