Privatised Keynesianism and Social Reproduction

The effective privatisation of social reproduction and the creation of mechanisms of debt and marketisation have meant that the burden of crises have been placed on those responsible for the reproduction of society: households and the families and women that inhabit them. “The privatisation of the economic crisis”[1] has led to the legitimation of structural adjustment programs, purposeful ‘deregulation’ and the smashing of social commons in favour of marketised systems. The welfare state, engendered as an imperfect form of commons, provided the means toward shared social reproduction between the family and the community, with the costs of childcare and healthcare offset by communalised subsidies. However, neoliberal doctrine has ended such a general system, pushing instead debt-based safety nets that have created a form of privatised Keynesianism, whereby consumer-debt instruments have overtaken communal provision.

With the development of the Bretton Woods system, many functions of social reproduction such as housing, childcare and elements of healthcare, were provided or subsidised by Western governments as part of what was seen as a social package to provide a safety net against capitalism. While extremely imperfect in its implementation and development, and provided on a coercive basis, it did at least constitute something of a social commons that could provide for marginalised elements in society. Further, its legitimation during the Bretton Woods era suggested it was a natural system, integral to the mechanisms of capitalist production and exchange. A discursive politics of social citizenship was constructed, where it was seen that the poorest were able, to a certain extent, to claim a share in the national product. However, the rise of neoliberal doctrine and the development of the Washington Consensus created a new discursive legitimacy for state deregulation and processes of privatisation.

I have no intention of fetishising the Bretton Woods system. It was a poor mechanism of social provisioning that included many exclusionary policies and relied on forms of US imperial hegemony. Further, its full integration into capitalist dynamics meant that rather than constructing a pluralistic system of multiplicitous economic governance (that includes social provisioning, market systems and other decentralised planning) developed through ground-up, decentralise means, it was fundamentally a mechanism of control that relied on high levels of coercion and the continued legitimation of wage labour relations. However, simply because this post-War system was hardly legitimate, it does itself create the legitimacy for neoliberal policy, whereby privatisation entailed the selling off of infrastructures and enterprises not to collective groups of social citizens (who involuntarily funded it in the first place through taxation) but to well-connected corporations who themselves rely on massive state subsidies. The ending of the Bretton Woods systems did not unleash free market dynamics and spontaneous order, but simply provided legitimacy for a new system of state-backed of neoliberalism.

One of the major functions of this state-backed neoliberalism was the reprivatisation of social reproduction, where things like education, healthcare and childcare, if not outright marketised, were flexibilised and had ‘market’ systems introduced into their governing structures. The previous system of safety nets, legitimated and made normal through discursive practice, were suddenly removed not through democratic or citizenship-based means, but through the purposeful actions of states and international organisations. In its place are the systems of debt that have emerged since the 1980s.

Debt has taken on a social role as a form of provisioning that is meant to replace the retrenched welfare state. Consumer-debt instruments such as credit cards, mortgages and fixed-payment loans have emerged to provide not just a consumption standard for the myriad products of mass production, but to also provide for the basic necessities of societal reproduction: housing, healthcare and food and energy costs. For example, rather than the provision of social housing, there are “low-cost” mortgages which encourage the development of a homeowner’s society. Myriad subsidies exist in the United States to promote this through government, including the Mortgage Interest Deduction tax credit, the Tax Reform Act 1986, and the development of housing strategies under Clinton and Bush that encouraged private ownership of housing[2]. The burdens of payment and costs are thus placed on the shoulders of families and women, who have taken on the dual role of homemaker and secondary income-provider. Rather than social hierarchies being mutualised, giving women more choice in their family and household structures, the burden of debt obligations has simply meant the creation of new capitalist inequalities that are encouraged through the legitimating mechanisms of the state. Similar processes were evident during Thatcher’s selling off of council homes, where community ownership was replaced by the concept of a ownership society.

