What about the role being played by service users in the economic crisis?

ImageBill Jordan, the much respected social scientist, launched a spirited and thoughtful response here to Aditya Chakrabortty’s criticism in The Guardian of his academic peers for failing to address the crisis and cuts created by neo-liberal politics. But it, like the other responses from social scientists, seems to have cut little ice with Aditya who has since energetically defended his position. Perhaps, however, both of them are looking in the wrong direction. The sad truth is that social scientists have often been more effective in defending the status quo, than in challenging it.

The severity of the attacks on the most powerless people in our society  under the UK’s current government, including old and disabled people, poor families, disadvantaged young people and asylum seekers without citizen rights, are unmatched in modern memory. The crudity and viciousness of its welfare reform policies echo the poor law. These developments have only been matched by the flight of former allies of poor people who once fought their corner. The parliamentary Labour Party has taken a line on welfare reform little different from the Coalition. Big charities have seemed more interested in gaining government contracts from workfare schemes and outsourcing than speaking up for the constituencies they are supposed to serve. We should not be surprised if the response from social scientists, and indeed social policy academics and their professional organisations seems muted.

But what is much more interesting is the part that marginalized groups are themselves now beginning to play. While think tanks hog the media microphones and academics appear non-plussed under the cosh of the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework, disabled people, service users, their organisations and movements have stepped up to the plate to challenge the excesses of current capitalism. They have provided powerful first hand testimony of the excesses of current social policy and achieved U-turns at both an individual and policy level.

It was the Spartacus report on government welfare reform, put together by disabled people and their allies which first went viral and then stirred the House of Lords into action against welfare reform. It is the local user-led and disabled people’s organisations which have especially encouraged resistance and pioneered new forms of inclusive opposition, making use of social networking and social media. Service users have realized that we have to speak for ourselves because few others, it seems, will speak up on our behalf.

We can see the increasing impact of this action and engagement even in the lists of publishers like Policy Press, a not-for-profit publisher whose core mission is to make a positive difference to people’s lives, where the discourse is increasingly being influenced by service users, by calls for user involvement and by academic theory being recast and revitalized by the involvement of people with direct experience of the problems they talk about. The recent arrival of such ‘experiential knowledge’ into the policy arena, and the growing impact it has, represents a significant new force for change. That’s not to say there aren’t social scientists to be found among the growing band of service user activists. But perhaps we have been looking in the wrong places for them. They are more likely to be out there in the thick of it, rather than in academic associations and in the pages of unread peer review journals published by cutting edge capitalist companies.

Peter Beresford is co-author of Supporting people, published by The Policy Press, which demonstrates how change can be made now, and what strategic changes will be needed for person-centred support to have a sustainable future. It can be ordered here at 20% discount. Other books published for service users include Critical perspectives for user involvement by Marian Barnes & Phil Cotterell, which is also available at 20% discount.

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