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

Abstract

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.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    As Fernand Braudel noted, “The peasant himself, when he regularly sells a part of his harvest and buys tools and clothing, is already a part of the market. But if he comes to the market town to sell a few items—eggs or a chicken—in order to obtain a few coins with which to pay his taxes or buy a plowshare, he is merely pressing his nose against the shop window of the marketplace. He remains within the vast world of self-sufficiency” (1979, p. 19).

  2. 2.

    Eastern Europe, while not part of the Third World, is a middle-income region that followed a different path, since here most countries extended social benefits to the entire population in the postwar period. As centrally planned economies, these states instituted full employment as an ideological precept, making it more manageable to administer workplace-linked benefits. As a result, when these states rapidly proletarianized rural sectors and created a large stratum of formalized agrarian wage-laborers, this allowed for the speedy extension of state welfare policies into the countryside at the point of production. In East Asia, though land reform was implemented and excess urbanization was checked, state welfare benefits to the rural sector were quite meager other than an emphasis on primary education (Haggard and Kaufman 2008, pp. 143–152).

  3. 3.

    For Fig. 1, we first sorted a list of 162 flagship programs in 76 countries by region and year in the Social Assistance in Developing Countries Database, compiled by Barrientos (2013c). We then added 21 additional comparable flagship social assistance programs for eight middle- and low-income countries in West Asia and North Africa that were not included in Barrientos’s database. The column for each year represents the number of active flagship programs in that particular year. That is, when a social program was cancelled, we removed it from the subsequent year’s tally. We thank Mona Rahmani for research assistance in this effort.

  4. 4.

    Personal communication with Armando Barrientos, 11 February 2015.

  5. 5.

    “Despite Modi criticism, Jaitley gives NREGA a slight nudge.” The Indian Express, 5 April 2015.

  6. 6.

    “Brazil’s Bolsa Família: welfare model or menace?” Christian Science Monitor, 17 November 2013.

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Acknowledgments

For their comments, criticisms, and suggestions in the making of this article, we thank Michael Burawoy, Peter Evans, Ching Kwan Lee, Sahan Karatasli, Sefika Kumral, Marcel Paret, Daniel Pasciuti, Beverly Silver, Smriti Upadhyay, and the Theory and Society reviewers. We especially thank Armando Barrientos and his team for their painstaking data collection efforts, to which we hope this article contributes.

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Harris, K., Scully, B. A hidden counter-movement? Precarity, politics, and social protection before and beyond the neoliberal era. Theor Soc 44, 415–444 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-015-9256-5

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Keywords

  • Social policy
  • Neoliberalism
  • Global South
  • Welfare studies
  • Labor studies
  • Peasant studies