We know there’s something happening here, but we don’t know what it is …

It is hard to know where to begin – with the burdens carried by social workers in the present – or with the possibilities facing the planet in the longer run. There are numerous uncertainties surrounding the time of Covid-19 in Aoteraoa-New Zealand and across the globe. Social suffering is the stock-in-trade of social work and as suggested in previous posts such crises impact unevenly in structurally unequal societies such as ours. What might this mean now and into the future?

Lock-down in A-NZ is multiplying the strains on the many children and families who don’t have the luxury of material security; warm homes, possessions, savings and middle-class social capital. Not that you would know this from watching the nauseating television features which seem to assume that the trials (and solutions) facing the inconvenienced well-off – with their over-flowing pantries, gleaming designer kitchen islands and endless technological aids for their beautiful and entitled children – have any meaning to the other New Zealand of bare floors, cold, damp, scarcity, trouble and anxiety.

I can only think that privileged people actually believe that the insulated bubbles of plenty presented in such ‘distraction television’ programmes represent a common reality – that the other reality does not exist. And, for many, I guess it doesn’t – middle class life and the burning questions of recipes and on-line exercise routines and educational software – is somehow perceived to be a shared narrative. The clever solutions to boredom are something we can all take pride in.

We don’t see the struggles of the other New Zealand on our TV screens – it is not what the ‘we are all in this together’ message is made of. We might get the odd flick to the tireless food-bank helpers boxing up parcels – but, of course, those at the bottom of the neoliberal heap are disenfranchised in our social system and only get to be on TV in the form of shock and scandal bait.

However, social work is the occupation which walks – sometimes without invitation – into the homes of disenfranchised citizens every day. The inadequacy of greed-based economics is exposed in this encounter, although pushing the problem back up the chain to where it originates – in the flaws inherent to liberal capitalism – has been carefully erased from most social work job descriptions over the last thirty years. These are demanding times for social work in many ways and it would be good to hear from social workers in response to this blog post.

This takes me to the bigger picture. I would not want to appear disloyal in this period of high-stakes national emergency. This is clearly a time for unity and the Adern coalition government has done a very impressive job to date, saving lives by going hard, going early and going carefully. Ego has not got in the way of medical advice about how to combat rampant infectious disease. I think readers will have little trouble thinking of world leaders who have been less effective.

In A-NZ and the wider world there are some fascinating questions in the medium to long term. We will doubtless see a bigger role for the state in the A-NZ economy for some time as we adapt to national life in a shared bubble. We may see an ongoing return to Keynesian economic stimulus and a more insular welfare state model here and in comparable liberal societies. We may see revolutionary change.

The optimist in me sees that all non-human life is having a brief respite from our predatory and destructive actions. Will we rush back to a world economy bent on endless growth and commodity consumption or do we – just maybe – have the capacity to re-think a path that is rapidly leading to planetary self-destruction? Or will the rich and powerful elite merely step on the gas and rev this sucker up again as soon as possible? After all, there is no alternative: (Yeah, Right??)

Will the invasive technologies of population tracking and behavioural control that are employed in the Chinese model of state capitalism be further legitimated in liberal democracies by this time of fear and existential crisis? I am happy for science and technology to manage Covid-19 but I am less happy for science to manage the problems of class conflict in liberal society – too often this translates into a focus on rooting out the underclass threat. And it is often social workers who get to administer such packages of state dirty work.

We are in a time of distress and suffering globally and no doubt there is much more to come, particularly for the poor across the world. There is also an opportunity to re-imagine how a free and inclusive socialist society could be built, while we still have a planet to build it on. Happy Easter all – what is happening out there in the practice of social work good people?

