In this final RSW post for 2021 Neil Ballantyne and Ian Hyslop reflect on the conflicted and generative relationship between social injustice and social work. It has been a difficult year for many. Our old certainties have been challenged as the pandemic has spread suffering globally, particularly, as always, for the poor and dispossessed. The title of this post – “Ka whawhai tonu mātou” (struggle without end) is taken from the title of Ranginui Walker’s classic text. It was the cry that met British soldiers as they invaded Ōrākau Pā in Kihikihi, in 1864: “We will fight on forever”.
This whakatauki is employed here to stress that the battle to level the playing field, to name unequal suffering and to challenge and reform the structures that maintain it, is not a struggle with a magical end point: we must be steadfast, make alliances, be realistic about what the profession of social work is capable of, and above all remember that humans are not passive animals. We are dreamers and creators, and as the old Irish would have it, we live in the shelter of one another.
One of the recurrent themes in this little blog of ours is the idea of social justice, the need for social workers to be involved in bringing it about and the difficulties in so doing. The need for social workers to do social justice is written into the oft-quoted IFSW definition of social work where we are told that “Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work” (IFSW, 2014). In Aotearoa, graduate social workers are required to demonstrate “competence to promote the principles of human rights and social and economic justice” (SWRB, 2021) . And yet, when our social work graduates enter practice, their experience is not dissimilar to the experience of Lauren Bartley, expressed in her 2018 blog post titled “Where has my radicalism gone?”:
Now, after eleven weeks of calling myself a practising social worker, I am beginning to understand the barriers of high case-loads, limited time, and having no contractual mandate or objectives towards social justice goals. I have been surprised and disheartened by how easily I seem to have lost sight of my own values of social justice. I have become overwhelmed by the day-to-day firefighting of individual-based work, and I have had no time or extra energy to consider the structural and political factors at play in people’s lives.Bartley (2018, April)
This practice reality is also reflected in the research literature, see, for example, Mike O’Brien’s (2011) study of over 700 social workers in Aotearoa where he found that social workers did refer to and reflect on social justice issues, but that their daily practice was primarily focused on individual advocacy for the rights of service users:
…the evidence from this research suggests that social justice is still very much alive and well in the thinking of social workers about the nature of their practice, but it is a social justice which is focused strongly on their daily work rather than on impacting on and affecting economic, social and cultural structures which create and sustain injustice. The data certainly demonstrate an awareness of the significance of those structures, but limited action and engagement with challenging and changing them.O’Brien (2011, p. 185)
I want to argue here that this is unsurprising, that achieving social justice requires mobilising forces far beyond the reach of social work agencies, but that social workers–as trade unionists, citizen activists and members and/or allies of oppressed groups–can and should be part of this broader movement for social change.
The idea of social justice, what it is and what it might take to achieve it, has been debated by political philosophers for many years with some pivotal contributions from socialist feminist writers such as Nancy Fraser, Iris Marion Young and Judith Butler. In the 1990s one of the key issues for socialist feminists in the US concerned the rise of social movements campaigning on issues of culture and identity (including the women’s movement, movements for black liberation and gay and lesbian rights) and the extent to which these movements campaigning for social and cultural recognition had displaced a concern with economic redistribution. Were the politics of recognition driving out the politics of redistribution? For Fraser, Young and Butler the question was not about which of these two kinds of social injustice should be primary, but how they ought to be blended and whether they might sometimes pull in opposite directions.
In an article, now regarded as a classic of socialist feminist theory, Fraser (1995) offered an analysis that distinguished these two primary aspects of social justice–recognition and redistribution–and argued for two kinds of remedies for injustice: affirmative remedies and transformational remedies. Affirmative remedies were reformist in nature and “aimed at correcting inequitable outcomes of social arrangements without disturbing the underlying framework that generates them” (p. 82), whereas transformational remedies “aimed at correcting inequitable outcomes precisely by restructuring the underlying generative framework” (p. 82). Fraser (1995) used a table with four cells to map out and describe affirmative and transformational approaches to injustice arising from misrecognition or maldistribution. One of her most interesting observations concerned the paradoxical effects of certain kinds of intervention. For example, she argued that affirmative or reformist approaches to redistribution are typical of the liberal welfare state with its various services in cash or in kind for people who are economically disadvantaged:
Although this approach aims to redress economic injustice, it leaves intact the deep structures that generate class disadvantage. Thus it must make surface reallocations time and again. The result is to mark the most disadvantaged class as inherently deficient and insatiable, as always needing more and more. In time such a class can even come to appear privileged, the recipient of special treatment and undeserved largesse. An approach aimed at redressing injustices of distribution can thus end up creating injustices of recognition.Fraser (1995, p. 85)
It seems to me that this account resonates strongly with the state of welfare in Aotearoa and other countries with some form of liberal welfare state. Social work and other social services present no challenge to a political economy founded on a capitalist order that generates inequality and which is riven with public and private institutions perpetuating colonial, patriarchal and heteronormative attitudes and practices. With no fundamental challenge to the structures of oppression social service systems for child protection, health and education lurch from one crisis to the next. Repeated system failures result in reform after reform, reorganisation after reorganisation none of which touches the systems of oppression that generate social, cultural and economic harms and injustices.
