Social work at the end of the world: Again!

A Guest post by David Kenkel

Trigger warning: this post discusses bleak likelihoods that are painful to consider. The unmentioned backdrop to social work’s future is that the world has passed an ecological crisis point of no return and there is little chance that near-term catastrophe can be averted (see Bendall, 2018). This is a situation that the western world has not yet begun to face. This is a post about hope. Not hope that we can avert the coming environmental predicament, but hope that as communities face inevitable crisis, they will rediscover collective solidarity and wiser ways of living together. Social work can have a key role in this transition back to sanity. 

If we are to steward the future of our profession, then we must have the courage to look squarely at what the future is likely to bring. The risk of not facing these harsh truths is that we become complicit in the rump end of neoliberalism’s continued siphoning of the world’s resources to a tiny number of people and the blaming of individuals for structural and environmental problems quite outside of their control.

At a personal level, I am seldom as blunt and assertive as I will be in this blog post. I am doing this because I believe it is time for our profession and the western world more generally to jettison the reassuring fantasy that science, progress and/or some greener version of business-as-usual will save us. They will not (Hine & Kingsnorth, 2009).  Barring some miraculous change of heart by those controlling the global economy we are in for major societal and ecological collapse within the next 15 years.  Best predictions put 2030 as when the perfect storm commences (Beddington, 2008, 2015). The short-form version of this perfect storm is as follows:

An economic system committed to endless growth with no off switch, controlled by a self-protective hyper-rich elite; dying fisheries; rapidly diminishing arable soil and fresh water; sea level rise; global heating / extreme weather events and the worldwide convulsion of hundreds of millions of people forced out of countries no longer able to feed them, with accompanying internecine warfare.

Predictably, the international web of trade and travel that defines our current way of life will collapse, taking with it most of the national and global institutions designed to provide care and support to those in need (Bender,2003; Emmett, 2014; Hansen, 2011; Jamail, 2019).  This is not science fiction; these are predictions made by credible and cautious researchers (Beddinton, 2008, 2015; Motesharrei, Rivas & Kalnay, 2014). Again, to be blunt, business as usual is killing much of the planet and a significant proportion of humanity will die as a consequence. Life in future will be a hard struggle to survive within a fractured global environment much more hostile than that of today.

Neoliberal policies and practices are intimately intertwined with the coming catastrophe. Consider that more CO2 has been released and more ecological damage done since 1989 than in the previous 200 years. 1989 is approximately when neoliberal hegemony truly seized the reins of global political orthodoxy and commenced remaking the world in its own image – and to the advantage of its hyper-wealthy advocates (Harvey, 2013).

Hope is important, but it can all too easily be misplaced. Individual actions have little likelihood of stopping the environmental changes that are in train.  Most serious researchers suggest it is too late. Human-driven climate change processes already in place mean major sea rise is inevitable. Every degree of global warming precipitates new problems that will further accelerate environmental degradation and shrinkage of the resource base that humanity requires to feed itself. Spiraling cycles of warming and extreme weather conditions will render large parts of the globe functionally uninhabitable. Life will retreat toward the poles.

This dire situation is compounded by the fact that current global power configurations are infused with a growth-at-all-costs capitalist economic policy rubric. There is little capacity or real will to alter the lethal status quo. Those who benefit most from exploitative profit-driven growth are those effectively in control of the global economy. Such privileged people will also have the resources to protect themselves from the worst effects of environmental breakdown. It is the poor and the already disenfranchised who will suffer the most (Motesharrei, Rivas, Kalnay, 2014).

Hope for the future does not lie in stopping catastrophe. Instead it is to be found in how we respond as communities to the coming predicament; and it is in that potential response that the social work profession has a significant role to play. The roots of social work track back to another time of crisis and societal disruption. Two hundred or so years ago, concerned authorities and charities tried to soften the social consequences of rapid forced urbanisation, extreme poverty and an accelerating industrial revolution fueled by brutal laissez-faire capitalism (Polanyi, 1965).

