Tough times

We have talked about the big picture : small picture stuff on this blog for some time. This is because it is THE question for social work – the key issue that we wrestle with in theory and practice. As suggested, these disturbing times are bringing out the best and worst of the human condition. The mounting social disruption and economic fall-out from the pandemic is severely troubling a world already severely troubled by the cumulative fall-out from global warming. The future as we have understood it in the main-stream Western narrative of progressive development no longer makes sustained sense – unless, perhaps, to the hyper-wealthy.

It is raining stones on working people the world over. This time of insecurity and uncertainty has generated political instability of all shapes and hues: the rise of right-wing populist movements in Europe and the USA – and the politics of revolutionary and/or liberal social change seen in the civil dissent of the BLM movement, or the protests against corrupt post-Soviet governments in northern Europe. And we are seeing reactionary crack downs and secret police activities sanctioned by repressive regimes under threat.

Politics has become a marketing game under late liberal capitalism. In Aotearoa – New Zealand we have a centrist Labour Party in the tradition of soft neoliberalism. Socialism with a big or small ‘s’ is never mentioned unless it wakes the ghost of Labour past and propels ‘middle New Zealand’ into the jaws of Judith Collins and her clear messages of conservatism, business, profit and order.

Our own dystopian leanings are, of course, dwarfed by the post-truth tsunami which is the stock and trade of the Trump presidency. Trump both exploits and generates the paranoia of the times. There really are self-appointed (and armed to the teeth) militia patrolling the streets of Southern U.S cities. Self-feeding fear and twisted simplistic patriotism is good for Trump. He seeds and harvests it like an egocentric child in a bountiful toy shop.

So, yes, these are bizarre and difficult times for many, and it is very important for us to try and keep our heads on straight. Social workers – or at least social work organisations – seem to like to think of themselves in ways that romanticize the past and present function of the profession. The fairness and care we aspire to is often quite different from the practice environments that we operate within.

The profession flourished in the welfare state era, although the outcomes of our interventions were not always in the interests of the under-class poor that we targeted. New Zealand’s white working man’s welfare state had its own wider deficiencies of course, but (importantly) the political consensus was about the state buffering the poverty which capitalist markets produce. This vision has come undone more than a little over the last thirty years.

The dominant ideology of equality for all delegated social work the job of picking up those pushed aside by an economic system which was based on economic self-interest. Now, of course, self-interest is the dominant (if disguised and confused) ideology and social work is increasingly about cost-effective discipline of the disadvantaged. This is something that we can, do, and must continue to challenge as and when we can.

Social work (and progressive collective re-distributive politics in general) does have trouble finding a place to stand in the current storm. Where does this leave us as we slog on into the wind? “Being kind” is soothing and simplistic Jacinda, but it isn’t enough. The thing is – I think – not to despair, not to be too naïve and to hang on to our role as people who question the narrative/s we are fed – including the stories we tell ourselves.

There are some definitive social realities in liberal capitalist societies which social workers get a clear view of – we see how unequal relations of power and privilege are played out in people’s lives. This is about the distribution of wealth and the result of how ownership and control over production and profit is arranged in our economic system. In Aotearoa – New Zealand it is also about the living legacy of colonization. Individual and family troubles are embedded in wider economic and structural issues.

Good social work is valuable, skilled and difficult. It has always needed more than a bit of courage and grunt. We walk the bridge between private troubles and economically generated suffering, and we need to hang onto our sense of individual and collective balance as the gale of global inequality rises. We need to challenge each other and look after each other. Social justice and redemption songs are as old as the hills, but they still need to be belted out. There is plenty work to do and plenty of illusions to dispel. Don’t let the bastards tell you there are no truths.

Image credit: Andrew Wallace

2 replies on “Tough times”

Thanks Ian for the post, I’ve sat with it for a wee while as it brought up a number of emotions I needed to quell before putting pen to paper.

2020 has definitely been a year to remember thus far and I think one that may just stand out for generations to come.

While ‘all of that’ has been happening this year, from a local social work perspective what I have found is a great number of practitioners that have not despaired and have strongly questioned the narrative we are being fed and like every good practitioner has questioned their own approach and their own practice to make sure that it is advancing the well-being of their clients and society. I have found practitioners that have stared down unjust decisions and have collectively and individually worked hard to do what is right and just.

While I totally agree that social work needs a bit more ‘than a bit of courage and grunt’ and that the skills we have, individually and collectively are invaluable, sometimes courage and grunt is all we have left when we are totally spent dealing with what we are faced with now in our everyday lives and just trying to get through to the truth.

While 2020 will be remembered for the pandemic, working from home, face-masks and an ever increasing gap in wealth disparity I also want it to be remembered for the courage, steadfastness and collective will of Aotearoa New Zealand social workers that have not let the bastards tell them there are no truths and have searched for justice at every turn.

I believe that we have only seen the beginning of what Aotearoa New Zealand social workers are capable of and for the first time in a while I truly see a glimmer of hope.

Hasta la Victoria Siempre

Greetings Luis – thanks for your comment and for the reminder of Che’s words at the end… and the reminder that there are plenty of good people fighting the good fight. Also plenty of new grads with good hearts and heads for work with people are coming through the system – so there is much to be positive and supportive about.

It can be tough to keep the glass half full but it is a really important time (with so much on the brink) for social work/ social workers / all working people really. The dice has always been loaded against the working class with elaborate games of divide and rule. Important to remember – among all the complexities and struggles for people to live as they could – who’s side we are on.

In solidarity


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