Social work and the chimes of freedom flashing: Some thoughts on future change

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.



Bourdieu, P., Accardo, A., Balaz, G., Beaud, S., Bonvin, F., Bourdieu, E., . . . Wacquant, L. (1999). The weight of the world: Social suffering in contemporary society. Oxford, UK: Polity Press.

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.

Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1848). The communist manifesto. London, UK: Merlin Press.

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

4 replies on “Social work and the chimes of freedom flashing: Some thoughts on future change”

Kia ora Ian,

Thank you for writing this piece and I value the fact that we have begun to discuss the machinations of the last 9 months (or so) and what this may mean to the larger SW fraternity.

I don’t normally put my thoughts into such an open forum preferring to ‘hide’ amongst the throngs in organised rallies, helping to organise different huis or within my safe ‘left’ bubble of friends however I do believe that the ‘Trump story’ needs to be told from a number of angles and I hope to provide mine.

A disclaimer of thoughts before I move forward: Soy Uruguayo! I am Uruguayan by birth and no longer live there (not because I don’t like it there) but because our family had to leave due to US policy / meddling, urban guerrilla conflict (Tupamaros), military involvement and a rapidly decline economy to name a few. Typical of what happened to a lot of Latin American countries under the direct watch of the United States. We were lucky and unlucky at the same time, I was deprived of my country of birth because at the time my family decided it was best for the children to ‘get a better life’. As I grew older I rejected the notion that because of US involvement I was taken away. I am no fan!

I for one am not aggrieved that Trump has become the President of the United States. Not because I agree with his policies; in fact I despise them and wish they would remain where they belong, but because I see a light of hope out of this chaotic scene. In the election of Trump I saw a complete rejection of the establishment, a complete rejection of the willful killing of innocent men, women and children for ideological gain and a complete rejection of the willful siphoning of precious capital and resources to the 1%.

I also don’t believe for one minute that the majority of Trumps supporters voted for him out of any form of altruistic notions for the destruction of past generations under previous US regimes however I did see (as you put it) “a perverse glimpse of revolutionary potential”.

The trouble is that it looks like it is going to stay as just a ‘potential’ unless we move away from spending countless hours focusing on Trump, Le Pen, Hanson and Farage and see that the real enemy is the established order that has been in power for the last 40 years. Trump will disappear in 4 years’ time and the true test of how far we have come will be in who gets voted in then. We cannot go back to the establishment, we cannot afford it. In the last 14 days the Democratic establishment had a chance to move towards a more progressive path but stuck with more of the same in voting a new Chairman (I’ll let you all have a look at Perez vs Ellison, I know who I would have picked).

In short what I am trying to say (but I fear not well enough) is that we need to move away from the everyday rhetoric, see behind the façade and headlines and research the historical reasons as to how we came to where we are, who got us hear and who (realistically) can move us towards the next phase. What I do know is that more of the same (i.e. previous to Trump, Le Pen, Hanson and Farage) will not do as these monsters will only come back.

Regards and take care

Luis Arevalo

Kia Ora

Thanks for your thoughts and interest Luis !

I like to think that this blog space can be a place for many voices to identify and comment on issues facing progressive social work and the movement for a more just society, right here and now. This involves challenging and invigorating debates across the board from relational practice to Maori self-determination, environmental / economic justice, political change … beginning, perhaps with the question of how to move social work from survival mode to development mode ??/

The big picture of the contradictions of capitalism and its relationship with liberal democracy does matter for social work because capitalism is the name of the broader socio-economic system that we practice within. This system is based on inequality and it is constructed – we don’t operate in some kind of state of nature that has fallen from the sky. Change happens and powerful interests are at stake.

You are right to identify the history of US foreign policy as the most glaring example of the suspension of Liberal political ideals when they conflict with economic and political goals – we need look no further than the coup in Chile, the horrendous carpet bombing of Laos, the CIA in Indonesia – you know the list. Then of course the weapons of mass destruction propaganda to justify the Iraq war, the ongoing drone killings and proxy wars … .

The ‘Trump story’ – and the strange displacement of our notions of the rules of the official ‘truth’ game that goes with it – brings all this into focus in a way.

I also think you are right to identify that it is what happens ‘post-Trump’ that is important. I don’t have any glib solutions but it is clear that we can’t do more of the same if we want to shape a different future.


Thanks Jane – yes the development of grass roots community services that people can be part of and seek support / self-help from without stigma are so vitally important – and such initiatives do not fair well under the current top-down approval and funding regime.

Re “developing new visions for social work” I couldn’t agree more with “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 behavior of individuals.” Your second point re “However, social work is not a free-floating activity which we can shape at will.”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.”, Parallel systems which deal with social control are the justice and mental health systems.
In NZ these social management systems do not aim to address individual human rights, but are there to protect “order”. In attending the free legal seminars at The Community Law Center, it became apparent that the Family Court reforms which proceeded the CYFS reforms were focused on streamlining and economically containing the costs of processes meeting the needs of people to resolve issues in their family life into a process, which seems to be almost indifferent to the personal needs, and more focused on “getting on with business” I could see no room for meeting the emotional needs of parents in particular caught up in the reform of child welfare management, and everything to do with replacing childrens’ “unsuitable” families with “suitable” ones. Parents would find themselves, emotionally in a “sink or swim” environment, where “sinking” usually means destitution, alienation from their children and family under force of compliance.
Despite the copious quantities of goodwill which exists in our ordinary communities, the current reforms do not automatically promote policies which will help the “ordinary” person caught up in them. Grassroots community welfare initiatives have to compete with funding resources against sports groups and overseas charities, and hybrid globalized corporate charities which exist by commodifying “the poor” and unfortunate, and mostly assume that all people who get caught up in these events are incorrigible and “doomed” ; incapable of turning their lives around, on anyone’s terms except theirs, and if some manage to do it is too much trouble to waste precious opportunity on, and only deserve the “worst” our community can offer (prison, poverty, and at the very least economic and social exclusion). The big flaw in Neo Liberalism is that “opportunity” is a contestable commodity in itself…
In the absence of will (and funding allocation) within the CYFS reforms to provide a “family recovery and rehabilitation” programme the mental Health system should have provided an opportunity to create a system of help for rehabilitating lives, or at least provide programes to enable people to move on with their lives, but we got the “Minds Like Mine” campaign instead, which does not seem to have been listened to by those who “count’ (the cash that is). In the current “reform” environment I detect a “work first” mentality returning; which is not about creating equal access to opportunities for employment , education and homes for New Zealanders down on their luck, but seeks a ‘back door’ return to “medicate, warehouse and manage”(for profit) people caught up in this system. True positive reform is not being given from the “top down” so the only hope is for it to be created from “the bottom up”….I hope I’m wrong… Chrs and kind regards.

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