Traces of neoliberalization

Moller claims that the first traces of neoliberal policies came to Scandinavia during the 1980s with debates concerning ‘welfare capitalism’ to a changing economy (2013: 247). He points out that we saw performance measures introduced? Private-sector style management with purchaser providers, outsourcing, user fees and privatization were introduced.

Throughout the Scandinavian countries income substitution was reduced and workers’ rights eroded. The work assessment scheme in Norway is demanding more loyalty to the programme from January 2018, sanctioning breaches of rules with reduced payments. This is pushing people back to social services, or we could speak of it as the return of the ‘poor office’. Even here the eligibility to receive support is reduced and demands for work or compliance to occupational schemes has become the rule. Salonen (2017) argues that 60—80 per cent of those applying for means tested support in Sweden would be served by other rights if we had kept up the level of the welfare state. In Norway the cost of housing has increased 500 per cent in the last two decades, far more than wages and other prices, leaving less for other consumption in the average household, but increasing the monetary value of every property (in the right place). Due to the fact that many have become dependent on inherited fortunes based mostly on housing, the gap between the rich and poor is increasing even further, but also making many vulnerable to loss of work or significant decrease in wages since much of the housing market is based on mortgage. There are some changes favouring deserving groups that were obtained by parties like the Christian People’s Party through negotiations with minority right-wing governments. One is better rights to care for sick family members/children and the other is to support mothers who want to stay home with small children rather than use subsidized nurseries and go back to work. The latter is regarded as a drawback for women’s rights and gender equality and supports immigrants in keeping up archaic gender roles.

Social work and changing welfare states – the neoliberal challenge

One of the most profound changes affecting areas such as social work relates to the new spirit of capitalism. Rose (1999), quoted earlier, based his analysis of the new ways of understanding on a Foucauldian disciplining view categorized as governmentality. Boltanski and Chiapello (2007: 10—11) base their analysis empirically on organizational/management literature and argue that:

The spirit of capitalism is precisely the set of beliefs associated with the capitalist order that helps to justify this order and, by legitimating them, to sustain forms of action and predispositions compatible with it. These justifications, whether general or practical, local or global, expressed in terms of virtue or justice, support the performance of more or less unpleasant tasks and, more generally, adhesion to a lifestyle conducive to the capitalist order . . . we may indeed speak of a dominant ideology.

Although this also may be based on psychological and social structuring, moving from a focus on structure to a focus on agency, society and its institutions may move its interest towards meta structures for development rather than arrangements for everyday life. We see traces of the same paradigm in the proposed Statement of Ethical Principles. Dufour (2008) claims the deinstitutionalization of society to be a trademark of neoliberal society. This is made possible by adjusting the critique from Foucault (2008) and Bourdieu (1999b).

Capitalism is destroying institutions and putting an end to primal domination in such a way as to produce individuals who are supple, insecure, mobile and open to all the market’s modes and variations.

(Dufour, 2008: 157)

Capitalism in the neoliberal era has proved its ability to adjust and adapt to markets where commodification enters all areas of life, making social feelings and acting into commodities and areas to make choices related to symbolic capital which may be deconstructed into cultural as well as economic assets (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2007, Bourdieu, 1999a). While the welfare state at the outset was concerned with easing working life and making work a secure part of life enabling leisure and pleasure, the focus of politics today is “to enhance labour force productivity and consumer purchasing power” (Harslof and Ulmestig, 2013: 5). Hemerijck (2013) discusses the concept of social investment state4 and mentions several traits in this discourse. First one must rethink social policy in order to see that labour market and families are welfare optimizers and a good guarantee that tomorrow’s adult workers will be as productive and resourceful as possible. Second, early childhood development is granted new importance, as well as lifelong learning, family reconciliation, vocational training, all kinds of productivity improvements and all that may support these policies to enhance human capital growth. Third, social protection and social promotion become indispensable twin pillars of the new social investment edifice. Finally, social policy has primarily a productive function and workers are regarded as the prime source of all productivity growth.

