Social policy and the government of waste.

AuthorVeitch, Kenneth


This article argues that key elements of contemporary social policy can be fruitfully analysed through the lens of waste. Drawing on work identifying the importance of waste and waste disposal in the history of modernity and early liberal theory, this article develops two concepts of waste--waste as inertia and waste as excess --and uses these to shed light on aspects of recent social policy in the areas of unemployment, healthcare and higher education. In particular, it is argued that the theme of waste is able to capture the desire of recent governments to deploy social policy explicitly to economic ends--including economic growth and capital --and the consequences it sets in motion for citizens who fail to comply with stipulated obligations. It is also argued that the government of waste is a source of political legitimacy for the state.

Keywords capital, excess, government, inertia, social policy, waste


Waste, and the need to tackle it, has become a pressing political concern. Perhaps the most prominent manifestation of this is to be found in the context of austerity politics and the concomitant cuts to public services. The state's bailout of stricken financial institutions in 2008 created large deficits in the public finances that have been tackled, at least partially, by the implementation of cuts in the public sector. In the United Kingdom, one way in which this policy of cost-cutting was justified by the previous Coalition Government was to frame it in terms of the need to eliminate waste--a necessary response, this Government argued, to the excessive spending of, and lack of fiscal management by, previous, Labour, administrations. The charge was that taxpayers had not obtained value for money from Labour's spending practices, something that needed to be addressed, for example, by slimming down government departments through the elimination of needless inefficiencies. A more streamlined and cost-effective public sector would not only function more efficiently; it would also contribute to deficit reduction. The political concern with waste can be detected in other areas of government policy too. Some of these, such as the desire to champion recycling by working towards a 'zero waste economy in the environmental field (Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs 2010), may seem obvious; others, less so. Thus, in its White Paper on welfare reform, for example, the previous Coalition Government used the discourse of waste to characterise the nature of its concern for the deleterious effect of the existing welfare benefits system on both beneficiaries and the economy; 'The waste of human potential is immense and the cost to our country vastly exceeds the monetary benefits paid' (Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) 2010: 12).

Academic literature on waste has tended to focus on those areas in which it appears most evident, such as the environment and food. The Sociological Review, for instance, recently dedicated a special issue to food waste and its sociological implications (Special Issue: Sociological Review Monograph Series 2012). To the extent that conceptual analyses of waste exist, these tend to be heavily analytical and normative accounts aimed, at least in part, at perfecting an accurate definition of waste (e.g. Cohen 2010). This article's engagement with waste differs from the foregoing literature in two ways. First, its focus is on social, rather than environmental or food, policy. Second, while this article advances two ideas of waste, the aim of this conceptual analysis is to draw attention to, and shed light upon, what it is argued here is a pressing contemporary political and social issue--namely, social policy's relationship to capitalism and the economy. Of course, the relationship between the welfare state and capitalism has been explored many times before, with a variety of interpretations being offered of its nature (see, for example, Holmwood 2000; Jessop 2002). (1) While this article does not engage directly in a discussion of what is a vast literature on this topic, it is inspired by the same methodological approach to social policy that underpins this--namely, one that seeks to understand social policy and the welfare state in the context of broader questions of political economy, rather than as being driven by narrower concerns relating to charting specific types of social provision (Esping-Andersen 1990: 1-2). As David Garland (2014) has reminded us recently, the macro-economic function of government 'is the broadest and least frequently invoked conception' of the welfare state (p. 339). However, whereas Garland understands this governmental function as being undertaken 'in the interest of security, stability and welfare (Garland 2014: 340; original emphasis), this article aims to identify and comprehend the state's deployment of social policy predominantly to the ends of capital rather than to the security or welfare of citizens relying on the state for protection against capitalism's negative social and economic consequences. Developing two concepts of waste--as excess and inertia--the argument advanced is that the idea of waste offers a critical conceptual lens through which to capture the states increasing use of social policy for the ends of capital and economic growth.

This article is structured as follows. The first section develops the aforementioned concepts of waste--waste as excess and waste as inertia. Drawing on work in the fields of the critique of political economy and legal theory, this section sets out the meanings of those two concepts. It also highlights a concern with waste in the history of liberal theory and its inextricable relationship to capitalism. It is argued that, while not explicitly mapping onto developments in contemporary social policy, the themes to be found in the historical literature resonate in this sphere today.

The remainder of this article discusses some examples from contemporary social policy and aims to demonstrate how these can fruitfully be understood through the conceptual lens of waste developed in the first section. Thus, in the second section, it is argued that the main policy designed to address unemployment today in the United Kingdom --workfare--displays elements of both waste as excess and inertia. Recent reforms to the National Health Service (NHS) and higher education system in England--the topic of the third section- it is argued, display a political concern with the inertia of public institutions and services, in the sense that they require to be reformed with a view to contributing to national prosperity and facilitating opportunities for profit-making. The final section sums up this articles arguments.

Before beginning, it is worth stressing one point. In his critique of the literature that uses terms such as bare life, wasted life, disposable life, precarious life and superfluous life, Denning (2010) comments that 'To speak repeatedly of bare life and superfluous life can lead us to imagine that there really are disposable people, not simply that they are disposable in the eyes of state and market' (pp. 79-80). For the sake of clarity, the argument in this article is neither a normative one along the lines that waste management and getting rid of waste is something that ought to be done, or that certain people or lives are inherently disposable. Nor is the contention here that unemployment is somehow a better condition than employment--that there is something more appealing about not working compared with doing so. As Jimmy Reid (1972) said of redundancy in his rectorial address at Glasgow University in 1972, 'I challenge the right of any man or any group of men, in business or in government, to a tell a fellow human being that he is expendable'. Rather, the aim is to offer waste as a critical concept that describes controversial features of the state's contemporary social policy and highlights its inextricable link with capitalism and the economy. But while the focus is upon the state and its policies, this does not mean, contra Denning, that one of the effects of such policies is not that some people 'really are disposable people'. As this article aims to demonstrate, one of the consequences of the state's treating certain categories of people as disposable is that they can, in reality, become just that.

Waste as excess and inertia

The first sense of waste advanced here is waste as excess. It will be helpful to turn to an article by Susan Marks (2011) on superfluity (an idea closely related to waste) to obtain an understanding of this first sense of waste, as she understands superfluity to revolve around 'the general idea of excess'. Marks identifies three senses of superfluity. The first is 'quantitative excess', meaning that there is too much of something, hence rendering the excess surplus to requirements. The second involves 'practical redundancy'--namely, something that

does not serve any useful purpose and can be omitted without consequences. There may also be a hint that it is creating needless clutter; it no longer fits or has a place in the overall scheme of things and is now in the way. (p. 3) Finally, superfluity can point to excess that takes the form of 'noxious waste'--the excessive use of something that has the effect of diluting the original. This may amount to what Marks calls 'contaminating waste'--an excess that has a detrimental impact on that which remains. Drawing these meanings together, Marks (2011) concludes that '[S] omething is superfluous when it is expendable, disposable, useless, unwanted, undesirable, worthless, senseless, or supernumerary' (p. 3).

As well as the idea of excess, another feature that is common to Marks' three senses of superfluity is the need to get rid of their respective excesses. More particularly, there is a sense in which these excesses demand not only to be eliminated but also to be eliminated in what might be called a...

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