New Series: Volume 1, Issue 4

6 December 2021

Editorial: Logics of Welfare

Gurminder K Bhambra

The emergence of the welfare state in twentieth-century Europe tends to be associated with the successful struggle by domestic labour movements for higher wages, shorter hours, better working conditions and ‘social rights’. It is also seen to come about, in part at least, as recompense to the working population for their participation in two devastating wars and as a consequence of a growing national electorate able to lobby for such demands. Nancy Fraser is not unusual among scholars for seeing the welfare state as a historic achievement of the organised working class within European countries (1).

However, as Du Bois wrote in the 1940s, it is not possible to understand the situation of the working class in the metropole – that is, in colonising countries – without also taking into consideration the contemporary colonial organisation of the world. When working people within European countries began to demand ‘costly social improvements from their governments,’ he argued, the financial burdens of this were not, for the most part, met from domestic resources, but through increased extraction from the colonies (2). Post-war social settlements were paid for from a patrimony of colonialism and racialised exploitation.

The economic health of the British state relied on these [colonial] relations of economic and political subordination and exploitation…

In the British context, for example, the development of the welfare state after WWII depended on the writing down of the debt that Britain owed to newly independent India and Pakistan, appropriating the dollar-earnings of its remaining colonies, and subordinating the economic development requirements of those colonies to its own needs. The economic health of the British state relied on these relations of economic and political subordination and exploitation and yet there is almost no discussion of them in the literature on the emergence of the domestic welfare state (3).

Failing to acknowledge the broader constituencies that have contributed to the resources available to national states for domestic policies of amelioration exacerbates the current turn to authoritarian populism. This is particularly the case where arguments about the demise of the welfare state associate it with a rise in (racialized) migration which, it is suggested, has led to a decline in the solidarities necessary for the maintenance of the welfare state. Such arguments are only possible, however, if the colonial histories that are the context for the emergence of the welfare state are absent from active consideration.

… how might we understand the changes to the welfare state over the past forty years if we took the global context seriously?

This issue of Discover Society explores various ‘logics’ of welfare in the context of inequality, race, and social reproduction. Many of the articles locate the challenges facing the welfare state in terms of the changes that have occurred over the last forty years. From the 1980s onwards, it is suggested, the welfare state was challenged by a variety of processes associated with the rise of neoliberalism. This period, however, can also be characterised in terms of the retrenchment of Western power over the rest of the world in the aftermath of formal decolonisation. As many of the authors ask – how might we understand the changes to the welfare state over the past forty years if we took the global context seriously in our analyses?

In the first article, Stewart Lansley sets out the paradox of many wealthy societies whose capacity to meet essential needs has diminished as they have become richer. The post-war reductions in inequality have reversed over the last forty years leading to a return to high levels of poverty and disadvantage including in welfare states. The reappearance of luxury capitalism, Lansley suggests, is the enemy of progress for all and requires an address of the extractive power underlying it. The article by Ishan Khurana and John Narayan frames similar concerns about inequality and its redress within a global context, both historically and contemporaneously. The rise of inequality within Western nations, they argue, was accompanied by a rise in global inequality as processes of neoliberal globalization transferred significant resource from the Global South to the Global North – reproducing the colonial relationships of earlier periods. They go on to highlight the extent to which welfare in the West was paid for, directly and indirectly, through those extractive processes and continues to be maintained through enforced austerity in the Third World.

The rise of inequality within western nations is not uniform. It also has a racialised dimension to it, particularly in terms of policing access to the benefits of the welfare state. While the idea of a ‘hostile environment’ in the UK context came to increased public attention about a decade ago with Theresa May’s ‘Go Home’ vans and the subsequent Windrush scandal, Kathryn Medien sets out its longer history. This involved the introduction of NHS passport checks and charges for migrant health care in the early 1980s and was accompanied by the removal of former citizens of the British Empire from the configuration of British citizenship. The new policies were resisted by a variety of local campaigns which, as Medien sets out, sought to make explicit the links between forms of racial and colonial governance in postcolonial Britain and further afield.

The following two articles examine the logics of welfare as they intersect with issues of care and social reproduction. Emma Dowling examines the new levy that is being introduced to support social care in the UK and Sonja Avlijaš, in turn, assesses the impact of Covid on care chains. Caring, as Dowling sets out, carries little value, with care work being devalued and systematically underfunded. The new levy, she argues, protects personal finances more than it tackles the structural conditions of care, for example, the working conditions of carers. The recurrent crises in social care and its increasing privatisation have exacerbated many of the issues in need of urgent address. As Avlijaš argues, the public policy changes to the care system were introduced in the name of efficiency but have actually led to a situation where the amount spent is higher and more of this money goes to private companies. The savings, where they are made, have come through passing social reproduction responsibilities onto migrant and BAME female labour and / or returning it to the unpaid labour of the ‘home’.  

A state that fails to acknowledge that the indigenous past continues to constitute the contemporary state will fail to adequately take into consideration the social and political concerns of those represented as ‘other’

Questions of the developmental state in other parts of the world raise some issues that are similar across contexts and some that are distinct. As Rosalba Icaza argues, in her contribution on Mexico, how development within the state is understood depends, in part, on how the nation itself is seen to be configured. A state that fails to acknowledge that the indigenous past continues to constitute the contemporary state will fail to adequately take into consideration the social and political concerns of those represented as ‘other’. The call for the colonial past to be more effectively engaged is also made by Courtney Hallink in her article on the legacy of colonial social welfare legislation in South Africa. The end of apartheid, she argues, did not lead to a fundamental transformation of the racialised systems that had previously been in operation. As such, socio-economic inequality continues to be reproduced in a similar manner.

This issue of Discover Society on Logics of Welfare closes with an article by Stefano Harney and Willem Schinkel addressing the themes of welfare, improvement, and reparations. They set out the ways in which colonies of the poor were established within the Netherlands both to improve the conditions of the poor and to improve the poor. They point to the connections between improvement and development, and between welfare and coloniality. Regarding welfare as a historically particular settlement for white workers, Harney and Schinkel question whether it can subsequently become the basis from which to address the historical wrongs through which it has been configured.

There are many logics of welfare and those we recall shape the political possibilities of the present. The issue is not so much inclusion, as justice; less about development, than reparations.


Fraser, Nancy and Rahel Jaeggi 2018. Capitalism: A conversation in critical theory. Polity PressDu Bois, WEB 2007 [1945]. The World and Africa and Color and Democracy. Oxford University Press, p276Bhambra, Gurminder K. forthcoming ‘Relations of Extraction, Relations of Redistribution: Empire, Nation, and the Construction of the British Welfare State,’ British Journal of Sociology

Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies at the University of Sussex. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and co-editor of Discover Society. She is author of Connected Sociologies and the award-winning Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination. She is also co-editor of Decolonising the University and co-author, with John Holmwood, of Colonialism and Modern Social Theory.

Header Image Credit: The Game of British Empire or Trading with the Colonies


Bhambra, Gurminder K. 2021. ‘Editorial: Logics of Welfare’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (4):

Why luxury capitalism is the enemy of social progress

Stewart Lansley

There is a paradox at the heart of many wealthy societies. As they have got richer, their capacity to meet essential needs has faltered. While Britain is wealthier than ever before, many indicators of progress have gone into reverse. The long rise in life expectancy stalled even before the pandemic, and has been falling in deprived communities. The number of homeless has nearly doubled in the last decade while official poverty levels are double those of the 1970s, and for children significantly higher than in 2014. Britain is a society where social and material gains enjoyed by most are still denied to a significant and growing minority.

Why is this? The primary answer is to be found in Britain’s embedded income and wealth divide.  Britain is one of the most unequal countries in the rich world. Inequality levels surged in the 1980s and have stayed close to those of the inter-war years. As in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a hands-off state and the expansion of markets has produced a mountain of private wealth on the one hand, but widespread poverty and social dislocation on the other.

The ‘great widening’ of the last four decades – with the gains from growth increasingly colonised by the few – has had severe economic and social consequences. Intense concentrations of wealth have brought the return of ‘luxury capitalism’, with – as in the nineteenth century – the pattern of economic activity skewed by an over-rich and over-powered class, and resources deflected to meeting their demands.  The way resource allocation has become detached from the social goal of ensuring well-being for all has strong echoes with the economic model that prevailed before the First World War. More than one hundred years ago, the Italian-born radical journalist and future MP, Leo Chiozza Money, had warned, in his influential book Riches and Poverty, that ‘ill-distribution’ of property ownership encourages ‘non-productive occupations and trades of luxury, with a marked effect upon national productive powers.’

  … an era of severe social scarcity alongside extreme affluence.

Through the building of a more managed and pro-welfare economic model, luxury capitalism was largely dismantled, if briefly, in the post-war years. There was a greater concentration on meeting essential social needs, while Britain achieved peak equality in the mid-1970s with most groups sharing, for a while, in the gains of an expanding economy. The rise from the 1980s of a new, super-wealthy elite, and the return of intense concentrations of income and wealth  has brought an era of severe social scarcity alongside extreme affluence. The 1970s dictum of the economist Fred Hirsch – that ‘So long as material privation is widespread, conquest of material scarcity is the dominant concern’ – has long been discarded.  

Conspicuous consumption

Instead of prioritising fundamental unmet needs, there has been an emphasis on ‘conspicuous consumption`: from fortress developments to private airports. Every English premier league club is now owned by a global billionaire or multi-millionaire, or a rich state. One in three new cars bought in inner London in 2020 were SUVs. Even during the post-2010 austerity decade, demand for the rarest trophy assets – the top mansion, the private jet, the luxury yacht, the privately-owned island, even the mini-submarine – boomed. 

In contrast, Britain has cut investment in children’s services, in young adult training and in social care. Government funding for local authorities fell by 55 per cent between 2010/11 and 2019/20, resulting in a 29 per cent real-terms reduction in spending power. Over the same period the value of child benefit fell by a quarter. There is a chronic shortage of affordable social housing, yet the banks of the Thames and the centres of other large cities are today lined with mostly empty multi-million pound flats bought, often for speculative purposes, and left empty for much of the year, by the mobile super-rich.

A key consequence of the return of luxury capitalism – with its squeeze on the share of income and wealth received by the poorest – has been the growth of insecurity, the lowering of life chances and a weakening of social resilience.  A continuing rise in affluence and opportunity for some has been accompanied by stagnant and falling living standards for others. By promoting a new competitive treadmill, Britain’s distorted set of priorities has fuelled expectations, driven ecological imbalance and undermined social and personal well-being.

… a new competitive treadmill [has] …driven ecological imbalance and undermined social and personal well-being.

Today’s model of pro-inequality capitalism is the enemy of progress for all. It has squeezed the share of resources needed for the vital welfare functions of modern societies, from improving health and education outcomes to fighting deprivation. Over the last 200 years, high levels of inequality have gone hand in hand with high levels of poverty, creating a long high inequality, high poverty cycle, one only briefly and partially broken in the post-war era.  It is no coincidence that the redistributive power of the tax/benefit system has been weakened over the last four decades. Today we have a mean, patchy and coercive system of benefits and a regressive tax system pitched against a heightened risk of poverty. Tax bills – as a proportion of national income – are still high, but they buy fewer teachers, longer waiting lists for the NHS, and lower benefit levels.

The mechanisms used by financial and corporate barons to enrich themselves have little to do with traditional entrepreneurialism, creating decent jobs or building economic strength. It is no accident that economic performance has been poorer under luxury capitalism than under the more egalitarian, post-1945 model. With new ways of securing easy money, and boosting private rates of return, too much economic activity has been associated with the extraction of existing wealth, with a declining level of private investment and a weakened ability to withstand the impact of social and economic shocks. The world’s top one per cent emit twice the carbon emissions of the poorest half. If we are to beat the global climate crisis, it must be the globe’s wealthiest who bear the brunt of the necessary cuts in consumption by rich nations.