Credit cards and consumption-based loans also took on similar roles to those of mortgages by providing a form of security provided via the individual’s, not the state’s, means. The economy of shares became a popular narrative that supposedly meant privatised industries could still be controlled by the public through the mechanism of share ownership. Households began racking up debts both to maintain consumption and to try and become asset owners in their own right, through pension funds and mortgage securities that meant anyone could be a capitalist. A form of privatised Keynesianism, where one’s welfare flows in line with one’s asset ownership and debt obligations, is created, and a form of market citizenship is constructed.

Such a change in welfare shows the move toward an individuated understanding of governance, where the government gives the rational individual a supposed range of life-choices rather than provide a collective structure of welfare. A mythical classless, genderless and race-less society is constituted where every rational individual has equal opportunity on the market so long as they are fiscally prudent and responsible. Non-market structures, or alternative understandings of markets, are ignored under such a rationalist discourse, with the market citizen embodying the rational man of neoclassical economics. However, such rationalism is purely mythic, as is the image of a static, conflict-less society that doesn’t include inequalities.

The reprivatisation of social reproduction, rather than freeing up women’s choices with their inclusion in the labour market, has simply made the employer the new head of an illegitimate capitalist hierarchy. Family relations haven’t been opened up or mutualised, but their reproductive role have been integrated into international forms of capital accumulation. Real life-choices are constrained as the power of creditors are increased, thus making women subjects of these pathways, and the construction of a market citizen narrative legitimates changes in sovereignty and the share of economic wealth that is redistributed. Marketised mechanisms are made the axiomatic foundation of welfare provision, with debt and credit becoming the predominant elements in this marketised form of welfare. Interlocking power relations of debt and credit mean that far from the indebted being autonomous participants in the market, they are instead chained to market mechanisms irrelevant of their desires. In particular, women and households are forcibly integrated into relations of debt, with the artificial restrictions on capital artificially raising the costs of childcare, healthcare and housing, and the purposeful state deregulation of social provisioning making the capitalist market a hegemonic system.

With the construction of the market citizen, and the narrative that there is no alternative, resistance seems a far-flung hope. The hegemony of neoliberal capitalism suggests that our very psyches are constructed under the auspices of marketised structuration. However, there are many different, intersecting campaigns and social movements that are aiming to curb the effects that women and other marginalised groups are facing in the neoliberal paradigm, both in the developed and developing worlds. The Fight for 15 movement in the United States presents a method of understanding wages not as a simple tool of economic policy, but as one way of providing a social minimum for workers and households. New forms of price discovery are unlocked which open up questions surrounding social value structures, meaning wages are more than some simplistic measure of productivity. In a similar vein, the provision of micro-credit as is done by the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India provides a community-based social wage as well as the opportunity to balance one’s work with one’s childcare and other elements of social reproduction. The poverty entrenched through household labour can be made more amenable to one’s life with the guarantee of a social wage, which SEWA has begun to do.

There are also a multitude of general movements, such as community land trusts (which remove housing from the market and put it under the control of those who own and use it), debtors unions (which allow for the collective aggregation of consumer, housing and student debts) and childcare cooperatives which provide non-state and non-market methods for the development of social provisioning for the means of social reproduction. However, these patchwork movements and networks, while starting the processes of identity construction and structuration, are nowhere near powerful enough to challenge neoliberal-state hegemony. For them to be truly effective in challenging the forces of privatisation and the power relations of credit and debt, they must construct multi-scalar, multi-sited institutions that can develop into confederated shadow states, challenging both international and national sites of power which have developed and inculcated the destruction of communal provisioning and the creation of a privatised Keynesianism.

[1] Bakker, I. & Silvey, R. Beyond States and Markets: The Challenges of Social Reproduction, 2008, 72-89

[2] Roberts, A. Financing Social Reproduction, 2012

2 thoughts on “Privatised Keynesianism and Social Reproduction

    • I’m not sure what you mean. I know that Keynes was extremely critical of the Bretton Woods system due to US-centrism and its lack of international cooperation. There’s a lot of truth to that claim.


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