Image Credit: Santiago Sito

18 thoughts on “We know there’s something happening here, but we don’t know what it is …

  1. Wow. Wow. Wow.
    I’ve worked through the lockdown, the usual 50 something hours per week. That’s not going to change. Same pay – a fair chunk over six digits p.a. – that won’t change either. Our pantry overflows in our new kitchen, tech and screens in every room playing Netflix and online games, plenty to do – when I’m not working. My wife can’t work at the moment as she has to go to peoples homes but you know what – frankly we haven’t even noticed financially.
    And here’s some holier- than-thou University lecturer telling me I must surely believe that this is everyone’s reality simply because we quite like to watch the Project in the evenings while we drink our wine, eat our chocolate and wonder when we might be able to go on holiday now we’ve had to cancel our Easter trip to Queenstown.
    But here’s a stunning revelation – just because I can afford to randomly go online and buy something if I feel like it doesn’t mean I’m unaware that ours is a very special very lucky situation. I get it’s not how everyone’s life is, we live in a town where over half the adult population is on a benefit of some kind, I know what life is like for plenty of people who have to go round the house scraping up handfuls of silver coins to buy bread and nappies and wonder who the kind soul was that left a box of veggies on your front doorstep while you were out – we’ve been there, done that. Lived it.
    If this is the ignorant narrow minded view of the world that a university education and job gives you then I for for one am thankful I could never afford to put myself through so called “higher education”.
    But then – you know, I work with lots of people with university degrees and plenty of them are a damn sight more aware and tolerant than the person who’s written this judgemental drivel.
    While I’m at it, I certainly don’t spend my working day with anyone who would presume to judge my children as “entitled” when they don’t know them. For sure – my son working 10 hour days in Seoul in the middle of a deadly Asian born pandemic teaching little kids English on minimum wage without a cent of support from mum and dad isn’t my idea of entitled.
    My idea of entitled is someone who feels it’s ok to judge other people simply because he has a string of fancy letters after his name.
    Shame on you.

    1. Hi David – appreciate you making a comment. What this post is pointing out – among other things, is that a lot of light-weight current affairs is targeted to a narrow middle-class audience and that there is a relationship between poverty and wealth in our society. I am encouraging people to think and don’t expect everybody to agree with me – but I am not judging you or your children, just suggesting that we would do well to think carefully about the way our economy and society is structured now and into the future – because none of this has fallen from the sky and we can choose to live in a more equal and less destructive world. Many would go further and say ‘we must’.

  2. Thank you for the tremendous gift -perhaps you have passed on a a bouquet of wild words?
    This may ReWild Social Work?… I find your post reminds me of the un named poverty outside the cash economy, a poverty of connection, or reading and being in the world, a vision. Here the impact of this poverty effects an erosion where language which once connected us-feeds us-gave its synergism to us, becomes removed as if from our very mouths (or,so it feels to me).
    Where are our social work poets/ they can help here.

    Your work helps name these, and your writing enacts a fundamental magic, that by naming we give power to. Your words remind me of connections which once seen cannot be unseen.These add texture to what it is to be here, and enrich the journey to deep adaption which these days ask of us. (ref to Prof Jem Bendell work). Does social work have a role here?
    -I suggest ‘yes’, reinforcing the cycle of work and actin of connection and kindness…for the self and resourcing, for human resourcing, for the Earth. We face a pivotal time in the formal social work professions’ short life span. Keep passing bouquets forward

    1. Thanks Merrill – you are maybe a little too kind here – this is just an attempted call (among others) to encourage people to wake up and get involved in making a different future.

      We are a young profession and we should not be so tired and apathetic – which is easier to say from the sidelines than from the trenches of practice.

      But … whatever else develops from the current crisis there will be a lot of struggle and strife for people: where is the government injection of social work programmes and support services to meet this need?

      This is something practical we can advocate for in the here and now and we can organise for deeper economic and political change in the longer run – not just as social workers but as people with a concern for future ways of living – articulating a different politics is critical to such a project.

