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.


  1. Fraser, Nancy and Rahel Jaeggi 2018. Capitalism: A conversation in critical theory. Polity Press
  2. Du Bois, WEB 2007 [1945]. The World and Africa and Color and Democracy. Oxford University Press, p276
  3. Bhambra, 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): https://doi.org/10.51428/dsoc.2021.04.0001