Psychosocial approaches to neoliberal policies, welfare institutions and practices in the Nordic welfare states

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Linda Lundgaard AndersenRoskilde University, Denmark

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Betina DybbroeRoskilde University, Denmark

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Controversy over the neoliberalisation of policy and practice in welfare contexts is alive and active in many national and international settings. Neoliberalism in welfare societies and contexts is supported by a shift towards governance at all levels of modern societies, affecting how welfare is designed, managed and practised. Since the beginning of the century, critical welfare research has demonstrated how welfare systems have become market driven, and how accountability and economic rationalities challenge the universalistic and redistributive aims of Nordic welfare systems (Vabø, 2006; Dahl, 2009; Christensen, 2012). Social and policy researchers have further pointed to how neoliberalism increases segregation in European societies today (Wacquant, 2009) and spreads elitist ideas about radical individual freedom (Trägårdh, 2018).

Over time, the space for critical knowledge in welfare services has become limited, whereas the need to present critical knowledge has grown. This special issue is such an endeavour, where we present new Nordic analyses of welfare systems and practices influenced by neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has traditionally been theorised as a policy framework, ideology and/or governance. However, we should be careful not to underestimate the significance of contemporary transformations in neoliberal governance. Neoliberalism is both a political discourse about the nature of ruling and a set of practices that facilitate from a distance (Larner, 2000). What is labelled neoliberalism also draws on more generalised elitist ideas of what it is to be a citizen, such as radical individual freedom (Trägårdh, 2018) as well as class and ethnic differentiation (Wacquant, 2009).

In the spirit of the market, welfare institutions and services have been transformed into production and commercial units, selling and buying services. Currently, we see how the market rationality of welfare policies and services has become dominant in welfare planning, and how welfare has been politically designed and operationalised through the rationality of economic cost effectiveness and standardised production. Neoliberal policies and economic theory argue for and justify these practices (Friedman, 1994), while political debates on the provision of services that societies and citizens need, request and envisage are marginalised. The widespread presence and power of neoliberalism as an ideology are not seen by critical policy and social researchers to lie in its economic programme, but rather in its ability to conquer and dominate thinking about social development. Neoliberalism depoliticises political transformations and performs as a normative basis, creating boundaries for what is of value, and what is not, in society (Burnham, 1999; Boltanski and Chiapello, 2006).

At the start of the millennium, several European countries displayed a political interest in various forms of resistance and the articulation of voices from professionals and users. Health and social care workers have criticised the effects of New Public Management, and user movements have asked for the inclusion of citizens and users in the forming of welfare institutions (Dahl, 2009; Newman and Tonkens, 2011; Barnes and Cotterell, 2012). As of today, user involvement policies are mainstream in welfare institutions, but largely as a means of involving citizens in taking responsibility for co-producing or co-creating welfare. Nevertheless, segregation has deepened as many citizens are unequally positioned and without influence on welfare planning and management (Protheroe et al, 2013). Currently, we see a persistent diminishment of state responsibility for welfare and a development towards ‘welfare pluralism’, encompassing the state, private entrepreneurs and the voluntary sector, which changes state responsibility for the welfare of all (Dahlberg, 2005; Enjolras and Strømsnes, 2017).

Self-optimising entrepreneurs or agencies of feelings, desires and subconscious drives

It has been suggested by critical research that those involved in neoliberalism become self-optimising entrepreneurs investing in their own capital (Petersen and Lupton, 1996) and that neoliberalism becomes a form of generalised normativity of competition and entrepreneurship that encompasses both the governed and those who are governing (Foucault et al, 2008). The entrepreneur and entrepreneurialism are essential to the success of the marketplace, while the dissemination of the discourses of the entrepreneur and of entrepreneurialism is pivotal to the spread of a neoliberal agenda and the subsequent marketisation of the sectors (Sandberg, 2016). These processes are said to have permeated welfare services, and govern institutional practices and interactions between professionals and citizens. Clearly, the Danish and Nordic welfare states have been permeated by a much more entrepreneurial discourse and practice than previously (Andersen, 2018; Kamali and Jönsson, 2018). However, the rationalities of self-optimisation and consumerism are also met and challenged by meaning making at inter-relational and practice levels. Other rationalities – such as the commitment to community and human obligation (Gibson-Graham, 2014; Mendell and Alain, 2015) and the logic of care (Waerness, 1984; Mol, 2008) – also contribute to forming practices.

The cultural and human dimensions of welfare practices and work are present as socialising and acknowledging dimensions of life. In our research we have identified how welfare institutions also comprise scenes and spaces for subjective and intersubjective identification and recognition (Andersen and Dybbroe, 2017). In human service, such as health and social care, the citizens, patients and clients involved are a significant dimension of working life, social interaction and the creation of meaning. Interactions between citizens, patients, clients and service providers become formative for the development of professional thinking and identity. Welfare settings must also be understood as ‘human meeting places’ with a wider scope, and as humanising learning spaces. In these meeting places we see agency, feelings, emotions, desires, subconscious drives and motives unfolding, which serve as drivers for both professional and civic encounters.