When it come to transformative approaches to redistribution Fraser characterised these as typical of democratic socialist programmes aiming to “reduce social inequality without, however, creating stigmatized classes of vulnerable people perceived as beneficiaries of special largesse” (p. 85) such programmes would “promote reciprocity and solidarity in the relations of recognition. Thus an approach aimed at redressing injustices of distribution can help redress (some) injustices of recognition as well” (p. 86). And that, dear comrades, is why social workers are unlikely to find themselves with job descriptions that encourage programmes of transformative justice: this is a much broader political project that is about dismantling oppressive structures at source, and restructuring the entire social and economic order.
Ironically, the word transformation has become a key term for contemporary managerialism (as has culture change) but the practices associated with that word in neoliberal, managerial discourses are, at best, affirmative and reformist. That is, they are not about dismantling the generative structures of oppression, they are about moving the deck chairs on the Titanic. See, for example, Ian Hyslop’s reference to the latest round of reforms of Oranga Tamariki: what is needed is transformative change with regard to the politics of recognition and distribution, a “genuine transfer of power and resources to a ‘by Māori for Māori’ approach”. However, it is highly likely that what will be offered will be reformist affirmations of culture that stop well short of the needed transformative changes in recognition and redistribution required to give Māori effective tino rangatiratanga.
Let me be clear, I’m not arguing against the need for social work services any more than I’m arguing against the need for any public services. The welfare state we have–however residual, inadequate and contradictory–was not given to us on plate by the wealthy; it was won by the labour movement and we need to fight to maintain what we have and resist those who would dismantle it. Nor am I arguing that radical practice isn’t possible, or that social justice as a motivating end should be abandoned, far from it. But I am arguing, in agreement with Fraser (1995), that the real social justice can only be achieved by transformational change and that cannot be brought about by social workers acting within social work agencies alone, but only through our contribution to collective struggles as trade unionists, citizen activists and members and/or allies of oppressed groups.
Over the last few years our little blog has tried to play its small part in raising awareness of social justice in the public sphere and we’ve always welcomed practitioner voices sharing their experience of practice “in and against the state”. If you have some spare time over what remains of the festive period, I urge you to read or reread the writings of Lauren Bartley. Over three blog posts, Lauren takes us on her own personal journey of what it means to be a social worker committed to social justice: from her initial despair at the stultifying constraints of practice, to her own lived experience of patriarchal oppression in the workplace, to her most recent role where she’s managed to carve out a space to do social justice practice in alliance with organisations of the oppressed. Lauren’s account of her lived experience exemplifies beautifully the contradictions and challenges of doing social justice work in contemporary Aotearoa. I look forward to reading her next contribution in 2022!
Bartley, L. (2018, April). Where has my radicalism gone?
Bartley, L. (2019, January). Where has my radicalism gone? (revisited)
Bartley, L. (2021, September). Where has my radicalism gone? Revisited (again)
 This article triggered a detailed debate between Fraser, Young and Butler (and others), about the nature of and relationship between claims for recognition and redistribution. While the usefulness of Fraser’s approach to analysing the differences in these types of injustice was contested, her distinction between affirmative and transformative remedies was far less controversial. The key articles in the debate between Fraser, Young and Butler can be found here.
Another year has passed – and what a hell of a year it has been. The pandemic continues to dominate social life globally and in Aotearoa we have now had a taste of the associated suffering and disruption. The outlook is uncertain. Some see the increased reach of the state in times of emergency as a risk for greater surveillance and control into the future while others see the Covid-19 epidemic as an opportunity to reassess the cult of individual responsibility in an unequal world – to rethink how we live, produce, and consume for the sake of the planet and our collective sanity. All of this is in play: as ever the world is in flux and all bets are off.
The small and loosely connected group of social work educators who started writing posts for the RSW blog back in 2015 are constantly surprised that the site has had such a long life. It provides a place for dissent. The social work profession offers support to people in need, in what can be a very unforgiving society. There is a lot of pain in this life and in our collective histories but there is also strength and resilience of spirit. We need to understand the limitations of our profession and push the boundaries when we can. At times, along with others, social workers can be advocates for progressive social change. However, social work is ultimately constrained by its political context – the over-arching economic order of liberal capitalism.
The current centre-left government, for example, still holds to the notion that social well-being can be achieved through greater economic productivity and that work, even if poorly paid, is the only way to individual and family prosperity. We hear very little of the old left truth that capitalism relies on exploitation and leads inevitably to gross inequality. Political ideology and reality (the objective facts of life) are routinely confused in the interests of maintaining the status quo. We can all aspire to be equal provided we don’t touch the structures of capitalism: problem being that social justice can’t really be achieved without dismantling the structures of capitalism and disempowering the privileged class of people that this system benefits.
It is certainly true that cracks in the system appear at times of social stress. The spate of violence and shootings in Auckland over the last six months are testament to this. I haven’t heard police sirens and helicopters as regularly since the economic hard times of the 1990s.
Progressive social change does happen, and it should be championed. However radical interests are often absorbed and co-opted within the framework of liberal capitalism. Take the reform of OT as an example. Many people advocated for revolution – for the authority promised to Māori by te Tiriti. So far we have recieved grand gestures, promises and compromises: no surprises. And, of course, this story isn’t finished. Why would it be?
We all have our gifts and burdens and more is always achieved collectively than it is individually. Recharge your batteries and breathe in the warm air of summer (wear a mask where appropriate!) and brace yourselves for another run into the wind!!! And remember to have a bit of fun in the quest for fundamental social change. It carries us through the hard times and the destination is laughter, care and solidarity – not fear, dread and loneliness. Happy New Year to each and all!