Employment contributes to financial sustainability and Hemerijck claims that “countries that have adjusted to a social investment approach in terms of work organization reveal higher levels of social cohesion” (2013: 5). Hemerijck locates these ideas in parallel with Nussbaum and Sen’s capability approach and how this understanding may inspire human flourishing (Sen, 2010). Hemerijk is not sure if all these ideas are benign or if we should regard the discourse on “social investment as a cover for stealthy retrenchment and deconstruction or a Machiavellian foil for reconsolidating old social contracts, pressed by the strong and long-established clientelistic networks around the welfare state?” (2013: 36—37).

Hemerijck further asks if we are moving towards a “capacitating social service” (recognizing the embodied vulnerability of citizens). Regarding the importance of social work methods such as motivational interviews and appreciative inquiry in the Nordic countries we may say a form of nudging science is at work, as discussed by Thaler and Sunstein (2009) about improving incremental decisions about health, wealth and happiness. Larsen, Cutchin and Harslof (2013) argue that health attributes that people invest in constitute new forms of capital that represent a competitive edge. Health in this way constitutes symbolic cultural capital. Marthinsen (2003) discussed the lack of symbolic capital, identified as drawbacks or “symbolic burdens” as negative capital objectified as those ways of living, being and thinking criticized by social workers in child protection cases. These negative symbolic burdens attached to clients, often ignore positive aspects of their lives since the perspective is normative and affected by symbolic capital within the middle and upper classes. This view is later documented by larger quantitative studies as a class perspective in operation in both Sweden and Norway (Kojan, 2011; Clifford, Fauske, Lichtwark and Marthinsen, 2015). Leibetseder (2017) analysed EU documents regarding the European turn to social investment as the human capital theory of social citizenship. While the official publications define social investment as “strengthening people’s current and future capacities” she quotes critics arguments that the focus “cultivates social inequality and dismantles social citizenship” (Leibetseder, 2017: 64).

In Scandinavia “workfare” — moving people from welfare to paid work — has become the driving force in social policy practices. This is in line with the rest of Europe (Kvist et al., 2012;

Hemerijk, 2013). Jordan (2008) used the expression “Tough love as social policy”, criticizing this as it was developed under Tony Blair’s “third way” politics.

Although the support of the welfare state and its institutions are still strong, the use of incentives and sanctions for participation has increased (Kvist et al., 2012). Sick leave and access to welfare was to some extent left to professional discretion, but during the last decades, doctors and social workers as well as other health professionals have faced control and regulation from the welfare services to follow certain procedures that may restrict and even overrule the judgement of professionals. The political discourse around welfare is to a certain extent infused with ontological assumptions demanding incentives for work rather than staying on welfare — a general suspicion that good income substitution produces welfare dependency is often contrary to empirical research in this area (Kvist et al., 2012). The methods that were used to test the need for economic support, through an application to social services, were based on a high bar to achieve workfare support. Kuivalainen and Nelson (2012) argue that the last-resort social safety nets are changing. The support from these services has been regarded as harsh and less rights-based than in many other countries, but once eligible, the support was of high quality and alleviated poverty. Many people have multiple challenges related to ill health and living conditions and they may be marginalized regarding accessibility to work. Although work is the most favoured long-term solution, rehabilitation and activity is demanded from government assessors. Different principles of activation have developed since the early 1990s. Kuivalainen and Nelson (2012: 84), based on their research, conclude that:

the adequacy and effectiveness of benefits in reducing poverty have declined, and that poverty among beneficiaries has increased . . . the Nordic welfare model and the experiences of the most vulnerable share . . . has deteriorated.

They claim that if this continues the Nordic welfare state will end up similar to Liberal and Corporatist welfare states, further increasing inequality — could this signal the end of the Nordic model?

