Where now social work and the political left?

The beauty of (and the trouble with) ideas, particularly dissenting ideas, is that they call for action. I am not referring to the manipulative propaganda of the alternative right when I think of dissenting ideas. Notions of individual sovereign freedom that have no room for the common good or racist propaganda which blames migrants or other minority groups for the social and economic suffering aren’t a form of genuine dissent. Such ideas are merely fuel for reaction – anger or discontent that ultimately reinforces current relations of privilege and which undermines progressive politics as seen in the illusions / delusions of the Trump presidency in the U.S.

On the other hand, analysis which looks at the ways in which the dominant socioeconomic form (liberal capitalism) generates inequality and oppression has implications for real change to the social and economic relations of power. Looking at social work, for example, I have spent a fair bit of time thinking about the fact that the clients of services are mainly drawn from those living in relative poverty: from the marginal edges of the working class. This is particularly true in the post-1980s neoliberal era where residual welfare states target problem populations for rehabilitation. As in the nineteenth century this approach effectively transfers blame, hiding the structural causes of disadvantage.

In Aotearoa the clients of generic social services are disproportionately Māori. It is increasingly recognised that this is the outcome of a historical process of colonisation and dispossession. It is due to the intersection of racism and class politics over time. How then to find a remedy? In my opinion we need to understand this situation holistically if we are to develop effective and inclusive solutions. The development of iwi / hapū led social services is clearly important but if we are to honour te Tiriti we must recognise a level of autonomous authority (and funding) that goes beyond contracting and commissioning for outcomes set by the state.

The complex question of how best to deliver autonomous services and social development initiatives within a blended nation state is something that can be resolved if we can sustain the collective political will. The related problem of how well-being (both freedom and equality) for Māori and tau iwi can be achieved within a capitalist nation state is another matter altogether. It is important not to replace the integrationist racist prescription that ‘we can all be Pākehā’ with the economic and political prescription that ‘we can all be capitalists’.

Accordingly, if we are to fundamentally change the orientation of social work in Aotearoa from a quasi charitable support system for the failing poor to a profession which is genuinely committed to human rights and material social justice, it is necessary to address both the constitutional recognition of unceded Māori authority and the exploitation which is locked into the capitalist model of development – i.e private control of productive resources and  the extraction of unearned profit from labour.

Granted this is easier said than done! However progress is possible if we work together and continuosly ask how our ideas/ ideals can be moved forward. The populist discontent which the alternative right twists to its own political ends could also fuel coherent left wing political agitation and advocacy for redistribition of the social pie – and for the pendulum of power in the workplace to be shifted back to the collectively organised hands of working people.

As argued in this commentary on the alignment of the anti-vax movement with broader right wing populism in the Canadian context, the political left need to reconstruct and redirect this narrative of discontent:

It’s up to us to build strong, messy, and imperfect multiracial, working-class-centred movements for social and economic justice. And it’s up to us to write new stories and craft new visions of the world we deserve. Only a Left populist movement can defeat the rise of the far-right, and only we can build it.

Jackson, 2022 (*see above link)

Rather than simply condemning and demonising those who are conned by populist politics, the political left needs to rearticulate socialist alternatives that counter the deceptive messaging of the alternative right. As far as social services are concerned, is it possible to develop services that empower ‘for Māori by Māori’ design, planning and delivery and which also confront the lived inequality and systemic deprivation of the whānau / families / aiga who are positioned as clients?

This, I think, is the next question for progressive social work education, policy and practice development:  how might anti-racist and anti-poverty centered theory and practice be employed as an antidote to narrow populist politics of individual ‘freedom’: a fraudulent politics that preys on the ruptured solidarity of working people and replaces it with a blurry shared vision of illusory individuated freedom – a form of exploitative freedom that merely serves the interests of the powerful.

Image credit: italolemus

2 replies on “Where now social work and the political left?”

Interesting, particularly the challenge posed to our profession, and the political left generally, by alt-right populist movements. From an article I’m in the middle of drafting: Ferguson, Ioakimidis & Lavalette (2018) observe that ideas that people hold are shaped by their material circumstances, notably economic disadvantage, and ideas promoted by the ruling class, including blaming discontent on scapegoats such as minority ethnic groups. In particular these movements have blamed migrants for social and economic problems experienced by working class communities. It is concerning that these ideas have taken hold among people that social work seeks to serve. Perhaps the prevalence of a politically neutral, individual casework oriented social work has to some extent enabled this to happen. Surely any hope of reversing this trend demands the assertion of a politically conscious, radical or critical practice of social work, including a practice of conscientisation, in these communities

Yes Peter – I think the Canadian article linked to here makes a lot of points relevant to our context – including the fact that the intellectual left risks being condescending towards what we see as confused and poorly informed resistance when we are better advised to think about how social discontent is really generated and how it might be mobilized to more progressive ends. This can involve getting a bit more down and dirty of course …

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