Twin strands of thought intertwined in the early evolution of what much later became the social work profession. First the imperative to blame the poor for their condition and then to re-moralise the apparently immoral classes. Secondly, a growing realisation that the problems of the poor and apparently feckless were a consequence of appalling social and economic conditions rather than moral weakness. The fore-runners of today’s social workers were at times complicit in enforcing the view that social suffering was rooted in individual fault. At the same time, a wide range of activists sought to improve societal conditions and address the ingrained structural inequities of the day.

These tensions continue to haunt social work. What is clear (in retrospect), is that blaming the poor for their situation was one tactic, among many, used by the beneficiaries of 18th and 19th century laissez-faire capitalism to avoid culpability for the social impacts of their economic policies.

Two hundred (and counting) years later and we’re again facing a time of massive social and economic disruption. The 21st century twist is that the swathe of destruction will also include ecological catastrophe on a global scale. Neoliberalism (today’s version of laissez-faire capitalism) repeats the song sheet of the early days of capitalism. Once again, the minority benefactors of ruthless economic and social policies find multiple ways to shift culpability for the effects of their rapacious stripping of the human and environmental commons.

The archetypal neoliberal response to societal and environmental crisis is to direct blame responses and tailor solutions towards individuals rather than to confront the fundamental drivers (Mayer, 2016; Rose 1998 & 1999). This approach has strongly impacted on contemporary social work practice. It needs to be exposed, recognised and resisted by the broader social work profession. The associated demand for an individualising social investment, a focus on personal trauma and evidence-based rehabilitation begins to seem like a sick joke when held up against the chillingly real likelihood of near future ecological and societal collapse.

Social work needs to refocus on assisting communities to develop compassionate and workable responses to the coming troubles. As in the past, the social work profession will once again face the choice of which strand of analysis to draw on in responding to the inevitable disruptions to come.

The key questions are: Will we commit as a profession to solidarity with (and liberation of) the oppressed that arises from the basic recognition that individual circumstances are all too often outside of individual control?  Or, in the face of social and environmental collapse, will we persist in coaxing and (sometimes outright coercing) outlying social groups into obedience to the norms and lifestyles of a failing and ultimately genocidal system of capitalist social relations and economic development?

Image Credit: Digao SPBR

 

References

Beddington, J. (2008). Food, Energy, Water and the Climate: A Perfect Storm of Global Events? CMG FRS Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government Office for Science Kingsgate House 66-74 Victoria Street London SW1E 6SW. Retrieved from:  mpst.beddington@bis.gsi.gov.uk

Beddington, J. (2015). Tackling threat of climate change ‘has become more challenging’. Retrieved from:  http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/news/2015_Beddington_seminar 2015 –

Bender, F. (2003). The Culture of Extinction: Toward a Philosophy of Deep Ecology. Kindle Edn.

Emmettt, S. (2013). 10 Billion. Penguin Books Limited. 89 Strand London WC2R ORL, England.

Hansen, J. (2010). Storms of my Grandchildren. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. New York. USA.

Harvey, David. (2013). A Brief History of Neoliberalism . OUP Oxford. Kindle Edn.

Hine, J & Kingsnorth, P. (2009) Un-civilisation – The Dark Mountain Manifesto. http://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/

Jamail, D. (2019).  The End of Ice. The New Press. Kindle Edition.

Mayer, Jane. (2016). Dark Money: how a secretive group of billionaires is trying to buy political control in the US. Scribe Publications Pty Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Motesharrei, S. a. Rivas,J. b. Kalnay, E.c. ( 2014) Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies. School of Public Policy and Department of Mathematics, University of Maryland; and National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC. b. Department of Political Science, University of Minnesota; and Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES). c.  Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science and Institute of Physical Science and Technology, University of Maryland.  Ecological Economics 101 (2014). pgs. 90–102.

Polanyi, K. (1965). The great transformation. Beacon Hill, MA: Beacon Press.

Rose, N. (1999). Powers of freedom. Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press.

Rose, N. (1998). Inventing our selves:  Psychology, power, and personhood. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

 

 

17 thoughts on “Social work at the end of the world: Again!

