RESISTING THE HAPPINESS INDUSTRY: BEING JOYFUL TOGETHER

HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING: AGENDAS OF COMPLIANCE AND CONTROL?

Notes of the opening contribution I made to the In Defence of Youth Work national conference in Birmingham on, March 22, 2019

Who could be against feeling happy and being well? Where to start?

Well, let me confess I got up this morning feeling sorry for myself, courtesy of painful sinuses. I suppose you could say I was unhappy, not so good, a bit off colour. However on arrival at the Wigan station, I bucked up, my spirits lifted on meeting my daughter Megan. We don’t see one another enough. Once aboard the train we had a wide-ranging chat, diving in and out of the personal and the political, in and out of family and work, grappling in truth with sensitive issues, given my 99-year-old mum’s funeral had taken place only a fortnight before, where we had experienced grief and relief in equal measure. Yet also we were rejoicing in the news that Logan, Meg’s 15-year-old son had been selected for the England Rugby League squad. I’m really pleased we had the chance to talk. Does this mean we were happy? I didn’t think about it at the time. I ask myself quizzically, perhaps we were? By the time though we had reached Birmingham and on our way to today’s venue, I was anxious, worried as to whether my opening to the conference was going to do the business. These fears were set aside on entering the Settlement, meeting friends and comrades – feeling that collective ‘buzz’, created by coming together in common cause. Certainly a morning of shifting emotions.

Enough of my self-centred thoughts. What strikes me is that in all its ordinariness (you will have your own versions of my morning’s ups and downs) it reveals that Happiness is an elusive character to pin down, along with its partner Unhappiness, who is never far away. This contradictory relationship is mirrored in other couplings of mood, emotion, feeling and thought – hope and fear; optimism and pessimism; excitement and anxiety (‘butterflies in the stomach’); pleasure and pain.

And, as individuals, sometimes as a group, finding ourselves in different situations, we experience these contradictions in differing ways and degrees that defy comparison, even as they are perhaps similar. We cry tears of joy. We smile through gritted teeth. I’m minded of an observation of William Blake, the visionary artist:

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. As a man is, so he sees.”

Happiness and Unhappiness weave in and out of our daily lives. Sometimes they seem to vie for our attention in the very same moment. Perhaps it is poetry that comes closest to unravelling the complex relationship. How can you experience happiness without unhappiness, joy without sorrow? W.H. Auden in a New Year letter suggested that poetry was “the clear expression of mixed feelings”. In a more down-to-earth moment, he wrote: “In times of joy all of us wished we possessed a tail to wag.”

Or, if not poetry, exploring what happiness signifies is a philosophical journey of judgement and interpretation, demanding what Aristotle called ‘phronesis’, a concept which Jon Ord utilises brilliantly in his criticism of the instrumental emphasis today on imposing supposedly measurable, prescribed outcomes on our practice. Not content with pressing us to manufacture the emotionally resilient young person who will put up with whatever society throws at them, the National Youth Agency in its Youth Covenant now proposes we should be rendering him or her ‘happy and positive about the future’. We will return to this bizarre proposal later.

The Happiness agenda is deeply individualistic and a child of its time. For now let me propose that happiness is both visible and invisible, provisional and never guaranteed. It is not an instrument of measurement. It cannot be coached or taught. Yet how we understand Happiness and the broader notion of Well-being are vital questions. Given the restrictions of time, I am viewing Individual Well-being in the same frame as Happiness, although this is contentious. I will focus on Social Well-being as potentially a positive concept towards the end of my argument.

The briefest of historical turns

Way back in Ancient Athens, Aristotle famously viewed happiness as flowing from a flourishing and virtuous life. Perchance he lived in unusual times. Centuries later, Hegel, the great German philosopher, observed, “History is not the soil in which happiness grows. Periods of happiness are the blank pages of history.” Indeed the majority of humanity has led a tough existence, often miserable and grim, much less flourishing.

Classically across the ages religion has sought to offer hope, purpose and consolation. As a church-going child I remember (or is it a trick of my memory) being struck by the similarity between the ending of fairy stories, ‘happily ever after’ and the heavenly promise ‘happy in the hereafter’. Evidently, happiness was not to be found in either real-life or on earth.

The capitalist class in recent times paid scant attention to the happiness of those, who laboured under its yoke. As Max Weber stressed its main concern was with the physical health and discipline of the working class. However, the emergence of social psychology, especially in the USA, was closely tied to the world of business, management and profit. On the back of this relationship, Happiness rose up the agenda. As Will Davies notes, one of its pioneering works was Dill Scott’s 1903 ‘The Theory and Psychology of Advertising’ – an exercise in the conscious manipulation of our needs and desires, their sense of what happiness should be. This transatlantic example aside, given that history suggests a lack of interest by the powerful in the happiness of the powerless, at what point does it become an increasing contemporary concern for governments, corporations and the Davos elite?