Who bears the cost of economic shocks? 

In the last forty years, such shocks – deindustrialisation, the 2008 financial crisis, austerity, climate change, Brexit and now Covid-19 – have become more frequent and disruptive. Some of them have been at least partially self-inflicted, the product of ideologically driven change and inept government policy.  History shows that the costs of such shocks  – from, for example, industrialisation in the nineteenth century to rapid deindustrialisation in the 1980s – has been heavily born by the least powerful members of society. The great wealth booms accruing to the plutocracies of both periods came largely at the expense of the livelihoods and opportunities of the weakest sections of the workforce.

In highly unequal societies, social progress rarely follows a conventional linear theory of history. The idea of continuous upward progress may be true for some, but for many the wider improvement in living standards in recent times, as in the pre-War era, has been patchy and erratic, often accompanied by a diminished quality of life, the loss of a place in society and a deepening sense of powerlessness. That the poorest half of the UK population together hold a lower share of national wealth than their equivalents four decades earlier is surely at odds with the claim of universal progress. Unsurprisingly, political alienation has continued to grow. The 2010 general election saw a 23 percentage-point gap between the turnout of the richest and poorest income groups. The gap was 4 points in 1987.

The only solution is a strategy that reduces inequality. Just how divided Britain has become is shown by a simple measure of inequality –the Palma Ratio.  This compares the income share of the richest tenth to that of the poorest 40 per cent. Only a handful of rich nations have achieved what might be seen as a modest target – a ratio of 1.0, with the shares held by the top tenth and bottom four tenths equalised. These include Norway, Denmark and Belgium. The US has a ratio of 1.85 and the UK one of 1.5. While reducing the ratio would be a significant political challenge, it would be far from utopian. The Palma ratio in Britain stood at around 1.0 in the peak equality late-1970s.

Private wealth holdings – which are worth around £15 trillion, some seven times the size of the economy – are much more heavily concentrated at the top than in the case of incomes. The Palma ratio for wealth stands at around 10, with the top tenth holding a remarkable ten times more wealth in aggregate than the bottom 40 per cent.  As with incomes, it is difficult to see how this level of concentration can be justified, economically, ethically or socially. A large chunk of today’s personal wealth piles are unearned. Some three-quarters of the growth in UK wealth holdings since the 2008 financial Crash has been the product of asset inflation, or ‘passive accumulation`, a classic example of what the nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill  called, reproachfully, ‘getting rich while asleep.`

Ending Extractive Power

A strategy for greater equality would need to break the two long high inequality, high poverty waves of the last 200 years. Such a strategy would require levelling up by raising the income floor, levelling down by lowering the ceiling, a more even distribution of existing wealth and new built-in pro-equality mechanisms to ensure that the gains from progress are shared more evenly. All societies need to justify their inequalities, yet Britain’s political classes have raised excuse after excuse for allowing income and wealth gaps to widen. Just as the winners from economic change have employed multiple ways to justify their position at the top, governments over the last 200 years have adopted a long line of explanations for inaction: that poverty is the natural God-given order, or the product of individual failure; that inequality is necessary to encourage a work ethic; that welfare spending crowds out private spending; that wealth gaps merely reflect differences in effort; that too much redistribution drains the entrepreneurial spirit. As Lord Griffiths, a former adviser to Mrs Thatcher and the then vice-chair of Goldman Sachs International, explained in 2009, the public has to ‘tolerate inequality as the price to be paid for prosperity.’ As shown by Covid-19, Britain is a country where disparities in income and assets have long been weakly related to differences in social contributions.

The extractive power that has driven luxury capitalism over much of the last 200 years has allowed disproportionate rewards at the expense of others…

The extractive power that has driven luxury capitalism over much of the last 200 years has allowed disproportionate rewards at the expense of others, from ordinary workers and local communities to small businesses and taxpayers, often by steering economic resources into unproductive use, with no or limited addition to economic value. ‘The efforts of men are utilized in two different ways’, declared the influential Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in 1896. ‘They are directed to the production or transformation of economic goods, or else to the appropriation of goods produced by others.’ Such ‘appropriation’ benefits those who ‘have’ rather than ‘do’, and displaces activity that would yield more productive and social value and meet the common good. Today, as in the past, Britain is a comfortable society in which to be rich, but not one in which to be poor.


OECD (2021), Income inequality (indicator). doi: 10.1787/459aa7f1-en

Stewart Lansley is a visiting fellow in the School of Policy Studies, the University of Bristol, a Council member of the Progressive Economy Forum and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. His recent books include The Richer, the Poorer, How Britain Enriched the Few and Failed the Poor, a 200-year history(2021), A Sharing Economy (2016), Breadline Britain, The Rise of Mass Poverty (with Joanna Mack, 2015) and The Cost of Inequality (2011). 

Header Image Credit: Andrew Russell


Lansley, Stewart 2021. ‘Why luxury capitalism is the enemy of social progress’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (4):

(After) Neoliberalism? Rethinking the Return of the State

Ishan Khurana & John Narayan

A number of commentators have recently suggested neo-liberalism is dead, or is in a process of retreat. During the disruption of global commodity chains caused by the Covid 19-pandemic, free-market policies that have dominated the global economy for the past 40 years appear to have less purchase. Here, authors point to a reversion to a national form of capitalism and protectionism, the questioning of globalization and return of state intervention in the economy. A prime example is the Biden regime’s approach to the US economy, which has turned to deficit driven social spending, expansion of union rights and protectionist measures to public procurement. This hasn’t come out of nowhere – with the neo-liberal global economy being zombie-like since the 2008 global financial crisis.

The fracturing of the global economy along national lines may herald conflict and a new cold war between the US and China. However, the retreat of neo-liberalism also seems to offer a possible opening – through a critique of globalization and a return of the state. Here, a rejuvenated politics of the left may be able to avoid the pitfalls of an emergent authoritarian capitalism and launch a new national form of progressive politics around welfare policies such as the Green New Deal and Universal Basic Income in locations such as the UK and US.

… missing from these debates about its demise is a discussion of neo-liberalism in the Global South

Neo-liberalism is in trouble, but missing from these debates about its demise is a discussion of neo-liberalism in the Global South and, thus, the reality of what the crisis of neo-liberalism means for all rather than simply those within the Global North. 

The erasure of the Global South in the ‘end of neo-liberalism’ discourse is curious. Neo-liberal processes in the Global North, such as deindustrialization, privatization and state retrenchment are dependent on dispossession, disarticulated Fordism and super exploitation and forced labour in the Global South. Neo-liberalism was part of a global economic counterrevolution, exported into the Global South through the IMF and the World Bank’s structural adjustment policies.

These programs enforced neo-liberal practices (austerity, privatization, liberalization) through loan conditionality and locked nations in the Global South into asymmetric and exploitative economic relations with economies and multinational corporations in the Global North. Moreover, neoliberal globalization replaced the Third World’s idea of a New International Economic Order as attempts to equalize the global economy fell apart during the debt crisis of the 1980s.

Neo-liberalism and the regime of globalization it has underpinned for the last 40 years, then, is best seen as a form of imperialism – transferring immense value from the Global South to the Global North. In their recent book Capitalism and Imperialism [1],  Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik,  for example, argue that capital accumulation in the Global North is shown to be historically dependent on an imperialist relationship that keeps petty producers and workers of the Global South in a spiral of income deflation – to ward off inflation and maintain the value of money in the North. The neo-liberal regime restored the income deflating mechanism of the colonial era – which had partly been disrupted by Third World dirigiste regimes in the 1960s and 1970s- through the power of international finance institutions and neo-liberal regulation to ward off the higher prices of raw materials and higher wages and purchasing power in the global south.

When viewed through the lens of imperialism, the end of neo-liberalism reads somewhat differently

When viewed through the lens of imperialism, the end of neo-liberalism reads somewhat differently. Writers such as James Meadway point to the US recently giving weight to a potential TRIPS waiver at the WTO that would allow patents for Covid-19 to be temporarily suspended as proof of neo-liberalism’s coming demise. The reality is that a year on from the attempts by India and South Africa to achieve a patent waiver, multinational corporations, such as Pfizer, have been able to successfully lobby for patents to be maintained.

In the meantime, the Global North has begun providing booster shots for its population whilst many countries in the Global South, particularly on the African continent, struggle to secure first vaccine doses for their populations. Further, countries such as South Africa and India have been key producers and exporters of vaccines for Northern corporations and populations. The global economy may be changing but the architecture of global governance is still founded on imperial interests.  

But we can push this view of the end of neo-liberalism in the Global South further through the prism of the Patnaik’s view of imperialism and income deflation. Here the current crisis of neo-liberalism centres on the fact that it does not have growth mechanisms other than asset-price bubbles. With the so-called return of the ‘Keynesianism’ in the guise of the Biden regime’s stimulus packages for the US, which come on the back of Trump’s own stimulus packages, Prabhat Patnaik argues that the imperial tendency would be to control inflation in the Global North by imposing income deflation in the Global South:

‘So we may end up having a situation where there is Keynesianism in the First World and austerity in the Third World. Now that is something which is again really going to really worsen the plight of the working people, peasants, workers and so on in the Third World. Actually makes matters much worse. That is something which is a fallout of, if you like, what the capitalist solution might actually lead to’ [2]

The power of international financial institutions such as the IMF during the Covid-19 pandemic suggests such a tightening of imperialism. As the Covid 19 pandemic took hold of the global economy, disrupting supply chains and throwing economies into reverse, nations in the Global South again turned to the IMF. As with the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the IMF seemingly responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with arguments for stimulus on health and social expenditure. 

However, research from Oxfam suggests that much like the fallout of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis the IMF has returned to recommending austerity and neo-liberal orthodoxy in the Global South once the pandemic subsides. Oxfam’s research discloses that 85% of the 107 loans negotiated in 2020-21 between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and 85 national governments in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and Eastern Europe, indicate plans to undertake fiscal consolidation after the pandemic. It may very well be that the income deflation of the South is already taking shape alongside the ‘return of the state’ in the Global North.

Reading the crisis of neo-liberalism through the lens of imperialism raises questions about the so-called end of neo-liberalism. There is no coincidence that those who will not receive Covid vaccinations until 2022/23 whilst rich nations offer third ‘booster’ vaccinations are in the Global South. But the imperial factor also raises the spectre that the return of the state in the Global North – and welfare ideas attached with this return such as Green New Deals and Universal Basic Income – may be tied to further immiseration of those in the South. 

The sustainability of the British welfare state currently relies upon imperial relations of production which, through cheap labour and resource extraction in the Global South, make consumer goods affordable with current levels of wages and welfare payments. Once again following Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik, we discuss the impact of an increase in supply price on the affordability and availability of key consumer goods, and the implications of the consequent depreciation in purchasing power at a fixed level of welfare payments. 

Within the UK economy, the primary source of income for most households is through the labour market (supplemented in the case of low pay through universal credit). For households that cannot access the labour market due to a lack of jobs, illness and disability or because of retirement, income is primarily in the form of state benefits (including state pension – though of course there are private pensions for some).

The adequacy of the amount of money paid out depends on the price of consumer goods as the role of these welfare payments is to ensure that the recipients can purchase necessary items and services on the market. A rise in the supply price of things like food, fuel, clothes, or transport threatens the effectiveness and viability of the welfare system to meet needs. 

Many of these goods reach the UK through global supply chains and are produced by workers in former colonies and neo-colonies under conditions of super-exploitation, commonly characterised by the prevalence of unfree labour, starvation wages, or work days lasting over 14hrs. And, as discussed earlier, the social relations in the Global South that provide the foundations for this super-exploitation were shaped through European colonialism, resisted during decolonisation, and have been violently reasserted through ongoing neoliberal interventions.

