Austerity, social reproduction, and social movements

Neoliberal restructuring

Alongside the assault on wages and working-class organization in all of its forms over the last half century neoliberal economic restructuring has also rolled back state entitlements around the world. In addition to the reduction, re-allocation

(towards capital) and/or elimination of protections for and public investment in key national industries (agricultural extension services for small-scale farmers for example), related infrastructure, and workplace protections, this roll back included reductions in public spending for the provision of public services like water and sanitation, housing, healthcare and education, and their commodification, and partial or outright privatization. These latter reforms effectively instituted a new regime of capitalist social reproduction, argues Nancy Fraser (2017), distinct from those of late nineteenth century liberal competitive capitalism, which largely left workers to fend for themselves, and twentieth century state-managed or welfare state capitalism, which saw an increased role for government in ensuring the reproduction of labour.

While countries in the North have experienced a roll-back of the welfare state which reached its pinnacle in the post-war period, the most painful experiences of restructuring have undoubtedly been in the South where entitlements were thin or non-existent even prior to the institution of neoliberal reforms. Since the late 1970s, Southern states have been subject to harsh economic restructuring in various guises, Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) being the most widely known and frequently critiqued. These programs were originally instituted in the interests of maintaining debt repayment to largely Northern creditors following three shocks: the debt crisis precipitated by profligate lending to Southern states in the 1960s and 1970s, the oil crisis in the latter decade, and the massive interest rate hikes of the early 1980s. Following the neoliberal policy prescriptions known as the “Washington Consensus” (Williamson 2004) and the only superficially distinct variants which came in its wake (Peck and Tickell 2002), successive rounds of restructuring have systematically undermined both production and social reproduction in debtor countries.

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