Some critical imaginings on a wet afternoon in late November, Tamaki Makaurau, Aotearoa New Zealand. Can social work escape the care – control (help – surveillance) bind? Social work services are provided to a particular section of the population – those at the bottom of the social and economic heap. Social work ‘assists’ those at the margins to cope/survive. However, the ‘position’ of those who are constructed as ‘clients’ is structurally generated – a function of capitalist social and economic relations. Capitalism is unjust by definition in terms of process and outcomes. It requires an exploitative relationship between owners and workers. It is a system that produces and reproduces inequality. What the experience of social work practice does do – for those with eyes to see – is expose the human consequences of structural injustice. However …
… the tricky bit comes when social work claims to be a profession that is concerned with the elimination of injustice. Social workers deliver or administer practices of care but they also manage the consequences of a system that generates social suffering. The profession exists within a set of unequal power relations. Despite the lip-service paid by aspirational professional codes, social workers are not funded, mandated or employed to address the root causes of poverty and disadvantage: not ‘really’. The liberal state is not about to fund a workforce dedicated to the radical transformation of the capitalist system of production, distribution and exchange, now is it? (or a process of radical decolonisation for that matter?).
So the question for me, becomes, “Is that it”? – Do these constraints govern the conditions of possibilty for social work development? The easy answer is “yes, but social work still provides a useful function for people in need”, so soldier on we must. I think this is valid – at least potentially – although critique of the classed, raced and gendered historical abuse and oppression that social work has been part and parcel of has sparked recent calls for its abolition (Maylea, 2021; Roberts, 2022).
There are real existential problems for social work in all of this. The argument that social work has been hijacked, reduced and commodified under thirty or forty years of neoliberal hyper-capitalism is all very well until we examine the damage inflicted in the name of care during the Welfare State era. Our ‘profession’ does not have a pretty history and the “well, oh dear, how sad, never mind / that was then, this is now” response isn’t good enough in my opinion.
This takes us to another question, and to the possibility of other answers. If we had a social work outside of these systemic constraints, what might social workers do? What could / would a social work developed outside of the coordinates set by liberal capitalism look like? Many social theorists suggest, of course, that there is no ‘outside’. I think this is wrong, because, if it isn’t, ‘project humanity’ is in serious trouble.
The global reach of corporate capitalism is at a stutter point. There is no juice left in the after-burners. The mantra that capitalist social relations are natural and impossible to change is seriously undermined by clear and present environmental and geopolitical realities. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the imperative of growth, commodification and production of (often meaningless) consumer goods for a commercial market – which leads to ever-greater growth and/or unequal private accumulation – cannot be sustained. We have done this for 200 years now and we probably can’t do it for another 50: a finite planet won’t allow us to.
If capitalism as we know it has an inevitable end-game, so does social work under capitalism. If we accept this as a valid argument, I think we can then begin to imagine what function social work / social care might play in a real new world order. I don’t think it is just a question of chickens and eggs – that we must await radical revolutionary eruption and/or environmental collapse before we imagine and begin to enact social change. Analysis is important but it must not disable us. I don’t think the sort of political thinking and acting that is needed can happen inside social work as it currently exists but we can all be part – in big and small ways – of shifting the goal posts: organising, educating and agitating for a different future for ngā mokopuna. Or should we all roll over, as Maylea suggests, and slide into the sea like a forgotten profession? Just saying / asking …
Image credit: aslam karachiwala
Maylea, C. (2021). The end of social work. The British Journal of Social Work, 51 (2), 722-789. Https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcaa203
Roberts, D. (2022). Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families – and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. Basic Books: USA.