Re-imagining social democracy, social work and the future

I recently had the privilege of attending the 13th Conference of the European Sociological Association in Athens, Greece. At the end of this trip, as we waited for a ride to the airport and the journey home, a rag-tag group of homeless families were sleeping rough in a dusty park behind the bus stop. A frail little girl, maybe four or five, in a torn dress, with matted hair, skin sores and blackened teeth stretched out her tiny arm for some loose change – a studied look of hopelessness in her empty eyes. I have seen this look before – in the intense gaze, both vacant and pleading, of malnourished street children in East Africa and in the teeming cities of India.

But is Athens not a sophisticated European city, capital of the proud nation of Greece, gateway to the sparkling islands of the Aegean? Why was this child hungry? Irresponsible care-givers perhaps? Or inter-generational trauma? There is, of course, a deeper story in all of this. The political stakes are high for the people of Europe at this point in historical time. I am a social worker rather than an economic theorist but you can’t easily separate social work from political economy. The modern Greek tragedy that this little girl embodies is directly connected with the loss of democratic control that has accompanied the global financialization of capital. It is a tale of money, politics and social dislocation – the dark side of the transformation that has accompanied the model of development known as neoliberal capitalism.

Such were my thoughts as the bus pulled in from the hot street and we sent this girl scurrying off with a couple of coins to her waiting mother. This child had no understanding of, nor interest in, global power systems. However, as surely as night follows day, she is a pawn in a ruthless game. Her suffering is associated with the fall-out from the recent debt crisis in the European banking system and with the hypocrisy, paralysis and cynicism of the political establishment within the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Consequently, the Greek economy is now saddled with debt it can never repay – youth unemployment sits at around 50%. Pensions have been slashed and the wages of public servants such as social workers and teachers have been reduced by 30% or more (Varoufakis, 2016).

Yanis Varoufakis, the maverick left-wing economist, academic and prolific writer, was the Greek finance Minister who famously resigned rather than accept the current austerity package in mid-2015. He argues that it is the associated loss of self-respect which has been hardest for the Greek people to bear (Varoufakis, 2017). Varoufakis himself is arguably a flawed and self-absorbed character but if you have the time and stamina, read his most recent book – ‘Adults in the Room’. It is a lucid and compelling account of the machinations of global capital and the duplicity of our masters.

The theme of this conference was concerned with the contemporary threat to social democracy; the urgent need to reclaim and defend the project of inclusive European social development. Growing economic insecurity and antagonisms, the perceived threat posed by refugee and migrant populations, and the rise of blind right wing populism, which Peter Westoby alludes to in his recent post, are all tangled with perceptions of potential crisis in the European context. It is a critical and fascinating time politically.

The need for a new progressive European vision is clear but this can only come with a change to political structures. Claus Offe (2016) suggests that Europe is ‘trapped’. He argues that the vested interests of the wealthy surplus-producing nations make it very difficult to move to a position of wider democratic solidarity. We live in pivotal times – as well as the potential for a retreat into isolation, intolerance and elite self-interest, there are opportunities for a resurgence of the political left – for the balance of power to shift in the interests of working class people across the European Union.  Contrary to the neoliberal creed, history hasn’t finished – the local and global struggle for social justice continues to unfold.

How might all of this be relevant to social life in Aotearoa New Zealand in the here and now? We are far from the complex politics of Europe – a lucky little country with an open economy and some competitive edge in the global market-place, right?

My response to this received truth is “perhaps” and “for now.” Under neoliberal conditions we too have adopted socially regressive policies – moved away from the concept of universal citizenship and back towards the Nineteenth Century model of charity for the deserving. In doing so we blind-side the structural causes of disadvantage. Is business as usual in this direction of travel good enough or can we live in better ways? More to the point, what might the consequences be in the years to come if we do not alter our social, economic and political aspirations?

In a sense, social work is applied sociology and can offer ways and means of putting the sociological imagination into practice. Realising this potential is the challenge facing progressive social work in the 21st Century – locally and globally.  As both an idealistic and a practical profession I believe that social work has something to say and do in terms of forging an egalitarian future. This is urgent and compelling work.

The video below offers social workers’ points of view, into the situation in Greece in 2012.


Image credit: Eric Vernier


Offe, C. (2015). Europe Entrapped. Cambridge, UK: Policy Press.

Varoufakis, Y. (2016). And the weak suffer what they must? Europe’s crisis and America’s economic future. London, UK: Vintage Publishing.

Varoufakis, Y. (2017). Adults in the room: My battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment. London, UK:  Vintage Publishing.

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