A more rounded understanding of the complex human agencies involved must form the basis for developing a critical analysis of neoliberal practices that does not rest on suggesting that governing and governed subjects are ciphers for the onward march of neoliberalism. Thus, in this special issue we are interested in exploring how subjectivity, intersubjectivity and collectivity are present in welfare settings in relation to neoliberal norms, values and frameworks. We seek to provide deeper psychosocial knowledge of how neoliberal policies and practices influence and become active and dominant in transformed practices of welfare – at subjective, intersubjective and institutional levels. We set out to explore how neoliberal values and policies may introduce individualisation, vulnerability and shame into situations of human life that are undergoing change, and how collective responsibility thus decreases. Moreover, we are interested in analysing welfare services in transformation that enable representations of subjectivity and intersubjectivity informed by psychosocial understandings. At the heart of this is an understanding of welfare development as complex processes of control and resistance, retrenchment and innovation, discipline and humanisation in the intersections of policies and human practices. Our endeavour is consequently to enhance knowledge of how neoliberal policies, ideals and practices transform and become active and dominant, or are refused and circumvented, in practices of welfare that reflect micro and macro levels.

Psychosocial theorisation on neoliberal practices

Psychosocial theory has deepened our understandings of neoliberally influenced subjective and intersubjective practices. Layton (2014) points out how neoliberalism promotes the development of certain versions of subjectivity, certain character structures, defences, transferences and countertransference. Hoggett (2017) explains how performativity exploits the employee’s desire to achieve the ideal, using target setting and performance monitoring, leading to insecurity, failure and feelings of shame.Glynos (2014) suggests how policies that aim to maximise market competition amplify splitting tendencies in subjects that subscribe to particular fantasies such as ‘Individual Self-Sufficiency’ or dependence fantasies of the ‘Caring Other’. Fotaki (2017) points out how market-based freedom of choice and user autonomy rely on, and tap into, unconscious dynamics and fantasies of invincibility, while ignoring the precariousness of life and our infinite potential to experience vulnerability. This creates toxicity in organisations, thus corrupting the moral institutional fabric.

Our readings of New Public Management in Danish welfare services have found that marketisation and consumerism have led to anxiety, ambivalence, aggression and other forms of defence in professional interactions. On the one hand, current welfare work situates a skilled and devoted professional as implementing performative processes and outcomes based on personalised identification, often in collaboration with citizens. The meaning of work for welfare workers is not just based on procedures, standards, technical skills and time, but is also created materialistically and psychosocially in practice, when tasks are performed and interactions shape care, social work and so on and include others, as intersubjective meaning (Dybbroe, 2011). On the other hand, a number of ambivalences and defensive reactions saturate the very same processes and outcomes (Andersen, 2003; 2016). Target-driven practice and evidential monitoring in hierarchical structures remove the focus from professional reasoning and understanding, consequently diminishing the qualifying processes of introspection in and on practice. The troubling and uneasy dimensions of work become unspeakable and marginalised, whereas organisations will focus on rational language and the practice of measurable targets and objectives (Andersen and Dybbroe, 2017). In the workplaces of welfare practices we have seen how social dynamics interact with individual and life-historical subjective dynamics in ways that illuminate not only the habitual and creative orientations and practices of professionals, but also the contradictory transformations of work, for example of marketisation and democratisation (Dybbroe, 2013).

The theoretical framings in this special issue span a variety of psychosocial conceptualisations, drawing on (some of) the scholarly work from psychoanalytic social psychology rooted in critical theory (Lorenzer, 1986; Leithäuser and Volmerg, 1988; Leithäuser et al, 2009; Bereswill et al, 2010; Leithäuser, 2012; 2013), the Tavistock tradition (Menzies Lyth, 1988), object relations theory (Ferenczi, 1955; Bion, 1962), ego psychology (Freud, 1966) and the psy-sciences approach (Borgos et al, 2019). Harvesting from the articles and acknowledging the differences and specificities of the theoretical landscape, we nevertheless notice a shared endeavour for critical readings of human and societal phenomena and manifestations, which not only probe into subtle, hidden and latent meanings but also hold an interest in the relation between culturally shared emotions and psychic landscapes – and developments at the societal level. Richards (2019: 180) suggests a psychosocial ‘binocularity’ that transgresses the monocular application of psychological or sociological theory to social phenomena, arguing that ‘the sociohistorical context might somehow shape the mind, and facilitate the development or strengthening of some psychic organisations or complexes over others’. Leithäuser and Volmerg (1988: 10) ask a similar question: ‘In which ways do societal factors establish themselves in psychological structures and how are they transformed into regulatory mechanisms? And the reverse movement: how do psychological drives, wishes and needs support and connect to social and societal roles and situations in a search for gratification?’ These ambitions we see as pivotal for unlocking neoliberal practices from a psychosocial perspective.