Harslof and Ulmestig (2013: 277) point towards latent cracks in the welfare state. The processes of social polarization are increasing due to both inner and strong outer regulatory forces. Second, the welfare state as employer of a third of the working population is imposing or allowing for new risk inducing structures in working life in general. Third, new social risks may be stimulated by the paradox of success in fighting old social risks (an example here is the support of single mothers from the early 1960s which created a new precarious group with high risk of poverty as single breadwinners). Finally, new social risks are manufactured by new incentives that marginalize those unwilling or unable to comply. Family and social structures have changed from the ideal nuclear family with a single breadwinner at the outset of the welfare states. Although these changes are facilitated by the welfare state, these new marginal groups have become large categories in need. They argue that we see a tendency towards dualization within the welfare system, where the elderly, sick and disabled are seen as deserving and, on the other hand, unemployed and immigrants cause ‘problems’ that politicians are eager to control (and are morally undeserving?).

The economic risks of the middle class are a new reality. The increased longevity is challenging pensions and pension funds, adding pressure to limit the obligations of the state leading to a stronger push towards private and personal responsibility for the quality of life for the elderly. Longevity is dependent on class, making the well-off and the highly educated the most costly citizens — contrary to the myth that it is the poor that have become too expensive. This fact is also playing itself out in countries such as the UK (Hills, 2015).

To enable personal responses to new social risks, the welfare state offers coaching, supervision and ego therapy (e.g. appreciative inquiry). Social workers in the new welfare system (NAV) in Norway are consequently categorized as veileder meaning guidance (in life) and the motto of the service is that “we open possibilities for people”. Dufour’s idea of “shrinking heads” as a major task in the neo-liberal era has posed ethical problems for social work. In similar ways, Bourdieu (1999b) and Foucault (2008) claim that we have moved towards a disciplining bio-politics shaping people to be responsible for their own fate, including having the responsibility for their own social appearance and success in life — a new form of social contract (Andersen, 2003). This evolution of practices is also commented on in the UK, based on analysis of social work in different areas and the language that follows new politics and practices (Ferguson, 2008, Garrett, 2017). Garrett (2009) uses Bourdieu’s notion of‘symbolic Mecca’ and the UK may indeed be regarded as exactly that for much of the social policy in Scandinavia.

In Sweden the rules regarding sick leave changed in 1993, from full compensation to reduced pay the first day, and in 2003 further a 50 per cent reduction was made in normative sick leave rates dependent on diagnoses and other changes. Denmark and Norway operate with full compensation from day one, but the employer is responsible for the first 30 days in Denmark. In Denmark you must then have a dialogue with your employer about what work you may do in spite of being sick (a declaration of possibility). After 8 weeks you have to take part in a rehabilitation scheme run by the municipality responsible for paying sick leave allowance which you may keep for 22 weeks at the most within a nine-month period. In Norway the period for sickness allowance is reduced to one year, having been two for many years. Also, in Sweden the period has been reduced to one year and amounts to 80 per cent of your income. Swedes need to have a medical assessment after one week, and sometimes from day one. In all the three countries sick leave allowance is the most expensive income substitution besides pensions. In all the Scandinavian countries there is also an increasing use of disability pension with Norway on top with close to one in ten of the workforce (18—67). Young people tend to be marginalized in the workforce mostly due to inadequate mental health support, and older workers due to muscular and skeletal disease. Psychology and medicine are masking social problems by making medical diagnoses, which is being increasingly questioned (Kolstad and Kogstad, 2011; Kojan, 2016). The welfare state does not acknowledge social problems, poverty/economic problems, or grief as such, to claim rights to income substitution if you are working. Research suggests that half of all sick leave claims in Sweden and Norway are in fact related to social problems at work, in the family or with personal relationships (Nordby, Tellnes and Ronning, 2011).