  3. Ian- I love that you name a possible alternative to the current exploitative and destructive system – a free and inclusive socialist society. The mantra of TINA (there is no alternative) is so deeply ingrained in many people- including our profession- that they can’t perceive of a better post capitalist world. This leaves us to barrack for misplaced resurrection of a mythical Keynesianism (mythical for the vast majority of the world’s populations whose super exploitation held back attacks on the living standards of Western working classes for decades- but no more). The world never recovered from the GFC. The political elites tell us nothing is as normal anymore with Covid19 – we are in a crisis. But we need to be clear that the reason we are in such as serious crisis – Covid19 on top of the impact of climate change – is because what was ‘normal’ is actually the crisis. capitalism is incapable of solving this crisis because it has created it. And the fact that the whole economy is going to shit again indicates it’s fragility and inability to absorb shocks without throwing everybody into abject poverty.
    In Australia we haven’t even had the chance to come to terms with the traumatic bushfires and failure of political leadership that are etched deeply into our psyche. Now this. And this for me highlights our challenge of social work. Do we focus on providing palliative care for the victims of capitalism with increasingly meagre resources or reach deep inside and unleash our courage to be the change agents exploited communities and the ravaged environment needs? Now this doesn’t mean we don’t advocate and fight for much needed positive reforms within a repressive system – for survival. But we got to keep the eye on the prize – human liberation. And this is quite tricky now when we are all basically under house arrest and limited in our rights to protest etc. And Western social workers need to open their eyes to the big wide world and realise some countries in the Global South actually do some things better – and not just see deficits because of imperialist bias.
    We need to position ourselves at the front lines, not just through providing case work and emergency relief etc but push hard and engage in that broader system’s advocacy of housing rights, basic universal income etc that needs to stay AFTER the crisis as a beginning for that utopian future you talked about. So let’s be realistic and demand the impossible – a truely free society 🙂 this will be the light illuminating our path and keep us on track when the going gets rough. Thanks for starting such a great chat . Solidarity Margareta

    1. Hi Margaret, you said ‘capitalism is incapable of solving this crisis because it has created it’ and that is so true.
      It’s time for a new way, as you have so beautifully articulated in your response to Ian’s post.
      Patriarchy has had its day and is dying and of course, it is in the interests of those whose vested interests are at stake to fan the flames and keep it going.
      We do however, have to create a new and better way of doing society and yes, social workers have an enormous role to play – time to join with others who realise change is needed – the ecologists, the midwives (that’s my mob), First Nations Peoples, environmentalists – the artists and countless others who care about social capital and the environment.

    2. Hi Margareta – Thanks very much for your input – yes! – after the ’emergency’ passes, the concepts of shared struggle and social protection / empowerment for all should not be abandoned in a return to destructive survival of the richest ideology – and we must have a voice in this.

  4. Ian I am so happy you are posting this. Where are the conversations like this happening in A-NZ? What is the post COVID economic structure we want to have? With increased unemployment, businesses closing down, now is the chance to imagine, decide and create another way. How do we amp up these conversations, make them national, make them infuential, inclusive? (Says the white, middle class, liviing in a warm home liberal…)

    1. Thanks Kerren – We lack a certain amount of political imagination I think and the organised left alternative voices are not well united – although they do exist. The idiotic responses of Trump and co are beginning to persuade people to think that there must be a better way and crisis like this shows how fragile capitalist economics really is. We are a small and generally compliant country which – combined with good leadership – means that we have done well touch wood – in dealing with the covd threat so far. We do not and should not be so passive in terms of what happens next – I for one don’t want my mokopuna to inherit a burnt out planet.

  5. Kia ora Ian and thanks for this piece.

    I’ve found myself increasingly thinking about how we as a profession can be part of the the movement that needs to happen to ‘flatten the inequality curve’ as Neil Ballantyne puts it.

    As an educator, I’ve been made more aware than usual at the sorts of constraints many social work students live and study under. In some ways when they are seated in a classroom together they become amorphous, their student loans providing a laptop (until they break) and a sort of income, often supplemented by low paid, precarious work.

    Suddenly in this new normal, a world where lessons have moved online, the vulnerabilities of many students; poverty, ongoing stresses of their daily lives, caring responsibilities of many, lack of digital support and resources like a study space which immediately disadvantage them, (disproportionately women, Pacifica and Māori students) are highlighted.

    As a profession, I’ve been disappointed in the the lack of leadership and vision we’ve been able to muster here in ANZ. As has been shown time and time again, in disasters, social workers have the exact mix of skills and knowledge to be very useful first responders and yet the coordination of volunteer efforts has seemed slow and piecemeal. And, our ability to advocate for ourselves (thinking about frontline social workers needing to maintain direct contact not having PPE gear here) has been conspicuous in its absence.

