Disability and neoliberalism with Dr Georgia van Toorn

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Alison Lapper statue in Trafalgar Square

In the second of a series of interviews on embodied inequality, International Political Economy Working Group (IPEG) convenor Dr Ben Richardson (University of Warwick, UK) interviews Dr Georgia van Toorn (University of New South Wales, Australia) about her book The New Political Economy of Disability: Transnational Networks and Individualised Funding in the Age of Neoliberalism, published in 2021 with Routledge.

You can either read the transcript or listen to the audio file embedded below.


Thanks for joining me today. In your book you look at how disability support provision has been transformed across a number of countries through the adoption of an individualised funding model. This is something that allows recipients to cash out a personal budget and spend this on services from non-state providers. Could I begin by asking how you came to research this particular area, which is as you rightly argue in the book, is largely absent from the broader Political Economy literature on the neo-liberalisation of the state?


So my interest in this area really stems from my undergraduate studies in Social Policy and in Politics, and at the time I started my PhD research there was a significant social reform happening in Australia here – which I’m sure UK listeners will not necessarily know about – called the National Disability Insurance Scheme. This scheme was basically the first in Australia to really address disability as a social citizenship/social rights issue rather than a welfare issue or an object of charity or simply a private matter that is dealt with in the home or in institutions that are away from the public gaze. So it was really the first time that disability had been put on the political agenda here in Australia, and that was thanks largely to the advocacy of a lot of people with disability and their families.

I was, I guess, at the time, a bit troubled though by the way in which the political discourse surrounding this scheme – that was ostensibly a very sort of socially progressive rights-based social welfare scheme – was sort of couched in the language of the market. It was all about consumer choice and the importance of that. There was sort of an assumption made by policy elites in Australia, and then to some extent reproduced by grassroots campaigning and the general public discussion around the scheme, that if the government simply increased the funding for disability services that a market would spontaneously emerge, and that if people were free to choose and purchase their own support that this would solve the problems of disenfranchisement and lack of autonomy and independence for people with disability, and it could liberate them from the shackles of paternalistic social services.

To me this seemed really problematic because we know from other areas of the public sector that have been marketised that creating a profit-driven industry to meet a social need does not work according to the free market model, and that simply giving people choice does not guarantee better outcomes for them especially when we’re talking about a group of people who have lived historically with very little agency and personal choice in their lives. And they’re not necessarily overnight going to become savvy consumers. And nor do they necessarily have, many of them – not speaking about all people with disability because they are a huge, obviously diverse range of people – but many don’t have the resources to work the system in that way. So I think it’s important when we’re talking about disability to keep in mind that we’re talking about a group of people: some of whom are very highly-educated and highly-equipped in working public bureaucracies and negotiating those and self-advocating; but also a large number who face multiple social forms of disadvantage, a large number live in poverty, they might have language or other cultural barriers, they might be caught up in the criminal justice system. So there are whole range of ways in which a model built on self-advocacy and market principles isn’t appropriate, in my view.

So, these questions around the state’s role in social welfare and the encroachment of neo-liberal values into the social welfare sector was what really got me interested in the topic, and what led me to explore where this particular model of individualised funding had come from and how it had spread globally since the advent of neo-liberalism in the 1980s. So that was my PhD and that work formed the basis of the book, The New Political Economy of Disability. And so, as I mentioned, I have no formal training in Political Economy, but it seemed to me that a Political Economy approach was the only way to really understand this phenomenon and that there was room for me to make a contribution because disability is often overlooked in Political Economy, even in its most radical currents or schools of thought. You know, even now, I think as Political Economy and political economists are engaging more with issues that were once marginal – like issues of gender and sexuality, Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory – disability is often not recognised in that cluster of social categories or intersections. I think [disability is] a really important and useful lens through which to view the big questions of Political Economy about the roles of states, the roles of markets and state-citizen relations. Of course, there’s a really important body of scholarship on the Political Economy of Disability – that’s not to say there’s nothing been written on it – but I think for the most part, that this comes from the field of Critical Disability Studies, and unfortunately, it’s quite marginal to the major Political Economy journals or textbooks and university curriculums.

