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The Work of Politics: Making a Democratic Welfare State, Steven Klein

Reviewed by Thimo Heisenberg

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There is a certain view of welfare institutions and policies (unemployment insurance, health insurance, paid family leave, etc.) that has the rare distinction of being held by critics across the whole political spectrum. According to this view, welfare institutions and policies act as anonymous and overly bureaucratic structures that turn citizens into passive welfare recipients, thereby decreasing their sense of agency and autonomy. Accompanying the rise of welfare institutions like a steady drumbeat, this view has fueled anxieties about a loss of individuality and personal responsibility (on the right), as well as (on the left) anxieties about a technocratic takeover of social concerns that forecloses possibilities for radical social change.

In his new book The Work of Politics, Steven Klein sets out to refute this image of the welfare state. Based on historical evidence as well as on theoretical considerations, Klein shows how welfare institutions, far from blunting the force of political and democratic agency, can present a site for such agency and have, in fact, done so in the past. For example, by codifying implicit social norms into explicit regulations, by supplying a categorial language for social phenomena, as well as—at the most basic level—by providing institutional and physical places to which organizers can address their deman

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