What is really going on here?

Ideas are never neutral. As Marx and Engels observed, those who define the dominant ideas control the world:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. (Marx & Engels, 1964)

The following is a brief historical exploration of how the seductive and insidious ideology of neoliberalism has come not only to dominate the social policy landscape in Aotearoa – New Zealand  but also to colonise our common sense and rob us of our political imaginations.

Okay, so we sure as hell aren’t in Kansas now. But, how did we get here Dorothy? Child protection reform and the changing face of social work are located in an ideological context related to developments in our wider political and economic system. There is a name for this system (although it is unfashionable to speak it aloud). It is called capitalism (Heilbroner, 1985). It is a system with plusses and minuses. In its unrestrained form it produces and demands continuous growth, commodification and the over-accumulation of wealth in private hands. It also produces and demands inequality and relative poverty. This much we know – although a great deal of time, money and creative energy is committed to concealing this reality. This concealment is achieved primarily through the production and dissemination of ideology. Ideology is the narrative glue which constructs the dominant ideas about what is normal and natural in our socio-economic system. This medicine is cooked in the melting pot of economic and political power. It saturates our world and can be difficult to identify. It is more obvious looking backwards.

Social work emerged in the Nineteenth Century as a moral endeavour directed at the dangerous classes. Liberal philosophy provided justification for the global development of industrial capitalism. The poor were regarded, at best, as weak and morally corruptible. The English Poor Law of 1834 demanded the confinement of those in need of state support to Work Houses. The “Workhouse Test” cemented the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor (Polanyi, 1971). The associated idea that poverty is an outcome of individual moral failure and the doctrine of less eligibility (that benefit recipients should receive less than the lowest paid workers) are alive and well in our current policy discourse. In the New Zealand context these sentiments are powerfully summarised in the following pronouncement from the inimitable late Nineteenth Century Charitable Aid Inspector – Dr Duncan McGregor. I will leave it to the reader to imagine the thunderous tone and the rolling Scottish accent:

Outdoor relief is as catching as small pox and just as deadly … All over New Zealand the state subsidy for indiscriminate outdoor relief is the most effective scheme that could be devised for the systematic cultivation of social parasites(Mt. Ida Chronicle, 1897)

One of the interesting things about the contemporary re-emergence of this idiotic, yet powerful, ideology is that we tried very hard – as a nation – to eradicate it in the middle decades of the Twentieth Century. It was discredited, of course, by the collective experience of market failure and social insecurity occasioned by the Great Depression of the 1930s.  The ground-breaking Social Security Act of 1935 and the universal provision of free education, health care and public housing were all designed to de-stigmatize social assistance. A political consensus developed around a Welfare State committed to supporting and enabling equal opportunities for all to participate in the growth and development of a better – more humane – post war society.

The egalitarian Welfare State enabled unprecedented social mobility for many working class people – the writer included. However this political consensus (and the ideological stitching that held it together) began to unwind from the 197Os. The most powerful influence in this ‘unravelling’ was economic – falling profit, price/wage inflation and growing public debt. Causes are contested but it is clear that subsequent reform has been designed to re-ignite the engine of capitalism by reducing the power of organised labour (Callinicos, 2010). As suggested, all ideological configurations both reveal and conceal relations of power and the Welfare State was no exception.  Significant gaps in power and privilege remained even at the height of the Welfare State – albeit dwarfed by the contemporary level of inequality. Also we now recognise that the post war world was a racist and sexist society favouring the interests of white heterosexual men and a particular stereotype of family life. A protected economy bred an insular and conservative society. Accordingly the winds of change were fanned by progressive voices as well as vested business interests.

The vehicle for radical economic reform was, paradoxically, the 1984 Labour Government. Although the political process coalesced around an extreme ‘New Right’ agenda it also included socially liberal or communitarian influences. This is evidenced in the failed Pay Equity legislation and, in part, in the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act, 1989. Premised on the reality of inequality and institutional racism for Maori, this legal framework revolved around the idea that whanau, hapu and iwi could and would provide adequate care for their children if provided with respect, authority, information and adequate resources.  Those of us who were there know how this vision was de-railed by the neo-liberal blitzkrieg of the 1990s. Whanau were asked to assume financial responsibility at the same time as the jobs, conditions and pay of working people were relentlessly attacked. Benefit payment rates were slashed and market rents imposed on state tenants. As per the Reagan and Thatcher regimes in the U.S.A and U.K, the demonization of a feckless and threatening underclass poor began in earnest. Television adverts depicted the fraudulent and morally corrupt behaviour of welfare beneficiaries.

State services were privatised, commercialised and services like statutory child and family social work were managed in terms of “output efficiency”. By the end of the decade the glaring failings of a business production model for health and social services became too obvious to ignore. This is documented in various Government reports from that time period – the ownership interest in state services was neglected (organisations cannibalised their assets for short term efficiencies) and Government Departments engaged in endless farcical disputes about what was or wasn’t their core business (Schick, 1996). Speed and volume production eclipsed quality.

The Clark Labour led Governments of the 2000’s took a few steps back from the ideological dogma of market capitalism – but not all that many! Influenced by the “third way” rhetoric associated with the theorist Anthony Giddens and the Blair Government in the U.K, a social development policy agenda was adopted. We witnessed a plethora of aspirational policy documents espousing inter-sectoral cooperation and “joined up” services. This was not a return to social democracy and the ideology of the Welfare State – it was more the closing of a door. There was no acceptance of market failure in the general sense but there was some limited recognition of the need for supply side adjustments in order to make people work ready in a new global world of flexible capitalism. Work was required for self-worth and was seen as the only road out of poverty. Child care subsidies, skills training schemes and the flag-ship working for families’ tax credit initiative were all promoted as strategies to make work pay (Lunt, 2009). Social investment was part and parcel of this schema – the idea that a limited degree of targeted enablement would provide a hand up rather than a hand out.