I think that’s unfortunate because anyone who engages with that scholarship… you sort of learn how central disability actually is to many of the central dynamics of capitalism: in terms of the way it structures labour markets; in terms of the way it creates a reserve army of labour that’s important for conditions of capital accumulation; and the way in which people with disability are increasingly commodified in marketised social service systems. Then, as you mentioned, there’s also very little engagement with disability in the literature on neo-liberal welfare state restructuring more specifically. I think partly due again to the invisibility of disability as a social justice issue, and also, in more in academic terms, as a category of analysis that really encapsulates many of the key social, political, and economic trends that critics of neo-liberalism, and political economists more generally, are interested in.


Thank you. I’d like to talk now about the argument of the book, and one of the major contributions it made to my mind was to really unpack the role played by disability activists and advocacy networks in advancing the individualised funding model, both within and across states, as you mentioned. And what this really brought home to me was: first, how there was this ethos of individual autonomy that was widely supported by disabled people as an antidote to what you mentioned as the paternalism of the Keynesian welfare state model in particular; but then also, how professionalised NGOs in the movement turned this demand into a market-friendly policy amenable to politicians and bureaucrats who were wanting to restructure or reform the state-society relationship. So as you mentioned in the book, there’s been this sort of ‘emancipatory agenda’ to individualised funding, which is not a phrase I usually associate with neo-liberalisation, certainly in the literature I’ve read on it. And here you make an interesting connection with Nancy Fraser’s work and suggest that there may be some parallels with the emancipatory agenda of liberal feminism vis-à-vis the welfare state and its patriarchy. So I was wondering if you could elaborate on those parallels a bit and perhaps tease out some of the features that you felt were distinctive to disability politics?


Yeah, thanks. It’s a really great question, I think you’ve encapsulated it really well. So Nancy Fraser’s work was particularly germane to this topic because she engages with Political Economy debates and questions of economic justice without subsuming other types of harm – so cultural and symbolic and political forms of oppression – that may not necessarily be traceable exclusively to capitalism. Many readers or listeners might be familiar with her writing on the different faces of injustice and the famous debate she had with Axel Honneth where she advances an argument for both cultural recognition and socio-economic redistribution. This idea of injustice as having both cultural and economic dimensions is really important, I think, in the context of disability because, in my opinion, capitalism accounts for some but not all of the harms associated with disablement.

So the work that I drew on most in the book was her book Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neo-liberal Crisis and it’s obviously about the feminist movement but many of the key insights were really applicable to disability politics. Essentially what she argues in that book is that in the 1960s and 70s, liberal and mainstream feminism made a number of political gains in terms of rights and recognition, but that was in an age where social democracy was the status quo. And then, as we know, there was a crisis in social democracy and the Keynesian welfare state, and capitalism entered a new phase which is often referred to as neo-liberalism. And Fraser argues that in this moment feminists continued to orient their struggles around the need for recognition – so cultural and symbolic forms of oppression – without coming to grips with the changing political economy and the fact that social democracy was no longer the primary threat to women’s emancipation.

The result of this, Fraser argues, was what she refers to as a “dangerous liaison” with neo-liberalism whereby feminists, in their struggle against the injustices of social democracy and Keynesian social protectionism, actually give neo-liberalism an added legitimacy or moral force that it otherwise lacked. As I argue in the book, neo-liberalism sort of turns these efforts to democratise the state and empower citizens against these social movements. And in the case of both the women’s movement, and particularly disability movement, that sort of political message was deployed in service of a retrenchment agenda. So what I do in the book is try to apply this lens to disability politics and the changing political economy of disability provisioning, and I think it’s really powerful, that argument that Fraser makes, in terms of drawing these parallels between the evolution of feminism and the rise of identity politics, on the one hand, and the society wide shift from state-managed capitalism to neo-liberalism, on the other hand.

