Goodbye to 2020

A disturbing year of disruption and trouble is drawing in. Summer sunshine is wrapping us in light once again as we take breath for the road ahead. We have been so lucky of course and those of us who would live in more equal and compassionate ways, are hoping – as we must – that better collective futures will be built and that lessons will be learned. We live in daunting and exciting times which call for solidarity, courage and care – a valuing of the gifts we all bring and a sharing of the burdens we carry. The following is a mix of thoughts from members of our collective – we trust there is something in here for each and all.

Look after one another as we front up to 2021 – we are human beasts in a living world of joy and pain: Laugh when you can, cry when you must. Time moves.

 Neil Ballantyne – The pluriverse to come

 Just before Christmas I read an article in Stuff about a scientific study modelling the likelihood of alien life in our galaxy. The researchers concluded this was likely but also considered “…the tendency for intelligent life to self-annihilate (due to factors such as) climate change, technological advancements or war”. The thought of a universe full of dead civilisations with  younger civilisations travelling towards the same inevitable developmental, dead end, is a very depressing but very 2020 sensibility.

Of course we humans have the UN, and its programme of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the International Federation of Social Workers in their Global Agenda. Can’t the SDGs help avert disaster? According to some scholars, there is a serious problem with the idea of sustainable development. As postdevelopment scholars put it, the term is an oxymoron: what it tries to sustain is development and it is development that got us into this mess in the first place. The term postdevelopment is used to deconstruct the dominant, deficit-based, Western narrative of development-as-progress; and to open up instead the multiple ways of living together that peoples across the world adopt to build solidarity and conviviality: from the traditional ways of being of indigenous peoples to newer, experiments in postcapitalist community building. A multiplicity they refer to as the pluriverse.

Modern postdevelopment theorists are following a path started over 50 years ago by the Austrian, rebel priest and philosopher Ivan Illich. In a series of trenchant texts – including Deschooling Society and Tools for ConvivialityIllich argued against the manyfold problems of the rapidly accelerating, capitalist industrial mode of production and for a gentler, slower more convivial approach to our common life. For Illich, the industrial mode of production – including its technologies, organisational structures, forms of learning, values and assumptions – enslaved human beings. Its deliberate dissemination through the discourse of global development was disastrous, preparing the way for a postcolonial wave of Western imperialist power and control over the so-called “underdeveloped” nations.

Ivan Illich at an ANZASW conference in Palmerston North in 1978

Although little known in the social work domain, the literature on postdevelopment has expanded rapidly in the last fifty years. From the early pioneering work of Illich through to the landmark Development Dictionary and on to its most recent version Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary. There is beauty, richness and relevance in these writings. There are also critiques of postdevelopment thought, from the left and from the right; but one thing is certain, this is a body of work we cannot afford to ignore. The only self-annihilation permissible in the pluriverse is the annihilation of greedy, capitalist, Western ways of being. In 2021, we should all raise a glass to that.

Liz Beddoe – On and on it seems to go?

A surfeit of news – most of it bad- has stifled my capacity to write over 2020. I know I’m not alone. I try to write even simple things and feel lost for words. It’s the muffling, suffocating blanket of awfulness that seems to strangle my capacity to think and speak above the sharing of reckons on the latest Covid statistic.  Or snarl frustration at media focus on a tiny group of contrarian scientists, drunk on the unexpected and undeserved attention they get for their easily refuted opinions.  And grumble at the wanton stupidity of the conspiracy-theorist fans whose misogyny is showing every time they mention the ‘pink hair’.  Or feel the searing , blinding grief and rage that comes with every cruel death that signals the resurgence of BlackLivesMatter protests. Or harrumph at the latest Trumpian horror of pardoning the corrupt.  Or weep at the hundreds of thousands of grief-stricken words of testimony about abuse in faith-based and state care. Or despair at the clumsy media approach to the badly named ‘reverse-uplift’ scandal. On and on it seems to go.  2020.

This global year of horrors began in January when the terrible bushfires in Australia quickly made their presence felt in Aotearoa.  A sunny day, school holidays, iconic kiwi scenes, blue skies, the happy sounds of children splashing in cool water. The tinkling of ‘Greensleeves’ several streets away. And then suddenly a darkening sky.  A cloud across the sun observed through closed eyes under sunglasses. Then a sinister yellow tinge colours everything sepia. Phones go up across the land to capture these weird yellow skies.  Later on seeing the  frightening images of people in shorts and tank tops huddled on dark beaches as the flames stretch to the sea. Restless horses pawing the sand, staring at the sea. The crackling sparks glowing ominously behind them.

