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.
Social work is not about social justice just because we say that it is. We need to recognise that the possibilities for social work can’t be understood without reference to the wider economic and political context. In capitalist societies like our own, social work is produced, practiced and developed within a constructed system of power and privilege: within a specific set of hierarchical social relations.
There is always a risk of subversion in such societies, given the promise of liberty within the reality of inequality, exploitation and exclusion (Callinicos, 2006, p. 48). There is constant friction between the needs of capitalism and the liberal political structure which enables it. Accordingly, I believe that the present historical moment may present a critical opportunity in the politics of social work.
Contemporary left thinkers – the likes of Žižek and Badiou – draw our attention to the way in which the novelty of capitalist production – its apparent variety – disguises its sameness; that the mesmerising show is simply the same old game of relentless commodification and profit (Gray & Webb, 2013). Contrary to the dominant illusion, the seemingly endless capacity to privatise the world (turning nature into objects and objects into private property) ‘reduces’ us: confining our humanity and diminishing our agency (Bhattacharyya, 2004). Contra the central tenet of liberal ideology, there is no ‘real’ freedom of choice under capitalism. As hyper-rational individuals, we are increasingly required to design, package and sell our commodified selves within the rubric of the market. Both family structures and the rampant self-help psychology industry function to support our survival in this waste-land (Sugarman, 2015). It is important to remember that alternatives are possible; to keep sight of the fact that the capitalist socio-economic form is not the only horizon of possibility (Hewlett, 2007). History shows us that the impossible happens regularly; that regimes of power are never as solid as they may appear (Feltham, 2008).
As Marx observed, movement and change are constant features of capitalism: all that is solid melts into air (Marx & Engels, 1848). In the sense that it is an accelerating race on an uneven playing field – globally and locally – capitalism is a restless and hungry animal: contradictory, unstable and prone to crisis. Although the liberal democratic political form (elections, legislatures, the rule of law) legitimise capitalism, there is also a productive contradiction within this relationship. The niceties of human rights and due process are often incompatible with the over-riding logic of growth, competition and accumulation. At such times of conflict these conventions are backgrounded or simply tossed aside. Žižek (2014, p.38) calls this inconvenient reality the ‘dirty water’ of capitalism – an unpalatable truth that liberal politics conspires to conceal. This is something that we, as citizens, both ‘recognise’ and generally collude with. We all ‘know’ the reality that different rules apply to the rich and the poor in western liberal democracies. We are (more, or less) aware of the production of global inequality and of the suspension of freedoms in times of real or apparent political crises. However, we generally keep our eyes to the front, maintaining the illusion. This is part and parcel of Chomsky’s manufacture of consent (Herman & Chomsky, 1988).
The recent political turmoil in Europe and the USA seems to have seriously disrupted this balance and the possible consequences are disturbing. Racism, sexism, ‘tribalism’ and the politics of ignorance, fear and prejudice are tearing the veneer from the liberal consensus. Žižek (2014, p.155) connects this ‘ethical regression’ with the explosive development of global capitalism. Donald Trump has risen to power by proclaiming that the façade of liberal democracy – equality before the law, environmental regulation or institutional mechanisms like the separation of powers between law makers and the courts – can and should be routinely suspended when they are not in the interests of American business. Effectively he is declaring that the framework of democratic politics is only useful when it acts in in the service of capitalism. In a bizarre sense this removal of subterfuge is refreshing – it is a large part of Trump’s appeal and has disarmed his opponents. Perversely, accusing Trump of the authoritarian flouting of liberal human rights plays into his strangely small hands.
We know a little bit about how and why this ‘impossible’ political event has come to pass. The process of capitalist globalisation and the associated de-industrialisation of the western world has had dire consequences for the social structure of working class lives (Bourdieu, 1999). The promise of work and dignity guaranteed by the return to a mythic golden age of paternalistic American capitalism has been like rain to the drought stricken rust-belt heartland of the Trump constituency: you can’t feed your family with civil rights and liberal tolerance: goddamn!
We have had a perverse glimpse of underlying revolutionary potential: a break from the accepted order. All points of interruption and discontinuity are important – they illuminate antagonisms / points of weakness within the system and can present opportunities for real emancipatory change. The disenfranchised white American working class has very likely been the political vehicle for a charismatic and capricious child-king: a hollow man who is very unlikely to act in their interests in any sustained way. However, the process of change has shaken our illusions by revealing the fragility of the liberal consensus and the fragility of inclusive social democracy in a capitalist system. Left politicians may be re-politicised by the unfolding Trump debacle – compelled to shed their cynical accommodation with systems that are regulated in the interests of corporate profit and promote meaningful socialist policies that address the grossly unfair distribution of wealth and opportunity in societies like ours.
And what might any of this mean for social work I hear you ask? Contemporary social workers labour hard and long, in unforgiving conditions, for state-contracted agencies charged with the efficient management of problem populations. This is hardly the stuff of social revolution. I am, of course, not the first person the ponder the questions generated by this situation. It is often argued that social work has been colonised by modernist science, professionalism and managerialism: accordingly, what hope is there for social work as a force for change?
In refusing to be disabled by this question, it is important, I think, to take a wider and longer view. Social work is inevitably politically located because we work within a system of exploitation. Strangely enough, social work can be said to have become much more politicised in the last two or three decades – it is simply that it has moved to the right, focussing on processes of social control. However, like the capitalist master narrative itself, this is not a reality that is set in concrete. It is a situation that will change and it is vitally important to hold to (and build) alternative visions. We need a process of dialogue and a re-imaging of practice futures now, more than ever.
We do know that social workers are constant witnesses to the realities of social injustice. To articulate this truth to a power that refuses to hear it does not make the truth any less valid. A power system that accommodates dissent (or, at least pays institutional lip-service to it) is ultimately much more solid than one which ignores, belittles, or overtly suppresses and silences it.
The dormant seeds of radical change are often awakened by the pounding hoofs of the tyrant king and his minions.
The politics of Donald Trump are far less subtle and much more vulnerable to revolution than the politics of Hillary Clinton. For committed social workers, despite the odds, the mantra of Joe Hill remains crucial: educate, agitate, organize! But first we must stop and help each other to think.
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Bhattacharyya, J. (2004). Theorizing community development. Journal of Community Development Society, 34, 5-35.
Callinicos, A. (2006). The resources of critique. Cambridge, U.K: Polity Press.
Feltham, O. (2008). Alain Badiou: Live theory. London & New York: Continuum Publishing.
Gray, M. & Webb, S.A. (Eds.), (2013). The new politics of social work. (pp. 145-158). Basingstoke, U.K: Palgrave MacMillan.
Herman, E. & Chomsky, N. (1988). Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. Pantheon, New York.
Hewlett, N. (2007). Badiou, Balibar, Ranciere – Re-thinking emancipation. London & New York: Continuum Publishing.
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Sugarman, J. (2015, March 2). Neoliberalism and psychological ethics. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. Advance online publication. doi:10.1037/a0038960
Žižek, S. (2014). From the end of history to the end of capitalism: Trouble in paradise. London: Penguin