So in applying that lens to disability politics, I’m asking the question: ‘Well, why has the disability movement got behind this idea of individualised funding? Why did they come up with the idea in the first place?’ It originated in the disability movement. It was not conceptualised by the neo-liberal policy elite that are responsible for so many of the more socially regressive policies that we often associate with neo-liberalism. Asking that question immediately opens up some sort of weaknesses or blind spots in the usual critiques that are made against neo-liberalism, and many of those, in my view, contain a sort of implicit endorsement or a glorification of social democracy and Keynesian welfare state social service provision. But people with disability, like women, were in many ways quite oppressed by that system and in the so-called ‘golden age’ of Keynesian social protectionism life was pretty brutal for a lot of disabled people at that time. You know, people were trapped in institutions, excluded from education, excluded from the labour market, just generally excluded from social and political life. And importantly, they had no control over the support that they were offered by the state and therefore no control over their life.

So there’s this apparent logic to the idea that the market is an emancipatory force in the lives of people with disability, and the idea that giving people money in lieu of services will give them choice and therefore control and autonomy is a sort of an appealing one and it makes sense at one level. And for some people it does give them that. But not for everyone. For me, I feel the model also undermines the idea of a social safety net and it also facilitates this process of marketisation. So what my book tries to do is unpack that and that process whereby the emancipatory discourse of the disabled movement became entangled with, and at times played into, this neo-liberal paradigm of small government and consumer choice. But I try to do this in a way that takes disabled people’s agency very seriously, and their arguments for individualised funding very seriously, and that starts from a place of wanting to hear their explanations.

So the book really heavily features disability activists and disability advocates, and some of the really key important players that facilitated the adoption of this in three nations: Scotland, England, and Australia. I’m able to show through that interview empirical work that disabled people were not unknowing dupes of neo-liberalism. They in fact drew selectively on neo-liberalism and neo-liberal discourse to argue a case for individualised funding, which had a social emancipatory agenda attached to it. But in appealing to that neo-liberal agenda and that neo-liberal language of consumer choice they actually vested it with an added moral weight and an emancipatory character and contributed to the situation we have today where individual autonomy is equated with consumer choice. Of course, that was never the intention, but my critique is that that was the unanticipated or unintended consequence of that liaison.

So my own position on all this is that the entanglement of neo-liberal and emancipatory ideals is actually an issue for people – including, I presume, a lot of political economists – who believe in the welfare state and who believe that the state should have some role in responding to social need, with the caveat that it needs to be reformed in ways that social protection isn’t experienced as social oppression. What that looks like in the case of disability is, in my opinion, a strong, publicly funded system of social services in which people with disability actually have a role in all aspects of policy development and service delivery: from actually designing these schemes to actually having ownership in and control over the organisations that deliver services.

In Australia we have this discourse now: we talk about Aboriginal Controlled Organisations, and this is really a recognition that Australian Indigenous People, First Nations People, have the right to control the resources that are allocated to ensure their health and wellbeing. I think we need a parallel arrangement in the disability sector where people with disability actually have control not just over their support and the services that they receive, but actually over the resources and the political decisions that are made about their lives and about the sort of political arrangements that their autonomy, their independence, their freedoms are based on, rely on. I think instead, though, we have this system where a large portion of disability funding unfortunately goes towards, you know, lining the pockets of large corporate care providers, and I think it’s largely the same in the UK from what I understand.


Thank you. That links nicely into the next question I wanted to ask – when you were talking about the involvement and the ownership of people with disability in the policies that are intended to support them, because I wanted now to talk about embodiment. In the book you stressed the diversity of groups speaking both as or for disabled people, and it did seem notable to me that many of those involved in the advocacy of individualised funding and its sort of transformation into a more market friendly policy were not themselves disabled, although many had worked in that kind of sector of provision. And you also finished the book by stressing the need for future research to explore the differential consequences that individualised funding regimes have had for specific sections of the disabled community. So I was really keen to find out from you about some of the challenges that you’ve encountered in terms of data collection, research ethics, definitions of disability, and so on, when you’ve sought to acknowledge that kind of embodied inequality and tried to bring disability as a lived experience into this book and other research that you’ve done.