  1. Nothing like a brutal slap in the face dose of reality to remind us what’s on the horizon. Great read, thank you for writing such a well articulated, and realistic article.

    1. Thanks – yes it can feel brutal and I have at times worried about how gauche it may be to tell people unpalatable facts.

      I tend to think western culture has been poisoned by too many years of progress dreams to the extent where hope (even when unwarranted) is seen as the natural binary to despair. With only those two supposed binaries being on the conceptual table. I think there are other positions of grace possible. How might we persist in solidarity and care knowing harsh times are coming?. How might we reduce our towering beliefs that humans are masters of they survey and take a more appropriate (and smaller / humbler) place at the worlds table? – Lots of questions!!

      You might like these two articles / sites:

      Deep adaption:
      https://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf

      Dark Mountain
      https://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/

      All the best.

      Naku noa, na
      David K

  2. In abstract I see the point and do concur. I just published a book The future of social work: Seven pillars of practice (Sage, 2018) has already created some ripples in the stream of thought.
    I reiterate that meanings of SOCIAL and WORK have changed on the cusp of a digital age. Our contemporary models of social work are fraught with cognitive dissonance, arrogance, and anxiety. If buying a DSW and/or MSW on-line is the holy Grail of our professional excellence, we are nearing close to self-dissolution.

    1. Thanks Brij,
      I agree SW needs to re-invent it self. I also agree excellence and qualifications are not automatically correlated.
      Thanks for your thoughts

  3. Its a hard topic to see through. For all of the aforementioned reasons you speak about, NZ WINZ recipients in particular live in a different ‘world’ to others not dependent on subsidies. Also people who remain living in HNZ properties also experience social and sometimes economic discrimination within the communities they live in.
    One campaign stands out; “The Living Wage” campaign. (which is really about exposing the amount of “corporate welfare” which goes on under a “neo-liberally” captured state; in which visible poverty generates voter support for more funding to develop a welfare ‘industry’.
    This particular “Gordian knot” has produced the political “Welfare” narrative as one of ‘downward blame/envy’. Some NZ political leaders have been ‘rewarded’ for making some really socially ‘irresponsible’ public statements which have let loose a ‘witch-hunt’ mentality towards the most dependent (and vulnerable) of NZ social security recipients. They remain unrepentant. So do many NZers who succumb to the seductive narrative which ‘rewards’ the level of economic achievement with social status.
    (eg; many NZ are not troubled by the fact that dental treatment which preserves a persons teeth, and ultimately affects their health long term, in NZ is treated as ‘a luxury’ and has become beyond the scope of many people to afford. “Good teeth’ are a social status symbol and a factor in obtaining employment. Having ‘bad teeth’ can imply that the person may for instance have a ‘P’ or ‘drug problem’, but in some workplace situations the culture of “long working hours” has meant that people who are ‘rewarded’ most are those who have succumbed to taking stimulants to enable them to work ‘the longest and hardest’.
    Large sections of the NZ community are also becoming ‘normalized’ to the sight of begging and homelessness, and in turn this emboldens the temptation to socially tolerate exploitative business and business practices, and view ‘taxation’ ( or contributing to the community in ways which build community wellbeing at all social levels’) as ‘theft’. (which could be identified as a ‘zero-sum mindset) which produces a situation where social networking ability is contingent on economic success across the board; where Neo Liberal ideology seeks to privatize social success through privatizing economic success.
    “Neo-liberalism” movements are formed and driven as much by the self-serving economic ideology of select social groups as by the ability of such groups to use the (19th century narrative)”less eligibility” ‘blame’ narrative, which focuses ‘blame’ on the sector of the community who need that community most. (mostly from the viewpoint that ‘helping a friend in need could be an opportunity to grow, but having too many ‘friends in need’ is a pain in the a**, so time to ‘pull up the drawbridge’).
    Neo-liberal ideology is anything but ‘liberal’ to all, and at its extreme supports ‘scorched earth’ business practices and ‘slavery’.
    An interesting analysis on this subject – link- https://righteousmind.com/where-microaggressions-really-come-from/

    1. Thanks Jayne,
      You make some really powerful points!
      I was particularly struck by your comment that:
      ‘Neo-liberal ideology is anything but ‘liberal’ to all, and at its extreme supports ‘scorched earth’ business practices and ‘slavery’.’

