SOCIAL SUFFERING IN THE NEOLIBERAL AGE: CLASSIFICATORY LOGIC AND SYSTEMS OF GOVERNANCE

Louise St Guillaume and Karen Soldatic: Critical Disability Studies & Sociology of Indigenous Issues Combined Thematic Group Event

HDR Workshop + Two Day Research Symposium

17 – 19 July 2019.

With extensive support from Western Sydney University, TASA’s Critical Disability Studies and Sociology of Indigenous Issues Thematic Groups combined their efforts to organize a full one day HDR workshop and two-day national symposium to bring together TASA members working in the area of sociologies of social security and social policy from a range of perspectives.  Even though a large cohort of TASA members engage with these issues, often they are discrete areas of sociological analysis. Given the substantive changes to Australian social security law and policy since the early 2000s, both events provided TASA PostGrads and members with an opportunity to explore the growing convergence of critical policy trends in the areas, such as the increased conditionality requirements of national social security reforms.

The symposium examined neoliberal systems of governance and its daily practices of managing, regulating and subordinating individuals, peoples and communities. While it is well established within the international and national research that neoliberal systems of population management target ‘the poor’, ‘the marginalised’ and ‘the stigmatised’, there has been a comparatively smaller body of research examining its interlocking practices for those who occupy the fringes or margins of multiple identities within the classificatory logic of Australian social security law and policy.  In Australia and other Anglophone countries, research is beginning to attend to people defined as ‘homeless’, ‘disabled’, and ‘unemployed’ – and as often occupying more than one of these categories. Yet, to date, there has been little critical examination of the ways in which these ‘identity categories’ intersect, interplay, overlap; governed at distinct policy crossroads in the social security system (for example, some Indigenous Australians are simultaneously governed by disability, income management and the Community Development Programme). Increasingly, and precisely through such classificatory procedures themselves, such persons emerge as a sub-class within the general logic of neoliberal classification regimes.

With Western Sydney University funding, we were able to secure leading social security policy sociologist, Chris Grover, Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, who has extensively engaged with these issues for the last 15 years in the UK and EU context.  Chris Grover worked with TASA HDRs for the first full day workshop, exploring core concepts that mapped across each of the TASA Post Grad’s HDR projects.  Indepth discussions explored issues of continuity and change, individualization and personalization, neoliberalism as a social regulatory regime, alongside emerging practices of policy governance and technologies of control increasingly embedded in social security policy trends with the globalization of neoliberal poverty management regimes.

The Thursday and Friday consisted of a diverse range of papers, largely attended by TASA members and TASA post grads, alongside community advocates working in the space of Indigenous social security policy and programs, immigration, refugee and asylum seekers. Given the growing dominance of autonomous technologies and platforms in western welfare states, a significant number of papers traversed the growing dominance in driving individual behavior and the increased work required of social security recipients to engage with these autonomous technologies and online welfare platforms.  Papers covered issues such as Australia’s Robodebt program, alongside examination of the subjectification of crowd funding via online platforms with the increased costs of health and medical care due to the ongoing privatization of health care.

Significantly, a large number of the papers examined divergent research, scholarship and narratives of social security conditionality and its normalization in social security and social policy. This involved the gendered relations of social security governance and the lives of single parents through inter-locking technologies of social security, family law and child support governance, the changing positionality of mothers in welfare to work programs since the mid-1990s, and the construction of intergenerational disadvantage in policy discourse. The gendered dynamics of social security policy regimes illustrated patterns of continuity, alongside newer forms of stringent governance that control women’s lives, with an increased targeted focus on single mothers.

In nearly all of the sessions, the negative impact of neoliberal social security policy on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians was extensively discussed.  Penalisation, conditionality and sanctioning effects on everyday lives, relationships of caring for others within one’s family, households and communities, alongside the generation of high levels of distress, disability and illness were all noted as the outcomes of draconian social policy regimes. Interestingly, across the Two-Day Symposium, it was clear that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities were the most advance in practices of everyday resistance to the harsh measures in Australian social security law and policy with the neoliberal turn.  This included micro, everyday forms of resistance, through to large scale community organizing, against some of the harshest measures, such as alternative Indigenous community responses to criminalization and incarceration.

The HDR and Symposium afforded a unique opportunity to work across disciplinary and categorical boundaries, and examine research narratives in collaboration with community members. The congregation of such diverse engagement with neoliberal classificatory logic in social security regimes through papers which explored socio-legal categorisations, automation of welfare governance, technologies of policy design and delivery, conditionality and systems of penalisation, and practices of resistance and subversion was significant. As a result of the gathering, the participants are now in the stages of submitting a book proposal to a reputable online publisher to ensure accessibility to multiple audiences.

We’d like to thank Western Sydney University, Institute for Culture and Society, School of Social Sciences and Psychology, The Whitlam Institute, along with The University of Notre Dame Australia and TASA for their support for the event and forthcoming publication.

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