Kia ora koutou katoa
Another year slips by. In this post our RSW collective reflect individually on some of the social challenges that lie ahead – for social work, for Aotearoa and in the struggle for a just world across the globe. Questions are being asked about why we live as we do – what is sustainable, what can and must be changed? In much of the old world we have seen a shift to the political right amid a climate of fear and insecurity. The parallel threat which industrial production for private profit poses to our fragile biosphere hangs over us all. It has been a tumultuous year in Aotearoa: the horror of the mosque murders, the rising of spirit and solidarity seen at Ihumātao and the deep questioning (for social work) sparked by the OT uplift and its aftermath. There is an opportunity for progressive change in all of this: for a politics which embraces a vision of distributive justice and social equality.
Wake up and smell the tear gas!
Aotearoa is often portrayed as a peaceful island at the edge of the world, focussed on its own local issues but unaffected by global turbulence. In March that image was violently shattered by the massacre at the mosques. Whilst there were useful reflections on the question of racism in Aotearoa, and the ongoing impact of the violence of our own colonial past, the gunman was crystal clear in his intentions. This was a terrorist act by a white supremacist that flowed from the logic of worldwide Islamophobia. The massacre was also deliberately designed to fan the flames of far-right activity overseas and at home.
If the massacre was the lowest moment of 2019, perhaps its zenith, for those of us with a progressive outlook, was the Climate Strike. An international wave of protest led by high school students radicalised by the threat of climate change and the inaction of governments. With a turnout of an estimated 170,000 this was one the biggest demonstrations in Aotearoa for many years. No surprises then, that the ethical statements of social work associations worldwide have altered to include the term environmental justice, an issue that is especially pressing in a community with such close connections to the many Pacific nations for whom climate change is a fundamental, existential threat.
In the old empires of the West, disenchanted populations elect leaders that point to the enemy within: the sans papiers, the immigrants, the refugees, and the radicals. And yet, whilst the USA and England sleep-walk into a new authoritarian, neoliberal order; in Chile, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran the people have taken to the streets to demand freedom, dignity and democratic rights. In the global South and East, thousands of people are confronting ruling elites, prepared to put their own well-being on the line and to confront the teargas, rubber bullets and truncheons of the state. In these extreme contexts some social workers have stepped up to become active defenders of human rights.
As social workers from the radical tradition, in the year ahead, the RSW are committed to resisting the far right and its racist discontents. And as workers from the global South, we offer solidarity to people across the planet fighting for human rights and social justice. Revolution truly is a carnival of the oppressed!
Challenge and care
As this year draws to a close I’ve been struggling to know what to write for this year’s RSW post. I re-read our end of year wrap up post from 2018 and it didn’t help me. I was so full of energy and fighting talk then and this year I just feel tired and jaded. I could write about the ongoing struggle for women’s rights especially about reproductive rights and freedoms from violence, or about racism and Te Tiriti and the urgent need to do better for tamariki and rangatahi. I could easily have a rant about the tendency for many social workers to get caught up uncritically in moral panics. To remind the people frothing in opposition to trans people’s rights that they sound just like anti gay rights people from the ‘70s. In making offensive links to child abuse they are vilifying one part of our community and whipping up panics that are trampling on hard won but fragile rights.
I could write about the disappointment I feel about the pace of reform of the benefit and housing systems and the continuation of grinding poverty for many while the rich find endless funds for a boat race.
All these things matter. And the struggle for social justice goes on. And it’s not got any easier. We’ve faced horrors we never thought we would see. And we’re chagrined to hear of the warnings that were missed. We’ve seen white supremacy on our campuses. Old men who are struggling with women leaders, reduced to banal and pathetic tactics. And those speaking out on the environmental crisis mocked while towns burn.
We need to listen , reflect and act to build strong movements. We need to be vigilant.
But all that said I’ve been searching for a positive note. And I found it thinking about young people. There are many sneering older people, mainly white people with privilege, bleating on about young people being ‘woke’. About them being snowflakes and blaming their parents for lack of tough love.
What I see on social media and mainstream media and in my work world are many ,many wonderful young people – from children to the 30 somethings, who care passionately about change. Who see the need to act and challenge, who will force the complacent right to address the environment and endemic misogyny and racism. And who cleverly balance the struggle for structural change with a personal politics of care for their friends and families that is deep and embracing. I see both challenge and care. And these young people will see this through. And we’d better support them. Because our descendants depend on them to make a decent world out of all this fire and pain.
So social workers, stay critical, become activist in what ever way you can manage, and keep nurturing our young people.
Freedom: Who’s Freedom?
Lately I have been reflecting on the idea of freedom. We are told we live in a ‘free’ society, but that old rascal Michel Foucault wasn’t so sure. I look at the face of Auckland changing with the building of all these high-medium density terraced boxes – just/barely affordable for the flexible low-wage, high-hours workers in our innovative economy – and misgivings inevitably arise. These are intense spaces in which to incubate maybe one or two kids; nests from which to shape these children into the insecure, entrepreneurial, adaptable, classless service and consumption units of our imagined futures.
