Accepted paper:

The moral and ideological foundations of austerity welfare: an ethnography of bureaucratic regulation in Portuguese job centres


Patrícia Alves de Matos (CRIA-ISCTE - Instituto Universitário de Lisboa)

Paper short abstract:

Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Portuguese job centres, focusing on the bureaucratic transactions between unemployed benefits recipients and front-line staff, this paper reflects on the moral and ideological foundations underpinning the current austerity-led welfare state regime.

Paper long abstract:

Following the economic crisis of 2008, Portugal signed a structural adjustment programme with the 'Troika' in 2011, binding the government to undertake a re-evaluation plan of the role and functions of Public Employment Services. In March 2012 the 'Relaunching Programme of Public Employment Services' put into effect changes in the organization and administrative functioning of job centres, with the broader stated aim of promoting, among the growing unemployed population, the reinforcement of 'behaviors leading to active job search and 'employability' skills improvement'. In the everyday life of job centres this is expressed, for instance, in a) an expansion of workfare practices (i.e. stronger conditionalities, sanctions and tighter eligibility criteria for accesing benefits; compulsory requirement made upon benefits recipients to participate in training or work-oriented programmes), and b) the increased enactment of surveillance administrative practices (i.e. the systematic summon of benefits recipients to attend sessions of individual data updating at job centres). It is argued that in Portugal, the emerging state-led welfare austerity regime of unemployment social protection is underpinned by a 'paternalistic utilitarianism' framework of regulation: unemployed recipients are treated as child-like dependents, whose individual behaviour should be under surveillance and aligned with the government's goals, while simultaneously being urged to act as independent individuals, responsible for their own well-being through their entrepreneurial, rational and self-maximizing utilitarian efforts to improve themselves and act upon their condition. Consequently, welfare unemployment provision shifts from being defined according to need or social right, to be made conditional upon the enactment of the normalized state-induced expected behaviour.

panel P65
Linking the moral and the political economy in the European periphery