… super-exploitation is well documented and rife in the supply chains that produce the goods sold to British consumers

Such interventions have of course been resisted, one can point to the recently successful farmers’ protest in India against attempts to further entrench neoliberal practices in one of the world’s largest agriculture markets. Be it conditions of workers in electronics factories in China, garment workers in Bangladesh, cocoa growers in Ghana, or tea producers in India, super-exploitation is well documented and rife in the supply chains that produce the goods sold to British consumers.

It is important to highlight this, not only because such imperial relations of super-exploitation lead to vast profits for the companies utilising such labour, but crucially because it is an essential feature in the global economic architecture responsible for the provision of cheap consumer goods in Global North at prices affordable for consumers and profitable for retailers.

Crucially, an increase in wages in the global south without a rise in productivity would inevitably lead to a rise in inflation in the imperial cores through an increase in the costs of production. Such an increase in inflation in the UK without an associated income rise implies a decline in real incomes for UK households and therefore a reduction in their purchasing power. Therefore, under conditions of rising inflation, adequate cash payment levels (e.g. pensions, disability payments, fuel allowances), minimum and living wage levels, as well as the costs of welfare services like the NHS would all have to see a rise. 

This includes any future cash transfer policies like Universal Basic Income that are often proposed by social democrats in Global North countries as a counter to the neoliberal order. Although such a policy can amount to desirable income redistribution within the national economy, if paid for through taxes on wealthy individuals or corporations, achieving the desired effect of raising living standards still relies on inflation being kept under control, and therefore (under the current systems of production) would rely on continued income deflation in the Global South.

It has also been proposed that such cash transfer policies could be funded through sovereign wealth funds that would pay out a Basic Income through returns on investments made. If composed in ways similar to existing sovereign wealth funds, such an implementation would further entrench the link between value extraction in the Global South by multinational companies and welfare in the North and would hardly represent a move away from neoliberal structures. 

Similarly, the popularity of policy proposals like the Green New Deal are also hailed as a sign that the neoliberal consensus is breaking down. However, as Max Ajl has outlined in his recent book A People’s Green New Deal, the green social democratic project’s promises (like a million electric cars) can only be kept through continued imperial extraction of critical materials. Therefore, making no change to the Global North’s dependence on resource extraction from the Global South and by extension the contemporary neoliberal structures that facilitate this extraction. Paraphrasing George H.W. Bush, from the perspective of commentators in the Global North, the American (or indeed European) way of life is not up for negotiation.

This is exemplified in the regime of bordering that has defined the neoliberal period and its role in maintaining a racialised access to the welfare state. As Nadine El Enany has outlined in her book (B)ordering Britain, the 1970s and 1980s (the decades post-decolonization commonly associated with the advent of neoliberalism) see the British state introducing immigration controls targeting racialized subjects and commonwealth citizens. This border regime now excludes migrants from welfare state – through short term visas and no recourse to public funds policies – whilst using their labour to fill shortages in the very welfare state they are now excluded from accessing.

… the bordering practices of the neoliberal era are a central part of the existing neoliberal political economy

Such controls on the flow of labour through bordering are part of the same architecture that requires unrestricted global flows of capital. While many newly independent Global South nations were subjected to IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs leading to imposed austerity and neoliberal policies, the ability for labour in these nations to move to the imperial core was heavily restricted. Although often neglected, we argue that the bordering practices of the neoliberal era are a central part of the existing neoliberal political economy. It is through both bordering the Global North and neoliberal interventions in the Global South that the imperial nations can maintain their welfare.

Commentary on contemporary political economy in the UK that ignores the relation between neoliberal restructuring in the periphery and the prosperity of the core can naturally lead to premature claims that a rise in welfare state spending in the imperial centres signals an end to neoliberalism. Therefore, to avoid such parochial Eurocentrism, we reiterate the need to situate analyses on national economies within an understanding of the global economic system and its imperial underpinnings.

Indeed, given the recent victory of the Indian farmers over neo-liberal policy in India the stage for the end of neoliberalism for all of the world appears ever closer. But it these agents of change, rather than the old white men in charge of western nation states, and their needs and desires that must be included in any future horizon we wish to head towards. Anything else, regardless of being or not being neo-liberal, is simply imperialism.


[1] Utsa Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik (2021) Capitalism and Imperialism: Theory, History and the Present. Monthly Review Press.

[2] Lynn Fries and Prahbat Patnaik (2021) ‘Imperialism then and now: Capital relocation, inequality, encroachment and protracted crisis – Part 3/3’ Monthly Review Online

Ishan Khurana is a Connected Sociologies Sociological Review Fellow working on the Connected Sociologies Curriculum Project, a PhD student at UCL working on the LUX-ZEPLIN dark matter experiment, and a co-organiser of Consented. He has previously worked as a Data Researcher at the think tank Autonomy.

John Narayan is a Lecturer in European and International Studies at King’s College London. His most recent research has focused on the understudied transnationalism of US and British Black Power and the political theory created by groups such as the Black Panther Party. He also sits on the Editorial Working Committee of Race and Class.

Header Image Credit: Randeep Maddoke, Wikimedia Commons


Khurana, Ishan and John Narayan 2021. ‘(After) Neoliberalism? Rethinking the return of the State’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (4):

NHS Apartheid: On resisting NHS charges for overseas visitor healthcare

Kathryn Medien

Following the 2014 Immigration Act, there was a broadening of pre-existing National Health Service charges for ‘overseas visitors.’ This expanded the group of people deemed chargeable for secondary health care, made provisions for charging at 150% of the cost to the NHS, and saw the introduction of the ‘immigration health surcharge’ for those applying for a visa to live and work in UK.

For residents with insecure immigration status, the entrenching of border controls within the NHS and the attendant financialisation of healthcare has functioned as deterrent, preventing migrants from accessing necessary medical treatment for fear of subsequent debt collector and Home Office involvement.

Indeed, not only do many NHS trusts outsource debt collection to private agencies but, through the stipulation that patient details can be passed on to the Home Office if healthcare debt is outstanding for more than two months, accessing vital medical care can now lead to visa refusal, detention and deportation.

These passport checks and charges, which form part of the broader hostile environment policies, have been fiercely critiqued and resisted by patients, medical practitioners, and other campaigns and organisations, where calls have centred on ending this policy and abolishing the hostile environment more broadly. However, less discussed is how current charges for NHS secondary care draw upon on an earlier iteration of NHS passport checks and charges for migrant health care, first introduced in October 1982.

activists framed their resistance such that it allows us to draw out the connections between internal bordering within the British welfare state and the ongoing legacies of empire and colonialism

This short article recovers this earlier policy and details how it was understood and resisted by migrant organisations and community activists. Drawing on archival research, I suggest that activists framed their resistance such that it allows us to draw out the connections between internal bordering within the British welfare state and the ongoing legacies of empire and colonialism, both here and elsewhere. Such understandings may help us better grapple with how passport checks and charges within the British welfare state today inherit their logics from colonial governance.

Health Charges for Overseas Visitors, 1982

In 1981, the UK Government announced their intention to introduce passport checks and charges for overseas visitors’ NHS treatment, with responsibility placed on healthcare providers to recuperate outstanding debt. This was to be done through an amendment to Section 121 of the NHS Act 1977 and, similar to current charging regulations, excluded various treatments including sexually transmitted and contagious diseases, treatment for those detained under the Mental Health Act, and treatment in accident and emergency departments. The announcement was justified through claims of alleged widespread abuse of the health service by foreign nationals. As a result, the government suggested that the policy would save the NHS £5 million a year.

While the introduction of NHS charges for overseas visitors was officially framed through discourses of health tourism, a discourse more recently described as a racist ‘baseless myth to support the supposed need to exclude people from accessing the NHS’, they were also situated within a broader context in which the rights of racialised migrants in Britain were being eroded through the Nationality Act 1981.

The 1981 Act built on previous immigration acts (1962, 1971) and sought to recreate British citizenship through abolishing birth right and making citizenship dependent on direct descended connection to the UK. In effect, the Act removed former citizens of British Empire from the category ‘British’, thus characterizing citizenship in Britain as racialized (Tyler, 2010). As a result, a number of restrictive policies were introduced that sought to make services conditional on citizenship and residency, introducing passport checks into healthcare, social security, housing, and elsewhere.

the move to restrict certain migrants from healthcare provision also functioned to deny them access to resources derived from colonial extraction

In the specific context of the NHS, which had and continues to benefit from the labour of Commonwealth migrant workers, the move to restrict certain migrants from healthcare provision also functioned to deny them access to resources derived from colonial extraction. Indeed, as Gurminder Bhambra has argued, ‘taxation in colonial dependencies and resource extraction and appropriation continue to be part of the explanation for the growth of the resources available for the establishment of the domestic welfare state’. The implementation of passport checks and charges for NHS care, both in the 1980s and now, should be situated within this broader colonial history, and understood as both instances of racist surveillance and restriction and as a policy that facilitates continued colonial dispossession (El-Enany, 2020).

The 1981 announcement of NHS passport checks and charges was met with widespread criticism from trade unions, medical practitioners, migrant organisations, and law centres. The National Union of Students (NUS) and the United Kingdom Council for Overseas Student Affairs (UKCOSA) called for international students to be treated as a ‘special case’ and exempted from NHS charges.

A report published by UKCOSA in December 1981, Overseas Students and the NHS: The Wrong Prescription, called for NHS charges for overseas students to be scrapped, claiming that they would be racially discriminatory in practise and that they would be ‘a first-step in an insurance-based health service for all’ (1981, 19). The report also noted that ‘the saving of £5m is calculated to be less than 0.04% of the health budget and the Health Authorities themselves have expressed scepticism as to whether any saving will be made’ (1981, 14).

The NUS International Students Campaign called a day of action against the charges, held on January 29th 1982. The day included picket lines outside hospitals, the lobbying of MPs, and evening gigs to raise awareness and campaign funds. In February 1982 Norman Foster, then Secretary of State for Social Services, announced an amendment to the original NHS charging proposal whereby all visitors, including international students, who had resided in the UK for over a year would exempt, as would international students already residing in the UK.

However, despite these concessions, on October 1st 1982 NHS charges for overseas visitors came into effect.

No Pass Laws to Health!

In response to the introduction of NHS charging regulations, a number of local campaigns arose that sought to resist them. One such group and the focus of this section, No Pass Laws to Health, formed as a coalition of law centres and migrant organisations in North London and sought to document and resist passport checks and charges.

The campaign took their name – No Pass Laws to Health – from the pass law regime of Apartheid South Africa, a system of governance that has its roots in British colonialism. Requiring Black and other racialised workers to carry pass books with them at all times in order to access employment and land, the pass law regime sought to maintain racial segregation and dispossession within a white supremacist state, while also securing the provision of cheap Black labor. In other words, pass laws functioned to produce and maintain a system of racial capitalism.

The use of pass laws as a frame to apprehend internal border controls within 1980s Britain, in my view, allowed important connections to be drawn between tactics of racialising and colonial governance in post-colonial Britain and elsewhere. This is an important framing in the context of the Nationality Act 1981. Indeed, if we understand NHS charging regulations to be part of a larger state project functioning to deny citizenship and rights to certain formerly colonised populations and to prevent those populations from accessing resources derived from colonial extraction, then colonialism, racial capitalism and anti-colonial resistance are vital frameworks within which to situate and resist internal border controls in post-colonial Britain.

the No Pass Laws to Health campaign argued that passport checks and charges within the NHS were racist and anti-working class

In their public facing materials, the No Pass Laws to Health campaign argued that passport checks and charges within the NHS were racist and anti-working class; they functioned to divide the workforce along lines of race, resulting in the creation of a colour bar within the health service. They raised concerns that the policy functioned to turn health workers into agents of the Hone Office, ushing in a in a regime of racial profiling. The group also noted the disproportionate impact that the policy would have on migrant women because of the gendered nature of reproductive labour; women ‘have to go to the hospital more often then men, not only for reasons of their own health but the responsibility for ensuring that sick and injured children generally falls on their shoulders’.

