Today is Labour Day in New Zealand, a day commemorating the struggle of the New Zealand working class for an eight-hour working day. A struggle that began with the resolute action of a single carpenter from Petone, and was achieved by the coordinated action of the entire trade union movement. Labour Day reminds us of the importance of solidarity and the continued need for coordinated action to defend the rights of ordinary people. I want to use my Labour Day to reflect on recent political events and their implications for my fellow social workers, and the workers with whom they work.
So, by a curious and convoluted path, the political balance in New Zealand has altered. The term of office of the fifth National government – in power since 2008 – has ended, and their centre-right government replaced by a coalition of the centre-left. That the coalition has a different political sensibility is signalled in references made by Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters to the failures of capitalism and the need for a capitalism with a kinder, more human face. As Ian Hyslop argued, the fact that the “C” word is in use, and being critiqued, suggests that the political ground has shifted significantly. More than this, there is talk of a return to social protections: to reforming the benefits system, stopping the sale of social housing and improving mental health services.
Not before time. Like other public sector workers, social workers bear daily witness to the impact of unregulated market forces, rentier capitalism and punitive social agencies on Māori, people on benefits and other workers in precarious circumstances. Social workers also know that neoliberal reforms have stretched health and social services to breaking point, made worse by managerial productivity and accountability measures that only increase the exploitation, demoralisation and alienation of workers. Writers in this blog have frequently commented on the National government’s plans to dismantle social welfare services, and replace them with a technocratic, neoliberal, social investment state (Hyslop, 2017; Keddell, 2017), plans that included proposals for alarming experiments in algorithmic risk prediction in child protection services (Keddell, 2016). If a centre-left coalition is willing to halt these dystopian experiments, and embrace new and progressive social policies, then that is to be welcomed. But let us be clear, none of this will be easy. I want to argue that, whilst colleagues may be excited at the prospect of a shiny, new, left-leaning coalition, we (and they) must stay alert to what happens next. There are three reasons to stay alert: one concerns the response of powerful actors outside government whose interests are threatened by the new coalition; a second is the resistance of key actors inside state agencies; and the third concerns the prospects for a deeper, more emancipatory political project.
Firstly, and most importantly, the class whose self-interest has been put on hold by the coalition will organise against reforms that threaten their interests. Of course, to accept this argument, you need to accept that social class is still a valid concept in the twenty-first century; that the capitalist class (described by Oxfam as the 1%) actually exists; and that something called class struggle, or anti-capitalist struggle, is an ever-present social reality. Those of us who do accept these assumptions look behind and beyond electoral politics to trace the dynamics of the struggle as it plays out in a range of different domains: in government, industry, communities and the media. When the power of the capitalist class is threatened, even in a small way (such as the election of a left-leaning, social democratic coalition) they mobilise to minimise the threat; and, as a class, they have enormous wealth, power and influence that enables them to do so. One way to think about the capitalist class is as a social movement from above. Social movements from above have been described as:
…the collective agency of dominant groups, which is centred…around a rationality that aims to maintain or modify a dominant structure of entrenched needs and capacities in ways that either reproduce or extend the power of these groups, and their hegemonic position. (Cox & Nilsen, 2014, pp 59-60)
Put simply, dominant groups and elites use their existing power and influence to maintain their position and resist attempts to restrain or regulate that power, irrespective of social democratic, electoral choices. In other words, we can expect a series of attempts, propagated through the media, to sully the reputation of individual left-leaning politicians (just as they dragged the reputation of Metiria Turei through the mud), disparage left-leaning policies and lobby government ministers to comply with their wishes. We should expect media headlines shrieking about the dire consequences of being soft on beneficiaries, and business leaders squealing about the effects of the tiniest of tax reforms, or minuscule changes to the minimum wage. Progressive social workers must respond assertively to these arguments and highlight the vested interests of the actors involved.
Secondly, there may be resistance to change from inside government agencies. As Machiavelli (1950) wrote, and all politicians understand:
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order…(p. 21)
Consider, for example, the complexities involved in correcting the recent National government changes to the Ministry of Social Development or to Oranga Tamariki. Policy papers have been written, legislation amended, structures altered, senior managers appointed and projects commenced. All of the above is geared to implement a neoliberal vision of child welfare premised on social investment, the politics of early intervention (Gillies, Edwards & Horsley, 2017) and a discredited interpretation of neuroscience (Beddoe & Joy, 2017; Wastell & White, 2017). Turning that policy direction around is essential. However, prior material commitments made in the form of senior management appointments, new technologies and business processes will make change as easy as turning an oil tanker in a storm. The temptation for the coalition will be to focus on new and unrelated flagship initiatives that can be more easily launched, managed and controlled. Political principles argued vigorously from the benches of the opposition, can become tempered with political pragmatism in office. Progressive social workers must support coalition politicians by holding them to account, reminding them of values held whilst in opposition and insisting they use their political power to follow through with principled actions, no matter how difficult.
Thirdly, those of us who struggle to realise a more emancipatory politics – whether struggling against economic exploitation, environmental degradation or cultural dispossession – must use the space opened up by a left-leaning coalition to continue to build the movement for social change. We must debate and argue for the resources and policies that will allow us to build truly democratic, culturally responsive, social institutions that support community wellbeing in a sustained way. This cannot be achieved by a better safety net for the victims of the market economy (welcome though that may be), but only through a radical transformation of society. The real choice for people, and the planet, is not between capitalism with or without a human face. The real choice is, as Rosa Luxembourg (1915) framed it many years ago, “…either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism”. Happy Labour Day comrades!
Beddoe, L., & Joy, E. (2017). Questioning the uncritical acceptance of neuroscience in child and family policy and practice: A review of challenges to the current doxa. Aotearoa NewZealand Social Work, 29(1), 65-76.
Cox, L. & Nilsen, A.G. (2014). We make our own history: Marxism and social movements in the twilight of neoliberalism. London, UK: Pluto Press.
Gillies, V., Edwards, R. & Horsley, N. (2017). Challenging the politics of early intervention: Who’s ‘saving children and why. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.
Hyslop, I. (2017). Child protection in New Zealand: A history of the future. British Journal of Social Work, 47(6),1800–1817, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcx088
Keddell, E. (2016). Substantiation decision-making and risk prediction in child protection systems. Policy Quarterly, 12(2), 46-56.
Keddell, E. (2017). The vulnerable child in neoliberal contexts: The construction of children in the Aotearoa New Zealand child protection reforms. Childhood. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0907568217727591
Luxembourg, R. (1915). The Junius pamphlet: The crisis of German social democracy. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1915/junius/ch01.htm
Machiavelli, N. (1950). The Prince and the discourses. New York : The Modern Library, Random House.
Wastell, D. & White, S. (2017). Blinded by science: The social implications of epigenetics and neuroscience. Bristol, UK: Policy Press