Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Austerity and Welfare State Practices

I'm going to dip my toe back into the blogging pool via a quick "Lookee here!" post. In the last little while, lots of energy on the left has been focused on decrying and trying to figure out how to fight austerity measures. After all, in Canada we have a new federal government that has already shown positive glee in using the might of the state to run roughshod over collective bargaining and the right to strike and that promises to cut and privatize and further transform the state in neoliberal directions. And in the U.S., the recent debt ceiling deal drives a stake into the remaining fragments of the welfare state there.

What to do in the face of this is not at all clear, and I tend to feel dispirited and overwhelmed whenever I think about it. However, there is an added complexity that makes our task harder but that we simply cannot omit: Lots of the things that are under attack, and that for moral and political reasons we are put into a position of defending, have a lot of really serious problems. For example -- and here is the "Lookee here!" part of this post -- check out this useful article on welfare systems in Canada by Wendy Chan, co-author of a great little book on the impacts of the earlier phase of neoliberal transformation on welfare and welfare recipients in Canada.

Chan writes,

The policing of social assistance in Canada is not new. Individuals, particularly women who rely on the state for support, have long found themselves under constant scrutiny by both state officials and the public over their eligibility and entitlement for access to welfare benefits ... basic survival needs such as food, medical supplies, and housing often cannot be met ... the surveillance of welfare has become increasingly invasive ... there is the sheer lack of privacy as a welfare claimant. The requirement to provide documentation of every aspect of their lives to caseworkers, the home visits by state agents, the use of technology to track recipients and their information, and the invitation for non-state agents (present/current boyfriends and spouses, landlords, neighbours) to participate in the surveillance project through the use of fraud hotlines demonstrates the unprecedented levels of surveillance endured by claimants.

While the policing of welfare fraud has always been a part of the welfare system, what has changed in recent times is the intensity with which welfare jurisdictions are pursuing the problem of fraud, and the punitive treatment of individuals prosecuted for welfare fraud. The increased surveillance and criminalization of welfare recipients has shifted the image of welfare. Now, poverty, welfare and crime are inextricably linked such that to be poor is to be culpable and the category of “undeserving” poor has expanded dramatically

While the article talks about the ways that this has become unquestionably worse since neoliberalism hit Canada hard in the mid-1990s, it also acknowledges that things like oppressive moral regulation, especially of women, and inadequate amounts have always been features of welfare. Though we often forget it now, even at its height, there were important critiques of welfare state practices from feminists and from the left.

So the question is, how do we defend against the coming attacks while pushing not for a return to a past that was pretty awful and oppressive anyway and that we probably couldn't replicate if we wanted to, but for a much more thoroughly just and liberatory transformation? Especially given our weakness in this moment?


Red Jenny said...


angrykarl said...

You can count me in the dispirited and overwhelmed category as well. That's not to say I'm utterly pessimistic about the possibility of victories, but the strength of our opponents is daunting.

I think acknowledging the worst parts of the welfare state is actually a strength for us. People listen up when you say that you want to help people without oppressing them. The fact that we don't want to rebuild old problems is part of why our politics have the possibility of attracting mass support.

thwap said...

Guaranteed Annual Income based on the inherent value of human beings.

And more telling stupid assholes to go fuck themselves when they complain about it. Being polite and respectful to Toronto Sun readers hasn't worked.

Fuck 'em.