Working with trade unions, migrant organisations and individuals effected by the policy, the campaign’s work was varied. On December 12th 1982 they held a conference at City Hall, London, which brought together trade unions medical professionals and community organisations. Through law centres they collated instances of charging and supported cases. The campaign also created information and advice leaflets, which were translated into Arabic, Bengali, Greek, Spanish, Tagalog, Turkish, Urdu, among other languages.

As the campaign continually argued, the NHS charges for overseas visitors were unlikely to generate significant revenue. And unlike todays hostile envionment, this earlier iteration of NHS charges were not a statutory duty. Thus, burdened with the signifcant costs of administering the passport checks and charges, along with continued resistance from unions, healthcare workers, and the affected pateients, by 1984 many hospitals had dropped the charging regime having made a fianncial loss.  


While the 1980s fight against border controls within the NHS wasn’t ‘won’ in any spectacular way, the support that campaign groups provided undoubtably played a role in helping those affected navigate the charges. Moreover, in the context of the No Pass Laws to Health campaign, the framing of passport checks and racialised welfare restriction as akin to colonial and apartheid systems of governance offers us fertile ground through which to connect and analyse struggles against border controls and racialised surveillance globally. Indeed, while South Africa’s pass law regime officially ended in 1986, scholars have traced its many afterlives to a variety of systems of racialised governance that seek to control movement such that exploitation and appropriation are facilitated – from the Israeli ID card regime used to classify and control Palestinian movement, to the US guest worker visa programme and European visa regimes (Clarno, 2017; Hahamovitch, 2013).

it is vital that we frame our demands for universal healthcare outside of a nationalist frame

At a time when ‘NHS nationalism’ – the widespread public supporting and celebrating of the NHS as a patriotic symbol of modern Britain – is prevalent, it is vital that we frame our demands for universal healthcare outside of a nationalist frame, recognising the active role that British empire played in determining the very existence of the NHS, who is excluded from healthcare and where those tactics of exclusion inherit their logics from. In recovering this 1980s history of health charges for overseas visitors, we are reminded that current internal border controls are not new, but rather that they build on earlier restrictions and Britain’s colonial legacies. Moreover, in connecting Britain’s internal borders to other forms of racist restriction and control, we must remain vigilant that the fight against racist governance is not a nationalist fight, but rather one in common with subjugated populations globally.


All images were taken at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) archives located in the Hull History Centre. They are printed with permission from JCWI.


Bhambra, G.K. (2021). Colonial global economy: towards a theoretical reorientation of political economy. Review of International Political Economy, 28(2): 307-322. DOI:

Clarno, A. (2017) Neoliberal Apartheid: Palestine/Israel and South Africa after 1994. University of Chicago Press. DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226430126.001.0001

El-Enany, N. (2020). (B)ordering Britain: law, race and empire. Manchester University Press. DOI:

Hahamovitch, C. (2013) No Man’s Land: Jamaican guestworkers in America and the global history of deportable labor. Princeton University Press. DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691102689.001.0001

Tyler, I. (2010) Designed to fail: A biopolitics of British citizenship. Citizenship Studies, 14(1): 61-74. DOI:

Kathryn Medien is a Lecturer in Sociology at The Open University.

Header Image Credit: Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants


Medien, Kathryn 2021. ‘NHS Apartheid: On resisting NHS charges for overseas visitor healthcare’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (4):

Care Crisis Continued: Logics of the New Levy

Emma Dowling

In September this year, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new Health and Social Care Levy to address the crisis in social care made tragically apparent by the COVID-19 pandemic: as homecare workers struggled to get hold of adequate personal protective equipment, COVID-patients were released from NHS hospitals to nursing homes that did not have the necessary facilities to treat and shield them. The priority given to the NHS meant that it was it only after media reports of high numbers of infections and deaths among care home staff and residents that any attention at all was paid to social care.

Yet, for anyone paying attention, and for those directly affected, reports of understaffing, overwork, lack of equipment, low pay and lack of occupational sick pay came as no surprise. The erosion of working condi­tions has relied on two factors. First of all, the inequalities of class, gender and race that push people with less bargaining power in the labour market into the kinds of low-paid and precarious jobs to which frontline care work belongs. Second, the goodwill, commitment and sense of responsibility of those working in the care sector to continue doing so against the odds. 

Despite the immense importance of care for our lives, caring carries little value in contemporary society

Despite the immense importance of care for our lives, caring carries little value in contemporary society. Overall, we can see how the responsibility for caring is systematically handed down a societal care chain of underpaid and unpaid caring labour based on a core structural feature of capitalist economies: the systemic imperative to expand markets in the pursuit of profitability, which goes hand in hand with a devaluation of the work of care, either by making this work invisible or by offloading its cost.

The systematic underfunding of social care is long-standing and entrenched in Britain, and it has been exacerbated by years of austerity. At the same time, care needs are rising due to demographic changes. Demographic changes mean more of us are living longer, often also with complex care needs, and over the next twenty-five years, the popula­tion above the age of eighty-five will almost double. All the while the price for unmet care needs is paid by the estimated one in seven older people already unable to access adequate care, along with the unpaid carers in households and communities, for the most part women, who keep everything going against the odds, often at great expense to themselves.

For many informal carers who faced extra burdens during the pandemic the recent introduction of the right to one week of unpaid leave will not address the continuous challenge of managing work and caring responsibilities while facing economic inequalities. What is more, an already understaffed care sector faces an exodus of staff no longer willing or able to cope, care homes have even been contemplating taking on volunteers to compensate.

Every so often, the social care crisis makes headlines and politicians tinker with the funding. Yet so far, nothing has come anywhere near to closing the funding gap, currently estimated at an annual £1.34 billion at the very least. The new levy is no different. Funded by a 1.25% rise in National Insurance contributions, along with a 1.25% rise in dividends tax, which is a tax on earnings from investments, it is supposed to make new financial resources available for social care by 2023. However, the bulk of this will actually be spent on health and not on social care, as most of the funding will be used to deal with shortfalls in the NHS.

Moreover, nearly half of the allocated funds will actually go towards paying for the reforms themselves (the costs of which will continue to rise in future as more people reach the cost cap). All in all, there will still be funding shortfalls for local authorities, who are the ones responsible for providing social care, and considerable pressure will remain for councils to generate revenue through raising council tax and business rates.  Not only does this drive a wedge between those cities and regions that can afford services and those that cannot, the shift toward online retail intensified by the pandemic makes it more difficult to rely on income from local businesses.

And while good quality care depends on good quality employment, only a tiny fraction of the new funding is earmarked for workforce development, which includes things like staff training. There are no funds at all being made available to remedy staff shortages, low-pay and inadequate working conditions in the care sector. Moreover, nothing is being done to address the failures of privatisation, such as the competitive procurement practices that incentivise a race to the bottom and the kinds of financialised business models that extract profits and cause instability, which include private equity firms intent on creating profitable economies of scale, real estate investors interested in the value of care home properties, and offshore corporate structures that enable tax avoidance.

With the new right for those paying privately for their care to have the council organise this for them so that they benefit from the lower rates charged by providers to local authorities, there could well be even more pressures on pricing and less option for providers to cross-subsidise. All the while, the care sector continues to lose staff who can no longer bear the conditions, while it is also beset by the knock-on effects of post-Brexit restrictions on migrant labour.

The political thrust of the new levy in the area of social care is personal financial protection, not fundamental reform of the way that care is funded, provided and regulated. The government is responding to voter concern over the cost of care in old age, and addressees are care recipients fearful of losing financial assets. Central here are two promises. First of all, the introduction of a cap of £86 000 on the amount of money an individual must pay privately for the cost of care across their life-time. Second, changes to the means thresholds for financial support claims.

To date, one can only apply for support with the cost of your care if one’s total assets amount to less than £23 250. In future, those with assets below £20 000 can apply for the cost of their care to be covered entirely. At the other end of the income spectrum, individuals with assets up to £100 000 will be able to claim some support. However, these policies are premised on the fact that a person’s care needs first have to be deemed eligible before even qualifying for the means-test.  

Yet here, the direction of travel has already been set: in response to the long-standing problems of underfunding, local authorities have had to significantly tighten eligibility criteria and enforce such criteria more stringently in order to reduce the amount of claimants, leading to a decrease of the number of older people receiving community-based support by over a quarter between 2009 and 2013, even as the older population increased.

the reforms are for the most part geared towards helping a small number of wealthier households and families protect their assets

As a result of the changes, more people will indeed be entitle to state funded support, but critics have pointed out that all in all the reforms are for the most part geared towards helping a small number of wealthier households and families protect their assets, while taking the money from all working people. In fact, these working people include the many underpaid and unpaid carers for whom the levy will not bring much of a change for the better. Moreover, younger people,  particularly of the millennial generation, will have to pay more while being less well off than their predecessors at the same age. In particular, property price inflation leaves young adults facing high rents and locked out of homeownership, and makes inheritance more important.

There are three facets to this logic of welfare. First of all, it is divisive. The financial anxieties of care receivers over the cost of care are played off against the needs of care workers for adequate employment and working conditions. Second, it is residual. The idea that care is viewed merely as help for those without the economic means help themselves sits deep within the psyche of a liberal individualism. Third, it is extractive. Neoliberal reforms have built on individualism to further elevate personal responsibility to primacy, while the simultaneous marketisation of care enables the further extraction of much needed financial resources through the privatisation of profit.

All the while this system is upheld by the underpaid and unpaid feminised, racialised and classed labours of care. The reliance on families means that women are for the most part picking up the tab, especially where households cannot afford to buy in expensive services. Alternatively, the work of caring (along with other domestic work) is off-loaded to lower-class women, often women colour or migrant women employed in precarious or informal arrangements. These dynamics will only become more entrenched as the government returns the responsibility for care to the home with renewed vigour, while too little is done to really change the structural conditions for caring.

Emma Dowling is a sociologist at the University of Vienna. Previously she has held academic positions in the UK and Germany. She is the author of The Care Crisis – What Caused It and How Can We End It? (Verso, 2021), out in paperback with a new afterword in February 2022; contact: emma.dowling@univie.ac.at.

Header Image Credit: Dominik Lange on Unsplash


Dowling, Emma 2021. ‘Care Crisis Continued: Logics of the New Levy’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (4):

Care chains and social reproduction of privilege before and after Covid-19

Sonja Avlijaš

Britain has gone through comprehensive marketization of welfare and care services over the past 40 years. The result of this process is a strongly gendered and racialized care economy that mostly employs low earning women, non-whites and migrants to offer personal care services for the professional and affluent classes, and their elderly and children.

The more affluent have also been increasingly relying on private childcare, schooling and healthcare services, the costs of which have skyrocketed over time. In contrast, the unpaid care burden has increased in the personal lives of those who cannot afford the private services.

a significant share of the British population is facing a crisis of care

Today, a significant share of the British population is facing a crisis of care, as many families are squeezed between the growingly unaffordable private care services and the continually deteriorating public ones, along with their own longer and more unpredictable working hours. Informal communal and family networks offer a coping mechanism to some.

These changes in the daily experience of life in Britain have been shaped by the big transformation of the country’s economy which started under Margaret Thatcher. Economic restructuring towards financial services as the new engine of growth started during the 1980s. It was meant to boost the country’s international competitiveness in the context of its waning influence of the postcolonial era, accelerating globalization and emerging manufacturing competition from the cheaper global South.

In other words, financialization of the British economy, which was declaredly driven by economic concerns, has not only affected the world of formal work. It has profoundly reshaped everything that concerns the realm of social reproduction, from how people access basic life reproducing services such as health and education, to how they care for themselves, their children, their elderly, and how they interact with their communities.

Financialization and marketization of welfare

The dynamics of social reproduction were changed by a reconfiguration of the country’s welfare system. In fact, privatization and marketization of welfare and education were key policy tools that were used continually over the past 40 years to underpin financialization. But, as I go on to show, these policies were not implemented without the consent of the British public which has been prioritizing its consumer power over little else.