Yeah, this is an important question too because, of course, the lived experience of people with disability is central to any judgment of the merits of this policy paradigm or this policy model that I’m critiquing in this book, and I should note that I do not identify as someone with a disability, so I don’t have that lived experience. So the project, as I mentioned, it was really based on a lot of empirical research interviews with disability activists and advocates who were speaking often in a professional capacity, so they were representatives of a disabled people’s organisation, you know, they were quite prominent people in their activist communities, and they were also speaking in a personal capacity as a person in receipt of individualised funding, so they had first-hand experience of this policy. In terms of the fieldwork, my experience was really shaped by a fantastic opportunity I had where I spent nine months living in the UK conducting research out of the Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research based at Glasgow University and the rest of my candidate was here in Australia. But at that Centre there was really an amazing sort of community of disability scholars, and being there I was able to make some really great connections with the disability movement there, which sort of really overlapped with the community of scholars who were based in and linked to the centre.

I suppose because of the very people that I was speaking with, who were in positions of relative authority in their social worlds, they were speaking on behalf of, they were representative of, organisations and people with disability. So they had a political voice, in a way, and data collection and ethics were fairly straightforward because of that – and I guess because they were not the sort of people that who were likely to be disenfranchised by individualised funding. Although some had had some really bad experiences, I have to say. One man I spoke to in Scotland who was a very prominent disability activist and had been awarded an OBE, he had extensive experience in the policy and legal system there, he told me that he’d been stuck in the second story of his home for two weeks because the wheelchair lift in his home had broken and the company to whom the government had outsourced the service didn’t have the parts to fix it. So he rightly asked, ‘Well, why? Why has there been no user involvement or input from people with disability in this process?’

So I guess the main challenge that I had throughout the fieldwork phase was really around the very sensitive issues in disability politics and disability research around: Who has the authority to speak about disability? What is the place of non-disabled people to comment on disability? These are all very political questions and the community of disability activists in Australia in particular, is quite divided on some of these issues and there are very stark divisions between organisations and communities of activists that are led by people with disability and those who conform to a more traditional model where it’s mainly non-disabled people speaking on behalf of people or advocating on behalf of people with disability, and they are seen to be aligned with that sort of more charity oriented view of disability. And so that’s all to say that this is a very political field and as a non-disabled person I was conscious of contributing to a dynamic of non-disabled people speaking about disability issues, or, even worse, contributing to the undermining of the disability movement through my critique of individualised funding.

So as I’ve sort of said my way around that was to really ground my analysis in the perspectives of the people that I was interviewing, and really foreground their agency and their voice with extensive quotes throughout the book. The book is really about how this model of individualised funding spread globally through networks of disability activism and advocacy, and about those sort of macro-policy processes rather than an account of the lived experience of disability or people who are receiving this form of individualised service provision. It’s not an in depth look at the lived experiences of disablement under this model. I think that research is extremely important, and others are doing it all around the world but that is something that’s not necessarily within what the book is trying to achieve. Maybe that might be the next one [laughs].


Thank you, thanks. You’ve already mentioned in one of your earlier answers about the links and relationships between Political Economy and Disability Studies, and so I just wanted to return to that now if I may. When I was reading your book, partly because I’m still preparing my teaching for the year ahead you know, it struck me that your case study had resonance with a whole host of topics that you would likely see in a kind of contemporary International Political Economy syllabus or research agenda. I mean, your focus is on neo-liberal policy mobility but then you also touch on the use of algorithmic decision-making in welfare provision, the kind of evolving discourse on the undeserving poor, and the role of non-profit organisations as these market actors, among many other things. So I was kind of wondering if these or any other topics jumped out to you as sort of potential candidates for political economy analysis, in the same way you were saying the spread of the policy did initially. And then, conversely, are there any intellectual tools that you’ve taken from Disability Studies that you think could enrich Political Economy scholarship more widely? I think you mentioned already disablement, and I’ve come across a notion of ableism as well. I would be keen to know your thoughts on these possibilities for mutual learning.


