The Financialisation of Social Policy: Pandemics, Climate Emergency and Policies

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‘The new normal’ is the latest trite phrase, forcing itself onto ad billboards and news bulletins. Its stale presence often inspires little more than an eye roll, but, as lockdowns are starting to ease, many are looking past the cringe factor to question what it could actually mean in practice. While most states may be desperate to focus policies towards returning to the ‘normal’ – with the new year in England summoning a relaxation of self-isolation laws to encourage a return to work and school – SOAS invites you to consider the possibilities for the ‘new’.

‘The Financialisation of Social Policy: Pandemics, Climate Emergency and Policies’ seminar series, which will run over the next 4 months from within the SOAS Economics Department, ponders if COVID-19 has transformed the world, can it transform our policies as well? Have two years of interventionist policies signalled the beginning of the end to 40 years of neoliberal ideology in welfare? Or has the pandemic renewed pressures to return to a familiar orthodoxy, as businesses and states attempt to get their feet back on to stable ground? While the series is hosted by the SOAS Economics Department, the first session made clear the talks’ interdisciplinary intentions in answering these questions. Speakers for the first session that took place on 11 January (and which can be viewed here) which included Ian Gough (Heat, Greed and Human Need), Lena Lavinas (The Takeover of Social Policy by Financialisation) and Ben Fine (Marx’s ‘Capital’) collectively drew themes from social policy, political economy, environmental and development studies. 

With the first session’s theme based around framing and contextualising social policy issues, debates of how to understand traditionally contested terms like ‘neoliberalism’ were inevitable. For example, while neoliberalism is frequently assumed to be a ‘rolling back’ of the state, Ben Fine argues that the survival of neoliberalism ironically relies on an active state, which can assist in contracting out and financialising assets to the private sector. 

There was also debate about whether the state might take a greater involvement in environmental issues since it has taken an expanded role during COVID-19. The pandemic, remarkably, has provoked an international consensus on nationwide lockdowns and a reminder of the importance of vaccinations and “key workers”; this same enthusiasm could be channelled into an international response to the climate crisis. On the other hand, pandemics are often perceived to be acute – in many cases severely affecting the health of political leaders themselves – and temporary, meaning sudden state intervention is less likely to provoke political backlash than intervening in what is often seen as a chronic crisis of the planet – the most dramatic effects of which many sitting politicians will not live to see. 

Despite debate, an agreement was reached that to enact change, mobilisation is imperative. As Lavinas quoted Andreas Malm in her opening remarks, “a transition can only happen through intense polarisation and confrontation, or it will not happen at all”. Like many scholars, Gough envisages such backlash will ideally lead to “scenarios for sustainable welfare” that involve policy prioritising collective, human rights, through universal basic services in kind. However attractive a unified society may be, it is important to balance the importance of social unity, while recognising that certain groups exercise privilege over others, even if their power is ignored or excused. The seminar encouraged reflection on how the pandemic was a stark reminder of the growing inequalities within countries, and the inadequacies of welfare states in fixing them.

What’s particularly egregious about the recent news of an illegal Downing Street garden party, during the dogma of “we’re all in this together” and “we all must do our bit”, was that this was not the first time those who are meant to protect us have chosen to fail us instead. Such news evoked images of leaders of major polluters withdrawing from the Paris agreement, claiming climate change cannot be real because “it’s cold outside”, or holidaying abroad while their country is engulfed in flames. Additionally, stubborn class inequality in the USA, the EU and Britain is linked to high carbon emissions, through the economic elite’s prolonged consumption. Meanwhile, it is struggling millennials who are shunned for using plastic straws. This leads Gough to conclude in Heat, Greed and Human Need: “the class dimension of consumption and ecological responsibility within the developed world must be tackled simultaneously, or a grave injustice will be perpetrated in the name of ‘saving the planet’”. 

The rest of the seminar series invited us to evaluate the implications of COVID-19 on welfare states, and its ability to alleviate the social problems both before and since the pandemic. The nuances of the seminars involve not seeing policy as a panacea but recognising its flaws, with policy literature hesitant to consider the role of financialisation, and international policy initiatives biased against countries of the Global South. COVID-19’s impact against a backdrop of financialisation in social policy will be further covered in the next session, with Emma Dowling (The Care Crisis) and Sue Himmelweit (Knowing Women: Feminism & Knowledge) discussing the social care sector on Tuesday 8 February at 17:00. Meanwhile, the theme of inequality across Global North and South will recur across further sessions. The distinguished panel of speakers strongly encourage questions and lively debate from the audience – with an hour of each talk dedicated to debate – giving the seminars a more informal feel than most. 

If you are interested in understanding the future of social policy in light of the pandemic, find the schedule and link to the seminar invite on the Department’s webpage or the SOAS Economics Facebook page. If you cannot attend, all seminars will be live-streamed via this Facebook page. 

Attend the next seminar in the series COVID-19 and the financialisation of social care on Tuesday 8 February, 17:00 GMT. 

Olivia Fine is a third-year BSc International Social and Public Policy student, studying at the London School of Economics. She is currently undertaking a dissertation on educational inequality among rural-to-urban migrants in China. 

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