Introduction to the articles

 The articles in this special issue aim to delve deeper into how neoliberalism presents itself in welfare practices and institutional settings, with a special interest in how human agency, subjective experience and identities, as well as intersubjectivity and collective life, are affected. The invitation to contribute to this issue has led to interesting new research contributions from scholars addressing a varied spectrum of welfare institutions, practices and problems. Guiding all the contributions has been an ambition to understand and demonstrate how the subjective and intersubjective lives of professionals and citizens are affected by neoliberalism in ways that change the practices of care, rehabilitation, social work, health promotion and learning, in addition to the participation and living of citizens in contact with welfare institutions.

In ‘Social innovation in welfare practices: identification, idealisation and shame’, Linda Lundgaard Andersen states that social innovation is the new lingo that permeates welfare service. The article provides insights into the psychosocial fabric of this current development, pointing out how identification, idealisation and shame become descriptive of the psychosocial landscapes in social enterprises. Departing from case studies, it is illustrated how managers and staff identify with and idealise their social innovative missions, but find it difficult to fulfil their aspirations in the face of (neoliberal) societal and organisational contexts and conditions.

In ‘Loneliness and lost community in the scenes of elderly care’, Betina Dybbroe analyses how home-based care for very old people with a terminal illness in Nordic societies is presently characterised by the identification, sensing and projections of a fear of loneliness and the risk of dying, and a longing for community. The neoliberal ideals of individual living, individual choice and person-centred care guide practices but are contradicted by the uniformity and austerity of care provision. Vulnerability when facing death, and the societal neoliberal construction of the autonomous subject, create projections of the emotions of fear and risk in care professionals, but also fantasies about community and shared vulnerability.

In ‘Childcare in uncaring times: emotional processes in a nursery and their political context’, Thomas Gitz-Johansen explores the influence of political and institutional conditions on the emotional life of staff in a public day-care nursery for 0- to two-year-old children, exposed to New Public Management. The analysis shows how the emotional life of the professionals is characterised by processes of suppressing the needs of very small children, and the projection of feelings onto other staff members. The emotional reactions of the professionals, however, become illuminated through the sensing of the researcher, and the article reflects on the suppression of emotions in the care of small children, influenced by a neoliberal construction of small children as learners.

In ‘Unemployment and learning: the depoliticisation and taboos of work(lessness)’, Mikkel Morgen analyses how learning as an aspect of the individual’s life-historical experiential processes is affected by the neoliberal organisation of the employment system and back-to-work policies and practices. This leads to ambiguities and by reflecting the life history of one individual case, the article demonstrates how this fosters a lack of experience, self-alienation and defensive self-preserving psychodynamics.

‘Neoliberalism, healthism and moral judgements: a psychosocial approach to class’ by Iben Charlotte Aamann illuminates how a psychosocial approach to class sheds light on the ways in which neoliberal governmentality works through a ‘regime of judgements’ rooted in class relations. Drawing on case studies of health and two different mothers involved in their children’s preschool classes, the article concludes that class morals currently shape subjectivity and that the emotional implications of this are the drivers of the ways in which neoliberal governmentality relies on moral judgements related to healthism, risk and responsibilisation.

In ‘Students, psychosocial problems and shame in neoliberal higher education’, by Trine Wulf-Andersen and Lene Larsen, mental health is seen as a new sorting mechanism in higher education, working through categories informed by psychological and psychiatric knowledge. This article discusses how certain categorisations and understandings of students’ wellbeing and everyday problems, inspired by the psy-sciences, intertwine with neoliberal traits in educational institutions. This mediates students’ emotional and educational experiences, leading to feelings of shame and unworthiness related to inequality in education.

Couldn’t care less? A psychosocial analysis of contemporary cancer care policy as a case of borderline welfare, by Birgitta Haga Gripsrud, Ellen Ramvi and Bjørn Ribers, focuses on contemporary breast cancer care as an area of clinical practice that has undergone a policy-driven transformation in the form of ‘integrated patient pathways’. This framework may challenge the quality of care and the article introduces a psychosocial understanding of care that is sensitive to the intersubjective affects and vulnerabilities in cancer treatment that become exempted from care pathways.