Yeah, I think those policy areas that you mentioned are really fascinating, and I think they’re all examples of where an International Political Economy approach could be really valuable. In a way, all those approaches that you mentioned are products of neo-liberalism at one level: algorithmic decision making in terms of its orientation to efficiency, standardisation, cost cutting; discourses that moralise the poor, reinforce ideas of personal responsibility; and certainly the participation of non-profit organisations in quasi markets. You know, they’re all manifestations of a similar ideological paradigm or project. And many of these examples share something in common with individualised funding in that they’re discussed as ways of improving services or improving governance, or helping people break free from the constraints of government intervention or whatever. But they actually fail to address the core social inequalities that the welfare state is tasked with addressing, and in so doing, they often exacerbate many of the issues that contribute to unjust outcomes for historically marginalised groups, including people with disability.

So I think that’s where a Political Economy approach, particularly an International Political Economy approach is important: (a) in terms of drawing those connections between different jurisdictions, different areas in which these policies – social policy experiments – are happening all around the world; and (b) of locating all these different experiments within a common framework of global capitalism, because it is a common logic, or there are common drivers underlying these various trends, and you can draw those connections without necessarily resorting to essentialising or simplistic accounts of neo-liberal hegemony. I found the policy mobilities approach, which I used in the book, was a particularly useful way of doing that. And that school of thought developed by people like Jamie Peck grew out of a marriage of Political Economy and Human Geography, so I think there are some very useful tools there for people who want to take that international perspective but who are also interested in questions of political agency and the sort of specific social dynamics that play out within countries.

In terms of what Disability Studies can offer Political Economy, I had to think about this and I think that probably one of the first and most immediately useful tools is the social model of disability, which – I’m not sure if you’ve come across this idea – basically, it’s the idea that people are not disabled by their bodily impairment, but by the social structures that isolate and exclude and devalue people with impairments and prevent them from participating in social life on an equal footing with others. This was a very formative model or framework to come out of the disability movement, and I think shares some commonalities with Political Economy in terms of its focus on social structure and ideas of social embeddedness, and the intersection of social structure and human agency or personal biography. So I think that that is one tool that is in many ways a good fit with Political Economy approaches to disability, because the focus is on disablement as a form of social oppression, and a form of oppression that stems in part from the way capitalism structures society. It’s not rooted in biology.

And I just thought I’d mention some classic texts and really fantastic works that use that model or, I guess, start from that materialist analysis. One is a book by a guy called Roddy Slorach, it’s called A Very Capitalist Condition, and that analyses the various aspects of disability, history and politics from a Marxist perspective. There’s also some works by Marta Russell, including a book called Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract, and she explores the origins of disabled people’s marginalisation in capitalism and sort of locates that in capitalism’s austerity politics and the power of corporations. And then lastly, I should also mention an Australian disability scholar Karen Soldatic and her book Disability and Neo-liberal State Formations, a very important book about the intersection of neo-liberalism and disability. And lastly, a classic work by Deborah Stone called The Disabled State. I think all those books – they’re sort of classic texts on Political Economy and Disability and would be a really fantastic way to put those two fields in conversation with each other.


Thank you. Well that was the purpose of the interview today, so that’s a nice point to end on as well I think. So thanks so much for doing this today. It’s been so enlightening and, yeah, best of luck with the with the next book project!


Thank you, no problem. Thanks for the invitation.

Image: Alison Lapper Pregnant (2005) by Marc Quinn. Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Dave Rutt