My colleagues and I established this relationship between financialization and the transformation of the British welfare state at the backdrop of a broad social science tendency to either ignore or banalize the relationship between economic processes and welfare state reforms (see Avlijaš, Hassel and Palier, 2021). Scholarship has habitually associated the demise of the publicly funded welfare state with demographic trends such as ageing and immigration, and the associated changes in political cleavages. Those who do associate the rise of neoliberalism with retrenchment of the welfare state have a tendency to present neoliberalism as an abstract exogenous force that is taking away agency from national governments and their constituencies.

By highlighting this relationship between voter preferences and public policy in Britain, we are pointing to a perhaps uncomfortable truth that we do have agency over our national logics of welfare formation, even in the neoliberal era

Our argument that governments are actively directing welfare state reforms in order to feed a specific economic model is particularly conspicuous in the case of the UK, given its global leadership in carving a financialization driven growth strategy which has allowed it a new position of dominance in the rapidly changing global economic landscape. Moreover, the median voter has been benefiting from these reforms as they have led to an amelioration of material conditions for a certain majority. By highlighting this relationship between voter preferences and public policy in Britain, we are pointing to a perhaps uncomfortable truth that we do have agency over our national logics of welfare formation, even in the neoliberal era.

Complete privatization of the pension schemes which was envisaged by the Thatcher government was not politically feasible, given public resistance to privatization of basic and complementary public pension systems. Yet, the government’s aim of expanding private pension funds in order to boost financialization of the economy was pushed through by offering attractive fiscal exemptions to those with a public complementary pension who chose to ‘opt out’ from public schemes.

Extensive privatization of social housing and deregulation of the housing market were also an important part of the wider plan. The Thatcher government eased access to credit for the middle classes during the 1980s and created a new constituency of homeowners by introducing a national ‘Right to Buy’ policy. This policy particularly benefitted low and middle income groups who purchased homes cheap and benefitted from the skyrocketing prices afterwards.

Housing thus became an additional source of savings for retirement. The expanding housing market has also fuelled financial product innovation, making access to mortgages easier for the poorer and less creditworthy households. This is how interest rates and access to credit became a more salient political issue in the UK than labour rights.

The rising demand for education, to access high paying jobs in financial services, was recognized by the Blair government as another opportunity to feed financialization. The government started to encourage marketization and financialization of the higher education system through withdrawal of state funding and introduction of educational loans.

Since the majority of people were not exposed to long spells of unemployment, due to economic growth and an increasingly dynamic and flexible labour market, demand for social protection was reduced, allowing further retrenchment. Moreover, only a minimal safety net against poverty favours the existence of a low wage labour market, which boosts the productivity of highly skilled workers, as they can outsource many of their non-work-related responsibilities to cheap service workers (Morel 2015). Higher rates of homeownership also increased public support for welfare state retrenchment because government borrowing to finance public welfare expenditures could end up raising interest rates.

The state has also continued to maintain the consumption capacity of the lower wage workers through cheap state interventions such as income tax credits on earnings or the minimum wage. This was important economically, a not only politically, because domestic demand is a key driver of financialization, so reducing people’s capacity to consume below a certain level can have a negative effect on growth.

Last but not least, through extensive outsourcing of government services to the private sector in a publicly supported ideological attempt to spend less on public welfare and provide cheaper and more efficient public services, UK has allowed a deterioration of public services including health, while actually spending more of the taxpayers’ money and syphoning it off into the pockets of private companies (Innes 2021). Therefore, pressures for short-term material gains of the median voter have trumped longer-term interests of the society as a whole.

Enter gender, race and immigration

This direction of transformation of the British society been made possible by the well-established historical habit of offloading social costs onto the more marginalized groups. As most of us are aware nowadays, a disproportionate share of women and minorities are typically in charge of social reproduction, the unpaid or underpaid labour that takes place in households, schools, hospitals, eateries, communities. Since there is no capitalist production without the daily and generational renewal of the worker, social reproduction has been referred to as the invisible engine of capitalism (see Bhattacharya, 2017).

With the growing empowerment of the predominantly white women and their entry into the professional classes, along with the concurrent deterioration of public services, social reproduction responsibilities become increasingly marketized and passed onto the low earning women, often of migrant and non-white background. This group has also included Eastern European immigrants, which Blagojevic (2010) has referred to as ‘non-white whites’.

The bottom line is, migrant labour is cheaper.

The disproportionate reliance on migrant female labour force to provide personal and care services to the more affluent professional classes has been reinforced by geographic inequalities across the UK. For those in smaller communities, incentives to move to London and care for the more affluent are not very high because they rely on their own communities and intergenerational family networks to compensate for the deterioration of the welfare state. Housing ownership and cheaper lifestyles are also making them less mobile. The bottom line is, migrant labour is cheaper.

While immigrants are overrepresented in the lower skill personal and care services sector, the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford shows that the high skilled immigrants, especially those from Africa and parts of Asia, are also disproportionately working in the healthcare professional sector, as doctors and nurses. This is another disbalance that has been reinforced by the financialization of the educational system. UK students are incentivized to seek the better paid jobs in finance to pay off their educational loans.

Moreover, public funding cuts over the past decade have pushed British universities even further towards capital markets. This matters because university rankings, which determine their access to capital markets, are increasingly based on graduate earnings indicators, which offer universities’ a strong incentive to prepare students for highly lucrative careers in the financial services, rather than careers in healthcare, education and other sectors which support social reproduction.

The future is here

Social organisation which depends on the exploitation of personal and communal resources along the lines of race, gender and citizenship to provide wellbeing to its population is not only socially unjust, but also unsustainable in today’s world which is realizing that there are limits to prioritizing current consumption over little else.

People’s prioritization of current consumption capacities over longer run sustainability is starting to catch up with them and closing off their futures

The comprehensive withdrawal of the state from the realm of social reproduction, and the growing personal burden of unpaid care is making it impossible for a growing number of people to invest in their futures, and in the futures of their children. People’s prioritization of current consumption capacities over longer run sustainability is starting to catch up with them and closing off their futures. The migrant labour force, whether low or high skilled, is also increasingly constrained by the growing costs of their own social reproduction in the UK, making jobs in the British care economy less attractive to them.

The chance ofowning a home in the UK has also more than halved between the early 1990s and now, while no new stocks of social housing have been built. Younger generations are thus no longer having the same opportunity to accumulate wealth as the older constituency of homeowners who purchased housing during the Thatcher era. Social spending is thus gaining more political salience than interest rates.

The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of social reproduction by showing to all of us how much work needs to be done when care provisioning institutions are not able to function and when one cannot rely on external labour to support their caring responsibilities (see Avlijaš, 2021). It has also emphasized the importance of essential workers and the broader undervalued sectors that are linked to social reproduction through provision of food, health, education, and even leisure and arts.

People are also beginning to see that personal and communal resources are key for surviving any downturn. In the absence of progressive and continual social investment that would replenish these social ‘stabilizers’ and make them more resilient for the longer run, each new crisis will simply lead to their further depletion. Furlough schemes and absence of commuting have also opened up possibilities for people to establish a different relationship to social reproduction, by cooking healthier meals for themselves, tending to their gardens, or spending more time with their children.

Growing labour shortages in the care sector, offset by Brexit and exacerbated by the pandemic, will likely increase the value of these services, and reinforce social innovations in the organisation of social reproduction. Ageing is another challenge which adds urgency to these processes.  

These multiple factors are coming together and creating a window of opportunity for new political coalitions that could make Britain transform its relationship to social reproduction. A turn to a more sustainable model of socio-economic organisation will depend on the society’s ability to face its own cost of social reproduction and to redistribute it more evenly. In all weathers, we should expect a growing salience of social reproduction and the economy of care in the post-covid arena of ‘noisy’ politics.


Avlijaš, Sonja. (2021). “Security for whom? Inequality and Human Dignity in Times of the Pandemic”. In Pandemics, Society and Politics: Critical Reflections on Covid-19, edited by Gerard Delanty, De Gruyter, Berlin. Pp. 227-242.

Avlijaš, Sonja, Hassel, Anke and Palier, Bruno. (2021). “Growth Strategies and Welfare State Reforms in Europe”. Chapter 12 inGrowth and Welfare in Advanced Capitalist Economies. How Have Growth Regimes Evolved?,edited by Bruno Palier and Anke Hassel, Oxford University Press. Pp. 373-436. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198866176.003.0012

Bhattacharya, Tithi. (2017). Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. London: Pluto Press.

Blagojevic, Marina. (2010). “Non-‘White’ Whites, Non-European Europeans and Gendered Non-Citizens: On a Possible Epistemic Strategy from the Semiperiphery of Europe”. In Scherrer, C. & Young, B. (eds.) Gender Knowledge and Knowledge Networks and International Political Economy,Baden-Baden: Nomos. Pp.183-197. doi.org/10.5771/9783845223858

Innes, Abby. (2021). The limits of institutional convergence: why public sector outsourcing is less efficient than Soviet enterprise planning, Review of International Political Economy, 28:6, 1705-1728, DOI: 10.1080/09692290.2020.1786434

Morel, Nathalie. (2015). “Servants for the knowledge-based economy? The political economy of domestic services in Europe.” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society 22(2): 170–92. DOI: 10.1093/sp/jxv006

Sonja Avlijaš is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at the Faculty of Economics, University of Belgrade and a research associate at Sciences Po, Paris. She holds a PhD in political economy from the LSE. Interested in the secrets of modern capitalism, Sonja researches what life at the European periphery can tell us about the international political economy of globalization, financialization and digitalization. She is devoted to supporting subalterns in their efforts to interpret the complexity of their experiences in today’s world. She will be completing her book on gender, work, social reproduction and the post-1989 world order during her 2022 Wayne Vuchinich fellowship at Stanford University.

Header Image Credit: Flickr, creative commons license (Michael Summers)


Avlijaš, Sonja 2021. ‘Care chains and social reproduction of privilege before and after Covid-19’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (4):

Coloniality of Power and the Developmentalist State in Mexico

Rosalba Icaza

Is Mexico a developmental state? This question is a reasonable point of departure in certain approaches to political science concerned with the classifications and typologies of acts of governing. For example, in the context of Latin America, according to Schneider, el estado desarrollista – the developmental state – of the 1960-1970s in Mexico and Brazil was a nationalist project led by interventionist policies focused on  industrialization which were characteristically non-democratic.

The decades of 1930-1950s were known as the Mexican miracle due to fast state-led industrialization and sustained high levels of economic growth that financed the creation of the national social welfare institutions of the country. The beneficiaries of this project of nation and state building were far from being the originary owners of the lands called Mexico. Indeed, indigenous peoples were targeted by the state politica indigenista, as a set of narratives celebrating the indigenous past (deemed to be long-gone) and assimilationist policies enacted via the social welfare institutions of the country.

The 1910 Mexican Revolution’s goals of “Tierra y Libertad” – land redistribution and the overthrowing of Dictator President Porfirio Diaz – paved the way for the establishment of a constitutional republic. In this new regime’s constitution (1917) the Mexican nation’s right to rule and transform land property, including water and oil, for the fair and equitable distribution of public wealth was enshrined in Article 27 (Kourí 2017). Later, this article was reformed to establish legal protections to communally owned lands and the institutionalization of “Ejidos” – communal forms of decision making on land tenure and production – followed by massive land redistribution under the socialist presidency of Lazaro Cardenas (1934-1940).

As a developmentalist Mexican state was consolidated, so too was a corporativist centralist authoritarian regime.

As a developmentalist Mexican state was consolidated, so too was a corporativist centralist authoritarian regime. Indeed, since the consolidation of the revolutionary regime in Mexico, the prominent role of the state and its mechanisms of control, legitimisation, and political mediation (PRI and Presidency), extensively – although not entirely –shaped many aspects of social life in the country. Corporate and authoritarian practices of the PRI/Presidency/state complex in Mexico were legitimate as far as these were efficient (read wide-ranging) in the allocation of material and political resources among the different sectors of society (see: Icaza 2004). 