From social democracy to neoliberalism

We’d never had it so good

To address this question is to visit the history of someone like myself, born in the aftermath of the 2nd World War, into a previous era of austerity. Except that through the 1950s to the 1970s what is often termed a social democratic consensus prevailed within which all parties supported government intervention and the creation of the Welfare State. I don’t know whether anyone from on high said we should be happy but Harold MacMillan, a Tory Prime Minister of the time did claim that, ‘we’d never had it so good’. I didn’t know any better. Despite rationing and an absence of luxuries, we lived in a comfortable, affordable council house. I went to the newly built primary school on the estate. As I grew older it seemed right and proper that my Higher Education was free and, given my parents’ low income, that I got the full grant, a princely £105 per year. After all, I would be repaying my debt to a caring society, to the common good, by becoming a committed teacher. As Liz Heron notes, quoted in Lynne Segal,

“Along with the orange juice and cod-liver oil, the free school milk, we seemed to absorb a sense of our own worth and a sense that the future gets better and better as if history was on our side”.

Ironically as I began both to teach and do some part-time youth work (a bit of money on the side) the consensus was unravelling as class struggle re-emerged. Symbolically Margaret Thatcher, the Education Minister in 1971, ‘Thatcher the Milk Snatcher’, got rid of free school milk for Juniors and above, signalling that life was going to change. Less than a decade later Thatcherism was the name given to an aggressive neoliberal capitalism, hostile to the State, contemptuous of the collective, armed with a quasi-religious belief in the market, caught in Thatcher’s infamous quote that “there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women and families”. As for the Higher Education system which had spawned dissidents like me, she sneered, “the problem with HE is that it is equipping people to criticise and question everything’” Happy she was not, and determined to take her revenge.

If we are to sum up neoliberalism, now dominant for four decades, in one word it would be privatisation. Not just in the obvious sense of putting public services into private hands, but crucially in terms of our discussion about Happiness and Well-Being, wanting to privatise the way in which we see ourselves and others, turn us in on ourselves. It has been a behavioural modification project on the grandest scale, the attempted and singularly successful attempt to make of us possessive, egocentric individuals, for whom happiness is the ceaseless consumption of commodities, shopping the elixir of existence.

The Happiness Industry

Gradually as neoliberalism has become dominant the media presents its way of seeing the world as common sense, normal, even eternal, claiming there is no alternative. And a significant element in neoliberalism’s propaganda machine is what Will Davies dubs the Happiness Industry supported by the development of Happiness Science- a multi-billion pound project complete with an array of gurus, technocrats, research scientists, psychologists, physiologists and more than a few charlatans.

Crucially since its rise to importance in the early 1990s, it has reflected both neoliberalism’s insistence on the self-regulating and self-sufficient individual and neoliberalism’s reluctant recognition that all is not well; that its way of seeing the world is not necessarily a happy one. In this context, the financial bubble having burst in 2008, it is vital that we experience our unhappiness, our dismay as emanating from our personal inadequacies and not at all from the social inequality and injustice at the centre of neoliberal policies.

Within the Happiness Industry Will Davies points to psychologists and economists busting a gut to find a common measure of happiness; to neuroscientists scanning our brains to locate neural patterns related to our subjective feelings. One paper claimed to have found specific neural circuits, one dealing with pleasure, the other with price. How convenient! We witness physiologists focused on our bodily activity, aided by all manner of apps with fitness coaches urging us on. Evidently, you can now download Moodtracking, Track your Happiness or even Mappiness. We find doctors and psychiatrists, identifying and diagnosing growing conditions of unhappiness, prescribing drugs to resolve the anxiety. Hence the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (Version 5) has indeed indicated that to be unhappy, to grieve for more than 2 weeks after the loss of a loved one is to be considered a mental illness. A drug ‘Welbutrin’ will evidently sort your troubles out. Last but not least, the Industry’s marketing arm hosts a parade of publishers and a gaggle of gurus producing books, self-help manuals, organising life-changing courses, all in the service of our happiness.

Talking of gurus brings us to Martin Seligman, the creator of the brand, Positive Psychology, who having forged this step forward for humanity, patents his Authentic Happiness Inventory and runs multiple therapeutic conversations online at 2,000 dollars a touch. As Barbara Ehrenreich observes, the positive thinking movement lays the blame for misfortune firmly in the mind of the unfortunate. According to the PosPsy mantra, Happiness is a personal choice and to be happy is to have an advantage in the competition for increased status, power and more money. Every success, every failure is down to willpower or the lack of it, to individual desire and effort. To be negative is almost sinful. The key to happiness is to master your mind.

