'Work-Welfare' and the Regulation of the Poor: The Pessimism of Post-Structuralism

By Mizen, Phil | Capital & Class, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

'Work-Welfare' and the Regulation of the Poor: The Pessimism of Post-Structuralism


Mizen, Phil, Capital & Class


Through a concern with disciplinary power, post-structuralists have recently turned their attention to the discursive force of welfare in constituting the poor as docile and subservient populations. Far from representing a new and fruitful mode of radical analysis, it is argued that the idealism of the post-structuralist position produces a rigid determinism. Using the recent example of work-we fare in Britain, the pessimism of this position is rejected by pointing to the continuing importance of resistance and opposition, while considering their wider significance for the analysis of welfare provision.

he Marxist tradition of critical analysis of socialised welfare provision has recently been subject to an intense critique from an increasingly influential post-modernist and poststructuralist literature, attracted to the claim that the `postmodern condition' requires new modes of thinking about welfare as a precondition for radical change (e.g. Hillyard and Watson, 1996; Penna and O'Brien, 1996; Thompson and Hoggett, 1996; Hewitt, 1994; Williams, 1996; 1994; Mishra, 1993; Squires, 1990). With the apparent failure of welfare statism, the inability of collectivism to withstand the current phase of welfare retrenchment and the growing influence of the `new social movements' and the `voices from the margins', post-modernism and post-structuralism have been embraced as offering new ways of thinking about welfare and social policy, ranging from their critique of universalism and advocacy of a radicalised pluralism, through to the post-modern attention to the destabilisation of space and the rejection of essentialist theories of the welfare state.

Most enthusiasm, and what in many ways gives these postmodernist 'fragments' their linking theme, however, has been reserved for the post-structuralist notion of disciplinary power and its applicability to the analysis of welfare. In what is endorsed as a radical departure from both orthodox Marxism and the naive social democratic faith in progress through positive knowledge, the post-structuralists advocate a rejection of the modernist belief in 'truth' and rationality in favour of a consideration of the disciplinary effects these claims to 'truth' entail. By giving attention to such discursive and theoretical expressions, they claim the idea of knowledge as something objective or neutral, to be put to use by welfare 'experts' as the vehicle of progress and emancipation, is undermined; and that it is through such `regimes of truth'-i.e. systematic constructions of knowledge containing complex technologies of identification, classification and control much loved by the analysts and practitioners of welfare-that attempts to identify, define and regulate the totality of human experience take place. Against social policy's claim to represent the ordering of the `the social' through rational and progressive change, they suggest that the modernist project itself has involved the refinement and dispersion of techniques of domination and control. By deconstructing discourses of welfare and `the social' to reveal their hidden meanings and devitrifying consequences, `the emergence of a disciplinary "welfare state" and ... the punitive and coercive forms of social policy frequently deployed under the mantle of "welfare"' (Squires, 1990: 1) can be brought into clearer relief.

It is this emphasis on discursive power which is identified as `having so much to offer social policy' (Hillyard and Watson, 1996: 329), because knowledge and language are viewed as integral components of a pervasive system of power and regulation. Since power is seen to reside in knowledge and discourse and has neither an identifiable nor reductive source, it is inherent in all social processes and therefore constitutes an inescapable force. As a totalising force, however, power is seen to operate not in a 'negative' way by marking repression, submission and restraint, nor through physical force, external sanction or by throwing a veil over the 'real'. …

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