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

7.3 The importance of the individual and gender: post-structuralism and feminism

Reversing the argument, we can begin from post-structuralist theories of governmentality. We might put the case that it is those who ‘act on the actions of others’ at ground level who shape personal lives and govern the social world. It is only through interactions between unique individual client-subjects and PAs' wide discretion that this can occur under workfare arrangements. To neo-Marxists and Marxist feminists, though, PAs are at best semi-autonomous agents of the state, whose power to govern is merely ‘lent’, within prescribed parameters. Discretion may be exercised, and agents may sometimes break rules undetected, but workfare drives most clients into work primarily because those who refuse lose their income. It was the implicit threat of sanctions that made Mandy sign up for the course, and their application by a dutiful PA that made her homeless. The same threat drove Tamarla Owens onto the bus every day despite the needs of her son. The threats may have been unspoken by the PA, but they were nonetheless embodied in state power, which was enacted by Mandy's PA when she stopped her allowance.

On this reading, a post-structuralist theory of governmentality is misleading in its claim that the freedom of the governed is taken for granted and that coercion is not used. So long as coercion exists as a last resort, all interactions take place in its shadow. Rose's (1990, 1999) acknowledgement of the freedom of human beings to act and his reading of the ways in which it is harnessed by para-professionals only makes sense if coercive powers linger as threats. His theory then falls prey to the same criticisms as are levelled at some Marxist theories: the state is wrongly attributed with overwhelming, deterministic powers, whereas there is clear evidence that these are evaded and resisted by the street-level bureaucrats mentioned earlier, among others.

In the face of these arguments, Foucauldian post-structuralist theories seem more persuasive. Individuals are led towards inhabiting particular subject positions through the powers of discourses, but are also able to resist becoming constituted as subjects. But, in turn, this version of post-structuralism is criticised for being impermeable to empirical verification. The processes whereby subjects become constituted are buried in protracted interactions and recurrent episodes of incremental persuasion and attrition. Every case is unique and so cannot provide a basis for generalisation. And the interactions that underlie them require insights into the psychodynamics, cognitions and changed beliefs and morals of newly constituted subjects. The key issue, as always, is one of interpretation.

From another theoretical position, feminists have pointed to the gendered nature of the way in which workfare has ‘made’ personal lives, either through women's distinctive position in the labour market, or through particular subjectivities available to women without work. The allocation of Mandy and Tamarla Owens to stereotypically gendered activities (as secretarial student and waitress) underlines the tendency of workfare schemes to reinforce old inequalities. Both women are single; both their lives are framed by lone parenthood – Mandy as daughter, Tamarla Owens as mother. And both suffer poverty that has made them homeless in troubling circumstances. In this sense they represent the condition of many whose financial position as single women is precarious. The challenge to feminism is to analyse how gender is cross-cut by other sources of inequality in the ways policies shape personal lives. To Marxist feminists, it is the combination of their class and gender that unite Mandy's and Tamarla Owens' experiences. Tamarla Owens' experience as a black person deepens her disadvantage, but does not qualitatively alter it.

In contrast, for post-structuralist feminists, living blackness as a working-class woman's identity in the face of welfare policies is an entirely different experience from living whiteness. Tamarla Owens, by virtue of her blackness and by her location in the USA, is constituted in different ways from Mandy, who as a British white woman is constituted as part of a dominant social group. The relation between their differences (as gendered, as racialised) and their inequality is itself different for each of them, because of where they live as well as who they are.

This is most obvious when seen through the formal procedures by which each of them became drawn into workfare. Mandy's age alone was the condition of her entry; as a young unemployed person aged 18 she would have been exempt in the USA. Tamarla Owens' gender, ‘race’, and her lone parenthood conjointly made her the essentialised target of workfare. But this is only so in the US context: in the UK she would have been eligible for benefit without work, and would not perhaps have had to undertake a long journey to a distant job that involved leaving her 6-year-old son in someone else's care with tragic consequences.


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