When thinking about the past, present and future of social work it is instructive to bear in mind that its theory and practice is politically located (Gray & Webb, 2013). More specifically, social work in the Western context is embedded in the historical evolution of capitalism. Capitalism is a dynamic, often mesmerising, means of production and distribution which is both creative and destructive. There are some major difficulties with it as a model of development. As Karl Marx pointed out, it exploits working people, extracting surplus value from their labour (Hollander, 2008). Why do you think manufacturing has shifted to distant sweat-shops over the last forty years or so?
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.
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.
If we are serious about developing new visions for social work – rethinking how we can work in ways that change the oppressive relationships that structure the lives of people – we need to find strategies that do more than alter the behaviour of individuals. However, social work is not a free-floating activity which we can shape at will.
Ideas are never neutral. As Marx and Engels observed, those who define the dominant ideas control the world:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. (Marx & Engels, 1964)
The following is a brief historical exploration of how the seductive and insidious ideology of neoliberalism has come not only to dominate the social policy landscape in Aotearoa – New Zealand but also to colonise our common sense and rob us of our political imaginations.