In general, the demand for higher education and longer and more theory-based education seems to make it even more important to stay in work until being in receipt of a pension. In fact, many think that longer education for all would lead to no unemployment — a naive idea, since we need all kinds of workers with all kinds of skills even though high tech jobs are increasing. Engelstad (2017) argues that at the outset, the workers leading the reforms towards the welfare state were concerned with “outcome equality” rather than “equality of possibilities”. Social mobility was not on the agenda, just equality of pay for different jobs as well as those not able to work. With equality of opportunity the focus is on each citizen to seize the day and make a career for themselves, meaning moving upwards on the social ladder with higher wages used as the carrot. This leaves the working-class identity as a failure of self-development. The problem with poverty is that most of it comes from being marginalized in the workforce and at the same time, work and education seem to be the solution. Precarious contracts, diminishing rights and low pay lead to a lot of people ending up with earning certain amounts in some periods, less in others and nothing in between, also making their claims difficult to assess by the authorities who often rely on an income total for the previous year.

Research in social work practices in Denmark (Caswell, 2005) and Norway (Skjefstad, 2015) indicates that the influence of new thinking and structures is pushing the logic of practice towards less client-focussed bureaucratic categorization, keeping to a professional idealistic logic, rather than listening to people’s stories about self and life. Matarese and Caswell had a closer look at discursive practices among front-line workers and clients and found that the users’ voices seem to be suppressed in conversations. The agent of that vocal suppression is based on “the required paperwork that together with performance assessments, benchmarks, and a large caseload makes discursive deviation from documentation challenging” (Matarese and Caswell, 2017: 133).

The push towards more efficient practices often moves in different directions. In line with the general movement towards “Mode II knowledge production” (outside universities and research institutions) we have an increasing academization of social work in the sense that more social workers move on to Master’s degrees and PhD studies, increasing the research competence and the output of social science in the field. Practice and research are to a large extent becoming an integrated part of education and management. We operate with concepts such as knowledge management (Newell, Robertson, Scarbrough and Swan, 2002), research minded practices (Karvinen Niinikoski, 2005) and mind for learning (Marthinsen, 2004). At least in Scandinavia, the scientific field of social work has resisted the push towards a new positivist inspired evidence-based practice (Bergmark, Bergmark and Lundstrom, 2011). Much social work research has been critical and concerned with the impact on citizens as clients of practices linked to bureaucratization and managerialism. Denvall and Johansson (2012: 45) argue that:

The unclear intervention opens up for opportunities as well as a debate about EBP, which at least initially is likely to be something other than ‘for the benefit of the patient’. It implies a change in the separation of powers, and questions are automatically raised about who is negotiating with whom, and about the transparency of the process.

So where do the dominant neoliberal policies take us?

Neoliberal policies are not necessarily the explanation of all ills experienced in societies today; we also have to look at a broader picture of globalization and growing inequality caused by weakening democratic rule within the context of nation states. Xenophobia, nationalism and dislike of strangers is not necessarily linked to neoliberal ideas, but neoliberals have not supported geopolitical institutions that could have altered the scene. At the outset, the idea of the welfare state was about alleviating poverty and securing sustainable lives within a national domestic sphere. Increasing mobility throughout the world appears to be a problem for some as much as it is a privilege for others. Increasing populations all over the world are putting pressure on economies as well as labour-markets, and Europe seems to be a desirable destination for many. This happens at a time when Europeans themselves are experiencing austerity and unemployment and increasing competition from the opening of markets within Europe as well. One of the problems with the EU may be the lack of a federal or international social policy, taxation and work regulation. This opens up a wide range of competing labour markets where all sorts of companies try to exploit the possibilities of profit-maximization across nations. The new politics of welfare try to limit taxation and expenditure by tightening regulations and increasing the use of means-testing, incentives and limiting the duration of the best income substitution rights. The management systems in operation limit the space of operation for professions in health and social care, also straining discretion as normative measures are introduced to standardize how stress in different situations should be countered. The Scandinavian, or should we say Nordic (to include

Finland and Iceland), welfare states are moving increasingly closer to how the rest of Europe is countering challenges in the sphere of social welfare, health, education and life in general. Social work faces the same challenges in countering bureaucracies and management-styles inspired by neoliberal economies. Even ethical principles seem to have changed their point of departure from society to an understanding of our embodied vulnerability — is this a new twist to focus on our individual ability to cope with and step towards an erosion of the (solidarity based) welfare state?