      Karl Polanyi made this point really well just after WW2 and it is becoming ever more apparent that neo-liberalism is a truly dangerous philosophy that is enormously destructive in the long-term

      I agree the discourses around welfare have become ever-more punitive and the on-going development of a ‘welfare industry’ is particularly concerning.
      Thanks for your reply!

  4. Thanks, Dave for the necessarily blunt shot across the bows. I’m in the midst of writing notes for an In Defence of Youth Work conference in the UK. in which I criticise vehemently the neoliberal Happiness agenda, which is insinuating itself into the worlds of education and social work, amongst others. Interestingly, given your final powerful questions, I ended a contribution to a Youth Work conference focused on Outcomes held last year with this:

    Do we wish to manufacture the emotionally resilient young person, who will put up with the slings and arrows of antagonistic social policies, accept their precarious lot and do the best for themselves – utterly individualised and responsibilised?

    Or

    Do we wish to play a part, however fragile and uncertain, in the emergence of a young critical citizen, committed to challenging their lot in concert with one another and indeed ourselves, struggling to forge a more just and equal society, believing that ‘another world is possible’?

    Perhaps a bit naive and optimistic?

    Best Wishes and Solidarity,

    Tony

    1. great questions. And I really like phrase about the happiness agenda!
      There are some real problems with the neoliberal template for the self that believes in the capacity to control the future/destiny by dint of personal effort and will, and believes in accomplishing this extra contextual feat as the route to happiness.

      I tend to think that a lot of young people are already disillusioned with that story, and are understanding it as a set of discourses about how to perform subjectivity that serves not them, but rather, the interests of a system that does not work for them.

      One of the real problems of course for those who are still enamoured, or under the spell, of this hyper- individualised in charge of destiny story is the massive disjunct they are likely to experience when transpersonal forces such as emptying supermarket shelves, crashing economies, massive sea rise, reveal the poverty of the notion that the individual can be in charge no matter the context.

      That said, I think we are in a very interesting period of transition where the majority of the Western world is in the form of denial that means that we are performing ‘business as usual’ ever more frantically. This can’t last of course, but, for many it will stretch out well past the point at which the neoliberal story of how to be a success in the world becomes implausible.

      The challenge then is to provide for our children in such ways that they can both endure this period of transition, and have some of the skills that might enable them to live in communities of warm and supportive solidarity with others in a future world of diminished resources.

      It is tricky for sure! The danger of allowing the neoliberal template of hyper- individualism too much room is that you end up with the American situation, where prevalent response to coming catastrophe is the prepper movement. This tends to be about rugged individuals well prepared for catastrophe with loyalty primarily only going to close relatives, set in a vision of a world where individuals and small groups are primarily in competition with each other.

      This is not, in my opinion, a recipe for the eventual development of supportive, cohesive communities that are able to live with grace within a shrunken resource base. So this question about how do we prepare people for both this strange transition time, and a time in the future where people will need to cleave together in communities to manage a vastly reduced resource base is an incredibly important one.

      While I did not mention it on the blog, a lot of writers whom I admire talk about the role of crisis in precipitating new cultural possibilities and pathways. I think those crisis’s will come quite soon.

      Personally, I tend to think the (one) answer is mostly to do with how we adults undertake the process of facing what’s coming and dislocating ourselves from the endless neoliberal ‘now’ of consumerism. It’s a spell that has cast its glamour over much of the world. The dark Mountain manifesto puts it rather beautifully in suggesting that we need to stop the lies our culture tells itself. I do recommend have a look at the manifesto and thanks for your interesting perspective!
      All the best
      David K

      1. The quickest of notes to say thanks for the link to the Dark Mountain Manifesto, about which I knew nothing. Much to take in and muse upon, much that questions my struggle to throw off the shackles of my past belief in progress. Long ago, during my Marxist days I fell for Trotsky’s line that humanity’s ability ‘to move mountains’ would create a just and equal world and of course for a determinist view of history as progress, that I came to reject.

