A guest post by David Kenkel
Fraser and Honneth (2003) suggest that one useful way to slice up politics is to distinguish between the politics of recognition and the politics of redistribution. You could also talk about identity politics (Gergen, 1995) versus the politics of class. Whatever it is named, this type of political critique looks at the difference between the social struggles of diverse groups for recognition and fair treatment versus the basic question of how a society allocates resources. Arguably, during the rise of neoliberalism the politics of recognition has played a more centre-stage role. Distribution is portrayed as a question better answered by the marketplace than political will or the desires of an electorate.
Looking back on the last 35 years, my own take is that the neo-liberals stole the economy while me and other fellow activists were distracted fighting for the rights of groups we cared about. The upshot being that some groups are now somewhat less oppressed, but many New Zealanders are poor, broke, in awful debt and the very rich are laughing all the way to the bank. I don’t regret my ‘rights’ battles, but I do now sometimes wonder if I’d have done better if I’d stuck closer to the barricades of class politics.
My irritation at being asked to celebrate diversity began when I saw a succession of our most right-wing politicians happily joining in with gay pride parades. I began to ask myself – ‘so when I’m being encouraged to celebrate diversity and the rights of oppressed groups; what am I being encouraged to ‘not’ pay attention to’?
I think the answer may be the very successful 35 year-long implementation of an upward wealth funnelling mechanism that is now so systemically entrenched that it is no longer able to be dismantled by ordinary democratic processes (Harvey,2013).
The truth is; as much as we might celebrate cultural, linguistic, sexual and ethnic diversity the brutal dollars and cents reality is that most of how our economy works and the fallout of the increasing rich/poor divide is not decided democratically; but instead, by interwoven restraints, demands and coercions operating at the local and international level.
This is not a system decided or designed by individual voters, or individual politicians. Rather, this is an interlocking system created to push money up the economic food chain as efficiently as possible while persuading as many people as possible that an overtly unfair system is in fact the best of all possible worlds. You will never hear a politician say that democracy now has little power to change social conditions through true redistribution of the worlds wealth. That doesn’t make it any less the truth.
Neo-liberal economic systems also operate in lockstep with social systems designed to make less visible the reality that initial socio-economic position, rather than personal choice, determines most people’s life outcomes. These persuasive social systems additionally operate to repetitively assert a story that individual success and failure is solely a matter of personal responsibility. The degradation of our welfare systems into terrorising machines has played one large part in this broad-scale public shift toward blaming individuals for their circumstances rather than examining larger systems for culpability.
What the neoliberal grip on the public imagination and the levers of the economy is unsurprisingly desperate to avoid is any large-scale shift back to the politics of redistribution. Hence the tendency in Western democracies to put the economy outside of the arena of democracy. A politics of redistribution recognises that an unfair economic system produces unfair social results. A politics of redistribution also recognises that a sensible society attends to these economically derived problems not just by throwing social workers at them, but also by equalising the outcomes of the economic system.
Unfortunately, neoliberalism is likely to plague the planet for some decades to come. Despite a disastrous record of accomplishment for ordinary people and the environment (Smith, 2013) neoliberal policies are too entrenched into too many global systems to be quickly removed, and the beneficiaries of neoliberal economic structures hold many of the levers of global power and will do for some time to come (Piketty & Goldhammer. 2014). To stress the point again: How economies operate and how resources are allocated is now mostly decided outside the tent of democracy. A true political re-think of resource distribution is either decades or a global revolution away.
So, how does this parlous situation influence social work in New Zealand? Above all it leaves us with a long-term responsibility to not collude with arguments that tell us celebrating diversity is enough. My own perspective is that we have come out of a nine-year tunnel of cruelty for individuals involved with social welfare systems. Let’s not pretend otherwise, it has been a punishing and vicious nine years for the poor and the marginalised. We now have a government aiming to dial back the viciousness. I am very pleased about this. As a social worker I prefer minimal government cruelty as opposed to maximum. That said, it does not matter how much this government is in love with notions of kindness and support rather than cruelty and punishment; their economic wriggle room is minimal and the same systems that crush many to the bottom while enabling ridiculous wealth for the very few will continue unabated.
The social work response: Social work as a profession can have several responses to this situation of a government aiming for minimal cruelty within an implacable global system that allows very little room to make real changes in how distribution occurs.
Firstly: of course, we can support moves away from cruelty towards kindness. That is only sensible.
Secondly: we can continue to support points of view and government policy that recognises that people’s dismal life circumstances are not usually of their own making.
Thirdly: and I believe this to be a critical point: We can be suspicious of the distraction of being asked to celebrate diversity and always instead ask the question – ‘what about the money?’. As the newly elected politicians tire and begin to recognise the limits of their ability to influence real changes around the distribution of wealth, the celebration of diversity, and small wins for the disadvantaged amongst the contested needs of diverse groups can be a safe place of retreat. We should not support these hiding places – but instead need to keep asking: ‘Where is the money?’
We need to continue to hold our politicians to account as we wait for the inevitable global sea-change that brings the decline of neoliberalism’s authority over our economies and societies. It is critical that we forcefully take our politicians back, and back again, to the table of redistribution and vital that the social work profession is not diverted by celebrations of diversity from recognising the immiserating effects of inequities of distribution in our societies.
Image credit: Ugg Boy
Fraser, N. Honneth, Axel. (2003). Recognition or Redistribution? A political- philosophical exchange. Verso – New Left Books. London United Kingdom.
Gergen, K, J. (1995). Social construction and the transformation of identity politics. New York: Basic Books.
Harvey, David. (2013). A Brief History of Neoliberalism . OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition
Piketty, T., & Goldhammer, A. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Smith, R. (2013). Sleepwalking to Extinction’: Capitalism and the Destruction of Life and Earth. Downloaded from: https://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/11/15-3