This paper offers an anatomy of one device of the British welfare regime, in order to isolate the defining features and contradictions of the post-2008 conjuncture. It first focuses on the Work Capability Assessment from a public policy perspective, and then focuses on the experience of welfare state users. The paper draws on doctoral research submitted in 2018, which includes a mixed-method inquiry targeted at anti-austerity disability activists.
As a tool of social security budget management, the WCA is part of the broad trend of welfare retrenchment and privatization which has characterized the neoliberal era. As a device of social administration, the WCA brings together long-lived dynamics of state-sanctioned suspicion towards the poor and the disabled, and neoliberal dynamics of discipline targeting the same social groups. The device is buttressed by conceptions of disability and work which uphold the rationalization and quantification of individual abilities rather than socially informed approaches of bodies at work.
As far as welfare state users are concerned, the WCA induces major material difficulties in line with the effects of austerity, as well as psychological distress. But it has also been contested both individually and collectively: welfare users have opposed in turn the existence of the WCA, its ways and means, and its results. They have resorted to legal action, protests, hacktivism, and have also formed - under the banner of Disabled People Against the Cuts or others - a network providing support, knowledge and skills to undermine the workings of the WCA.
The WCA is therefore also an object of dissent, whose politicization is characteristic of the recent trends regarding social welfare movements and their criticism of neoliberal social policy institutions.