The moral economy of universal public healthcare. On healthcare activism in austerity Spain.

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Spain has a national health service, universal in access and free at the point of use. The global economic crisis of 2008, with its subsequent austerity policies, has put the universality of public healthcare at risk. This has led to an increase in healthcare activism, whose aim is to fight healthcare cuts and privatization to safeguard the national health service for all. This article addresses such healthcare activism. Drawing on long-term fieldwork with a heterogeneous set of actors ranging from individual activists and unions to ad hoc activist collectives, I will analyze the moral economy of healthcare activists in Madrid, to understand why and in which terms they defend universal healthcare as a common good and challenge its marketization. In Spain, since the democratic transition, struggles around what constitutes a common weal have been highly politicized and affect-laden. The national health system stands as one example here, as it is closely linked to the emergence of the democratic welfare state in the late 1970s, following decades of Franco's dictatorship. This makes Spain a particularly interesting case, as the widely acknowledged understanding of public healthcare as a public and social good is intimately linked to democratization and welfare. Therefore, struggles over the nature of health systems are also struggles over the political, moral and economic organization of society, over (il)legitimate forms of power and over ways of caring for each other. In such struggles, visions of the public, the state and the political economy come to the fore. In Spain, there is ambivalence about the state's role as both protector and provider of the public good, but also as facilitator of capitalism, which this article will address.

Original languageEnglish
Article number115363
Number of pages10
JournalSocial Science & Medicine
Early online date17 Oct 2022
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2023

Austrian Fields of Science 2012

  • 504017 Cultural anthropology
  • 504009 Ethnology


  • Austerity
  • Healthcare activism
  • Moral economy
  • Privatization
  • Spain
  • State
  • Universal public healthcare


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