Social justice advocates take note. The time for mass mobilization is now.
We see it everywhere across the globe. And it is about time. Increasingly people are becoming aware that the welfare state is no longer there to protect them from the ravages of capitalism. Instead a transformed state that disciplines them to be market compliant is emerging in its place. Most people would rather not be political, not risk losing what they already have, and not take their chances engaging in direct action.
So when they do, we know something has happened to change the normal course of affairs. Once people come to see that there is less to lose by acting, they are ready to be mobilized. And that is a good thing since, as Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, once famously said: “A placid poor get nothing, but a turbulent poor sometimes get something.”
Their point is that the historical record is clear that the only proven way to get real change is at those times when the people on the bottom rise up and say they are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore. The global economic meltdown since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 has created the crucible in which the new uprising has mushroomed. From the Occupy Wall Street movement to mass demonstrations in cities across the globe in reaction to inequitable economic policies, those marginalized and left to the wayside by the resultant global economic restructuring are finally fighting back.
And it is not just the poor. As Guy Standing has noted, there is a new Precariat. Actually several. In addition to the poor whose precarity is persistent, now we see those marginalized by the hollowing out of the middle class joining forces with those already deemed as disposable populations to rage against the system.
This has been a long time in coming. Economic restructuring has not happened overnight. Instead, it has come incrementally with economic downturns successively presenting opportunities to offload workers, outsource jobs, and restructure firms so that they can more efficiently and profitably, if also more heartlessly, participate in the global economy.
For instance, for four of the five U.S. recessions since the recession of 1970, each time the economy recovered, it came back with fewer jobs than before, a result most likely due to major corporations seizing the opportunity to not bring back laid off workers so as to allow for a restructured firm in each case to move further into the global economy where first-world workers are an uncompetitive burden.
This would not necessarily be fatal for sustaining an occupational structure that could enable most workers to earn a decent living for themselves and their families. Yet, that would require systematic planning to move laid off workers into new jobs that paid decent wages. Instead, in the U.S. most especially, but increasingly now elsewhere, the state’s role in responding to restructuring is insufficient to keep pace.
One looming sign of this crisis situation is that wages have been stagnant for most classes of workers for over thirty years now, with manual skill workers seeing major diminutions in the real value of their pay. Precarity is pervasive but for the uppermost in the class system.
The battle playing out in the political realm in advanced capitalist societies is whether the state any longer has an obligation to the mass of working people who are being systematically marginalized by the intensification of restructuring that is occurring in the current Post-Great Recession period. In the U.S., there is the distinct possibility of moving to a tiered society.
At the top, there is a limited stratum of upper and upper middle class people, ensconced in positions of corporate oversight and needed professional occupations. At the bottom is everyone else who is increasingly deemed as not deserving of the state’s attention, in part because they failed to position themselves as successful participants for the globalizing economy and are as a result seen as a burden that a globally competitive corporate sector cannot and will not carry.
At the extreme, those in poverty are cast aside as disposable populations of one or another sort who are to be monitored, surveilled, disciplined, and punished more than they are to be helped. Jodi Dean captures this dynamic as expressed in 2012 presidential campaign rhetoric:
"What will we see in 20 years (or earlier)? The amplification of the worst trends already present in our society: the super-rich sheltered in their gates communities and high-rises, defended by the military (inclusive of a militarized police) and their own private security forces. Private education would continue to educate their children. Private health care would ensure their health and longevity.
"What about the rest of us? We will be free. Free to fight among ourselves--completely armed--for the scraps that remain. We will compete for scholarships--ostensibly proving the continuation of merit and opportunity. We will compete for grants for art, design, and various other sorts of contracts. We will work ever harder for ever less as public schools, roads, hospitals, and infrastructure declines. And when we resist, when we organize--the defense budget Ryan has secured will fund the drone warfare and surveillance used against us. Private prisons will provide housing."
Dean is onto to something that has implications all social justice advocates but especially for those in the helping professions. It is here at this neoliberal terminus we find a transformed social work, depoliticized and refocused on managing disposable populations. Social work no longer stands outside power but now is more than ever thoroughly assimilated to it. Across a wide variety of populations in need of various forms of assistance and treatment, social work shifts to technologies of the state, forms of governmentality, practices associated with getting served populations to internalize an ethic of self-discipline and personal responsibility so that they will handle their own problems as best they can on their own, become less of burden for the constrained state and more willing to take up whatever limited positions in the globalizing economy that they are afforded.
Social work increasingly is comprised of forms of psy services focused on helping realize the disciplinary demands of the neoliberalizing state, which is now ever more dedicated to managing rather than serving disposable populations. When examining changes across a number of different areas of human service provision today, most striking are the parallel shifts in treatment toward a more disciplinary approach to managing service populations. It is the end of social work as we knew it.
This disciplinary regime is part and parcel what is being called neoliberalism. Yet, neoliberalism is actually the corporate Plan B for the state. Neoliberalism is, for me and my collaborators, not simply an ideology that prizes market fundamentalism and seeks a return to laissez-faire economics. That would be Plan A.
Yet, Plan A has run afoul of Keynesian Economics and its insistence that only the state is big enough to counteract market failure. Though often repudiated by the right, Keynesianism has remained a point of contention since the Great Depression of the 1930s until now in the time of the Great Recession. As result, there remains a belief in the welfare state to counter the capriciousness of the market and the adversity it creates for those who get marginalized.
As a result, the proponents of neoliberalism cannot just sweep the welfare state away and return to a system of laissez-faire economics such as that which reigned in the 19th Century and the age of the robber barons.
Karl Marx famously argued that history does not repeat itself. He quickly added however: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self- selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
In other words, given the reality of the welfare state, the neoliberals cannot simply roll it back as Plan A would have them do. Instead, the right must resort to Plan B. In other words: If you cannot eradicate the welfare state, the next best thing is to marketize it. Plan B involves remaking welfare state programs to operate consonant with market principles in service of more efficiently buttressing the market itself.
From education vouchers to medical insurance vouchers to private investments accounts in lieu of social security, from welfare-to-work programs grounded in incentivizing taking low-wage work to the penalties and rewards in drug treatment programs, the programs of the welfare state are increasingly run structured according to strict market logic only to get clients to be more market-compliant actors themselves.
The state increasingly contracts with for-profit providers who are incentivized to discipline their clients so that those clients themselves become more disciplined and docile, internalizing market logic so they will more willing accept the verdict of the globalizing market and take whatever low-wage jobs, if available, as their main source of economic salvation.
Neoliberalized service provision features this sort of disciplinary work that providers impose on their workers who then must in turn impose it on their clients.
Yet, all is not lost. Neoliberalization is increasingly treated with suspicion--witness the growing ambivalence about vouchers, whether for health care, housing or education. Vouchers too often simply do not cover the cost of effective participation in the particular markets for which they are designed, leaving clients out in the cold and unable to access what they need.
There is growing appreciation that other neoliberalizing policy efforts are just as problematic, where incentives for work still lead to poverty-inuring low-wage and insecure employment, where addicts are incentivized but still also very often remain poor, without work and often homeless.
Reentry programs for ex-felons go the same way. Private accounts for Social Security retirement investments are likely to come up short as well. As more and more people get marginalized, as the lower tier grows, as people see they are left on the outside holding an empty bag, the willingness to go political, to take direct action, to rise from below will increase.
Neoliberalization of the welfare state will not stand. Change will come, from below; and we will be better for it.
Sanford Schram teaches social theory and policy at the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research at Bryn Mawr College. He is the author or co-author of seven books. A longer version of this article will be published in March in BCR Reports through the Social Welfare Action Alliance.