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In this chapter, I consider how the OECD’s 1994 definition of literacy was taken up during neoliberal reforms of welfare in Ontario, Canada. Starting in 1997, the province began a process of restructuring through which welfare shifted from a social program that guaranteed a minimum income to a system that required recipients to sign contracts outlining the responsibilities they were required to fulfill in exchange for benefits. Reforms to welfare were designed to reduce the number of people who apply for, are eligible for, or continue to receive welfare benefits (Herd, Mitchell, & Lightman, 2005): the maximum benefit amount for a single person in 2009 was $7,020 a year, while Statistics Canada calculated that a single person in Toronto could not live on less than $17,954 (Monsebraaten, 2009).
My aim in this chapter is to mobilize Foucault’s concepts of disciplinary power, bio-power, and governmentality to consider how the mandatory literacy test, and the regulation governing its administration, operate as technologies of neoliberal governmentality. To undertake my analysis I sketch how a particular kind of literacy became one of the conditions that people seeking social assistance were expected to meet, outline how prevailing discourses of literacy and of entrepreneurial subjects emerged in tandem in Ontario in the 1990s, and analyse some effects of these changes. Looking at the role literacy plays in the current welfare regime in Ontario can, I believe, shed some light on the role of literacy in constructing neoliberal subjectivities and can illuminate how normative literacy produces and reproduces social inequalities.
Here is an often cited definition by Paul Treanor: “Neoliberalism is a philosophy in which the existence and operation of a market are valued in themselves, separately from any previous relationship with the production of goods and services . . . and where the operation of a market or market-like structure is seen as an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action, and substituting for all previously existing ethical beliefs.”
(“Neoliberalism: Origins, Theory, Definition.”) taken from here.
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3 Foucault concept definitions from here.
Foucault argues that biopower is a technology which appeared in the late eighteenth century for managing populations. It incorporates certain aspects of disciplinary power. If disciplinary power is about training the actions of bodies, biopower is about managing the births, deaths, reproduction and illnesses of a population. (More from Wikipedia.)
Discipline is a mechanism of power which regulates the behaviour of individuals in the social body. This is done by regulating the organisation of space (architecture etc.), of time (timetables) and people's activity and behaviour (drills, posture, movement). It is enforced with the aid of complex systems of surveillance. Foucault emphasizes that power is not discipline, rather discipline is simply one way in which power can be exercised. He also uses the term 'disciplinary society', discussing its history and the origins and disciplinary institutions such as prisons, hospitals, asylums, schools and army barracks. Foucault also specifies that when he speaks of a 'disciplinary society' he does not mean a 'disciplined society'. (More from Wikipedia.)
Foucault originally used the term 'governmentality' to describe a particular way of administering populations in modern European history within the context of the rise of the idea of the State. He later expanded his definition to encompass the techniques and procedures which are designed to govern the conduct of both individuals and populations at every level not just the administrative or political level. (More from Wikipedia.)