Social work, capitalism and social justice: Big and small pictures

When thinking about the past, present and future of social work it is instructive to bear in mind that its theory and practice is politically located (Gray & Webb, 2013). More specifically, social work in the Western context is embedded in the historical evolution of capitalism. Capitalism is a dynamic, often mesmerising, means of production and distribution which is both creative and destructive. There are some major difficulties with it as a model of development. As Karl Marx pointed out, it exploits working people, extracting surplus value from their labour (Hollander, 2008). Why do you think manufacturing has shifted to distant sweat-shops over the last forty years or so?

Racism and capitalism are linked historically. The contemporary inequality of indigenous people the world over is related directly to the history of capitalist imperial expansion; the first wave of globalisation if you like (Kelsey, 1999). This is most graphically illustrated in the bloody colonial regimes imposed in Africa (Hochschild, 1988), the Americas and elsewhere across the globe.

Let’s consider some of the internal logic and inevitable functions of capitalism. It produces astonishing growth and innovation. It is prone to over-accumulation and crisis: boom and bust; as seen most recently in the 2007 global banking melt-down (Callinicos, 2010). The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter described the way in which capitalism generates gales of creative destruction (McCraw, 2007). This firestorm requires incessant growth; profit-driven growth which seeks to reduce the costs of production, produce new commodities and develop new markets. It depends on the institutional protection of private property; the liberal legal system. It also creates and reproduces poverty.

None of this is likely to stop any time soon, even though there are signs that we are on the verge of hammering our world to death. The following is from Sub-commander Marcos (Henk, 2018, p.52) of the indigenous Zapatista resistance movement in Mexico:

Today producing new commodities and opening new markets is achieved with the conquest and reconquest of social territories that before were of no interest to capital. Ancestral knowledge and genetic codes – in addition to natural resources like water, forests and air – are now commodities with open markets or markets in the making. People found in space and territories with these and other commodities are, whether they like it or not, the enemies of capital.

What has this to do with social work in Aotearoa-New Zealand? A great deal in my view; if we are to reimagine its possibilities that is. Essentially the rationale for social work is the provision of assistance to the human casualties of the capitalist model of development. Lorenz (2017) argues that social work has been a key mechanism for moderating the excesses of capitalism in the Western modernist world; effectively helping to save capitalism from itself. Within this remit social work has a dual legacy of care and control. This integrative function has been theorised in various ways. Althusser (2014) would characterise social work as part of the apparatus of state control. Foucault (1984), more fluidly, sees social work as a disciplinary technology.

The destructive elements of capitalism are both softened and disguised by the institutions and the ideology of liberal politics. John Maynard Keynes was the economic architect of the interventionist welfare states that were built in the shadow the Great Depression of the 1930s and the destruction wreaked by the second World War (Davidson, 2007). Lord Keynes was no socialist; the object of the exercise was the preservation of liberal capitalism. In the same vein the provision of access to markets for the rich nations of the world (and more recently for huge multi-national corporations) has been the agenda of global capitalism since the post-war Bretton Woods agreement (Steil, 2013). The geopolitical stability of the third world for this purpose has always been more important than the liberation and welfare of its people. You need look no further than the effective abandonment of the Palestinian people or the state of Syria.

Differing political philosophies equate to differing visions for social work. In the enabling liberal state theorised by the American economist J.K. Galbraith (1973), social work is part of levelling the playing field: resourcing the underprivileged to compete on more even terms. Social Democratic states go further in ensuring minimum outcomes as rights of citizenship, while revolutionary socialists are convinced that there can be no lasting social justice while the means of production and exchange are privately owned.

The contemporary problem for social work is that it is the economic philosophy of Galbraith’s arch-nemesis Milton Friedman (1990) that has gained the greatest political traction since the 198Os. The holy market will provide all, and liberal social workers distort market signals – if we have a role at all it is to push and prod the poor to adapt to the discipline of the market (as we all must).

Social work has itself been dragged squealing to market over the last thirty or forty years as the engine of capitalism has been re-stoked. As Western governments have forsaken the commitment to social equality social work has been placed in an increasingly difficult position. In academic circles we (at times) huff and puff. Our national and international bodies proclaim that social work is about human rights and social justice, but the practice of social workers tells them something different: that the pond has been drying out for some time now. Where, then, does this leave social workers who are interested in developing a politics and practice of redistribution in relation to wealth, power and opportunity? What, as Lenin said, is to be done?

In contemporary Aotearoa-New Zealand we see some of the creative and destructive elements of capitalism in microcosm. Price signals do influence consumer behaviour and drive market innovation as seen in the recent development of uber taxis or Airbnb, but economics is not a natural self-evident science. It is politically and ideologically loaded. In recent years we have seen the drive for profit in the treatment of potential tenants by rapacious landlords and their ‘property managers’ and employers seeking youth rates and /or ninety-day trials and zero-hours contracts to exploit labour. These are things which we can resist. We now have a centre left coalition Government and we should expect (and demand) that a brake be applied to exploitation.