In the workplace, once a site of collective struggle, the pissed-off worker is more likely to be sick than join a trade union or be present but disinterested, a condition now named ‘presenteeism’ as opposed to absenteeism. Into this alienating and oppressive environment, the Happiness and Well-Being consultants are summoned.

A friend of mine and an exceptional youth worker was a few years ago a critical voice as a Youth Service was dismembered. She was seen as a pain in the arse by management but refused to be silenced. Frustrated management forced her to go on a Wellness training course. As my friend spoke about her situation the response of the Wellness trainer was to refuse to engage with the issue of bullying and intimidation in the workplace. The problem was her attitude. This had to change not the institution.

Worried about the morale of its workforce Barclays Bank ( the outfit guilty of all manner of deceit in the 2008 banking crisis, but now rehabilitated and the purveyor via TV advertising of Barclays Life Skills) warns its disenchanted employees.

“Today’s brain-based economy puts a premium on cerebral skills in which cognition is the ignition of productivity and innovation. Your depression attacks that vital asset.”

Some positive psychologists suggest that lack of ‘engagement’ by workers is contagious and that workers not responding to well-being interventions should be sacked. Ehrenreich quotes from a motivational speech to a group of fixed-term contract workers, encouraging them to be good team players, to be positive, to smile frequently, not complain, but gratefully do as one is told …… so that employer and employee will be happy and competitive in harmony together.

However, I’ve chosen not to dissect the particular approaches taken in the eclectic Happiness Industry, e.g. Mindfulness with its debt to Buddhism. I have my doubts about this, that or the other, but my main point is that these techniques are overwhelmingly put into the service of the individualist agenda and ignore the social and political. It would be remiss though not to mention the widespread use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy [CBT] in tangling with people’s anxieties and dilemmas. All the more so as the NYA is organising CBT training courses for youth workers this coming summer. Certainly, CBT, championed by such as Richard Layard, New Labour’s ‘happiness tsar’ has been the cheap, go to therapy in the NHS with its tight structure and timescale. Focusing utterly on the present and refusing to deal with the past, it has had limited success in offering useful tips and cues in relation to the specific concerns but is in no sense a holistic approach. It desires behaviour that is predictable and is suspicious of complication and contradiction. Ironically you can now access computerised CBT treatment online, ‘Beating the Blues’ and dispense with the therapist [or indeed perhaps the youth worker?].

I could go on about the insidious nature of the Happiness Industry’s view of the human condition, but I’ll mark for now that we should not underestimate that this attempted science of human sentiment with its access to a mind-boggling amount of data that we ‘naively’ provide, aims to monitor, manage and manipulate our feelings. And we are complicit in our surveillance. Will Davies wonders if we are moving to a society designed and regulated as a vast laboratory, within which we are unavoidably imprisoned? The question emerges, to what extent are we already bit-players, part-time employees in this Happiness Industry? Certainly, teachers and lecturers are now on board, pressured to deliver a Happiness curriculum in schools and universities.

The National Youth Agency is very keen, taking leave of its critical senses in my view in its Youth Covenant, which promises amongst other things that we will render young people happy and positive about the future, underpinned by the deeply problematic theory of adolescent developmental psychology. Evidently, as Hans Skott-Mhyre suggests we are asked to be “the missionaries of development, spreading the good word of adulthood as salvation from the storm and stress of adolescence”. In the words of the NYA Covenant, we are the adults who know what is needed, a position utterly at odds with a Youth Work tradition, which seeks to negotiate a relationship with young people within which we don’t claim to know what is best. There’s more than a whiff in the NYA’s pretentious claim of the Happiness Industry’s emphasis on experts knowing better than us how we feel. It shares too the Industry’s utter unwillingness to ground its relations with people, young people, in their actual lived circumstances.

Facing the Future

For a moment let’s compare my generation’s optimism that the future was going to get better, that history was on our side, with the situation facing young people today. It’s utterly legitimate, sense-making and not at all negative for young people to feel things are getting worse and that history’s face is set firmly against them.

The future is precarious. It’s not for nothing that the ‘precariat’ has replaced the proletariat. Berardi, the Italian critic declares that the future has been cancelled. Young people experience a world of short-term contracts, low wages, mounting unmanageable debt, little or no access to affordable housing, asked to hide their insecurities by projecting an upbeat self, a commodity with a smiling face, forced to be part of a cult of compulsory happiness. Looming over them (and of course ourselves) are the consequences of neoliberalism’s casino capitalism, where the rich get richer and the poor poorer, where its inability to face the consequences of perpetual, unfettered production and ceaseless consumption threatens the future of humanity.

And let me make a crucial point, young people are not just young people, a homogeneous category. The precarious experience outlined above is experienced in general but also in specific ways, according to the mixture that is a young person’s identity, informed by class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith. Austerity has spawned rising prejudice and xenophobia. It has also fed growing misanthropy, a lack of trust in others.

What kind of illusion allows some to suggest that young people should feel happy and positive in this depressing scenario? Unhappiness is a legitimate and even necessary response to injustice and exploitation. Anger and indignation perfectly in order. In a spirit of critical negativity and resistance, I’ll outline some possible areas for us to explore. The prevailing view of Happiness and Well-Being is thoroughly individualistic. Rather than beginning with the body politic, it refers only to the body personal. We must turn this upside down.

Social Well-Being

We can draw inspiration in thinking about social well-being as the underpinning of individual well-being from the work of Critical Community Psychologists with their commitment to ‘Responsible Togetherness’ and to the feminist inspired Ethics of Care and its notion of reciprocal compassion.

Let me propose to you a way of exploring social well-being through a triangle of the Material, the Relational and the Subjective., drawing on the work of Sarah White.

For example, thinking about well-being at the level of a community, electoral ward, village, the catchment area of a youth club – what we often called the community profile.

The material would involve looking at income levels, levels of debt, quality of housing, employment opportunities, the presence of public services, the range of amenities, the quality of the environment.
The relational would involve investigating the makeup of the community in terms of class, gender, race, etc.; the diversity of supportive organisations from churches, sports clubs to activist groups; relations with the law, with welfare agencies, with schools, with the youth club; and the history of collective action.
The subjective would involve the community’s sense of identity; its hopes and fears; its sense of its place in the wider society.

This outline is sketchy but I think it has possibilities and my challenge would be to ask you to take back into your projects a willingness to embrace this larger picture of well-being as a prerequisite for exploring well-being at an individual level.

Political Well-Being and Collective Joy

What needs to be added to the triangle is a more explicitly political dimension. What sort of power has the collective, the demos, over the conditions of its well-being? The question brings us to the crucial issue of an authentic democracy. Interestingly Hannah Arendt talks of ‘public happiness’, which she sees as the active and enthusiastic participation of people in the creation of norms, laws and institutions which serve the common good. William Morris called for the liberation of the desire to question all existing values, knowing together we can create values most pertinent to the common good. Lyman Sargent and Ruth Levitas speak of the collective longing for an improvement of the human condition, of the need for utopian rather than dystopian imaginings. In drawing our attention to these radical democrats Lynne Segal argues for the revival of collective joy, that uplifting sense of being at one with others in struggling to prove ‘another world is possible’.

Some of us in this room have been privileged to share such moments. Forgive the personal recollection, I am talking about years ago now, for example, the startling impact of the Women’s Caucus on the Community and Youth Workers Union in the early 1980s (gendered collective joy?) or being together, men and women, freezing on an early morning picket line during the Miners Strike. Nostalgia aside I believe the young people on Climate Change Strike last week felt something of the same festive joy, all the more intense when in Goethe’s words, ‘the festival is not really given to the people, but one that the people give to themselves’. I suspect too the idea of collective joy can be much less politically explicit – making or listening to music, dancing together, being in a team together (although in sport where there is collective joy, isn’t there collective misery?) [Or as Janet Batsleer pointed out in the ensuing discussion what do we make of a collective joy inspired by fascist ideas? It would be good to explore this further.]

In Praise of Resistance

I want to argue strenuously that we should resist being incorporated into the Happiness industry, but should try to develop a politicised and collectivised sense of Social Well-Being. which ought to be at the heart of our relationships with young people.

I would suggest that the best of the open-ended youth work tradition has something significant to contribute to what ultimately is a struggle for democracy, what Castoriadis terms the struggle for the inextricably interrelated notions of individual and social autonomy, ‘taking control of our lives’ in concert with one another. Recently I’ve taken to suggesting that a young person-centred practice, within which listening intently is the bedrock, within which learning from one another in a critical dialogue is central, might be seen as a form of what Rosi Braidotti calls ‘intimate democracy’. Thus youth work produces a proliferation of intimate democracies important in and for themselves, but also a preparatory and essential ingredient in the flowering of direct democracy, Arendt’s arena of ‘public happiness’.

Lest I be misunderstood as a miserabilist, I hope that youth work is full of fun, play and moments of happiness – ‘the wild zones and free spaces’ lauded by Filip Coussee and Guy Redigand ‘the dancing in the streets’ recorded by Ehrenreich. Inevitably though there will be awkward moments of challenge, argument and tension too. There will be tears of joy and sorrow in any honest relationship.

Let me finish by remembering a meeting of a few years ago, a Social Work conference in Durham, where the final plenary was held in the church-like hall of the NUM Headquarters. On the platform was a diminutive woman in her late 70’s, she began sotto-voce asking us ‘were we sitting comfortably?’ Then as we shuffled our bums, the pews were hard on our posteriors, she posed the question afresh and then shook the hall to its rafters with a ringing ‘well you bloody well shouldn’t be!’, before cataloguing the misery inflicted on her community as a result of pit closures. Her heartfelt cry can be inspiring, but also off-putting. In the face of such a call to arms, we can feel overwhelmed. However, at the very least if we claim to be critically reflective practitioners committed to social justice we are obliged to scrutinise what we are up to, where we are up to in challenging the self-absorption of much of the Happiness and Well-Being agenda.

To paraphrase a classic humanist concern:

‘I cannot feel well unless you too feel well’.
‘I cannot be happy if you are not happy too’.

Thanks for listening.

POSTSCRIPT

A glaring omission in the above is the lack of attention paid to the need for love and sexual intimacy in the pursuit of happiness, which in itself poses the question of to what extent is this discussed in youth work? As to its significance across history, it’s only necessary to point to the tradition of love songs traced in Love Songs: The Hidden History by Ted Gioia.

POSSIBLE READING hopefully I’ve indicated sufficiently my debt to these writers

The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being by William Davies, Verso 2016

Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy by Lynne Segal, Verso 2018

Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich, Picador 2010

Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich, Picador 2007

Hans Skott-Myhre explores youth and adulthood – a mythical journey to maturity

I’ve got a half-written, critical response to the National Youth Agency’s announcement of a Youth Covenant-cum-Promise with its other-wordly notion that our task is to render young people ‘happy and positive about the future’ – tell that to the young people out on the Climate Change Strike a few weeks ago. Hopefully, I’ll post my specific reply to the Happiness agenda in the next week. However much of my unfinished piece focuses on the NYA’s confident assertion that adolescent developmental psychology, aided by ‘teen brain’ speculation is to be the theoretical underpinning for our relations with young people. It’s not clear who is party to this very significant shift in how we choose to understand our practice. For instance, are the training agencies on board? Is developmental psychology now a central feature of the curriculum in Higher Education?

The Nationa Youth Agency argues:

“Youth” is the adolescent developmental phase between childhood and adulthood that brings significant physical and emotional changes. It requires particular skills to support young people at an important time for making significant life choices, to safely explore risky impulses, form new relationships and take on new challenges. Adolescence starts around the beginning of puberty and finishes in the late teens, but with critical stages of transition from 8 years old and as young adults typically up to 25 years in particular for vulnerable or marginalised young people.

Where help and investment in early years and older people is well-recognised and reflected in public policies, the Youth Covenant helps ‘make the case’ with a clear narrative in support of adolescence as a period of life that brings significant physical and emotional changes; the latest neuroscience tells us that the teenage brain undergoes huge physical changes during adolescence which impact on behaviour, self-image, social interactions and decision-making. It is also an important time for making significant life choices and decisions, increasingly complex social interactions and dealing with an online world.

Whilst I sort myself out, given I’m still told to grow up, I recommend as an antidote to NYA’s embrace of an abstract, generalised young person going through stages and transitions, who in reality doesn’t exist, Hans Skott-Mhyre’s provocative and moving, ‘I am the Young Person Who Impacts Me’ to be found in CYC-Online, March 2019.

Hans Skott-Myhre

Here are a few extracts to whet your appetite.

To take on adulthood, as the defining characteristic of our identity, is to resign ourselves to an encroaching irrelevance to the lives of the young people we encounter in our work. Immersing ourselves in adulthood, as a way of life, consigns us to a gradual ageing out of the world of lived experience that is at the heart of Child and Youth Care as a relational practice. It is, in a way, a kind of betrayal of our faith in the young people we encounter. To insist on being an adult is to say that being young is never enough. One must move on to something more. In a quietly arrogant way, it is to assert that the something “more” is represented in us as the adults. Perhaps, it is to suggest, with a moderate degree of narcissism that, as adults, we can guide and mentor young people out of the phase they are in and into “reality.”

At one level, we are asked to be missionaries of development, to spread the good word of adulthood as salvation from the “storm and stress” of adolescence. At another level, we are to be youthful but not youth.

Erica Burman, Professor of Education, Manchester

[Erica] Burman notes that we internalize development as a set of markers by which we determine our “healthy” progress through life. The world of Child and Youth Care is saturated with this logic in our assessments of ourselves, the young people we encounter and their families. The fear of being developmentally outside the norm is a prominent feature of family life, driving parents (and CYC workers) to constantly assess appropriate developmental trajectories into adulthood and beyond. Developmental truths have a profound influence on social policy, legal statutes, the organization of child welfare systems, as well as agency policies and procedures. Because developmental ideas are so influential, it is sometimes hard to remember that they reflect the values of a particular culture and society.

The idea that I don’t leave a certain aspect of my life behind me opens the possibility to think of myself as a collective. I am not a series of stages, but a composition of everything I have been. Society would have me believe that at my age I am a senior who had passed through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age and so on. In that version of me, I am relatively alien to young people and can’t really relate to them because I have passed beyond those stages of life. I am no longer a child, youth, middle-aged and so forth. I am supposedly more mature, wise and so on. If I put those ideas aside, then I begin to see that I am not so different from people who have spent less year on the planet. The perceived differences that create young people and elders as alien to one another are largely socially constructed.

Hans closes as follows – read the fascinating whole to make the best sense of his conclusion.

Perhaps, one of the most egregious effects of developmental ideas is
the way they divide us against ourselves. We are put in the position of
denying our childishness if we are to mature, to abandoning our adolescent explorations, if we are to be an adult. We are asked to put our lived experience of different stages we have “passed through” into our history. They are relegated to memory and often only revisited to uncover childhood trauma or for the purposes of nostalgic reverie. I would argue that this is a truly unfortunate loss of an important element of who we are now. All that I am and have been is now. Finally, it is this respect that I can say that I am the young person who impacts me the most.

In the spirit of collective, reflective practice I’m minded to buy and send Leigh Middleton, the Chief Executive of the National Youth Agency a copy of Erica Burman’s ‘Deconstructing developmental psychology’ [2017], Routledge.



James Ballantyne questions the policing of emotions

During a month shadowed by family bereavement I’ve been labouring to put together my opening contribution to last Friday’s annual In Defence of Youth Work conference, ‘If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands – youth work and well-being?’ Hopefully, in the next fortnight I’ll type up my notes [always a tortuous, one-fingered process] and post them on this blog – quite a few folk encouraged me to do so.

Meanwhile, I’ve amassed a number of links to stuff I think deserves our attention. Rather than just compress these into an all-consuming list I’m choosing to give each of them a separate billing over the next week or so.

First off a warm welcome to a piece, inspired by the conference debate, from one of youth work’s favourite bloggers, James Ballantyne. In his inimitable way he rattled this off on the train back to Middlesborough from the Birmingham event, claiming, which I believe, it was done and dusted before Sheffield. Given my leaden progress when writing I am awestruck in the face of such alacrity!

Should Youthworkers be ‘policing’ young peoples emotions?

James begins:

Getting young people off the streets, that was and still is one of the old mandates for youth workers, getting young people into other institutions was another.

Youthworkers effectively were tasked with policing the streets – or policing the third space in between organisations, so that young people wouldn’t fall through the gaps. There is a new place for youthworkers, to effectively police ‘in town’. And, though it is not new, it is back with a vengeance.

Youthworkers now tasked with policing young peoples emotions? Young people are to be happy, and to be well.

The area of value is not the social space of the park, but the heart space, the attitude, the feelings of the young person.

Policing young peoples emotions so that ‘they are not unhappy’ with their lot – I wonder.

He closes:

If we meet young people in their space, or try and create safe spaces for conversation, what kind of space is a young person going to engage with if it’s not derived by their agenda, their interests and passions and gifts – rather than be a space where their emotions are under scrutiny.

Youthworkers, who curated during the day, are some of the most imaginative around for trying to do practice that ‘looks like youthwork’ even in a space dictated by the latest agenda ( and knife crime is also another one) – and significant credit where credit is due, as any work with young people is valid and important. But policing the streets was an impossibility and best left for police – the intensity of young peoples emotions might be best left with the kind of well trained counsellors who can do this.

But whatever happened to just trying to to create spaces of relationships, of creativity, or groups, of activity, of participation and even entrepreneurship all of which will allow young people to have connectivity, autonomy and become competent. Then, and this done in community, with families, with the institutions, and others, might be the best way of making more than just young people happy. It might make the community happy too.

We would never say that we would want young people to feel worse after meeting us, but happiness might not be likely if we have exposed and helped them become more self aware of the issues that affect them and how they react. They might know more but be less content as a result, needing a personal struggle to assimilate new information into their previously normative world view and identity.

We’ve got a long way to go. But the journey doesn’t start with fixing young people and helping them feel something, despite their circumstances. Policing young peoples emotions… really? Is that what youth work has come to?

Read in full at Should Youthworkers be ‘policing’ young peoples emotions?

We’re being Googled: The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism

Quite a lot of us are uncomfortable and ambiguous about our relationship with such social media as Facebook, yet its hold is strong. Within youth work practice itself there is concern about young people’s digital literacy. [1] Personally, I’ve felt in danger of being smugly ignorant, content, despite the occasional doubt, to google to my heart’s content. My complacency has been shattered by Shoshana Zuboff’s compelling thesis that we are living through the latest phase in capitalism’s evolution, the emergence of ‘surveillance capitalism’. An excellent introduction to her argument is to be found in a Guardian interview, ‘The goal is to automate us.‘ I would urge you to engage with her thoughts.

‘It [surveillance capitalim] works by providing free services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behaviour of those users in astonishing detail – often without their explicit consent.’

Some quotes from Shoshana Zuboff to whet your appetite

Surveillance capitalism is a human creation. It lives in history, not in technological inevitability. It was pioneered and elaborated through trial and error at Google in much the same way that the Ford Motor Company discovered the new economics of mass production or General Motors discovered the logic of managerial capitalism.

Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy.

Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free.

Democracy has slept while surveillance capitalists amassed unprecedented concentrations of knowledge and power. We enter the 21st century marked by this stark inequality in the division of learning: they know more about us than we know about ourselves or than we know about them. These new forms of social inequality are inherently anti-democratic.

It is a form of tyranny that feeds on people but is not of the people. Paradoxically, this coup is celebrated as “personalisation”, although it defiles, ignores, overrides, and displaces everything about you and me that is personal.

So what is to be done? In any confrontation with the unprecedented, the first work begins with naming. Speaking for myself, this is why I’ve devoted the past seven years to this work… to move forward the project of naming as the first necessary step toward taming. My hope is that careful naming will give us all a better understanding of the true nature of this rogue mutation of capitalism and contribute to a sea change in public opinion, most of all among the young.

I’ve ordered the book with some trepidation. It’s over 700 pages long. Even when I claimed to be a Marxist, I was of the cultural rather than the economic sort. And I failed Maths ‘O’ level three times. Wish me luck and I’ll report back.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
The Fight for the Future at the New Frontier of Power
Shoshana Zuboff published by Profile

  1. See Nuala Connolly’s chapter 25, ‘Young People, Youth Work and the Digital World’ in Thinking Seriously about Youth Work – available online as a pdf.

Being Black & Dead While Excluded

IN DEFENCE OF YOUTH WORK

gus john Professor Gus John

In the context of the tragic killings of young people in recent weeks and months, we have been sent a powerful statement from the Communities Empowerment Network by their co-founder, Gus John (youth worker, scholar, author, and the first black education director in England). It begins:

On Tuesday 8 January 2019, 14 year old Jaden Moodie was stabbed to death on a street in Leyton, East London.  It is alleged that he was deliberately knocked off the moped he was riding and was stabbed repeatedly by three men who had been in the car that rammed him. Moodie had been a student at Heathcote School in Chingford and had been excluded  weeks earlier … This is the latest shocking incident in which an excluded black male school student was killed as a result of serious youth violence.  Given the regularity with which black young people are killed by other…

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Hans Skott-Myhre – ‘Just Us Is All We Got’

Since the turn of the year, I’ve been desperately trying to write something worth reading about optimism and pessimism, hope and despair. As to my effort, I do despair. However. a piece by Hans Skott-Mhyre has lifted my spirits and he’s agreed generously that I can post it in its entirety here, salvaging my need to kick off the New Year thought-provokingly. Reading Hans rang all manner of bells so I’ll mark but three, whose notes caressed my ears.

einstein intuition2

 

  • The importance of the intuitive, the experimental and improvisatory in our practice.
  • The overwhelming significance of who we are and who we are becoming, our consciousness of ourselves and others.

Both these points are caught at least partially in the last of the In Defence of Youth Work cornerstones – ‘The essential significance of the youth worker themselves, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy are at the heart of fashioning a serious yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people.’ And in this excerpt from Hans’s article – ‘I am thinking of intuition as the ability to sense the exact words to say or not say in our work with young people. To know when to speak and when to be still, to take a walk, have a sandwich, reach out and touch or refrain from touching someone, share our own experiences or keep them to ourselves. This is the stuff we can’t teach. We can attempt to codify it in best practices, endless discussions about boundaries, interviewing techniques and so on, but none of it really gets at what makes a great CYC worker’.

  • The crucial recognition that being a youth worker is not some cloak of identity that can be shed on the way home from work. As Hans says, ‘we work with people and people are everywhere’. In my inadequate way, I’ve tried always to relate to people in the same way, through a consistent lens, recognising different circumstances, whether at work in the youth centre or in the office, in the pub, in the trade union, in the sports team and indeed at home.

