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Social Policy in European Countries

Subjectifying Social Policies, Polarizing Societies

February 21, 2020

The evolution of welfare regimes not only, but particularly, in Europe has been dominated by a shift from so-called passive welfare activities tied to wage-led growth models (Fordism) to so-called austerity states and the dominance of supply-side oriented social policy activities. These have been implemented by nationally varied neoliberal reform projects since the 1980s and 1990s and radicalized after 2008. These reforms demand increased self-responsibility from individuals and their families concerning social protection against the risks of capitalist markets. The privatization of social protection (pensions, health) in many countries is paradigmatic of this development and leads to an increase of insecurity and inequality.

However, the self-responsibilization of individuals is closely linked to activities aimed at permanently adapting subjectivities (attitudes to work, skills, and competencies) to changing market dynamics and social crisis. Individualized and subjectified social policies are mainly geared towards securing, multiplying, and flexibilizing exchange options between labor power and capital through the mobilization of all able-bodied adults. This includes activities such as the expansion of childcare as well as the (permanent) improvement of the employability of individuals in the formal economy. Given their articulation with austerity, the shift to human capital oriented social policies came at the expense of wider demands for social protection and care meant to ensure social cohesion and the integration of vulnerable social groups. This has led to increased levels of poverty and social exclusion in many countries as groups such as elderly people, people with disabilities, and chronically ill people were becoming increasingly understood as non-productive cost factors.

These changes have led to the growing importance of so-called welfare services, whose main task is the processing of people through the contentious and contradictory merging of social work and social pedagogy with active labor market policies, vocational education and training (VET), etc. Welfare service activities are increasingly contracted out to voluntary sector organizations or even transferred to the private sector and tightly controlled through new funding regimes (output-related pay, performance-related pay, short-term contracts, etc.). These developments not only subject recipients of welfare services to increasingly fine-tuned and hard-to-resist activities which promise to develop their abilities to govern themselves according to the demands of the market. They also create new tensions and demands for employees in welfare services as they have to balance austerity-related scarcity of funds, professional demands on the quality of their work, and the expectations as well as resistance of clients.

This raises new challenges for critical research as the individualization and subjectivation of welfare regimes and social policies transcends the focus on de-/commodification in welfare regimes. These analyses focused on the different ways welfare regimes shielded workers at least partially from the socially negative effects of accumulation and capitalist labor markets (decommodification) and stabilized traditional family forms based on male breadwinners, or enabled women to acquire social rights on their own and to participate in gainful employment. Well aware of the ambiguities of social policies in capitalist market societies, these analyses could also show how so-called Keynesian welfare states were supportive to the emerging models of economic growth and consumption in the Global North from 1945 to 2008. From this perspective, neoliberal welfare reforms could be depicted as strategies to recommodify labor power through flexibilization and liberalization of labor markets and welfare regimes and to marketize social protection.

Even though the shift to austerity and supply-side oriented social policies shows how far the latter have become subjected to economic dynamics, more than three decades of neoliberal attempts to retrench welfare regimes and cut social expenditures did not really succeed in bringing down overall expenditure levels in most countries. This, however, does not tell us anything about whether individual entitlements to social transfers and services are sufficient. Rather, far-reaching reorganizations and reconfigurations of social policy regimes are taking place which aim at altering the rights and duties as well as attitudes and activities that are expected from individuals and their families concerning gainful employment, child rearing, VET, productive and healthy lifestyles, cultural norms, etc. At least from a European perspective, the outlined individualization and subjectivation of social policy activities brought about – albeit certainly nationally varied – fragmenting polarizations in, and also between, welfare regimes which emerged from international economic imbalances and the crisis of financialized accumulation as well as austerity-dominated strategies to tackle subsequent sovereign debt crises.

The fragmenting polarization in and between welfare regimes oscillates between workfare-oriented activation policies for those on the lower end of labor markets on the one hand, and so-called social investment strategies, on the other. Workfare focuses on activities to integrate the unemployed and the poor who are able to work, as well as other economically inactive people who have no legitimate reason (e.g. motherhood) for non-participation, into the labor market at any cost. On the other hand, the growing importance of so-called social investment strategies aims at re-legitimizing the role of public policies through the enforcement of so-called productive expenditures and activities which improve the dynamics and competitiveness of the economy. Social investment activities focus on the permanent adaption and re-composition of the skills and competencies – i.e., the human capital – of individuals as well as the expansion of childcare facilities. The latter however is less aimed at changing the gender division of labor in the household than at mobilizing women for the labor market.

Thus, instead of changing the economic structures to tackle the destructive and crisis-prone effects of accumulation and marketization, these policies are focused on subjecting and adapting people to the demands of globalized competition and increasingly flexible and precarious markets. These developments constitute a form of subjectified crisis management which demands from individuals the willingness and ability to adapt and improve their skills and competencies as well as other subjective characteristics deemed necessary for flexible and globalized markets. Thus, the necessity to tackle the destructive effects of the crisis of the financialized economy and structural change is shifted onto the individuals and narrows their possibilities to develop their capabilities. Furthermore, as a kind of post-Polanyian social policy these developments transfer the task of socially embedding the economy and of tackling its impacts on society onto individuals. This is undermining social cohesion and integration, therefore posing a threat not only to national societies but to the European Union as a whole.

Roland Atzmüller, Johannes Kepler University, Austria <roland.atzmueller@jku.at>

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