Social work practice is difficult and demanding. Our power is limited and in practice we do what we can – and sometimes a little bit more. Care-full practice remains important and there are always opportunities to act with compassion and to challenge oppression. However, the reality is that social work is tangled with the state which is in turn tangled with the capitalist mode of development. According we need to recognise that social work is not necessarily the most effective vehicle for social justice aspirations which are economic and political in character.

We operate, I believe, in extraordinary times. Globally we live on a vulnerable and volatile planet that is being irreparably degraded by our current mode of life as a competitive quest for private profit. The current solution offered by the political right (as seen in Brexit or the disturbing Trump phenomenon) is a return to isolationism and racism and a drive to conflate social progress with business growth and narrow national interest.

We can and must live in better ways. How might this be achieved? The answers are, of course, complex but this much is clear: this is not a time for the uncommitted, the isolated or the unimaginative. We are not powerless, but we need to be more strategic in thinking about how we organise ourselves politically in ways that are most likely to promote economic and social change – be it reform or revolution. The times they are a-changing.

Image credit: Rafael Matsunaga


Althusser, L. (2014). On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. London & New York: Verso.

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

Davidson, P. (2007). John Maynard Keynes. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Friedman, M. & Friedman, R, (1990). Free to choose: a personal statement.  San Diego. Harvard Brace Jovanovich.

Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault Reader. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Galbraith, J.K. (1973). Economics and the Public Purpose. Boston, NY: Houghton Mifflin Books.

Gray, M. & Webb, S.A. (eds), (2013). The new politics of social work. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Henk, N. (ed), (2018). The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage – Final Public Speeches of Sub-commander Marcos. Chico, CA: A K Press.

Hochschild, A. (1998). King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. ISBN 0-330-49233-0

Hollander, S. (2008). The economics of Karl Marx: analysis and application. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Kelsey, J. (1999). Reclaiming the Future – New Zealand and the Global Economy. Bridget Williams Books: New Zealand.

Lorenz, W. (2017). Social Work education in Europe: towards 2025. European Journal of Social Work, 20 (3), 331-321.

McCraw, T. (2007). Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Steil, B. (2013). The battle of Bretton Woods – John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the making of a new world order. Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press.

5 replies on “Social work, capitalism and social justice: Big and small pictures”

Hi Ian,

I always love reading what you write! I could only dream of being able to write like you! So thank you for sharing your thoughts and writings with us all!

I couldn’t agree with you more when you wrote: “Globally we live on a vulnerable and volatile planet that is being irreparably degraded by our current mode of life as a competitive quest for private profit.”

It seems to me that a lot of social workers now have lost the courage to be able to stand up and have these types of conversations publicly. The capitalist mode is so dominant that those who speak against it are automatically labelled “commies” or “Marxists” (which I’m proud to say I am). Since when were social workers worried about being viewed in such a way and not to speak out against the capitalist system?

Sorry, I’m just thinking out loud now! Thank you for this blog! It has given me much to think about; as your writings usually do!



Thanks Reese – Good to hear from you and your affirmation is appreciated. We are all good at something e hoa and there is plenty I am not much good at; that is for sure. Social workers often take the expectation of political neutrality too much to heart I think and it is also true that job descriptions and resourcing confine what can be done … but part of our role – as and when we can – is to call out the systems that generate inequality – to link the big and small pictures. Capitalism is not benign – never has been / never will be. Some change happens within established systems, some outside of it and major change often begins from small movements – where strength is found in solidarity with others. Take good care – Ian

Thank you for this perspective. I am teaching a course on Social Justice and Social Work in a correctional center in the U.S. Some of the students asked about my thoughts on capitalism as a social worker and advocate for social justice. I did not have all of the words that I would have liked to have at the time. Your article and perspective captured my thoughts exactly. My only question that remains is ‘how do we change the global social work education model to be more self-reliant? I personally believe that we must engage more in the social entrepreneurship model with organizations like Goodwill and the Salvation Army. As a profession, we can ill afford to continue to rely upon our governments and the ‘charity’ of the general populace. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Thanks Nathan – always good to know that this blog post material is useful reading and especially from so far afield.

We get very hooked in to focusing on individual pathology and the ‘scientific’ treatment of deviance when social problems are really structural. I think that if we are to live in an egalitarian society – as we could do – all people need decent housing, income security, education and health services as part of the universal social contract. Social protection is the pathway to social well-being and real freedom.

I not so sure about social entrepreneurship as it is a bit like charity with a bottom line but I do think organizing for change is important – meeting, talking, reading maybe with like-minded people – developing a critical analysis but not a hopeless one … and acting in solidarity – even in small ways – to resist the dominant story of individual fault and failure.

Your work sounds demanding and interesting – I bet your students know a thing or two about injustice and maybe your job is to encourage them to find their own words.

Good luck with the year ahead! Ian

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.