And after. The awful footage of smouldering forests, dead animals and exhausted grimy firefighters.  Those images for me are still vivid.Those smoking, stinking ruins of forest, farm and village have come to stand for the dangers hiding in our global communities, whether it be Covid-19, or White Supremacy or the flares of the brutal alliance of Christianity and misogyny that is at the heart of attacks on women’s health. Where so-called leaders urge people to ignore public health advice because it’s not manly to wear a mask.  Not even to protect your children or your grandmother. Freedom to be stupid. Freedom to be callous.

The same ugly individualism that puts bizarre readings  of ‘freedom’ against the humanist desire for us to shelter together, bringing our weaker citizens closer to the comforts of the fire on cold nights.  Bringing food, love, laughter into the darkness.  And maybe that’s all we can do to stave off the fear and sadness. Hold on to those impulses to care. And hope the right words will come eventually.

Let’s Not Begin

‘Let’s not begin the poem with and,
though it begins that way
in spirit: one in a long list of—
let’s not call them grievances.
I’m trying to love the world,
I am, but is it too much
to ask for two parts bees
vibrating their cups of pollen,
humming a perfect A note,
to one part sting?’

Ian Hyslop – Circles in the heart 

A sobering year across the globe, filled with fear and suffering for many and perhaps tinged with some sadness for all. On this blog we have, in different ways, continued to rage (or toss flowers) into the storm and encourage resistance. In a sense we have moved in a circle.

The blog was created as a response to the ‘Expert’ Panel process. It was writ large that this rigged jury would take more pēpi Māori into state care – in the name of love of course. And lo – it came to pass. However, the kraken was awakened – or was it a taniwha?

Te Kuku O Te Manawa (TKOTM) makes a clear and compelling case for the urgent devolution of child protection social work in Aotearoa to Iwi and Māori social service organisations, in a manner and form best determined by Māori themselves. This is the direction of travel. For many Māori I think it always has been.

TKOTM calls for the repeal or amendment of the provisions of the OT Act which have facilitated the early removal of pēpi Māori from their parents. I guess it was politically inconvenient for a report like this to add that these provisions were the direct result of a narrow process of reform driven by a ‘tough on abusers’ and ‘tough on those who cost the state money’ agenda, justified by the ideology of social investment – but that is the guts of it.

The institutional abuse of Māori children, and the flow-on effect of whānau suffering, particularly from the 1970s to recent times is, in many ways, a damning indictment of statutory social work. Equally it is important to remember that state social work has been a pawn in a much deeper game. This history is tied to a wider narrative of colonisation, dispossession, economic marginalization and racism; a structural genesis which social work has never been equipped to tackle.

A specific strand of liberal ideology which justifies punitive approaches to the underclass poor has coloured the child protection project since its origins in the late 1900s. It is crucial to disassemble the generic ‘detect and rescue’ focus of the child protection system, and to devolve services for Māori to Māori, but this is not a complete answer. Social services do not remedy the structural injustices which inevitably flow from capitalist social relations. What is needed, in the longer run, is a social transformation which eliminates poverty in a land of plenty.

And as for the world, the challenges we face and the races we run that are not of our choosing? We are not competitive economic units – we are sensitive, flawed and beautiful animals who take refuge in one another. Put the entrepreneurship and innovation and self-interest on the back burner – most of that stuff is bollox. It hasn’t got much to do with freedom really – it is just capitalism colonising our life-worlds. Better to swim against the current. You sleep better that way.

THE POET’S PAIN IS THE MADDOG AT NIGHT

BARKING TOO LOUD FOR THE SECRETIVE TREES

A new year awaits your aroha, energy and compassion. Keep your wits about you – your imaginations don’t belong to any kind of market.  Kia kaha koutou.

Simon Lowe – Compassionate conservatism?

Yes, it has been a difficult year. And yes, without exception, everyone I have spoken to is exhausted. Has this year been a good learning opportunity though? We have learned that we can work differently and that working from home can be equally, if not more productive (and in many cases better for life balance). We have also learned that people crave to get back to old habits, despite the recognition that new ways can be better.

We have learned that we can work together as a nation through a plethora of major events. And that we can continue to be kind to one another. We have learned that focussing on the welfare of society does not mean that economies will fail, (Statistics NZ describe the strongest quarterly growth in GDP on record in New Zealand in the September 2020 quarter).

We have learned that if we listen to health advisors, rather than economists, we can manage a pandemic better than most developed countries. We have learned that some National voters will swing towards the centre and vote Labour, as we see Ardern’s government win a record-breaking 50% of the general election vote.

But what does this really mean? Well not a lot really. While I for one am relieved that we had an Ardern-led government through the pandemic, rather than one led by Bridges or Collins (and I am genuinely grateful for that), I do feel underwhelmed.