        Hoping that these conversations can continue and spread,

        Tony

        1. Cheers – yes I too thought the workers paradise was just around the corner. Although I also remember the dread of nuclear war which haunted us all through the 1970’s.

          I tend to think western culture needs to deeply re-examine its relationship with hope and progress dreams. We’ve been poisoned by them I think.

          Realism about the future and seeking ways to bend gracefully to what those futures may bring is not the same as despair.

          You might like this article too.

          Deep adaption:
          https://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf

          Naku noa, na
          David K

        2. Happy to report that my Marxist days continue and that our current predicament was pretty well described by the old man..

          The idea that either Marx, or Trotsky, were historical determinists and considered the creation of a just and equal world inevitable is pretty debatable. Why would Trotsky feel the need to throw himself into the struggle, at such high personal cost, right up till his last days if it was all going to come to pass anyway?

          The Marxist current is incredibly useful as a way of understanding our present world, how we got to this pass and how we might move beyond it.

          Sure, it needs to be contextualised in the present but for this task we don’t just need to reimagine social work, we need to renew socialism.

          As Rosa Luxemburg suggested, the choice is simple and stark: socialism or barbarism. Shifting away from the latter, means rebuilding the former, Marxist thought offers firm foundations on which to rebuild. I see no other serious alternative.

          It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but those of us committed to change – whether we are social workers, bus drivers, or waitresses – have to make that leap, to end the world destroying excesses of the capitalist machine.

          1. Thanks Neil, I find myself completely agreeing.

            The question of why the marginalised groups don’t automatically rise in revolution is one that the Frankfurt School and people like Gramsci spoke to very well. The development of a new consciousness, is something that I think can easily be subverted by the huge array of discourses that late modern capitalism offers as well-crafted distraction.

            I came across a piece the other day, that suggested that when neo-liberal capitalism is internalised to the extent that everybody understands themselves as an entrepreneur of their own fate; then revolution is impossible, (who does one rebel against?) whereas depression as a response is somewhat inevitable. How does one rebel against one’s own failing self? Other than, via despair and self-depredation.

            The hooks of neoliberalism have dug deeply into how people make sense of themselves and how they are then governed to make sense of a collapsing and wounding infrastructure in service to a tiny elite who carefully keep themselves out of view in terms of culpability and reward.

            The interesting question then becomes for me: what will an entirely new set of conditions offer in terms of new consciousness and new pathways?.

            When destruction and damage becomes totally undeniable and is experienced by large proportions of the population, then:, the story of the self as agentive despite context becomes not just a lie, but a vicious and hated lie.

            I suspect it is in those conditions of crisis that new possibilities for solidarity will emerge. I think that Marxism will reinvent itself, quite likely without the name! But, with a recognition that we can engineer our fates (to an extent), but, to do so without the recognition of the fact that history has positioned us in particular (and awful) positions is absurd.

            I strongly suspect that the citizens of the future will hate us. Hate us for our stupidity in assuming that collusion with a business-as-usual capitalist civilization might deliver well-being for all when it was apparent from the early 1990s that this was not the case.

            So yes; I agree that Marxism and the socialist approach offers us a great deal. But, I fear that this will only be rediscovered after a time of awful catastrophe.

            Sorry to be so bleak and I very much appreciate your thoughts and comments.

            Regards
            David Kenkel

          2. As the old man said we make our own history, but not under conditions of our choosing. I appreciate your call to action on climate change David, but I don’t share your pessimism about averting the apocalypse, or about consciousness raising. Marxism, socialism and other emancipatory traditions are alive and well, and informing new social movements today, in Aotearoa and abroad. You just won’t find them in the mainstream.

            The work of David Harvey and others continues to make Marxist ideas relevant for a new generation.

