Theory and Society

, Volume 44, Issue 5, pp 415–444

A hidden counter-movement? Precarity, politics, and social protection before and beyond the neoliberal era


DOI: 10.1007/s11186-015-9256-5

Cite this article as:
Harris, K. & Scully, B. Theor Soc (2015) 44: 415. doi:10.1007/s11186-015-9256-5


To grasp what might exist beyond neoliberalism, we need to rethink the history of development before neoliberalism. This article makes two arguments. First, for poorer countries, processes of commodification which are highlighted as evidence of neoliberalism often predate the neoliberal era. Third World development policies tended to make social and economic life more precarious as a corollary to capital accumulation before neoliberalism as an ideology took hold. Second, the intense theoretical and discursive focus on neoliberalism has obscured a tangible shift towards de-commodification in much of the global South. The most salient examples today are state-led social assistance programs that have been implemented across the former Third World. These emerged not out of technocratic fixes from above but often out of political and social struggles from below. The rise and spread of these programs are not only in stark contrast to popular conceptions of a neoliberal reinforcement, but are also specifically targeted at social strata whose precarity commonly originated in developmental policies before the neoliberal era. Utilizing a database of 183 active flagship social assistance programs in 84 developing countries, we present macro-level quantitative evidence of the rise and spread of social protection policies over the past two decades in the global South. We then detail these programs for four middle-income countries—China, Brazil, India, and South Africa. To those who lament that the 2008 crisis has produced no Polanyian double movement, we argue that these state-driven social assistance policies are such a mechanism.


Social policy Neoliberalism Global South Welfare studies Labor studies Peasant studies 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of California-Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyUniversity of the WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa

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