Words matter. Maybe social workers know this better than most. They are often the tools of our trade after all. How we describe the world – how we communicate our analysis of ‘the social’ – helps to construct our belief systems in subtle and important ways. Language use is influenced by changing political, economic and social systems, although much of this is only obvious looking backwards.
Try reading old social work case-notes about ‘dysfunctional’ families drawn from structural-functionalist systems theory back in the 1960s and 70s, or older texts and government documents referring to lunatics, imbeciles, unfit mothers or the ‘native problem’ for example. More recently, from the 1990s, we were flooded with references to ‘choice’. This was a political language turn. Rising neoliberalism was all about rational economic choice as the driver of life outcomes and the poor or needy had, of course, made bad choices.
The fact that choice is massively constrained by economic scarcity was conveniently overlooked. In common with most conservative explanations for disadvantage, choice locates responsibility with individuals and families. In current ‘modern’ softer neoliberal times ‘vulnerability’ serves a similar function. We talk about ‘the vulnerable’ as a group apart or we talk about ‘our most vulnerable’ as a specific group that we should have some targeted moral responsibility for in a society that promotes civic virtue; capitalism with a human face.
The focus here is on sympathy for the weakness or susceptibility of the vulnerable – the deficits that they carry. It is not that different from the deserving poor of the nineteenth century. What isn’t often asked is what it is that people are vulnerable to or from?
This is because the answer to that broader question is more than a little inconvenient. People are pushed aside, marginalised, excluded and rendered vulnerable by the capitalist mode of ownership, production and distribution when they don’t have wage labour to sell on the free market or the capital to provide a decent life for themselves in a competitive market economy.
Globally the engine of capitalist production has been seriously stalled by the Covid-19 pandemic. The ranks of the vulnerable have increased dramatically – yes, the aged and unwell are more at risk from this unforgiving virus but the rise in economic vulnerability is a function of capitalism. And, of course this vulnerability is not evenly spread because the working class, the unskilled and people employed in insecure jobs suffer disproportionately. Times of crisis, as in the Depression of the 1930s, bring the the shortcomings of capitalism into stark relief.
Tragically, this is illustrated most graphically in the USA where an apparently unhinged President is increasingly obsessed with returning to business as usual, regardless of the trade-off in human lives. And many Americans want the same – after all, what ‘choice’ do ‘the vulnerable’ really have in the land of ‘the free’?
Image credit: Russ Allison Loar