Social workers, if we know anything, understand how systems – causes and consequences – are connected. At times of increased economic and social pressure it is those with the least who suffer the most in our system. Anecdotally I hear of rising demand for refuge from intimate partner violence and of increasingly strained resources. The shortage and unaffordability of decent housing continues to be a major problem in Auckland. The demand for emergency housing has been further stressed by the needs of families displaced by the floods and land-slips experienced over the bizarre Summer. Practitioners tell me about problems that they have little capacity to address. This is the rub, is it not?
We don’t hear much talk of socialism anymore. Part of this is related to the gross human rights abuses associated with the state socialist regimes of the twentieth century. However, this does not mean that the Marxist critique of capitalism and the function of the capitalist state is without merit. The underlying structural drivers of social problems in countries like ours – why it is that many people don’t have enough money to access decent housing, health, nutrition – are embedded within the economic and social relations of liberal capitalism. These systemic inequalities are a function of class relations – the outcome of a legally protected (sticks and carrots) divison between those who enjoy the right to own and profit from productive resources and those who have nothing but their labour power to exchange (Kelsey, 2022). This social arrangement is intersected by historic and contemporary inequities relating to race, colonisation and gender. None of this is a state secret – look around you, what do you see?
Social work organisations – here and globally – like to talk about commitments to social justice but the reality of social workers’ workloads and job descriptions is a much different matter. State servant social workers in child protection and youth justice are required to stay on the allotted playing field. They are not even permitted to speak publicly about the radical inequalities that structure the lives of those whose ‘family problems’ they engage with. It is not that much different in the established NGO sector: high workloads, high whānau need and tight case-work expectations. Ours is not to reason why, ours is to keep our heads down and graft. Serious social problems are the realm of politicians, strategic managers, technocrats and accountants, or of academic researchers gazing earnestly at the grand challenges of our age without questioning the fundamental rules of the capitalist game.
This is where the current abolitionist argument gets its logical power from (Murray, Copeland & Detlaff, 2023). Social work is too close to the state – the punitive racist carceral state in the U.S context. It punishes and cajoles the systemically disadvantaged, it re-inscribes classed, raced and gendered power relations: it smooths the troubled waters of structural oppression (Roberts, 2023). As Elizabeth Stanley graphically illustrates, we have our own extensive recent history of state brutalisation through a Care to Prison pipeline.
Those of us in social work who believe that we can (indeed ‘must’ from a global environmental perspective) come to live in better ways (Bozalek & Pease, 2021) face a range of challenges – and some critical questions. Is a new or different ‘for the people by the people’ social work possible? In Aotearoa does the continual demand for real autonomy and authority to hapū and iwi Māori mean that social services genuinely ‘outside’ of the liberal state apparatus can be formed? Can alternative community alliances of interest be forged and can progressive collective visions be built? Can new answers to overwhelming global crises be constructed in the context of local activism?
I think we need to be real about the limited capacity of social work as we know, and have known it, to generate social change but I also think we need to understand that history has not finished – that, in the beautiful and compelling lyrics of the Nina Simone song, a new dawn / a new day / a new life is possible. As ever, all comments and thoughts (at least relatively civil ones) are welcome!
Image Credit: GGupreet
Bozalek, V. and Pease. B (eds) (2021) Post-Anthropocentric Social Work – Critical Post-Human and New Materialist Perspectives. Routledge.
Murray, B. J., Copeland, V., & Dettlaff, A. J. (2023). Reflections on the Ethical Possibilities and Limitations of Abolitionist Praxis in Social Work. Affilia (0), 0. https://doi.org/10.1177/08861099221146151
Roberts, D. (2023). Why abolition. Family Court Review, 61(2), 229– 241. https://doi.org/10.1111/fcre.12712