The authors of this special issue have all contributed with new readings of empirical work through a psychosocial lens, often drawing on sociological theory, and addressing the cultural and societal transformations that frame everyday practices in various sectors of welfare, whether social services, health care, educational settings or employment services. Emotionality appears as a pivotal and integral part of professional encounters and the contributions probe into defended identifications of self and others. The articles contribute to neoliberal readings of how New Public Management has been implemented in Denmark and Norway, and suggest different welfare scenarios of how we can identify policies and practices. While emotionality is of great significance in the targeted settings and institutions, several authors in their articles detect a loss of language and legitimacy regarding emotions that seems to be connected to neoliberal values and its political frameworks (Andersen; Dybbroe; Gitz-Johansen). This necessarily represents an obstacle to research, but the authors also provide insights into how they involve themselves, and are affected emotionally, as key to understanding intersubjective practices and reflecting on the defence mechanisms against neoliberal transformations (Dybbroe; Gitz-Johansen). Moreover, we see a focus on the effects of categorising, segregating and classing subjectivities related to neoliberal practices in several analyses (Aamann; Gripsrud, Ramvi and Ribers; Morgen; Wulf-Andersen and Larsen). The fear of expulsion from collectivity and the sense of losing relationships and access to others are a guiding theme in several of the contributions (Andersen; Dybbroe; Morgen; Wulf-Andersen and Larsen). One of the interesting cross-cutting findings of the contributions is how shame, alienation, exclusion and loneliness become active through transferences and countertransferences in welfare practices. Finally, the articles provide insights into how subjects create meaning and identification by following other rationalities – that is, those of care, community, dignity and human growth – in neoliberal times.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Andersen, L.L. (2016) A psycho-societal perspective on neoliberal welfare services in Denmark : identification and ambivalence, Journal of Psycho-Social Studies, 9(1): 94109.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Andersen, L.L. (2018) Neoliberal drivers in hybrid civil society organisations: critical readings of civicness and social entrepreneurism, in M. Kamali and J.H. Jönsson (eds) Neoliberalism, Nordic Welfare States and Social Work, Abingdon: Routledge, pp 4352.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Barnes, M. and Cotterell, P. (2012) Critical Perspectives on User Involvement, Bristol: Policy Press.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bion, W.R. (1962) Learning from Experience, London: Tavistock.

  • Boltanski, L. and Chiapello, È. (2006) Der Neue Geist des Kapitalismus, Norderstedt, Germany: BoD: Books on Demand.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Burnham, P. (1999) The politics of economic management in the 1990s, New Political Economy, 4(1): 3754.

  • Christensen, K. (2012) Towards a mixed economy of long-term care in Norway?, Critical Social Policy, 32(4): 57796, https://doi.org/10.1177/0261018311435028.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dahl, H.M. (2009) New Public Management, care and struggles about recognition, Critical Social Policy, 29(4): 63454, https://doi.org/10.1177/0261018309341903.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dahlberg, L. (2005) Interaction between voluntary and statutory social service provision in Sweden: a matter of welfare pluralism, substitution or complementarity?, Social Policy & Administration, 39(7): 74063.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dybbroe, B. (2011) The meaning of work in subjective and intersubjective perspective: a daily conflict of creating and loosing meaning in elderly care, in H. Hvid and A. Kamp (eds) Elderly Care in Transition: Management, Meaning and Identity at Work: A Scandanavian Perspective, Copenhagen, Denmark: Copenhagen Business School Press, pp 13364.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dybbroe, B. (2013) Work identity and contradictory experiences of welfare workers in a life-history perspective, Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung, 13(3): 10723.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Enjolras, B. and Strømsnes, K. (eds) (2017) Scandinavian Civil Society and Social Transformations: The Case of Norway, New York, NY: Springer.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ferenczi, S. (1955) Final Contributions to the Problems and Methods of Psychoanalysis, New York, NY: Basic Books.

  • Fotaki, M. (2017) Relational ties of love – a psychosocial proposal for ethics of compassionate care in health and public services, Psychodynamic Practice, 23(2): 1819.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Foucault, M., Davidson, A.I. and Burchell, G. (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Freud, A. (1966) The Writings of Anna Freud, Vol. II (1936): The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, New York, NY: International Universities Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Friedman, J. (1994) Cultural Identity and Global Process, vol 31, Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

  • Gibson-Graham, J.K. (2014) Rethinking the economy with thick description and weak theory, Current Anthropology, 55(S9): S147S153, https://doi.org/10.1086/676646.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Glynos, J. (2014) Neoliberalism, markets, fantasy: the case of health and social care, Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, 19(1): 512, https://doi.org/10.1057/pcs.2013.23.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hoggett, P. (2017) Shame and performativity: thoughts on the psychology of neoliberalism, Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, 22(4): 36482, https://doi.org/10.1057/s41282-017-0050-3.

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Linda Lundgaard AndersenRoskilde University, Denmark

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Betina DybbroeRoskilde University, Denmark

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