In the early 90s, the essay “Liberalismo Social, nuestro camino” – Liberal Socialism, our path – posited a new doctrine for the PRI. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994), a Harvard graduate in public administration and economics, justified state reform in Mexico away from developmentalism. In particular, he introduced guidelines for a re-interpretation of the Mexican Revolution’s social-welfare institutions and proposed their adaptation via a set of (neo)liberal reforms (see Aguilar 1996).

The new role of the Mexican state as a mediator of agreements between mostly transnational private actors in economic areas such as telecommunications, highways, ports, and so on was central in this adaptation. This was extended via a discursive shift from the duty of the Mexican state in providing access to land, education, health, housing, and so on towards their efficient and competitive delivery as ‘services’ (see: Icaza 2004).   

As a result, new corporate formulas coherent with the neoliberal economic reforms were implemented as official responses to re-establish political control and legitimacy. Some of these promoted the individual’s self-sufficiency to overcome socio-economic marginalisation, underscoring the central role of private actors in Mexico’s development, such as in the anti-poverty programmes: Solidaridad, PROGRESA and Oportunidades. These internationally praised initiatives, privileged a philanthropic approach to social rights while promoting the involvement of private intermediary organisations such as NGOs and private foundations to the detriment of class related or broad popular organisations (see: Icaza 2004). 

As the re-distributive social commitment of the developmentalist (revolutionary) state in Mexico shifted, so too did its traditional sources of legitimacy and power. Alongside this, laws also changed with important effects in society. Perhaps one of the most striking examples of the shifting mode of governance was the 1992 reform of Article 27. In that year, the agrarian reform officially ended, and the Mexican state was discharged from its duty of re-distributing land to landless peasant communities. Ejido, as a form of collective patrimony institutionalized after the Revolution, lost its legal backing at the same time (see: Torres-Mazuera 2013).The interest in the political economy of a shifting developmental state like Mexico is representative of a particular scholarship

The interest in the political economy of a shifting developmental state like Mexico is representative of a particular scholarship committed to a critical historical, sociological, political, and cultural revision of mid-twentieth-century state models of governance under neoliberalism. This scholarship has been particularly relevant for understanding the complex and wide effects of neoliberalism for Mexican society. For example, the state’s shift since the mid 1980s from being a provider of public goods to an actor safeguarding the free market and market mechanisms was marked by both, democratization, and authoritarian trends within the sphere of civil society (see: Olvera 2002, Icaza 2004).

… the scholarship critical of a neoliberal turn in Mexico’s political economy worked with a particularly uncontested idea: that Mexico was/is a nation

This same scholarship has also pointed at the convergence between corporatist authoritarian governing elites and liberal impulses from outside these same elites about the benefits of a less interventionist state for the efficient management of the national economy. Interestingly, the scholarship critical of a neoliberal turn in Mexico’s political economy worked with a particularly uncontested idea: that Mexico was/is a nation.

Mexico: A State, not a nation

In her pathbreaking essay Un Mexico sin Nosotros – Mexico without us – Ayuuk linguist Yasnaya Elena Aguilar Gil understands Mexico “as State, not a nation.” She further adds that “Mexico is a State that has encapsulated and denied the existence of many nations”. From this point of departure, Mexico as a developmentalist state reveals its violence also as a project of ethnocide. The denial of this sort of violence that pre-assumes Mexico as one nation was, and still is, characteristic of center-left progressive governments, including the current one led by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and his Cuarta Transformacion (4T) – Fourth Transformation.

For President AMLO, the government is on the fourth major transformation in the country, that includes the Mexican independence of 1810, the country’s secular reform of 1857, and the Revolution in 1910. The 4T government has also been named as “the only peaceful social movement in Mexico and all its dissenters are deemed ‘conservatives” including right wing political parties, neoliberal technocrats, middle classes, but also environmentalists and radical feminists (See: Hernandez Navarro in Aguilar 2020).

The megaproject Tren Maya – Maya Railroad, one of the flagship programs of the 4T government is a good example of a current developmentalist state-led project aimed at ‘modernizing’ indigenous communities in the south of Mexico. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) reported that Tren Maya’s patronizing undertones and openly non-democratic imposition has been rejected by numerous indigenous communities.

Tren Maya articulates how a progressive leftist government conceives a developmentalist state as the only possible horizon of political life after neoliberalism

Tren Maya articulates well how a progressive leftist government conceives a developmentalist state as the only possible horizon of political life after neoliberalism in Mexico. Interestingly, this horizon of possibility has been the predominant perspective among progressive leftist academia too who were primarily concerned with the social justice costs of the ascendance and consolidation of neoliberal state policies in Mexico since the early 1980s.

Mexico: an imagined mestizo nation then and now

On the 31st of December 1993, el Mexico imaginario, the imaginary Mexico, the Mexico of the 1%, went to bed dreaming about their country’s entrance to the exclusive club of developed nations. In the morning, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed between Canada, Mexico, and the US would be officially inaugurated. This imaginary Mexico had embarked in a transformation of its political economic governance and of its own self-image: from a nationalist state to a nation open for business.

Nonetheless, the end of the dream for the imaginary Mexico started in the early hours of January 1st, 1994 when the Mexico profundo, the deep Mexico rose once more. The Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN) an army of mostly indigenous peasants of Maya descent took several cities in the southern state of Chiapas declaring war on the Mexican government.

The EZLN’s key demands included work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice, and peace. The EZLN also demanded a country in which indigenous people, the original owners of the land called Mexico, wouldn’t ever be excluded from it again: “Nunca mas un Mexico sin nosotros”.

In the monocultural eyes of the neoliberal technocrats in power, a state like Mexico, the product of a social revolution that had constitutionally enshrined all of the Zapatistas’ demands as rights, their subsequent uprising seemed like an anachronism. In the monocultural eyes of a progressive left in power today, the Zapatistas’ rejection of Tren Maya and the 4T government are signs of its inability to understand that a developmental state has returned to power.

For mestizas like me, educated to accept the myth of Mexico as a nation, the Zapatistas’ uprising and its rejection of the 4T and Tren Maya, shattered the myth of one nation. It also revealed that the developmental state that has educated us and provided us with a sense of belonging exists thanks to its coloniality. Coloniality is a term coined by sociologist Anibal Quijano to delve into the nature of the nation-state and the role that race as a social classification plays in the establishment of modern institutions, including nations and states (see Gandarilla Salgado, Garcia Bravo and Benzi 2021) .

The EZLN uprising and rejection of state-led developmentalism are presented here as one of the many instances when Mexico profundo articulates the on-going violence of coloniality of the Mexican post-revolutionary corporatist and developmentalist state.

… the Mexican post-revolutionary project of nation and state emerged after 400 years of colonization by the Spaniards

To be more precise, the Mexican post-revolutionary project of nation and state emerged after 400 years of colonization by the Spaniards. This was followed by 100 years of civil war between liberal and conservative factions fighting for a model of governance like the United States federal republic or for a constitutional monarchy respectively. That post-colonial and post-revolutionary project of nation and state was mobilized by a small elite of highly educated and/or prosperous and powerful criollos (Spanish origin born in Mexico) and mestizos (mix of Spanish or criollos and local indigenous population).

In this process, a notion of an indivisible Mexican ‘nation’ was cemented as emerging from an exoticized but already disappeared pre-Hispanic past. Mestizaje was then a project of state led assimilation and ethnocide (see: Yasnaya Elena Aguilar Gil) that worked via developmentalist institutions that took mestizos’ lifeworld and aspirations as the norm. In this imagined mestizo nation, whiteness became an aspiration and a sign of betterment of the race (see: Monica Moreno Figeroa).

It is well documented how the publicly funded education system and the teaching of Spanish as the official language of the country worked to des-indianizar indigenous communities (undo their indigeneity) (Castellanos Guerrero 2000, Stavenhagen 2011). In this way, one of the pre-conditions for accessing the benefits of the Mexican state institutions was, as is today, the erasure of non-mestizo life worlds and politics. And under neoliberal restructuring, multicultural neoliberalism (see Hale 2008) policies and state institutions worked to include ‘minoritized’ people in Mexico but for Yasnaya Elena Aguilar Gil only as individual cultural representatives and not collective political actors.

Mexican developmental state: a monocultural project of destitution and erasure

Despite the land reform and redistribution of the 1930-1940s, land grabbing of the best indigenous owned lands remained endemic. Furthermore, the process of import substitution as a cornerstone of the 1950-1970s developmentalist strategy mainly served urban-centered modernization and growth. This strategy was in part subsidized by price controls of food products coming from the countryside and enforced by the state. Industrialization meant misery and poverty in the countryside and particularly among indigenous communities who as landless peasants ended up working for big plantations or never left the plantations and haciendas even after 1930s land reforms.

Meanwhile, the project of a unified mestizo nation enacted through state institutions and policies that reproduced infantilized representations of indigenous peoples as always underage persons in need of tutorship also worked to erase Afro-descendant populations. This is why mestizaje is also an anti-blackness project of the colonial and post-independence nation as argued by Monica Moreno Figueroa.

It is from the erasure of coloniality (of power, gender, knowledge) that the developmental state reveals its violence towards the non-normative other, named and represented as backward, underdeveloped, always lacking, racialized gendered “Other”. It is from coloniality that our willingness and desire to access, to be named, recognized, included, educated, healed, housed by the institutions of the state reveals how deeply implicated our lives are in the reproduction of coloniality as citizens of states that call themselves a nation.

Undoing erasures, undoing coloniality

As a child in the 1980s, history classes fascinated me. I particularly enjoyed the way I was told the story of the foundation of Mexico as a nation that was created by the fusion of two great civilizations: the Spanish and the Aztec civilization. As products of that fusion, we were mestizos who spoke Spanish but preserved Aztec names in our own cities, food, and even in our Catholic religious rituals characterizable as syncretic. We were told so many times this story until it became an unquestioned truth.

This contribution doesn’t tell a new story about the building of Mexico as a nation but tells it from a different angle: from what that unquestionable story erased

This contribution doesn’t tell a new story about the building of Mexico as a nation but tells it from a different angle: from what that unquestionable story erased. For some, this erasure is conceptualized as coloniality of power. More recent iterations of the notion of coloniality of power (gender, knowledge, being) not only point at what this term helps us to name – what modernity erases – but also that it emerges from within the margins of the epistemic territory of modernity (see Vazquez 2019) contributing to the undoing, unlearning and de-silencing of those erasures.

Perhaps telling the story from angles produced as non-existent, might help us to undo part of the damage done by their erasure. Perhaps.

Rosalba Icaza is a decolonial feminist activist-scholar of Mexican origin and Associate Professor in Global Politics, Gender and Diversity at the Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University of Rotterdam. She is member of the Red Transnational Otros Saberes (RETOS), and co-editor in chief of the autonomous publishing house Editorial Retos. Rosalba collaborates with Suumil Mookt’an Tejiendo Saberes para la Vida Comunitaria, Sinanche, Yucatan, Mexico. Rosalba co-edited with Xochitl Leyva En tiempos de Muerte. Cuerpos Rebeldias Resistencias; a collection of essays in Spanish by women and non-binary people of color-academic-activists from across Abya Yala, Europe, the Caribbean and Australia. Her latest article ‘Decolonial feminism and global politics: Border thinking and vulnerability as a knowing otherwise’ has been re-printed in 2021 in a collection by Oxford University Press.

