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.


Böhm, A.H. 1936. Het recht van kolonisatie. Francisco de Vitoria’s lessen over het recht tot koloniseeren in verband met de Spaansche kolonisatie, het optreden der pausen en het internationale recht [The right to colonization. Francisco de Vitoria’s lessons on the right to colonize in relation to the Spanish colonization, the action of the popes and the international law], Utrecht: Oosthoek’s Uitgevers-Maatschappij.

Bohrer, A. 2018. ‘Color-Blind Racism in Early Modernity: Race, Colonization, and Capitalism in the Work of Francisco de Vitoria’, Journal of Speculative Philosophy 32(3): 388-399. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5325/jspecphil.32.3.0388

Da Silva, D. 2007. Toward a Global idea of Race, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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): https://doi.org/10.51428/dsoc.2021.04.0009