Inequality and Repression

Nearly fifteen years ago, I began work on an article that seems sadly prescient today. “Ideology After the Welfare State” was eventually published in the journal Historical Materialism (v. 10, n. 2, 2002). In the wake of several recent tragedies, including the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, I have decided to re-print a few short passages from that article here:

To the extent, then, that advanced capitalism rolls back welfare state institutions and returns the commodity form to a position of unchallenged supremacy in daily life, two ideological dynamics will increasingly manifest themselves. The first can be described as a condition of generalized insecurity within the economic sphere…But while “uncertainty” has been celebrated in recent years as the postmodernist form of virtue, we would do well to remember that there is nothing playful about not knowing where the rent money is coming from.

It has often been pointed out that the post-Fordist transformation has seen a proliferation of part-time and temporary employment. What has less frequently been noted is the fact that among the fastest growing occupations in the United States during the 1990s were bill collectors and private security guards – a bare statistic neatly encapsulating both the material and ideological conditions of advanced capitalism after the welfare state.

But the increased provision of security as a private good does not mean that the public provision of security by the state will disappear, only that its area of emphasis will shift. It is in this sense that we can recognize the second key ideological dynamic in post-welfare capitalism as a rejuvenation of the state’s image as the keeper of law and order.

Today, the loudest advocates of market capitalism also routinely call for “small government.” But capitalism is most at home with a government that is small and weak only when it comes to regulating industry or protecting the rights of workers. As economic inequality grows, heavy-handed repression of the working class becomes more and more common.

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