  • 1 Norway received about 30,000 refugees in 2015. In 2017 by December, we had allowed 3,236 of which 963 were Syrians.
  • 2 Bergoffen, D. (2003). “February 22,2001:Toward a politics of the vulnerable body”, Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, 18 (1): 116—134.
  • 3 Slogans such as more services for each Krona became common, and during a meeting at the head office of the Labour Union (early 1990s) the sexist slogan of more bang for your buck was used.
  • 4 This concept is also discussed by Neil Gilbert (2002) in his book, Transformation of the welfare state, the silent surrender of public responsibility, Oxford University Press.


Andersen, N. A. (2003): Borgerens kontraktliggorelse. Hans Reitzel.

Bergmark, A. & Lundstrom, T. (2006). Mot on evidensbaserad praktik? — От fardriktningen i socialt arbctc. Socialvetenskaplig tidsknft nr 2/2006 p. 99—113.

Bergmark, A., Bergmark, A., & Lundstrom, T. (2011). Evidensbaserat socialt arbctc: Tcori, kritik, praktik. Natur Kultur Akademisk.

Boltanski, L. and Chiapello, E. (2007). The new spirit of capitalism. New York: Verso.

Bourdieu, P. (1999a). Praktisk fonnift. Daidalos.

Bourdieu, P. (1999b) Motcld. Brutus Ostlings Bokforlag Symposion.

Caswell, D. (2005). Handiemidigheter I socialt arbejde — en casestudie от kommunal frontlinjepraksis pa beskkeuft-igelsesomrddet. PhD thesis. Roskilde Unversitet.

Clifford, G., Fauske, H., Lichtwark, W. & Marthinsen, E. (2015). Minst hjelp til de som trenger det mest? Sluttrapport fra forsknings- og utviklingsprosjcktet »Det nye bamevemet». Nordlandsforskning rapport 6/2015.

Davies, W. (2016). The happiness industry - how the government and big business sold us well-being. New York: Verso books.

Denvall, V. & Johansson, K. (2012). Kejsarcns nya klader — implemcntering av evidensbaserad praktik i socialt arbctc. Socialvetenskaplig tidskrift nr 1/2012 s.26—45.

Dufour, D.-R. (2008). The art of shrinking heads. The new servitude of the liberated in the era of total capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Engelstad, E. (2017). Ned med meritokratiet! In Dybedal, O., H verven, S., Innset, O. and Kristjansson, M. Ingen mennesker er fodt frie — kritikk av liberalismen. pp. 143—164, Dreyers forlag.

Ferguson, I. (2008) Reclaiming social work. London: Sage.

Foucault, M. (2008). The birth of biopolitics. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Garrett, P. M. (2009). children’s services? Social work, neoliberalism and the ‘modern’ world.

Maidenhead: McGraw Hill.

Garrett, P. M. (2017). Keywords, care and neoliberalism. Critical and Radical Social Work, 5(3): 269—285.

Harslof, I. & Ulmestig, R. (Eds.) (2013). Changing social risks and social policy. Responses in the Nordic welfare states. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hemenjck, A. (2013). Changing welfare states. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hills, J. (2015). Good times, bad times. The welfare state of them and us. Cambridge: Polity Press.

IFSW/IASSW (2017). A new statement of ethical principles in social work. Draft document developed by the IASSW Ethics Taskforce by Nov. 2017.

Jordan, B. (2008). Welfare and well-being: Social value in public policy. Bristol: Policy Press.

Karvinen Niinikoski, S. (2005). Research orientation and expertise in social work-challenges for social work education. European Journal of Social I'Kvfc, 8(3): 259—271.

