Masterclass Neoliberalism in care: An impression

How to recognize the many faces of neoliberalism? That was the central question of the third masterclass of The Dutch foundation Critical Ethics of Care, which was entitled: ‘More self-reliance and less government? Neoliberalism in care, welfare and education’. Professionals representing a cross section of the care sector compiled an audience to four speakers, who each in-turn gave their perspective on the phenomenon of neoliberalism in care.

The event was a follow up in response to the latest book of the scholarly work of German political theorist Thomas Biebricher

Squared Circles

“Professionals are standing in the position of squared circles”, stated professor Frans Vosman (Utrecht, NL) in his introduction to this masterclass “therefore, it is urgent to understand the many faces of neoliberalism and their complexity”. The masterclass was an instructive overview in the phenomenon of neoliberalism and by the end it became apparent that neoliberalism being a long- standing trend, makes for a complex context in care. Greater awareness of this complexity can serve us in better understanding the growing search for autonomy, self reliance and resilience, which shape our society. To introduce the narrative of the practice, Erna Molenaar shared some case studies from her years of experience in the field of social work. Notable is that care professionals are often complicit in the maintenance of rigid power structures, which in itself can frustrate the movement towards positive change in discourse. Her casestudies clearly demonstrate the inseparability of care and politics, particularly in regard to the situation in The Netherlands under the current government policy. For example: “How to deal with the vulnerable when care is forced upon them under the heading of the participation society (a trend in Dutch policy for years now)?” and “How to deal with the subsequent shame and insecurity, which demand long term attention, if inclusivity is shaped into an efficiency topic?”.

The paradox of neoliberalism

To understand the many faces of neoliberalism and their resonance in society, it is helpful to understand the complicated assignment managers have to fulfill. The second lecture, given by Guus Timmerman, care ethicist and researcher for the chair of the Presence Theory, illustrated that neoliberalism was a reaction to the classical liberalism during the interbellum period as the result of decreasing confidence in government, a failing economic system and two world wars, which necessitated societal reform to one wherein the individual would have the best opportunities. This facilitated a shift in market principle, from one of equality to competition. Counterthinking and rethinking the problem of neoliberalism in care and welfare concludes the ambiguity of the practice. Some neoliberalistic solutions for burning issues are for example: “Self reliance is a solution for taking care of myself”, viewed optimistically this means “everyone can participate”, but with the down side being “search for it yourself”. Another striking example, is the idea that “Resilience is a solution for vulnerability”, the marketing line is to accept vulnerability, to reduce precarity and facilitate resilience, but in practice equates to resilience as an individual achievement and vulnerability to be seen as an invalidity and your own failure.

Sharing of knowledge

In response to this enlightening information, two counter arguments were proposed. Firstly, Jan den Bakker (scholar public administration and staffmember of the Foundation Presence) pleads for relational cooperation in organization structures, wherein needs based, bottom-up policy is adopted and where differences are embraced at a foundational level. Secondly Ed de Jonge, senior lecturer professionalization social work (Hogeschool Utrecht), clarifies the positions, paradoxes and perspectives on professionalism of social work in neoliberalism. Significant is his observation that human beings are ambivalent: they expect as a client or patient customized individual care, but as a citizen they compel equality and cost control. The masterclass was concluded with a public discussion and a growing new awareness, that when considering “What is good care?” one must recognize the many faces of neoliberalism and of their importance in counterthinking the dominant discourse in care. Even though the next step is not easy to find, it is imperative that we persevere and continue the dialogue.


About the author: Tessa Roberts-Smorenburg

Tessa Roberts-Smorenburg

Tessa Roberts-Smorenburg (1987) graduated as a master in Ethics of Care and Policy at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (NL) in 2015. She currently holds the double position of ethical consultant, and policy advisor in the Centre on the Quality of Life and Survivorship, at the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital in Amsterdam (NL). This centre accommodates the physical/psychosocial, supportive and survivorship care for cancer patients. As a sociotherapist she worked in direct contact with patients in psychiatric clinics. Her previous experience at TAAK brought her in contact with visual artists and care institutions to whom she provided an ethics of care perspective during research and project development for the programme “Art & Care”.

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