Productive Values: Activating Labor and Finding Selves in Norwegian Job‐Seeker Courses

Tower Center Associate Dr. Kelly McKowen wrote about how in recent decades, activation has become the paradigm of European social policy. This is a move that many scholars have decried as part of the neoliberalization of the continent’s once‐robust welfare states. Much of the scholarship on activation, however, has focused on the formal and legal dimensions of policy change, obscuring how activation policies function at the level of everyday life and thus what they actually represent with respect to the broader economic and political shifts remaking contemporary Europe. This article, based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Norway between 2015 and 2016, examines one increasingly common activation scheme, the mandatory job‐seeker course. While confirming that the courses propagate a neoliberal rhetoric of the “sellable self,” ethnographic evidence contests the notion that this rhetoric is itself evidence of a broader ideological shift within Norway. In fact, the opposite is the case. This rhetoric is not only continuous with a longstanding elite understanding of Norway as an “active society” but also potentially beneficial to the country’s universal welfare state. Ultimately, this article argues that insofar as neoliberal rhetoric helps Norway’s unemployed overcome feelings of moral abjection and social disorientation to search for formal, tax‐generating employment, it protects rather than undermines the social democratic order. Read more here.