We live in critical times. The unequal distribution of wealth and privilege (and the resulting unequal distribution of social suffering) continues to impact upon the stability of the world order. Arguably there is, at least, an increasing awareness of the social, economic, and environmental challenges which we are faced with collectively: as a planetary species. However, understandings of causes and solutions are, as always, contested. It is useful, I think, to attempt to unpack some of this complexity. Bear with me – I will return to what this unpacking may mean for progressive social work.
The attraction of the deceptive certainties which are pedaled by the political right tend to be magnified at times of insecurity. There is recent evidence of this, locally and globally, in the appeal of nationalist political movements which, in various ways, champion the interests of private profit and conservative moral values, in the guise of simplistic appeals to ‘freedom’. There is a circularity (and a degree of paradox) in all of this. Social and economic uncertainty breed very real fears for the future, particularly for sections of the population that are positioned on the margins of liberal capitalist society – or are at risk of being drawn into this precarious position, because, of course, capitalism always creates winners and losers.
This is a partial explanation for the bizarre rise of the white working-class Trump constituency in the US. The nature of this sort of thinking is familiar – concern about immigrant ‘others’ taking jobs, the apparent decline of a relatively predictable way of life that became habitual for working people across the privileged ‘Western’ world in the post-war decades. This is where paradox reigns. In this way conservative political policies aligned with business growth and ‘flexible’ conditions are conflated with the interests of workers: people end up swallowing ideology and acting (and voting) in ways that do not serve their interests. The fact that the fear and loathing stirred up is largely irrational – that the prejudices unleashed (and the misinformation generated) don’t stand up to informed analysis – doesn’t matter to those who manipulate these perceptions.
As we have seen, a grain of truth mixed with a web of deception can have powerful political consequences. For the populist right, big government, liberal elites and notions of the deep state are associated with the genesis of social and economic ills: Trump’s evil swamp. The bizarre attempts to ‘take’ Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. during the last chaotic weeks of the Trump presidency were in many ways the logical conclusion of this political cocktail. There is no rational political sense to this phenomenon – no credible revolutionary programme beyond the unleashing of anger at the perceived threat posed by the institutions of the liberal state – but humans are not particularly rational creatures. Nazi Germany happened – the fact that the political basis of it was deluded and genocidal didn’t matter.
We have also seen similar ‘real’ attacks on the institutions of liberal democracy in Germany and most recently, in Brazil. The closest we have come to this sort of boil-over of political angst in Aotearoa New Zealand was during the anti-vax protect occupation of Parliament grounds in February/March 2022. This action was influenced by a range of conspiratorial ideas, involving generalised and varied perceptions that the reach of the liberal state is harmful to ‘freedom’. This sort of populist insurrection is not likely to derail the rule of law in our context, but it does evidence a shifting of ground to the political right.
This is an election year and there may well be something of a groundswell of support for the centre right. This could mean fruitless boot-camps for young offenders and a re-invigorated social investment agenda aimed at the intensive monitoring and reintegration of the problem poor. This kind of social policy focus tends to position social work as a mechanism of social control. Mainstream social work is very much at the mercy of the political state, regardless of its aspirations to be a profession concerned with social justice. This creates a major challenge for those of us who would like to see a more progressive social work aligned with the interests of those who are oppressed and exploited.
All of this is further complicated by the history, and tangled politics, of the mainstream left. Over the last forty years the role and place of social work has been altered as the aspirations of the state have changed. A neoliberal re-stoking of the engine of capitalism has meant that the ‘traditional’ practices and identities of the working class in the global north have been forced to adapt to a new order of production and exchange.
Not only have the policies of the party-political left shifted to the centre, the flaws of the post war Welfare State vison have also come into increasingly sharp focus. The ideal of the universal provision of social rights was often translated into racist and exclusionary practices. Social work is not an innocent or exceptional profession. As the record shows in a myriad of inquiries, especially across the colonised anglophone world, state social work has been deeply involved in destructive racist practices of care and social discrimination.
Inequality is structured as a function of the social relations of capitalism, but it is also intersected by markers of race – culture and ethnicity. This is, as much as anything, a result of the legacy of the colonial mind-set, with all the underlying structures of white supremacy and colonial imperialism. In other words, the ‘progressive’ role of social work in the welfare state era has been exposed as largely repressive for those on the receiving end (see the arguments developed by Dorothy Roberts in the specific context of child welfare the US).
This sobering reality creates something of a double bind. In the face of a conservative backlash against a politics of redistribution, it is difficult to argue for reclaiming the social democratic ideals of the welfare state era, when this supposedly egalitarian agenda has been exposed as assimilative and prejudicial. This, then, is the challenge for progressive politics and for visions of a progressive social work, and I would argue that you can’t really have one without the other. I think a new left is still possible. In fact, I think it is imperative. However, this is not something that mainstream electoral politics is about to provide us with.
As an old white academic man, I am increasingly conscious of my own privilege – both the structures that legitimate this position and the limitations of permitted dissent. Like many on the academic left I ‘talk’ about the need to learn from accounts of history compiled by those individually and collectively harmed by the state, and to support ground-up resistance where possible. I also believe that it is important to carry on, to be informed rather than jaded by the analysis which we develop: to hold to a vision of a world that is not materially divided and based on exploitative practices – this much we owe to our mokopuna. Time is ticking.
Image credit: Wally Gobetz