The Welfare State in the Post(?)-Crisis Landscape

This fourth of the six ESRC seminars on the post-crisis landscape turned to a focus on the welfare state.

After Mario Draghi announced ECB’s Outright Monetary Transaction Programme in September 2012, bond-yield spreads narrowed in the Eurozone and put an end to the immediacy of the Eurozone crisis in the sense that the common currency was stabilised.

Yet, Europe’s crisis is not over. Contestation over the ‘politics of austerity’ continues to raise questions over the legitimacy of orthodox models of economic policy. Such questions and contestation intersect in complex ways with moral panics such as that of Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’. The attendant political manifestations are complex and varied. They include territorialisation of political cleavages (the question of a possible ‘Brexit’ and the increased appeal of separatist movements in, for instance, Scotland and Catalunya); the rise of the populist nationalist right; the decline, and in some cases outright collapse, of social democracy and recomposition of the Left giving rise to parties such as Syriza and Podemos. Negotiations over the Greek debt raised profound questions about the politics of representation in the Eurozone with some suggesting that Europe is moving towards an increasingly authoritarian form of neoliberalism.

This seminar explored the extent to which a basic function that hitherto had been assigned to the welfare state – the function of social reproduction – could serve as an analytical site to explore the interconnections between these seemingly complex, intersecting and multiple dimensions of European crisis.

The seminar, then, proposed a return to what classical welfare state research considered to be an essential structural property of the welfare state (Wilensky, 1975; Therborn, 1987). The basic argument is that, as (post-) industrial capitalism develops, ‘traditional’ communal and extended family reproductive networks are undermined and need to be replaced by public welfare provision. This insight was subsequently given further breadth, depth, ontological subtlety, and a more critical edge by feminist research (e.g. Pateman, 1988; Orloff, 1996). Here questions were raised over the extent to which the welfare state overcame traditional patriarchal structures and the extent to which it instead mediated between, and helped co-constitute, different forms of stratification in the realms of the family, market and the state. Nevertheless, the emancipatory potential of the welfare state continued to be explored (e.g. Sainsbury, 1996).

From such analytical considerations, deeper issues about the (post?) crisis landscape in Europe were explored. It could reasonably be argued that social policy developments in Europe in the two decades leading up to the crisis were indeed about addressing reproductive requirements generated by a modernisation agenda and attempting to mainstream feminist critiques of the ‘male-breadwinner model’ with the neo-liberal economic flexibility agenda. Crucial in this regard was the image of an ‘adult worker model’ (Giuliani and Lewis, 2005). Increased social expenditure in southern Europe was above all in traditional reproductive areas in a rather narrow sense, such as childcare provision (Rhodes, 2002: 312-13). The concern of the Lisbon Agenda with increased labour market participation rates was intimately intertwined with the reproductive question of a prospective transition to the ‘adult worker’ model.

With this as its starting point, the seminar proceeded to hear contributions from a range of speakers.

Paul Lewis (Birmingham) and David Bailey (Birmingham) began the day with an overview of the key ways in which the themes of the seminar fitted into the broader seminar series. In particular, they noted, the post-crisis period had been characterised by a move by advance industrial democracies to shore up the financial industry, which in turn had effectively acted to nationalise the debt crisis that emerged in 2008. As a result, those states had subsequently moved to reduce their own exposure to creditors and adverse financial speculation, resulting in downward pressures upon the welfare state. This therefore created a context in which we needed to consider the functions and constraints of the welfare state in the contemporary period.

Magnus Ryner (KCL) then proceeded to outline the core themes and questions that the seminar would focus on, introducing the following central working hypothesis around which discussions for the day would be based:

Attempts to retrench social policy through austerity are interfering with structural reproductive necessities, and are likely to continue to generate profound crisis tendencies. Prima facie evidence for its plausibility can be found in the dramatic increase of suicides, infectious diseases and HIV (Karanikolos et al, 2013; Bergiannaki and Dimitrakopoulos, 2014) and the increased strains of the attenuated extended family networks in southern Europe as families move back home to retired parents and grand-parents in order to economically manage (e.g. Salido, Carabana & Torrejon, 2012). These manifestations and strains condition the political reactions to migration, which, however, also plays a critical role in Europe’s political economy of reproduction.

The first invited speaker, Roberta Guerrina (University of Surrey), then proceeded to discuss the way in which the crisis has provided an opportunity for ideologically driven cuts aimed at retrenching the Europe social model, in the process ignoring the gendered nature of this policy shift. This was followed by Adrienne Roberts  (University of Manchester), who gave a talk titled, 'Household Debt and the Financialization of Social Reproduction', in which the role of debt was considered with regard to the way that it has represented a quasi-replacement for a number of important welfare functions.

In the second session, Monica Clua-Losada (University of Texas) spoke about her research into the declining nature of the welfare state in Spain, alongside a consideration of some of the important ways in which welfare provision has in the process been re-politicised. This was followed by Serena Romano (University of Naples), who gave a paper titled, 'Urban Social Innovation in Southern Italy: Solidarity, Resilience and Austerity after the Great Recession', highlighting some of the key research findings from an ongoing project exploring the nature of welfare reforms and the way in which these have had important effects at both the micro and macro level.

The third session presented the findings of current doctoral research ongoing at Kings College London. Douglas Voigt (King's College London) presented his research on the 'Social (In)justice and the German Hartz Regime'. This sought to operationalise a theory of social justice for the empirical study of the German labour market in the contemporary period, utilising a critical epistemology which attempts to overcome the lack of dialogue between positivist causal explanation, and interpretivist discourse analysis. Nina Süsse (King's College and the Max Planck Institute, Cologne) presented her research on 'The Every-Day of German Family Policy Reform: Translocal Transformations in the Organisation of Childcare', focusing especially on family and labour market policy reform in Germany since 1998.

Finally, the seminar closed with an open discussion around the key themes that had been raised during the day, focusing especially on some of the key gender issues that had been raised throughout the day, including the potential for universal basic income to represent an alternative trajectory for welfare developments in the post-crisis context.

The Welfare State in the Post(?)-Crisis Landscape
King's College London, 03 June 2016


9:30-10:00 Introduction

  • Magnus Ryner (King’s College London)
  • Paul Lewis/David Bailey (University of Birmingham)

10:00-11:20: Welfare and the Political Economy of Reproduction in the Post(?)-Crisis Landscape

  • Roberta Guerrina (University of Surrey)
  • Adrienne Roberts  (University of Manchester)

11:40-13:00: The Crisis of the Welfare State: Perspectives from the Periphery

  • Monica Clua-Losada (University of Texas)
  • Serena Romano (University of Naples)

14:15-15:40: Steady She Goes? Work, Reproduction and Welfare in a Reformed Modell Deutschland

  • Douglas Voigt (King’s College London)
  • Nina Süsse (King’s College and the Max Planck Institute, Cologne)

16:00-17:00 Conclusions

  • Johan Hassel (Global Utmaning) (TBC)
  • Paul Lewis/David Bailey (University of Birmingham)

More information

Find out more about the ESRC Seminar Series: Understanding the Post-Crisis Landscape.