Academic journal article New Formations

Race, Debt and the Welfare State

Academic journal article New Formations

Race, Debt and the Welfare State

Article excerpt

   Obviously, we are talking about a negative subjection, the most    obvious indication that flows of knowledge, action, and mobility,    although continually solicited, lead only to repressive and    regressive subjectivation. (1)     The tendencies in favour of general equality most decisively reject    money, even though it is by nature a basically democratic levelling    social form that excludes any specific individual relationships.    (2) 

In this article I want to explore how the figure of debt might illuminate the racial politics of welfare in neoliberal Britain. I begin by giving a reading of the simultaneous unfolding of post-war race politics and the Beveridgean welfare state, and then turn to speculate on the interpellative appeal of neoliberal debt to minoritised subjects who have in certain respects been de facto excluded from a prevailing regime of welfare citizenship. In particular, this article considers the ways in which household debt might, even as it increases social inequality, simultaneously produce ideas about equality and futurity, as well as gesture towards the possibility of post-national forms of identity and belonging. If we are to challenge the lowest common denominator logics of 'capitalist realism' it is necessary to develop orientations to the economic that are as convincing as the popular stories that circulate about the operations of the neoliberal marketplace, and which are as meaningful as the social relations they play a part in constituting. Rather than reproduce the racialised model of welfare citizenship that is implicit to the 'defence' of the post-war welfare state, I suggest that there are elements of neoliberal market relations that might themselves serve as a more substantial basis for expressions of racial equality. There are, in other words, things that we could learn from neoliberal debt regimes in order to develop a more egalitarian future-oriented politics of social welfare and economic redistribution.


As austerity exerts itself as a political device upon the institutions of the British welfare state, the immediate post-war conjuncture feels simultaneously resonant and far away. Even as the aesthetics of austerity culture become a central reference point in British cultural life, (3) the founding of the welfare state is distantiated as an historical event, set in the middle of a broad-brush twentieth century as seen from the second decade of the twenty-first. It is this combination of proximity and distance that facilitates recognition of the simultaneity of the welfare state and the phenomenon of post-war immigration, and encourages reflection on the relationship between the politics of welfare and the politics of race.

The summer of 1948 has a particular resonance in British popular memory. On 22 June some 500 or so Jamaican migrants disembarked from the Empire Windrush at London's Tilbury Docks, symbolic of the first wave of postcolonial immigration and the retrenchment of Britain's empire. Within a fortnight, 5 July saw the inauguration of Britain's National Health Service (NHS), cornerstone of the post-war welfare state. Yet these events, and the significant shifts in British history they played a part in bringing about, are rarely thought together. It is not simply a temporal coincidence that 1948 saw the arrivals of both Empire Windrush and the NHS. Both were characterised by new compacts in citizen-state relations. Taking their lead from the Beveridge report of 1942, the architects of the welfare state advanced a notion of citizenship as universal entitlement. At the same time British colonial subjects (already de jure British citizens) were simultaneously given the right under the British Nationality Act of 1948 to travel to and work in the UK, and thus to become part of the new material-symbolic nexus of welfare citizenship.

While 1948 can be retrospectively conceived as a moment of considerable social and cultural transformation in the character and complexion of British citizenship, it would be incorrect to think about the racial and welfare transformations of the post-war moment as elements of a single coherent plan or programme on the part of Clement Attlee's presiding Labour government, or as indicating a widespread cultural consensus about the relationship between the two. …

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