Header Image Credit: Author supplied image


Icaza, Rosalba 2021. ‘Coloniality of Power and the Developmentalist State in Mexico’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (4):

The Legacy of Colonial Social Welfare Legislation

Courtney Hallink

Following the end of apartheid in 1994 and South Africa’s first democratic election, the country gained international attention for the rapid expansion of its social grant system and the inclusion of the right to social assistance in the new constitution. As of 2018, roughly 44 per cent of all households receive at least one social grant every month – a non-contributory cash transfer funded by government revenue (South Africa Social Security Agency, 2018).

the focus on inclusion has distracted from the ways in which South Africa’s social grant system is also necessarily a system of exclusion

However, the focus on inclusion has distracted from the ways in which South Africa’s social grant system is also necessarily a system of exclusion. Social grants are provided to low-income caregivers with children, the elderly, and differently abled individuals. Working-age adults who are unemployed are excluded from the grant system, despite the constitutional right to social assistance for all and the exceptionally high unemployment rate. Individuals who are formally employed have access to the Unemployment Insurance Fund; however, it only provides individuals with short-term unemployment benefits and excludes informal workers.

Long-term unemployment accounts for 75 per cent of the unemployed, while informal employment accounts for about 17 per cent of the work force (Rogan & Skinner).  This is approximately 9 million people, or 15 per cent of the population. Black South Africans are disproportionately represented in both these categories.

The racialized nature of unemployment in South Africa is perhaps most obvious through the country’s unemployment statistics. In the first quarter of 2021, the unemployment rate for ‘Black’ South Africans was 48 per cent whilst the unemployment rate for ‘Coloured’ South Africans was 24, 14 for ‘Indian’ South Africans, and 9 for ‘White’ South Africans (Statistics South Africa, 2021) (1).

I trace these exclusions back to South Africa’s colonial period, beginning with the adoption of the Unemployment Benefit Act in 1937 which established the Unemployment Insurance Fund. The unemployment insurance system was established alongside the implementation of racial segregation and suited the objectives of both capitalist expansion and the extension of colonial power. It was a part of a larger project of separating urban ‘citizens’ from rural ‘subjects’ – ‘modern’ from ‘pre-modern’ and ‘civilized’ from ‘uncivilized’.  

While the legislation has been amended and repealed several times, the core structure of the fund has stayed the same, even after the end of apartheid in 1994. Although the insurance legislation was ostensibly de-racialized following the end of apartheid, it continues to reproduce stratification along the same dimensions it did throughout the colonial period. This points to the limits of inclusion – however limited that inclusion might be – in systems that were fundamentally built on exclusion. We must be more creative in the ‘post’-colonial present when imagining new systems that are truly emancipatory and capable of reducing socio-economic inequality.

The Colonial Origins of South Africa’s Unemployment Insurance System

Between 1937 and 1949, the foundations for South Africa’s unemployment insurance system were laid. The fund was first established with the 1937 Unemployment Benefits Act, which excluded all casual workers and ‘native’ mine workers. In 1946, the act was repealed and replaced with the Unemployment Insurance Act. The new act introduced the exclusion of all rural Black South Africans. It also excluded Black South Africans working on gold and coal mines, individuals employed in agriculture, and domestic workers.

In 1947, a Commission of Inquiry was established to make recommendations for the system of unemployment insurance. Members of the commission pushed for the exclusion of all Black South Africans, not just Black South Africans working in rural areas. The Act was eventually amended in 1949, one year after the National Party won the 1948 election. However, no substantive changes were made.

In 1949, eligibility for the Unemployment Insurance Fund for Black South Africans was excluded to individuals working in fully urbanized, formal employment. Black South Africans in rural areas, and all individuals in casual employment, were made ineligible. Few substantive changes were made following the 1949 amendment act.

In the 1980s, the legislation was amended several times to account for independence granted to the ‘Bantustans’ or ‘homelands’ (although their independence was never recognized by any other government), which were geographically secluded and administratively separate regions that Black South Africans were forcibly moved to according to ethno-linguistic groupings. The legislation replaced the exclusion of rural workers with the exclusion of individuals in the Bantustans – the logic being that neither were citizens of South Africa and therefore were ineligible for state assistance.  

I locate these exclusions within the South African Marxist tradition which situates the development of racial segregation in the demands of capitalist expansion. In 1972, Harold Wolpe, a South African exile who escaped prison after the Rivonia Trial in 1963, wrote what would later be considered a key text in the South African tradition of radical political economy (Wolpe, 1972). Drawing from Rosa Luxemburg’s dual economy thesis, Wolpe theorized the development of segregation and apartheid in ways that we would now understand as racial capitalism – a term which was first used by South African exiles Martin Legassick and David Hemson, and famously theorized by Cedric Robinson in his magnum opus, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition.

Wolpe posited that racial segregation enabled the demands of capitalist expansion by allowing the capitalist economy to exploit the subsistence economy in the ‘reserves’ by fixing wages below the level of subsistence, owing to the presumption that the worker’s subsistence could be met through support from the extended family (whether or not this was actually true in practice). This underpinned the migrant labour system which was a cornerstone of the South African economy.

This process was necessarily gendered in that it was almost entirely men who were engaged in migrant work while women were forced to fill the subsistence roles in the reserves. This logic was used by the colonial state to justify the exclusion of migrant and rural workers from the unemployment insurance system. The cost of labour would be lower if neither employers nor the government had to contribute to the unemployment insurance on their behalf.

Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject is particularly useful in grappling with how social welfare legislation fit within the larger colonial project of racial segregation beyond the demands of capitalist expansion (1996). Mamdani describes the colonial state as a bifurcated power where individuals in urban areas were seen as citizens and were fully incorporated into the state’s institutions, including unemployment insurance, whereas individuals in rural areas were viewed as subjects and ruled through customary law.

This involved a racialization of individuals in urban areas and a ‘tribalization’ of individuals in rural areas

This involved a racialization of individuals in urban areas and a ‘tribalization’ of individuals in rural areas, or the reserves (and later, ‘Bantustans’). This created a distinction between ‘modern’ and ‘pre-modern’; ‘civilized’ and ‘tribalized’; and formal and informal. In all cases, the latter was perceived as the former’s negation.

Post-1994 Unemployment Security System

The exclusions laid in the period between 1937 and 1949 largely characterized the unemployment insurance system until it was revised in 2001, seven years after the end of apartheid. The 2001 legislation incorporated all employees, regardless of whether workers were in rural or urban areas. However, it did nothing to incorporate informal employees. The state also resisted efforts to include unemployed adults in the social grant system.

As early as 1998, a universal basic income was raised by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) – the trade union which makes up one of the parties of the governing Tripartite alliance with the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. After the idea was raised by COSATU, the government commissioned the Taylor Committee in 2000 to investigate gaps in the cash transfer system and deliver policy recommendations.  In 2002, the Taylor Committee proposed a Basic Income Grant of R100 to be paid each month to all South African citizens. The proposal had considerable support from civil society and led to the creation of the BIG coalition. Yet, the proposal was ultimately rejected due to concerns about ‘dependency’ and questions about affordability.

Following the rejection of the BIG, the debate about basic income has been largely absent from policy discussions (Hallink, 2021). However, with the onset of Covid-19 pandemic, working-age adults were suddenly made eligible for a cash transfer under the ‘emergency coronavirus grant’. It would provide R350 to all unemployed adults not currently receiving a grant. Individuals who had been unemployed far before the onset of the pandemic were suddenly made eligible for a cash transfer, albeit temporarily.

Once there was a ‘legitimate’ external cause for South Africans’ unemployment status, social grants were considered appropriate for the unemployed (Ibid). The emergency Coronavirus grant was set to be replaced by a basic income grant; however, the emergency grant lapsed on the 30th of April 2021 and no announcements were made about the introduction of the promised basic income. The SRD was reintroduced after nationwide unrest in July and currently remains in place. However, the grant could be ended at any time without a warning.

Until we reckon with the legacies of colonial social welfare legislation, the existing unemployment security system will continue to reproduce stratification and socio-economic inequality

The urban/rural division that was institutionalized during segregation and apartheid was not about the geographical division simply put but was a shorthand for separating fully ‘modernized’ or ‘urbanized’ Black South Africans from so-called ‘tribal’ Black South Africans, both ontologically and physically. The division between formal and informal remains, but it transcends the geographical distinction made by colonial policy-makers. Until we reckon with the legacies of colonial social welfare legislation, the existing unemployment security system will continue to reproduce stratification and socio-economic inequality in post-colonial South Africa.


(1) The apartheid state introduced four racial categories. The categories ‘Black’, ‘Coloured’ (a category with a complicated history that is now often simplistically reduced to mean ‘mixed race’), ‘Indian/Asian’ and ‘White’ are still used today.


African Social Security Agency. “A statistical summary of social grants in South Africa, February.” Pretoria: SASSA, 2018.

Hallink, C. “South Africa’s time for a basic income grant has come – but the ANC is still apprehensive and non-committal.” Daily Maverick, 2 February 2021. Retrieved from

Mamdani, M. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Rogan, M. & C. Skinner, “The size and structure of the South African informal sector 2008-2014: a labour-force analysis.” In The South African Informal Sector: Creating jobs, reducing poverty, edited by F. Fourie, 77-102. Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2018. Retrieved from .  

Statistics South Africa. “Quarterly Labour Force Survey, Q1: 2021.” Pretoria: Republic of South Africa, 2021. Retrieved from .  

Wolpe, H. “Capitalism and cheap labour-power in South Africa” in Segregation and Apartheid in Twentieth-Century South Africa, edited by W. Beinart & S. Dubow, 60-90. London: Taylor & Francis, 1995.

Courtney Hallink is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. She previously completed her master’s at the University of Cape Town. Courtney’s research examines how the legacy of colonial unemployment insurance legislation affects the racialization of social citizenship in post-colonial South Africa. In other words, she asks how social welfare policies implemented during Segregation and Apartheid continue to create and reinforce stratification (both intentionally and unintentionally) in the post-1994 era. Courtney’s research is situated in current debates about the extension of South Africa’s social grant system to unemployed adults and the implementation of a basic income.

Header Image Credit: Jason Leung, Unsplash


Hallink, Courtney 2021. ‘The Legacy of Colonial Social Welfare Legislation’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (4):

Welfare, Improvement, Reparations

Stefano Harney & Willem Schinkel


In 1936, Dutch legal scholar A.H. Böhm published a dissertation titled The Right to Colonization (Het recht van kolonisatie). In it, he deals with Francisco de Vitoria’s legitimation of Spanish colonial conquest in the early 16th century. Vitoria occupies a crucial position in the legal justification of colonization, invoking, according to many for the first time, a formulation of jus gentium – the law of nations – as its underpinning of that justification.

As Vitoria argues, there can be no justification of conquest on the basis solely of religious arguments, or on the basis of the idea that the colonized are not human, or are human to a lesser degree. The colonized could not be considered ‘natural slaves’ in the Aristotelian sense, as Sépulveda would argue soon after Vitoria’s death in the (in)famous Valladolid debate with Las Casas.

The manoeuvre Vitoria performs is to include the indigenous populations of the Americas (so called, barbari) not only in his definition of humanity, but also in the jus gentium or law of the peoples. The latter is especially important, because it has the effect of binding them to recognition of the right to free passage of Europeans, the ius peregrinandi et degendi. It also means that Europeans, once being (in Vitoria’s view) legally enabled to set foot on indigenous lands, they could also have the right to any resources they accessed first.

For Böhm, writing in the 1930s, Vitoria provides a way to justify the Dutch conquest and continued colonial domination of the Dutch East Indies, but he does so in a way that modifies the argument in his conclusion. There, the ‘wellbeing’ of both colonizer and colonized is argued as being crucially at stake in the continuation of colonization. As Böhm says:

“The colonial relation in modern society finds its legitimation (…) solely in the demands of public wellbeing. First in the wellbeing of the colonized people, which could not maintain and further develop its established cultural and economic standing (…) While this people has the obligation to effectively pursue its own wellbeing, it also has the obligation to accept the only means to do so, namely the lead of the colonizer, and in this same fact the colonizer finds the right to lead” (1936: 186)

Wellbeing is understood by Böhm as encompassing both material wellbeing, and (Christian) cultural and moral wellbeing. In consequence, it involved both labour legislation and education and family policies.

