Welfare and Repression: A Troubled Twining
There is always an intertwined and profoundly contradictory relationship between the welfare and repressive functions of capitalist states. Unlike states in previous class societies, capitalist states have always managed social welfare in order to maintain and constrain the material security of “their” populations. They establish and shape, on a day-to-day basis, institutions of social reproduction of the workforce. These have included, simultaneously, tasks of educating and keeping healthy its citizens as well as labelling, policing, and surveilling them.
These principles, of social policy and of profit-making, may clash in detail, but they share a common root. As one C19 British Poor Law commissioner remarked,
It is an admitted maxim of social policy that the first charge upon the land must be the maintenance of those reared upon it. Society exists for the preservation of property; but subject to the condition that the wants of the few shall only be realized by first making provision for the necessities of the many.
Today’s “commissioners” tailor welfare institutions to the demands of markets and states for fit, educated workers to enhance capital’s competitive edge. Capital tries to impose its discipline on the biological rhythms of birth, aging and death, but its relationship to life-making is one of reluctant dependence. It is dependent on a healthy, able-bodied workforce but reluctant to have resources diverted to life-making institutions. What makes this crisis so unusual is that it has forced to the fore capital’s dependence on its workforce.
If in liberal normality the welfare and repressive spheres, although connected, are most often experienced as separate, right now they’re scrambled together in unprecedented ways. The public health crisis has provoked the imposition of a state of emergency. Security forces are commanded onto the streets as agents of welfare. Police are mobilized as the protectors of public health, the enforcers of social distancing. States are justifying intensified surveillance as a public safety measure.
The unleashing of repressive organs as agents of welfare has brought sickening scenes. In India, a man was beaten to death by the police when he stepped out to buy biscuits. He was of course Muslim. In France, riots broke out in the banlieux, where predominantly racialized groups have long been crammed into high rise accommodation, enduring chronic police intimidation, yet now the streets are patrolled by police as public health enforcers. In America a fascist-libertarian response has been to demand that the state step back from mandating health measures such as quarantine and lockdown. A danger is that such disastrous (and racist and social-Darwinist)arguments find a wider audience precisely because states deploy repression in the goal of protecting public health.
Welfare regimes, or social reproduction capacities, however, are necessarily also double-sided under capitalism. “Welfare from above” includes the investments in social reproduction that capital and states are forced to grant in their own interests. Here is where capital’s reluctant dependence on social reproduction is revealed. But in these pandemic times we are also witness to a rich outburst of “welfare from below,” or class struggle social reproduction. So while states and capital are reversing, temporarily and in a piecemeal manner, a few planks of the neoliberal edifice (not least, the devaluation of care work), workers, especially women workers, are leading wildcat strikes to demand PPE and to insist that production be directed to human need, and ordinary people are setting up food banks and mutual aid networks. The contradictions between the “from above” and “from below” facets of social reproduction will only intensify with the deepening of the crisis. As mass unemployment, poverty and starvation stalk the globe we are bound to witness a sharper polarization between forces advocating social Darwinism, claiming that the limited social reproduction cake be monopolized by the fittest, and forces of socialist collectivism fighting for a world where the cake belongs to the bakers.