            The citizens of the future are already with us, and many of them are turning to foundational ideas offered inside familiar organisations that have been radicalised.

            Of course, there is a struggle ahead, there always was a struggle. Social workers, like other workers, need to fight to rebuild our social and community organisations. We need to reinvigorate our trade unions, re-establish civil society and build the new movement inside the old. That takes time, freely given labour, a clear head and a strong sense of history. And it’s not likely to be anything you can do in the 9 to 5.

            A luta continua! We have a world to win.

    2. Hiya, Thankyou for the closing statements in your reply. Re- The contrast between the personalities produced by
      (Quote A) – “Do we wish to manufacture the emotionally resilient young person, who will put up with the slings and arrows of antagonistic social policies, accept their precarious lot and do the best for themselves – utterly individualised and responsibilised?”……
      And
      (Quote B) “Do we wish to play a part, however fragile and uncertain, in the emergence of a young critical citizen, committed to challenging their lot in concert with one another and indeed ourselves, struggling to forge a more just and equal society, believing that ‘another world is possible’?”
      Quote A describes the seductive power of self interest and greed, when it is disguised as ‘social responsibility’. It uses the language of ‘democracy and ‘free choice’ to impose anything but this. ie – the people were ‘stupid enough’ to elect a dictatorship.
      Even viewed through the ‘personal responsibility’ lens, logically, Neo Liberalism is a ‘confidence trick’- with the structure of a criminal process, in which community leaders ‘better themselves’ at the expense of the rest of the community they were appointed to serve and snicker in private about the ‘gullibility’ of those who remain living in poverty when they are elected.

      1. Thank you, Jane and Neil, incredibly well said!
        I agree that there is a great deal of hope in the multiple modes of resistance against neoliberal capitalism. And this resistance is widespread and becoming increasingly articulate. It gives me enormous hope for what the future may hold.

        The authors of the dark Mountain manifesto use a phrase that I think is quite useful. They talk of the problems we face both now in the future as not crisis’s to solve, but predicaments to face.

        There are two aspects to this.

        Firstly: that mechanical processes are already happening that mean that sea rise and global warming is inevitable, with the con-commitment increasing degradation of watersheds, and mass shrinkage of the sorts of arable areas we currently associate with fertile productivity and food production. In essence, there will be less and less land to feed more and more people. The physical processes are at this point unstoppable. These are often referred to as spiralling positive feedback loops. Hence no matter how we conceive of our societies we will face very difficult physical predicaments within a generation.

        Secondly: empires have long half-lives: neoliberalism has increasingly revealed itself as a toxic and poisonous approach, however what it has very cunningly done over the last 30 years is to entrench its norms and forms into a whole range of institutional structures that will take quite some time to dismantle. In the meantime, wealth will continue to funnel upwards, and, the very small number of people who consequentially end up owning the bulk of the planet’s resources well cling ever harder to the levers of control.

        The HANDY report (see reference page) details how the degree and extent of collapse is in large part determined by the social structures of power of the society collapsing. If, as is the current condition, those who control the decision-making structures of society are cushioned by their wealth from experiencing the worst kind of effects of change then they have little motivation to implement reform. Societies that manage resource-based threats better and earlier tend to be those that are most egalitarian. Sadly, we are very far from egalitarian at this point.

        So, what I can say about this is that my optimism has reconfigured itself. I’m not optimistic that we can reverse the mechanical damage that is already entrain, the technology for this does not yet exist, even if it is possible. I’m also not optimistic that we can seize back the reins of authority from neoliberalism quickly enough to implement massive reform worldwide.

        What I am profoundly optimistic about, is the ways in which the bulk of humanity will respond to the coming predicaments in refiguring our societies toward saner, egalitarian and sustainable possibilities. I do deeply agree that the insights of Marx are profoundly useful at this point. I suspect that those insights will serve our descendants even more usefully. I am also very drawn to the possibilities offered by community development theorists in imagining networks of egalitarian societies where need is privileged over greed.

        Your thoughts and insights deeply appreciated!
        warm regards
        David Kenkel

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