Arguably the power of the neoliberal turn lies in the ideological hegemony it has achieved. Both the orthodox political left and right appear to accept that the agenda of transnational corporate profit is both inevitable and in the interests of us all. A generation of people have bought into the doctrine of individual responsibility for market outcomes – the market commodification of self (Sugarman, 2015). This is packaged and perceived as ‘freedom’. The neoliberal state is apparently all about freedoms, with the exception of the underserving poor that is. With the assistance of electronic data the current National led coalition now envisages being able to calculate the fiscal costs which the recalcitrant poor are individually responsible for accruing. Like insurance brokers we can apply an accountancy framework to quantify the costs that ‘these people’ (the dangerous and unproductive) will visit upon us in terms of prisons and state benefits (New Zealand Productivity Commission, 2015). We can – it is imagined – prevent the reproduction of the costs associated with these deviant individuals by removing their children into safe and loving middle class homes. Now, what is that distant noise? Surely it couldn’t be the sound of approaching Jack Boots, could it Mr Key?

Sounds like a good job for social workers – provided we train them right that is.  I am not sure if this strategy is just naive or purely cynical. For those on the receiving end the outcome will be the same of course – and maybe it doesn’t matter so much: those people aren’t like us after all – they are poor, brown, deviant liabilities … Oops … there I go again – putting my foot into a warm bucket of ideology!!. Useful stuff isn’t it?


 Callinicos, A. (2010). Bonfire of illusions: The twin crises of the liberal world. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Heilbroner, R.L. (1985). The nature and logic of capitalism. New York, NY: W.W.Norton.

Lunt, N, (2009). The rise of a ‘social development’ agenda in New Zealand. International Journal of Social Welfare, 18, 3-12.

Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1964). The German ideology. Moscow, Russia: Progress publishers.

New Zealand Productivity Commission (2015). More effective social services. Wellington, New Zealand: Author.

Polanyi. K. (1971). The Great Transformation: the political and economic origins of our time. Boston: Beacon Press.

Shick, A. (1996). The spirit of reform: Managing the New Zealand state sector in a time of change. Wellington, New Zealand: State Services Commission.

Sugarman, J. (2015). Neoliberalism and psychological ethics. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 35 (2),103–116.

[fac_icon icon=”camera-retro”] Image Credit |astrid westvang

8 replies on “What is really going on here?”

Hi Ian

As a huge fan of Marx and Engels can I just say… BRAVO!

I love this article as it exposes the short comings and failures that you rightly say are systematically hidden from the general public.

I think David Harvey summed up capitalism best when he said that it does not fix problems it faces, it simply moves them. Take the 1970s financial crisis; give people credit cards and loans up the hilt, then we have the mortgage crisis if recent times. And I can see this idea of problem shifting occurring within the CYFs review/reform process as well.

I do not buy into this neo liberal idea of competition that capitalism boasts. I think Engels said it best:

“Man has only to understand himself, and to organize the world in a truly human manner according to the demands of his own nature, and he will have solved the riddle of our time”

Thanks again Ian for this wonderful article!

Fantastic summary of the incursions of neoliberalism into the social services. Don’t overlook the re-emergence of philanthropy, but no longer the 19th century bevy of women doing good unto the poor. The twenty-first century model is of philanthropy as a site of risk-investment. Philanthropists can take investment risks, which may provide high returns. I’m sure the re-jigging of social services (Productivity Commission, 2015) has this model as a subset of ‘less government’.
Kia ora Ian

Yes Margaret I think you are right. And the tertiary sector focus on research is also about access to the Corporate dollar – a la the U.S model.
Reclaiming what can be thought is critical for social work and we are -I think – becoming re- politicised in these challenging times.

Kia Ora Koe


Thanks Reece – your support and interest is appreciated. In contrast to Margaret Thatcher I think we live in a society as opposed to being a rabble of self seeking economic actors – and I think we have the capacity to live differently – thing is to never let the dominant script writers grind you down.


I am a Samoan registered social worker and clinician. I think you said it best Ian..” With the assistance of electronic data the current National led coalition now envisages being able to calculate the fiscal costs which the recalcitrant poor are individually responsible for accruing.”
Poverty is being blamed on the poor. They also happen to be in the majority of Pacific & Maori- these are my people. Where is the voice of the Social Workers Registration Board?
Currrently, we are preparing a submission from SEWN- local arm of COSS. I hope other national bodies of social services also respond
Thank you Ian and Reese.

Talofa Ian,
Thank you for responding
If you are a registered social worker, no doubt you would have received an invite to submit to a Select Committee Inquiry into Social Workers Registration Act
This is I feel a clever political move to immobilize the only body that could possibly stand up to do what is right according to our code of ‘do no harm’
This board although government appointed and SHOULD be made up of registered social workers have the mandate and power to ethically be a voice for inequality and suffering.
Manuia lava

You fail to mention one of the greatest tricks of the neo caps bunkem show, the “Socialise the Debt, Privatise the Profit” slight of hand trick. But that’s to be expected, after all there’s so much PT Barnum ideology about these days we can’t expose it all.
The concept of “Dead Labour” also seems to have been forgotten, to my mind the greatest example of StDPtP ever seen. Our work, our ideas, our taxes, and those of the people before us (especially the people before us) all built national industries and common good organisations (ACC anyone?) now stripped bare, or about to be to profit the few.
Thanks for the blog, love your work.

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