Remaking the relations of work and welfare
Remaking the relations of work and welfare

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Remaking the relations of work and welfare

7.2 The importance of the market and the state: neo-liberalism and neo-Marxism

To begin with neo-liberalism, it is a key premise that the market is the primary means of coordinating economic activity, including the allocation of people to jobs. This assumes that rational actors make judgements about their earnings prospects to decide their best options – training to improve employability, as in Mandy's case, or accepting subsistence-level earnings, as Tamarla Owens did. To neo-liberals, both Mandy and Tamarla Owens would have used information they gleaned in their everyday lives to make such decisions.

Figure 8
Figure 8: Tamarla Owens

But other theories take issue with the neo-liberal model of the market as a self-regulating set of relations. Post-structuralists point to the innumerable human interventions needed to match workers to places in workfare programmes. When workers are as inexperienced as Tamarla Owens and Mandy, they learn to govern themselves responsibly only through the help of welfare para-professionals. Mandy had to be induced into recognising her need for a qualification; Tamarla Owens had to be led to see for herself the ‘need’ to make a long, inconvenient daily journey. Neither rational self-interest nor direct force alone could mobilise them. The two had to be brought together and explained, and then reworked through Mandy's and Tamarla Owens' own processes of reasoning, of their own volition. And in Mandy's case the intervention was not successful, albeit for different reasons from the failure of intervention in Tamarla Owens' case. Evidence of the critical processes through which personal lives individually embrace, accommodate or refuse the requirements of workfare programmes is visible only in the moments in which para-professionals ‘act upon action’, and ‘instrumentalise’ the self-interest of the governed, in pursuit of the objectives of those who govern.

Figure 9:
Figure 9: Hungry and homeless: ‘Mandy's’ past, present and future?

Alternatively, we can take neo-Marxism as a starting-point. Here, the stress is on the economic-regulatory purposes of programmes that would see Mandy and Tamarla Owens as unskilled workers who are being prepared for their place in the labour market. It is typical that Mandy as a white woman is steered towards the skilled role of secretary, and Tamarla Owens as a black woman towards the low-skill role of waitress. Mandy refuses this role and makes herself vulnerable. Tamarla Owens conforms and excels but remains financially insecure, while her employer's profits rise on the surplus generated from her poverty pay. Both women end up homeless. For neo-Marxists, this is the work of a relatively autonomous state and its agents. Despite its contradictory position on welfare, the state generally works to the advantage of capital, in this case by depressing the pay of the poorest, so keeping welfare ‘less eligible’. In doing so, workfare programmes assure a continuing supply of appropriately prepared labour that can rise and fall roughly in harmony with the economic cycles of growth and retrenchment.

But to neo-liberals, such action by the state is inconceivable: it is the market that coordinates the allocation to jobs and sets wage levels. Mandy is poor because she left home without a job or the skills to gain one. Tamarla Owens is poor because she had children without a partner or a job. They have been exposed to the harsher effects of competitive markets. If markets are to be the engine of enterprise and reward for individual effort, it is inevitable that they produce dramatically unequal outcomes. In time, these two women's skills will accumulate more marketable value if they choose to develop them. Questions may remain only about why poverty is reproduced so consistently in the same families and social groupings. To most neo-liberals (and all neo-conservatives) the answers reside in essentialised differences in the aptitudes and energies of individuals and groups. To post-structuralists, they reside in how such essentialisms are constructed discursively and ‘realised’ in specific local conditions of personal poverty or personal advancement.


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