The inhabitants of these 2019 pieces of ticky-tacky are the new sanitised working class reconstructed as free middle class selves – as distinct from the rich, the excluded and particularly the hyper-rich who occupy much different social locations: systems of privilege and punishment in our overtly, yet invisibly, stratified society.
When our preferences and aspirations are guided, conditioned, governed and self-governed by obedience to the logic of the market in this way, I do question what our freedoms consist of – how they are shaped, and in whose interests? It is hardly what you might call a society with soul. We are encouraged to self-police our well-being with the gym, the passive escape of reality TV and adopt the conscience-salving refuge of re-usable shopping bags. Square the shoulders, look straight ahead, smile, like some banal extension of the Truman Show.
Am I perhaps being unduly cynical, griping my way into my 60s? I don’t really think so. In fact, I like to think it is possible for people to imagine and make a broader and richer world than the limited horizon being pedalled to the anxious parents of the neoliberal capitalist enterprise.
The left sociologists tell us that capitalism has no exterior – that we are all enmeshed in its rhythms – the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the words we speak: the dead labour we consume. But against this we are all social animals with communal histories and identities, harbouring a primal need to think, love, share, care, strive, cry and create. We are more than the hollow tools of economic utility. Marx wagered that this contradiction, this deep dissent, would be the undoing of the capitalist social form. As the climate apocalypse profits argue, two hundred years is a blink in human history and the world of consumer capitalism cannot last. What, I wonder, will Christmas 2119 bring?
As the old bearded fella said, under capitalism accidents of birth, wealth and education divide and reduce us – alienating us from each other, ourselves and our species-being. What is to be done? Yes, there are immense barriers to progressive social change but there is too much at stake to buy into a doctrine of apathy. A different system will be generated, and we can be active agents in making this different future.
At the risk of co-opting an advertising jingle, I would say ‘choose life’ if and when you can: exploit the contradictions, exercise everyday opportunities for dissent, speak your truth, expose illusions, out each and every blushing elephant; organise, build solidarity, find ways to refuse the commodification of your world – the domination of your script by words you haven’t had a part in writing.
Hey – and be kind to each other – there is enough domination and oppression on our fragile planet. 2021 here we come – first we take Manhattan …
I was sitting in a talk by the fabulous Virginia Eubanks in Auckland on March 15 as the news feeds started to come through about the mosque attacks in Christchurch. She sensibly said ‘if you need to go, or be on your phone, just do what you need to do’. I couldn’t think straight. I had to get up at the end and do a little talk about her work’s relevance to Aotearoa. My voice caught in my throat as I stood to mihi, because I already knew at least a few people had been killed and I needed to say, haere rā, I needed to say, ka pūpuri atu te aroha ki ngā whānau, I needed to say, brace yourselves for this wave of pain that will now break over us, pain for the people they were, and what the manner of their passing means for us left behind.
I came home that night to Dunedin, and went to our local mosque, Al Huda, the next morning. I stood with many others in silent shock. A group of men from the mosque stood in a protective huddle at the front gate, eyes wide, with several stone-faced policemen, guns held awkwardly. But many others had come just for respect, because there was nothing else that could be done. Four young students in tiny cut-off shorts came in tears and left flowers. A patched guy from the Bandidos arrived on his big bike with his partner to lay flowers too. The growling engine was a saw cutting through the silence, kicking us in the guts, reverberating through sickened stomachs. Two young guys came and talked animatedly about what they would have done if they had been there, imagining ways they could have ‘dealt to him’, a fragile defence against helplessness. An older pair of women came with flowers from their garden, tears in their eyes. A family, all the children from oldest to the toddling youngest, brought for a lesson.
There was an outpouring of empathy and goodwill. There was media and gnashing of teeth. And then the bubble closed again, as time moved and the urgency subsided. Normal life, for those of us who didn’t lose anyone close to us, resumed.
What is my Christmas message? Remember, sometimes and in some way, the morning after. Remember those who still grieve and offer what you can to help with the brokenness. Consider actions you can take on the causes, and the causes of the causes. Do what is possible for you, whatever your position. Don’t be dissuaded by feeling like you might ‘do the wrong thing’. Ask if you aren’t sure. I’m not sure! Keep going.
When is enough really enough?
Internationally 2019 has been politically interesting year. Some of the nations from which Aotearoa seems to take guidance (USA and UK) are happily gambling towards the neoliberal right. Of particular note was the massive and somewhat unexpected victory for Johnson in the UK. The immediate results of this landslide victory have been potential erosion of the social care system, a reduction in additional health care staff, plans to outlaw the boycott of Israeli goods (thus reducing the pressure on Israel to end its military occupation of Palestinian territories), and the ditching of a range of workers’rights (allegedly to enhance small businesses from ‘profit-sapping’ workers’ rights).