    So, we have another chance to shine as we should. That’s in the next phase, to advocate for a society where everybody has an equitable chance to weather the disasters which are yet to come, as they will. We are too far down the path of planetary destruction for that not to be the case.

    Alongside this though, the profession needs to urgently refocus its efforts on climate justice, inequality and gender equity. In the Asia Pacific region, which includes 60% of the world’s population, we are not on track to meet a single one of the seventeen sustainable environment goals (SDGs). We need to urgently understand the connections between inequity and environmental degradation and to centre indigenous knowledge to help us.

    I’ll be really disappointed if social work as a profession and we as part of it do not make a useful contribution to the movement which must lead us to a fairer, more equitable society for all of us and generations to come. That’s our challenge.

    1. Thanks Jude – very well said! You are right that we need to advocate for ourselves and for and with all people on the kaboose of the train locally and globally. The opportunity is there – as the fridge magnet wisdom goes, if your boat hasn’t come in – swim out to the damn thang!

  6. Brilliant post Ian!
    Yeah crisis socialism! – the immediate very personalised understanding that when the same shite is hitting all our fans at the same time then the only sensible response is one of collective care. The antithesis of the neo-liberal story of competitive self interested individuals that we’ve suffered under for 3 decades and more. The three points you make that I think the most important:
    1. The cosy story that we are all fine. SW’rs know that has never been true and is even less likely to be true now. There is very little public discourse about how the hardest hit are doing and what is needed to support them. We need to push the NZ media to not just highlight the pretty stories
    2. That we have a real global opportunity / narrow window to assert a move back to a more generous Keynesian welfare approach.
    3. That there will be a well resourced and ruthless push-back to re-establish the status quo the moment the corona crisis begins to settle. Established interests will fight against any shift toward a more egalitarian and equitable wealth sharing society.

    My own feeling is that this is a time when the social work profession as a global profession needs to nail its colours to the mast and stop pretending to any form of neutrality in the conflict between those that have not and those that continue to assert a right to more than they need.

    1. Thanks David – very useful thoughts – this post just some ideas we have been kicking around in RSW – and I have to say that those smug chat shows that pass for chic current affairs on mainstream TV are so incredibly middle-class-centric my eyes water. Hopefully we will get some engaged discussion on this and people will start thinking about how they can be part of organising for longer term reform.

  7. Yes, I have seen in my social work practice that it is has been very difficult for families to cope in this COVID 19 crisis. Many of these families are living in cold and damp and overcrowded housing or are living in emergency housing. Many families don’t have internet. Their children will be missing out on the online education. Of course, this situation will exacerbate the difference between wealthy and poor people.

    1. Yeah it sure as hell does Lisa – thanks very much for your input – always good to hear from people doing the mahi! We don’t hear enough of these voices. Our economic and political systems needs to be changed so that this kind of inequality does not continue to be socially reproduced. Sharing practice experiences – what social workers see and do – is one way of raising awareness that goes past blaming working class people for the problems they experience: bringing social understandings back in to social work and state policy. The future does not belong to powerful self-interested people who assume that increasing the rate of private profit and exploitation is the answer – when, in fact, it is the problem. In the middle of this time of global shock and abnormality we may have a chance to envisage and demand a different normal.

  8. Excellent questions Ian. Thank you for asking them. The failure of greed-based economics & the flaws in liberal capitalism are being exposed during this pandemic … your question about whether this is “an opportunity to re-imagine how a free and inclusive socialist society could be built, while we still have a planet to build it on” is timely. These questions need to be asked widely and deeply. Time to change what we are collectively doing – yes, this threat this virus poses to humanity will pass, not without a lot of grief however. We also know that more threats will come because our behaviour makes it likely. The more conversations like this one, the more chance we have of opening hearts and minds to consider other ways of being and what that would take and why it matters so much.

    1. Thanks for your comments Caroline – yes, a paradoxical time of drawing in but also growing awareness of the need to collectively confront future questions that effect each and every one of us. And, of course, there are alternatives and we must find them.

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