Kojan, B. H. (2011). KJasseblikk pa et barnevern i vekst. Doktoravhandling. Trondheim, NTNU.

Kojan, B. H. (2016). Er Nancy Erasers rettferdighetsteori nyttig for sosialt arbeid? P. 54—67 in FONTENE Forskning 2/2016 • argang 9.

Kolstad, A. and Kogstad, R. (Eds.) (2011). Psykologisering av sosiale problemer. Medikalisering av psykiske lidel-ser. Oslo: Alpha Forlag.

Kuivalainen, S. & Nelson, K. (2012). Eroding minimum income protection in the Nordic countries? Reassessing the Nordic model of social assistance. In Kvist,J., Fntzell,J., Hvinden, B., & Kangas, O. (Eds.) (2012). Changing social equality: The Nordic welfare model in the 21st century, pp. 69—88, Bristol: Policy Press.

Kvist, J., Fritzell, J., Hvinden, B., & Kangas, O. (Eds.) (2012). Changing Social Equality. The Nordic welfare model in the 21st century. Bristol: Policy Press.

Larsen, K., Cutchin, M. P., & Harslof, I. (2013). Health capital: New health and personal investment in the body in the context of changing Nordic welfare states. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Leibetseder, B. (2017). Investing in social subjects. The European turn to social investment as the human capital theory of social citizenship. In Schram, S. F. & Pavlovskaya, M. (Eds.), Rethinking neoliberalism. Resisting the disciplinary regime, pp. 63—83, London: Routledge.

Marthinsen, E. (2003). Sosialt arbeid og symbolsk kapital i et senmoderne barnevern, Institutt for sosialt arbeid og helsevitenskap, Fakultet for samfunnsvitenskap og teknologiledelse, Norges teknisk-naturvitenskapelige universitet, NTNU.

Marthinsen, E. (2004). A mind for learning: Merging education, practice and research in social work. Social Work & Social Sciences Review, 11(2): 54—66.

Matarese, M. T. & Caswell, D. (2017). Neohberal talk: The routinized structures of document-focused social worker-client discourse. In Schram, S. F. & Pavlovskaya, M. (Eds.), Rethinking neoliberalism. Resisting the disciplinary regime, pp. 119—136, London: Routledge.

Moller, I. H. (2013). A hberalistic handling of new social risks — Danish experiences from three decades of social policy reforms. In Harslof, I. & Ulmestig, R. (Eds.), Changing social risks and social policy. Responses in the Nordic welfare states, pp. 245—265, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Newell, S., Robertson, M., Scarbrough, H. & Swan J. (2002). Managing knowledge work. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nordby, H., Tellnes, G. & Ronmng, R. (Eds). (2011). Social aspects of illness, disease and sickness-absence. UNIPUB.

NOU 2017:2. Integrasjon og tillit— Langsiktige konsekvenser av hoy innvandring. Avgitt tiljustis- og beredska-psdepartementet 1. februar 2017.

Ronnby, A. (1981). Socialstaten - till kritiken av socialteknokratin. Studenthtteratur Lund.

Rose, N. (1999). Governing the soul. The shaping of the private self. 2nd ed. London: Free Association Books.

Salonen, T. (2017). Sverige pa glid tilbaka mot fattigvarden. Verdandisten Hosten.

Sen, A. (2010). The Idea of Justice. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Skjefstad, N. S. (2015). Sosialt arbeid i overgangen til NAV — utfordringer for en anerkjennende praksis. NTNU PhD thesis. Norwegian Bureau of Statistics.

Thaler, R. H. and C. R. Sunstein (2009). Nudge. Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. Hannondsworth: Penguin.

Villadsen, K. (2004). Det sociale arbejdetsgenealogi. Hans Reitzels forlag.

Wergeland, E., Gulbrandsen, J. & Claussen, B. (2017). Treffsikkerhetens pris. Klassekampen, pp. 16—17, 04.12.2017.


Performativity and sociomaterial becoming

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >