Posts Tagged 'neo-liberalism'

A democratic answer to neoliberalism and authoritarianism

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Bryn Jones

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Mike O’Donnell

Bryn Jones and Mike O’Donnell, editors of Alternatives to neoliberalism,  examine the problems of authoritarian nationalism and explain that the best hope for greater equality and quality of life lies with people themselves, and in more, not less democracy. The paperback of Alternatives to neoliberalism is out now.

When the hardback edition of our co-edited book was published in early 2017, it was the long, harsh aftermath of the 2007-8 financial crisis and subsequent recession – encapsulated in the term ‘austerity’ – that we challenged and sought answers to.

Along with a growing number of progressive critics and politicians, we named the extreme free-market ideology of neoliberalism as the underlying cause of the economic and social disruption that still persists. Alternatives to neoliberalism offers a range of democratic and egalitarian alternatives from progressive academics and policy practitioners. Their answers apply now even more urgently and provide a concrete vision of a participative society in which power is exercised by citizens, routinely in the communities and institutions in which they engage, and through robust systems of accountability at regional and national levels.

In the last year the need to defend and extend democracy and social justice has become even more acute. The neoliberal theorist, Fredrick Hayek, was a proponent of ‘the free-market’ but tended towards political and social authoritarianism so that business could be executed with the minimum of inconvenience. One man’s freedom…

“Liberal capitalist regimes, especially neoliberal ones, tend to respond to economic crisis and the social protest it provokes, with a shift to authoritarianism.”

However, the current resurgence of authoritarianism in many parts of the world, notably in the United States, Eastern Europe and Russia, and the Philippines, is not significantly the product of theoretical thinking – rather the opposite.  Liberal capitalist regimes, especially neoliberal ones, tend to respond to economic crisis and the social protest it provokes, with a shift to authoritarianism. Thus, they impose austerity on the majority in order to pay off debts caused mainly by financial speculation. The cry ‘we are all in this together’ rings out and populist nationalism is offered as the antidote to ‘the peoples’ complaints.

In reality, political turbulence following economic chaos serves to obscure the real causes of crisis and misleads popular opinion. ‘Taking back control’ in terms of sustained democratic participation is a fair description of what is least likely to happen. Alternatives to neoliberalism seeks to make these processes transparent and to offer solutions.

“…populist leaders and supportive media frame ‘the solution’ in terms of a supposed long-suffering national majority and ‘others’.”

Authoritarian nationalism typically couches the promise of restoring economic prosperity in terms of cultural inclusion and exclusion. These two aspects are rhetorically conflated as populist leaders and supportive media frame ‘the solution’ in terms of a supposed long-suffering national majority and ‘others’, frequently recent migrants or more established but easily differentiated and scapegoated groups. This was the scenario in inter-war Germany and is currently being played out in numerous parts of the world, if for now in somewhat less brutal terms. Why ‘we’ behave in this way is not best explained in terms of the psychopathology of the few – although that has some traction – than in the exploitation of insecurity and want.

It need not be so. The message of our book is fundamentally optimistic. Sceptical of the sustained intentions of remote elites to deliver on electoral promises, we believe that the best hope for greater equality and quality of life lies with people themselves, in more, not less democracy.  However, we mean this not in terms of current populist bombast but in the extension of citizens’ engagement and rights.

Thomas Marshall’s classic book on citizenship published in 1950 chronicles the development of a trilogy citizen’s rights in Britain; civil (legal), political and social. We advocate a fourth phase in the accretion of citizen’s rights: the development and implementation of democratic participation and accountability from the bottom to the top of society. Already many community and voluntary organisations as well as more formal organisations such as trade unions and small businesses contribute to sustain their localities.

Anna Coote, a contributor to the book, argues for a ‘new social settlement’ that would channel capital and resources ‘upstream’ drawing on civic organisation and vitality, leaving to residents more control of expenditure and development be it, for instance, in social care, additional educational and leisure facilities, community enterprise, and the maintenance and protection of the environment.  A complementary policy presented in the book would require supermarkets to negotiate and contract for the provision of certain services such as sourcing a minimum quota of local produce and/or meeting enhanced environmental standards.

“Such redistribution of power as we are currently seeing is into the hands of populist politicians.”

Building a more participative society will take organisation. Like any major change it has a political as well as a socio-economic dimension. It requires a redistribution of power. An increase in democratic participation in locally based institutions of, for instance, big business, education and in budget allocation will cumulatively have major regional and national implications. If sustained it will create a participative democratic society. Such redistribution of power as we are currently seeing is into the hands of populist politicians.

After the virulently totalitarian inter-war bout of authoritarianism and the war required to defeat it, there was a widespread desire for social reform. That reform, Marshall’s third phase of citizens’ rights, has been pushed back and as a priority must be defended and re-established. But beyond necessity awaits the tantalising possibility of a society of meaningful participation and opportunity.

Jones_Alternatives to neoliberalism [FC]Alternatives to neoliberalism edited by Bryn Jones and Mike O’Donnell is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £20.79.

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The rise and fall of social work?

During the late 1960s and into the 1970s social work was the rising star of the of the human service delivery professions. This was an optimistic era when the state, through the government of the day, was seen as being able to ensure the basic needs of all its citizens – health, education, social security, housing and so on – were met. Social workers were part of this welfarist project with any social problems remaining being ‘solved’ or ameliorated by them. Working with individuals, families, groups and communities, and ensuring that the work of various agencies met their client’s needs, they were seen as the key players. These were certainly heady days for social work by today’s standards but, sadly, it was not to last.

Margaret Thatcher’s general election success in 1979 saw the end of the social democratic consensus of the post war years which had entailed the acceptance of the welfare state and the role of government in economic planning and regulation. Monetarism, the forerunner of today’s neo-liberalism was to be the replacement, a return to the free market ideology that had been discarded since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The sea change in the ideological climate occurred because during the 1970s neither the Conservative or Labour governments seemed able to solve the economic problems facing Britain. And as far is social work was concerned, it has since been under attack from both politicians and the media often following child abuse tragedies. One has only to recall Maria Colwell in the 1970s through to Victoria Climbie and Baby Peter of the 2000s.

Although many public service professionals have been assailed over recent decades, social work has surely become the most denigrated. The New Right of the 1970s and 1980s were never happy with a profession which was essentially on the side of the poor and disadvantaged, one which focused on social justice and social change. In any case they saw professions, or aspiring ones like social work, as self-serving groupings which were obstacles to privatisation and marketisation. This necessitated social work, as well as public expenditure, being controlled by the introduction of private sector management systems. Initially, this related to care management being introduced with work with older adults in the 1990s and, under New Labour especially, it spread to other client/user areas notably children and families.

New Labour turned out to be the heirs of the neo-liberal consensus with its belief in free markets (unless it came to bailing out the banks and the capitalist system as a whole) and light touch regulation (unless it came to social work). As Bill Jordan has pointed out, social work fared worse under New Labour than it did under the Conservatives. No longer a political party aimed at social change on more just and equal lines, New Labour did not see social work as a critical ally aimed at achieving precisely this.

Instead, various inspection and regulation regimes were introduced to keep social work in check, as well as continuing with strategies aimed at ‘empowering’ managers to set and control the work that social workers do and how. This has been carried out by introducing various bureaucratic, and increasingly electronic, performance indicator hurdles. In so doing, the needs of such as children and families, and in turn social work, are subordinated to the needs of managers and their organisations. Social work often becomes merely a matter of filling in forms/computer exemplars as quickly as possible so as to meet targets; it amounts to people-processing often regardless of the outcome. Rationing increasingly scarce resources is the overriding goal. Consequently, organisations like local authority adult and children’s services, have adapted to meet their imposed targets rather than the real needs of the adults and children and families they are supposed to be serving. One has only to recall the glowing Ofsted report that the London Borough of Haringey received prior to the Baby Peter tragedy. The inspection was no doubt concerned with the quantitative aspects – how many forms were filled and in what time scale – rather than the qualitative aspects of services for children and families.

Despite a general election in May 2010 leading to the ousting of New Labour, the foregoing developments surely look set to continue. Notwithstanding warm words about a social work college increasing the status of social work, and the need to reduce bureaucracy for practitioners, the situation is unlikely to change under a right-wing Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government aimed at ‘getting more for less’ and a ‘big society’. Such a society expects individuals, families and communities to rely on themselves as the state cuts public expenditure and withdraws.

Overall, when looking at social work’s development over the last 150 years one can pinpoint the present neo-liberal consensus as being at the root of the profession’s current crisis. Over the last 30 years the introduction of a private sector business ethos has resulted in deprofessionalisation or, put differently, the deformation of a profession. Put simply, currently being ‘professional’ simply amounts to meeting someone else’s (i.e. managers’) targets.

The current domination of managerialism means a progressive, critical practice based on social justice and social change is increasingly difficult, but nevertheless the limited opportunities remaining need be taken up. Although group and community orientated strategies are often no longer in social worker’s toolbox, in Professor Vicky White’s words ‘quiet challenges’ remain possible. This helps ensure that the limited discretion that does remain, in face to face encounters with children and families for example, is used empoweringly rather than as simply means of control. If this is not done the road is left clear for those wanting to preserve the status quo rather than make the world a better place.

Dr Steve Rogowski, author of Social Work: the rise and fall of a profession?


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