In the much anticipated speech which revealed the launch of a new Labour-led coalition government, Winston Peters talked about capitalism. This is significant because mainstream politicians in Aotearoa New Zealand very seldom mention the word. They don’t want to frighten the horses. What Peters suggested is that too many of us see capitalism as a foe rather than a friend and that a return to capitalism with a human face is required. This is a clear reference to the failed politics of neoliberalism. As Filipe Duarte has pointed out, the destructive failure of neoliberal capitalism has spawned a right wing populist politics of prejudice and nationalism. This is graphically illustrated in the Trump debacle. However this realisation can also be an engine for progressive change.
What might this mean for social work in the here and now? I believe that it may provide the opportunity to develop (and apply) a more critical and politically informed social work. We need to make our voices heard in the fight to level the playing field in what has become an obscenely unequal society. And we also need to develop a micro practice that is informed by respectful relational engagement. Child and family social work serves people on the social margins – people who actively struggle against structural disadvantage. Bridging this big picture – small picture divide is the challenge in front of us. It is an aim that is beginning to be pursued internationally (see Davidson, Bunting, Bywaters, Featherstone & McCartan, 2017).
The first step in our context is to critically re-think the out-going Government’s so-called social investment approach to social work. In this model state–held data is connected to a predictive cost formula – forward fiscal liability. The idea is to identify vulnerable individuals and families in order to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of social services. Although this may sound sensible on the surface it does not stand up well to critical scrutiny. It relies on the assumption that we can remedy the social deficit by means of surveillance and control.
The human targets of this analysis are people living in poverty. Deprivation is constructed as a behavioural problem attached to problem people. Through their social norms, their parenting styles, their trauma histories, such people are envisaged as reproducing poverty in their own lives and in the lives of their children. The idea is that social workers can provide, broker, or ‘commission’ interventions that disrupt this cycle. At the risk of radical understatement this analysis is grossly simplistic. I think it is time to own a more expansive vision. The following is from Israeli social work commentator, Michal Krumer-Nevo.
Social work has the potential to be provocative, to challenge the status quo, to reveal poverty as a site of injustice, to identify the numerous and incessant occurrences in which injustice happens and the structures and institutions that make it happen. By adopting a political lens in thinking about the theories we create and use, the research we conduct, and the practice we teach and carry out, we will be better positioned to fulfil our commitment to promote social justice, and not less importantly, and maybe even more importantly, we will enhance our relevance in the lives of people in poverty. What more can we ask for?
I think we can (and should) ask for more – but the above would be a grand start! We are embarking on a journey into interesting times. I would like to know how others read the opportunity that lies before us.
Davidson, G., Bunting, Bywaters, L., Featherstone, B. & McCartan, C. (2017). Child Welfare as Justice: Why We Are Not Addressing Inequalities. British Journal of Social Work, 47 (6) 1641- 1651.
Krumer-Nevo, M. (2017). Poverty and the political; wrestling the political out of and into social work theory, research and practice. European Journal of social Work, 20 (6), 811-822.
Image credit: Ulysse Bellier