It is useful – I think – to reflect on the busy year that is now drawing in and to focus on the hopes and dreams that lie ahead of us. In various ways the aim of our RSW Collective has been to contribute to a re-thinking of the aims and aspirations of social work in turbulent times. Above all it is critical to recognise that social work is influenced by a broader context of economic and political relations.
On the world stage the international banking system has favoured corporate profit and free trade at the expense of developing nations since the 1950s. Locally the removal of the social safety net for disadvantaged people from the 1980s has resulted, at latest estimates, in 155,000 New Zealand children living in poverty in our Kiwi paradise (Child Poverty Monitor, 2016). The beauty and the challenge of social work is that we work with those who experience structural disadvantage in an unequal society – not unequal by human nature but a society made unequal by political and economic intent. How we act on this knowledge, in our practice and in our wider lives, is perhaps the key task that confronts us in the social profession.
For millennia poets and philosophers have told us that there is a difference between appearances and realities in social and political life. This is certainly true in contemporary Aotearoa-New Zealand. Our outgoing Prime Minister, for example, presented as genuine, accessible, pragmatic, competent and, above all, as one of us. We are – after all – ‘all Kiwis’; even better we are all ‘good Kiwis’. Whatever you think of John Key’s political abilities (and hard work) it is important to remember that he is a lavishly wealthy man with access to a lifestyle that has little or no correspondence to the lived experience of most of us. He made his money from the dubious and high-stakes business of international currency trading. Politicians like John Key and Paula Bennett who benefitted from the shelter of the wider welfare state are happy to bar the door to the children of today. Perhaps we are all Kiwis but some of us have luxury yachts and multiple investment properties and some of us live in sheds or cars. It does not have to be this way.
Foucault (1980) wrote of how unequal relations of power are inscribed and normalised in our daily lives. It was Antonio Gramsci (1971/1997) who scribbled on scraps of paper, as he died a slow death in Mussolini’s prison, about how the dominant narrative is packaged as common sense by those who gain from the status quo. Politicians have told us that poverty is no excuse for abuse and that poor parenting causes poverty. Elaborate schemes are being developed to identify and fix benefit-dependent parents or alternatively remove their children to a land of teddy bears, cuddles and designer barbeques (the imagined safe, secure and loving homes of middle New Zealand). It does not have to be this way.
The power of the trade union movement has been systematically undermined from the late 1980s and the disparities in wealth and choice among us ‘good Kiwis’ have never been greater. Economic inequality breeds social suffering and social discontent (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). It cannot be fixed by individual re-moralisation of the poor. This didn’t work in the Nineteenth century and it won’t work now. As social workers we know that the dominant story is simplistic, deceptive and untrue. It conceals a classist and racist belief system. It blames the poor for the consequences of inadequate housing, social security and poorly resourced state social work. We live in a bountiful country and we are all entitled – as citizens – to a decent life regardless of education and privilege.
Social work is about working with the oppressed towards a fairer social world and this inevitably involves taking a political stance. As the unexpected Brexit referendum result in Britain and the bizarre election of Donald Trump in the U.S tell us, neoliberalism has disenfranchised and embittered working people across the western world. It is time for the political left to re-think the path to a more socially just order, locally and globally. It is hoped that the writings in this blog space have contributed to a questioning of the dominant narrative and to a re-thinking of the pathway towards a more engaged humanist practice. It may be that a conference to begin to collectively configure this path, in this place and at this time, is needed in 2017.
We wish you all a warm and wonderful Christmas but as you buy your presents from the various hyper-marts, spare a thought for the sweated labour of the East Asian factory workers who have produced them. And as you prepare for your well-earned and ‘oh too short’ holiday trips, spare a thought for all those good Kiwi children whose parents can’t afford such extravagance. It does not have to be that way. Are we not social workers? We can and should do something about it.
Child Poverty Monitor Technical Report, 2016. www.childpoverty.co.nz
Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972–1977. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Gramsci, A. (1971/1997). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.
Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better. London: Allen Lane.