Though minimum wage will rise to $20ph from April 2021, we could afford to raise it to $22.10 (a recognised living wage) or even higher. Housing costs continue to be rampant, with fewer Kiwis owning their own home than since sometime in the fifties. This naturally means that there are property speculators admiring their rental portfolios and their huge capital profits and yet there is still no capital gains tax. This is probably the most inequitable economic policy. Surely it is time to tax the capital gain (otherwise known as profits) on rental accommodation?

Higher tax rate (for those earning over $180,000) will be raised raised to 39% but that means a meagre additional $1,200 per annum tax for someone earning $200,000! Not enough. Public sector workers are still underpaid, their salaries being raised a miserly 3%, despite them being the heroes of the pandemic.

Undoubtedly Ardern has been a brilliant crisis manager. She has led the response to a variety of major incidents with strong, decisive leadership. She does however seem to be forgetting the community disasters that sit all around us, the disasters of a capitalist society. Maybe, like many of the general public, she has become blind to families sleeping in cars, to under-resourced health services. Maybe, but I doubt it.

Ardern might be a competent politician (and let’s be honest that does put her in the minority), but radical she ain’t. While it seems apparent that the majority of Aotearoa New Zealand voters want a strong, safe, secure, conservative leader (in December, Ardern was still polling at 58% as preferred PM), we are missing out on an opportunity to genuinely reduce the wealth gap.

It might seem harsh to criticise a leader, that given the opportunity, most countries in the world would happily appoint, however, given her popularity, her majority, and her words, then I for one expect more. Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps the frontline health workers appreciated a round of applause rather than a decent wage rise, or improved working conditions. But I also doubt that. Where is kindness when it comes to poverty, to homelessness and to failing health statistics?

I urge the government to re-imagine their economic policy, to have greater strength in their commitment to welfare, to reduce the wealth gap, to nail poverty and homelessness. All of these are relatively easy targets given enough political courage. If kindness is not merely being used as a political tool, then it should not discriminate. Economic kindness requires strength of conviction. According to the political pundits at the time of the election Labour now have the mandate for change. Let’s hope there is courage in their conviction. However, old habits die hard, and I have never witnessed compassion in conservatism.

Deb Stanfield

In the middle of last year, Qualitative Social Work called for “short reflexive essays on the pandemic’s impact on social work education, practice or research.” I recall this because I find a curious file in my laptop called ‘QSW covid’ dated June 2020. When I open the document however, all I see, bizarrely, is a list of thoughts related to the American television series ER, a hospital drama aired between 1994 and 2009 – of which I watched all 331 episodes on TVNZ during lockdown, complete with e-cigarette ads and Covid-19 alerts. In my notes I describe the piles of dirty snow outside the fictional Chicago hospital, cheap coffee and bagels, stuff getting stolen out of staff lockers, and social workers whose only job is to take children into care.

I write that ER is full of romance, tempers, tears, tragedies, blood, puke and heroism, and describe standoffs about professional safety, overwork, the arrogance of managers and fights for funding. I make a connection with the tragic death of George Floyd while watching a black doctor held down with a foot on his neck by a city cop in Season 9; and feel empathy in Season 8 when the whole hospital is locked down by a smallpox epidemic. I was addicted to this gritty medical drama, it became part of my world, and I unsuccessfully used it to find some way into a reflection about the pandemic’s impact on the social work profession. Unsurprisingly, the ‘reflexive essay’ never happened.

However, reading these notes takes me back to how I felt during that time and connects me again to the many conversations I had with social workers in supervision – how we struggled to make sense of the pandemic world, and to wonder about its impact on practice. Our conclusions were always the same: It will be an interesting time to reflect on when it’s over – right now we just put one foot in front of another. What I learned then and am learning again while I write this, is how difficult it is to reflect usefully on something when overwhelmed by it, when there is urgency, or the context is unclear.

The thoughts I recorded about ER are marginally interesting, and useful only to the extent to which I can make sense of them as time passes. My notes include random thoughts about how history repeats itself, with a few light references to social work, and some questions about my bingeing behaviour which I was somewhat troubled by. For what it’s worth, there could be two lessons here. The first is about things simply being what they are. ER is a good show, I enjoyed watching it – it’s clever, somehow familiar; it entertained, normalised, sustained during a difficult time. The second lesson is about pace – learning that sustainable change can only be generated by collective reflection over time.

While writing this I got a message from a friend who works for the public health system in Vancouver – she comments on the need to look at the system ‘afterwards’ to address the many changes needed, especially in long term care. “Thankfully,” she says, “We are open creatures, reflective and continually evolving.” Hopeful and true, I tell her.

 

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