It is not difficult to discern in this image of the colonial state the contours of the modern welfare state. Indeed, as Ann Laura Stoler (2010) has shown, the Dutch Indies were a testing ground for what would now be called welfare policies – in particular those related to moral hygiene – later implemented in the Netherlands, and this is a more general feature of European colonial conquest.

In 1818, Dutch general Johannes van den Bosch founded a number of ‘colonies’ in the north of the Netherlands to house and discipline the poor. These colonies, where Dutch urban poor were placed to work the rough peat soil, were called the ‘Society for Benevolence’ (Maatschappij van Weldadigheid). They would be taken over by the Dutch state in 1859.

In 2021, several of them (including one that continues to operate as a prison) were raised to the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site, in part, according to the provincial government of Drenthe, because they represent the beginnings of the welfare state. As a provincial politician said:

“The colonies were a social experiment in fighting poverty. They can be a sign of hope for humanity in trying to improve the circumstances of the poor and vulnerable.”

Accounts of these ‘domestic’ colonies take care to distinguish between ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ colonies – a distinction likely relevant for those who associate liberalism with freedom – but the more fundamental issue is the attempt at subject formation by way of improvement. Johannes van den Bosch didn’t come up with a plan for the colonies out of nowhere: he came up with it in the colonial Dutch East Indies, where he had served between 1798 and 1808, and to where he would return in 1827, ultimately to become governor general.

These two sketches highlight the role played by ideas and practices of ‘inclusion’ and ‘improvement’ in the connections between welfare and coloniality. What Vitoria provides is the pharmakon of property, that comes with a poisoned gift of inclusion. The recognition of always already having had the natural right of property, dominium civile et verum dominium, involves a disingenuous generosity of not being named natural slaves in the Aristotelian sense. Vitoria held that nothing could take away the dominium of the indigenous. So, too, did Vitoria include indigenous Americans in the ‘virtual consensus’ (virtuali consensu totius orbi), the tacit agreement of all men that established the jus gentium, the law of nations or of peoples.

In what Denise Ferreira da Silva (2007) calls a ‘scene of regulation’, the law of peoples establishes the universality of dominium, of the propertied self. Inclusion in this Stoic cosmopolitanism, a cosmopolitanism Ashley Bohrer (2018) has called ‘color-blind’, means suffering the consequences of the imposition of the idea of a single world, a single humankind. It involves the imposition of subjectivity not merely as natural law, but as something to be developed and improved, a propertied subjectivity that commits one to imposing on earth and others the activity of governance and improvement.

This pharmakon of inclusion in a universal order of property is a manoeuvre repeated again and again. Another example would be the ‘imposition of severalty’ in the United States, the breaking up of communal land and the introduction of individuated property titles, giving rise to a fractionation of land and, ultimately, the dispossession of native Americans precisely as a consequence of being given the gift of possessive individualism. Improvement, here, is the name of something that proves to be genocidal, something that configures itself as inevitable, and as all-inclusive.

The argument from improvement – or development – is of course very much alive today. The trap here is to get sucked into such discourse, to weigh the scales and assess the balance, or even to argue against improvement, which means to still reside in the orbit of improvement, necessarily having to accept all that it entails.

Welfare and/as improvement

Welfare is of the order of this pharmakon of inclusion and improvement or, as its neoliberal version has it, of ‘activation’: a poisoned gift, a ruse that sweetens the raw deal of the destruction of solidarity across lines drawn by race and class, lines historically constituted by ongoing colonial divides. Welfare is one mode of racial capitalism’s suppression of class-conflict. In the West, welfare included workers in racial capitalism as ‘middle class’, a name for the acceptance of what is considered inevitable, or as Anthony Reed (2021: 107) says: middle class is “less a relationship to the means of production than an affective relation to the current order of things.”

This is why welfare states start to become subject to retrenchment when non-white populations start to benefit ‘disproportionately’ – a retrenchment in steady step with the revamping of welfare state as a punitive and carceral state, which, however, does come equipped to process surplus lives.

Welfare, built on the riches of colonial conquest, is one name for the historically particular settlement that white workers, in Du Bois’s account (1962 [1935]: 700-701), struck with capital: break up solidarity across racial lines, and participate in accumulation, however slightly and mostly through a ‘psychological wage’. That settlement, which did not involve enrolling race into the workings of capital but was a historically particular configuration of race and/as capital, has been undercut by neoliberalization.

In this reconfiguration, welfare is increasingly recoded not as racialized pacification of class struggle but as the racial economy through which colonized and postcolonial populations are managed. But still, whether as welfarist ‘participation’, ‘activation’ or ‘(immigrant) integration’, improvement lingers on, as an imposition on lives marked by a lack, as if it is not incompleteness we share. But what if we didn’t consider welfare as improvement, but rather as a particular historical configuration of what has been stolen from us in the first place?

Welfare in Marxism

Let’s recall the analysis of welfare and the welfare state we inherit from Marxism. There are two ways of looking at welfare based on the undoubted insights of a Marxist analysis with all its features, including attention to class struggle, to historical change and specificity, and to the inseparability of the political and the economic at the moment liberalism separates them ideologically, which is to say, also our moment. Broadly speaking, one insight foregrounds the economic in relation to the political, and the other the political in relation to the economic and at their most piercing, political economy retains its integrity.

From the privilege of the political, a Marxist analysis will offer us two diagnoses. First, that whatever welfare rights or entitlements exist are not in fact the result of a political process at all, understood in the liberal sense. Rather, whatever welfare state exists, that state exists as a truce in a war, a war between the classes.  It is a settlement, a result of both the capitalist class suing for peace, and the exhaustion of the armies of the workers. This insight – that the welfare state is nothing as beneficent as a social contract nor much less the result of a disputation of the public sphere – is one of Marxism’s enduring critiques. It reaches its apex in the work of Nicos Poulantzas (1978) who subsumes the state as a whole in this war, subsumes it in a class struggle ‘on the field of the state.’ Poulantzas also allows us to situate this battle stilled by the welfare truce within the larger war over society versus property. Nonetheless this critique sits somewhat uneasily with Marxism’s other political insight.

In the second of its political critiques, again welfare does not appear as either a policy initiative of the modern state, nor a modernized paternalism. Instead, elements of the welfare state are put in place to prevent a war on society itself. We say this critique sits somewhat awkwardly with the first because it risks veering in one of two directions. Retaining its sense of antagonism this critique has been pioneered and developed by Marxist feminists who point to the struggles around domestic social reproduction. Scholars in the black radical tradition join Marxist feminist scholars in seeing social reproduction as the prime site, expanding the social reproduction of capital to its base in the crucible of forced labor camps of enslaved Africans, and the iterations of these camps throughout the colonial world.

This change of protagonist raises questions for the first critique, as has been justly well-rehearsed. But so too does veering in the other direction. This other direction is the direction of Keynesianism, of bourgeois sociology more generally, and emphasizes the necessity of the welfare state for the functioning of capital, to secure further accumulation of both labor and capital. It obviously veers in functionalism but at the same time it would wrong to deny any agency to the capitalist state, which does indeed, however ineptly and with however diminished a capacity, function. The place of the wages of whiteness critique, first advanced by W.E.B. Du Bois, also operates in this ambiguity, leading some to think of race, against Du Bois’s historicization, as functional to capitalism, and thus also to welfare state capitalism. Cedric Robinson (1983) famously corrects this functionalist error. Race may appear to function for capitalism. Robinson shows us instead it functions as capitalism.

Finally, there is the Marxist insight achieved by focusing on the economic. Here welfare benefits and rights come to be understood, like the vote, as something returned to workers having been stolen from them in the workplace. The socialized labor of the worker, like the social control of the worker, is expropriated for private gain and private power. Rather than seeing benefits at work, or welfare from the state, as gains, they are in a sense always losses. Some fundamental sociality is first forced into a social relation for capital, and then robbed both of its originary, though not original, sociality, and of its latest version in the workplace and in its forcefully rearranged social reproduction of the worker in that workplace. Welfare and benefits of any kind can then only be seen as an inadequate compensation for this loss.


There is of course a word for the inadequate compensation for fundamental loss. That word is reparations. Scholars of domestic social reproduction and slave revolts alike already point to the incalculable loss, the uncountable debt of both sides of capital’s movement. In its ongoing primitive accumulation and in its ongoing socialization, its fist and its glove it destroys ways of life, even the ones it encourages. The scholars of reparations begin from another impossibility than that of Marxist analysis. It is not the impossibility of settling for welfare. It is the impossibility of settling.

The great insight we gain from the scholars of reparations is that to win is not to get back everything owed, everything stolen, or even to take what is yours, including when what is yours is the state. What it would mean to win is to be able to dwell in the incalculable, the impossibility of accounting either for loss or for love. In order to press for that victory, scholars of reparations make the case for the necessity of being repaid, being compensated, at the very time they make the argument that this debt can never be either calculated or repaid.

This is the brilliance of Sir Hilary Beckles’ report on and tireless commitment to reparations for Caribbean nations. He demands an accounting of horrific historical theft, and at the same time preempts the settlement of an account by insisting that nothing could be adequate. He thus makes it impossible for anyone delivering reparations to receive credit for matching the debt.

Something similar is playing out below the surface and superficiality of the politics of education in the United States today. Members of the Republican Party in the US are appealing to white supremacist parents of children in schools, claiming that schools are teaching ‘critical race theory’ and teaching white children to see themselves as oppressors. Journalists note that no such curriculum exists in the many places the political disputes arise. Journalists report again and again that the claims by Republicans that teachers are teaching critical race theory are unfounded. 

But the journalists are wrong. Critical race theory is being taught in the schools, just not in the curriculum, as it is, and always has been, taught in the family, the neighborhood, and in popular culture. Those parents have every reason to fear for their white supremacist ideology. And indeed, it is being taught the way it should be taught, without school credits, as part of a perpetual debt, and as a debt that cannot be calculated or resolved. Critical race theory is the other side of the Movement for Black Lives, the undercommons of that movement. While the movement demands justice, in the undercommons of that movement, there will never be anything like sufficient justice, sufficient reparations.

What the scholars of reparations and the critical race theorists of black social life teach us is something more than a correction or relocation of the war itself, though correction and repair also animate their daily struggles. And indeed, this incalculability is often to be found below the surface of those who appear to be only correcting or relocating the antagonism. Perhaps nowhere is it found more fruitfully than in the studies of the welfare rights movement in the United States in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a movement led by black women, many of them recipients of welfare benefits.

Their stories are told by scholars like Premilla Nadasen, Annelise Orleck, Mary E. Triece, and, of course, Francis Fox Piven. The beauty of their leadership, their struggle, and their demands is that they retain the affect of an incalculable debt, but also offer the demand of a compensation in welfare benefits that defies the moral framework of credit and debt. Even when they appeal to the logic of the welfare state, they also insist they need what they need. Theirs is a call to bring the incalculable into the daily struggle.

And the call is this: that social life will gather under the sign of the incalculable both of loss and of love, as indeed it already does under unthinkable duress amongst those who both seek repair and reject its settlement as inadequate to what they know they have even when they do not have access to it.


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Du Bois, W.E.B. 1962 [1935]. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, New York: The Free Press.

Poulantzas, N. 1978. Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, London: Verso.

Reed, A. 2021. Soundworks: Race, Sound and Poetry in Production, Durham: Duke University Press.

Robinson, C.J. 1983. Black Marxism. The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Stoler, A.L. 2010. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power. Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stefano Harney is Professor of Transversal Aesthetics at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne, Germany

Willem Schinkel is Professor of Social Theory at Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Header Image Credit: ‘An administrator’s house in the Veenhuizen colony with the edifying statement ‘kennis is macht’: ‘knowledge is power’.’ Wikimedia Commons


Harney, Stefano and Willem Schinkel 2021. ‘Welfare, Improvement, Reparations’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (4):