Here in Aotearoa we have a slightly different perspective with still popular centre-left Prime Minister. Ardern, whose overseas esteem sky-rocketed following the atrocious attack in Christchurch, although she is losing popularity at home (according to a Colmar Brunton poll for TVNZ). Simultaneously National are running a strongly negative campaign against a government which is attempting (though rather too slowly in some people’s minds) to right the welfare wrongs of nine years of National government.
There is little cohesive public traction against the erosion of equality caused by capitalism in this beautiful country. This is a nation which has, since the mid 1980’s, developed the world’s biggest increase in income inequality. In that time, the income of the richest 1% has doubled while the income for the poorest 10% has pretty much remained the same. Given these statistics, the lack of public outcry seems astonishing.
In Chile, the straw that broke the back of the public was a raise in public transport costs. This raise led to daily protests in Chile, aggressively counteracted by the (very wealthy) Chilean President through increased powers to the police and armed forces. Yet the peaceful protests continue; responded to with water cannons, tear gas and public injuries. Every evening the public gathers in each major city and protests. Each evening there is the sound of fighting and the smell of tear gas burning throats and causing tears. Still the public persist. To what end I am not sure, but the power of the protests was tangible, despite the biased press reports. There was a sense of unity, of community, of coming together.
Having just returned from Chile and experienced the protests (and the strangely addictive effects of the tear gas) and while I would never advocate violence, I wonder, when do we draw the line? What will it take for us to stand together and say enough is enough? Now is not the time to relax.
End of year thoughts
My reflection this year comes in the form of a book review of sorts, some gathering of thoughts while reading the work of Margaret Atwood (The Testaments), including a foreword she wrote to a book by Lewis Hyde called The Gift, which then led me to read some of that book too. These books are related probably because they’re both fresh in my mind, but also because in some way they seem to have woven their way into my thinking as a social worker – the political side of me and questions about how to effectively promote social change, and the personal side of me and questions about my capacity to give to this work.
Lewis Hyde basically asks the question about why poets (and social workers) are seldom rich and then goes on to answer it by writing a whole book about the nature of “gifts” and their place in a market-driven, commodified society. I haven’t read this entire book, however bits of it jumped out at me, particularly his chapter about women in which he describes the concept of gift labours – those jobs we do for love, or as a calling – social work, soul work, healing work – women’s work. Although we might participate in the market place (by virtue of being paid and spending our money), these labours are not completely market driven – “any portion of gift labour in a job will tend to pull it out of the market and make it less lucrative – and a “female” – profession” (p. 139).
This leads to Atwood and her handmaids – her acute observation of human structures, women and power, and her ability to offer this back so vividly by creating and presenting to us the place and people of Gilead. She helps us to notice differently, to be critical and thoughtful, and gives direction or meaning to our collective anger. Like Atwood’s main characters, social workers are also involved in acts of resistance and challenge to unfair structures. These are activities we don’t generally expect to be paid for – they are “pulled out of the market.” They can also be exhausting and thankless.
So if our work, soul work, social work, dissent work, is a calling, rather than a commodity, if it can’t (or shouldn’t) be a place where fortunes are made, then we are daily (according to Hyde) involved in significant acts of giving. In most cultures giving involves some form of reciprocity – we personally or collectively benefit from giving in some way. We may as social workers enjoy our work, feel privileged to walk in others’ worlds, learn from the people we work alongside etc, but our professional boundaries allow only so much reciprocity, and we can easily become overwhelmed and tired. Good social work must involve deliberately observing and responding to this reality as a professional priority. Let’s take good care of each other and of ourselves in 2020 – be persistent in our pursuit of social justice because there is nothing more important, but attentive to how much we and our colleagues can give.
Atwood, M. (2019). The testaments. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.
Hyde, L. (2019). The gift: How the creative spirit transforms the world (3rd ed.). New York: Vintage Books.
This completes our collective reflections about the year that has passed and the struggle ahead in 2020. We live in critical times. This is the 200th post on this site. We are a small group with different perspectives who share a commitment to progressive social change in a structurally unequal society. Social work is not an inherently radical profession but we are in a position to see the human consequences of systemic inequality. Our intent has been to contribute to a re-imagining of social work by creating a broad platform for exploring the implications of this vision in Aotearoa: a place for the questioning of official narratives and building towards a socially just future. This is not simple or without contradictions. We do not pretend to speak for the profession or for others – but we do aim to help keep the embers of dissent and resistance glowing. We wish you well in the year ahead. Do what you can, listen to your hearts, think about the structures of power which surround us all and support each other to challenge injustice as when you can.
Ka te whakahitanga to kaha!
Image credit: Chris Yakimov
Neil, Liz, Ian, Emily, Simon, Deb.