The article, ‘Just Us Is All We Got’ appears in the January 2019 edition of CYC Online, the journal of the International Child and Youth Care Network – a broad-ranging publication which deserves a much wider readership in the UK.

Hans Skott-Myhre

JUST US IS ALL WE GOT

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to see thousands of youth workers at work or heard their stories of engaging with young people. They have been workers in residential programs, street outreach, emergency shelters, schools, rape crisis centers, community storefronts, government social service programs, day care, and foster care, among others. They have worked with small children, gangs, families, immigrants, queer kids of all ages, racially diverse populations, youth, straight kids, young people living in poverty or wealth, kids of various faiths, spiritualities, and communities. Compositionally, they themselves have been all these things and more. However, what has struck me in all this rich diversity of history, ethnicity, religion, race, gender, class, sexuality and so on is how idiosyncratically all of these elements come together to form the work of each one of us.

I often remind my students that when they are in an encounter with a young person they only have one tool and that is themselves. They can have a rich and in depth knowledge of the theoretical literature of the field, have attended and absorbed the more innovative and pertinent new techniques for resolving life difficulties, practised all the skills they have been taught in school and in professional development workshops, they might have aced the licensing or certification exam, but none of that matters if it hasn’t been fully transformed and integrated into who they are as a radically unique living composition of body and mind. To the degree that we understand how our bodies and minds work and are composed in each moment of our encounter with the world around us, we will engage that world more fully and with more life-affirming force. To the degree we are limited in what we can apprehend about ourselves and our relation to the world that forms who we are, we will be restricted in our creative capacity to compose a life.

Now that might sound a little esoteric, but every child and youth care worker I have been privileged to know, works somewhere along a continuum of self-awareness and a certain openness to the richness of the experiential and experimental composition that is living relations. It is what shapes that ineffable aspect of our work we might think about as intuition. I am thinking of intuition as the ability to sense the exact words to say or not say in our work with young people. To know when to speak and when to be still, to take a walk, have a sandwich, reach out and touch or refrain from touching someone, share our own experiences or keep them to ourselves. This is the stuff we can’t teach. We can attempt to codify it in best practices, endless discussions about boundaries, interviewing techniques and so on, but none of it really gets at what makes a great CYC worker.

Mind you, all these things point in the right direction, but they are training wheels for those just learning to ride the bicycle. One hopes not to keep them affixed for the duration of the ride. The idea is to learn enough to get going and then to leave the training wheels behind and trust the relation we develop between the bike and ourselves. To learn the delicate balance, the tensile strength of the brakes, the tension and play of the gears, and feel of the various road surfaces, weather conditions, our own muscular capacities, and limits of breath. When we ride well, we hope to be so in sync with the bike that we can pay attention to all that the ride encompasses; the wind in our face, the thrill of velocity, the scenery passing by, our own breathing, the gradual release of endorphins, and that great feeling of just riding the bike. When we are out of sync with the bike, everything becomes more labored, more mechanical. We have to limit our focus to those aspects of the ride that are causing us difficulty. We lose the freedom of motion and the full exhilaration of riding.

Of course, we hopefully learn from these moments of difficulty at many levels. Perhaps we learn that we need to persevere in our fitness regimes so we have to pay less attention to body mechanics and more to the seamless flow of the body in motion. Maybe, we have to pay better attention to the road conditions and plan our journey so that the number of hills and difficult terrain is more in keeping with our skills and stamina. It is possible, that the bike itself is at issue and we need to learn to pay better attention to its capacities and maintenance. Or, there is the chance that we neglected the weather report and need to learn that a blue sky at the beginning is not a guarantee that it won’t storm later. In all these adverse conditions, our knowledge of the elements that compose the relation of the bike, our body and the environment are key to our ability to let go and truly master the art of riding. Indeed, mastery is the moment in which we have painstakingly gained enough intellectual knowledge and body wisdom to go beyond the conscious application of what we know about the relationship between ourselves and the bike. It is when we develop a sense of oneness through which we can begin to test the limits of what can be done.

I remember being at a concert featuring the great jazz bassist Stanley Clark. As I watched him play, I became aware of how he and the rest of the band sensed where they might go, rather than predetermining where the song should go. This is not to say that the song wasn’t highly arranged and stringently rehearsed, but as the musicians entered the improvisatory sections, they opened the song to possibility rather than certainty. Two things became clear to me as I watched and listened. First, it was obvious that what Stanley Clark was accomplishing with his fingers on the large standup bass he was playing seemed physically impossible. The speed and dexterity with which he covered the rather large geography of the instrument were breathtaking. The ease with which he moved in sync with the instrument appeared effortless and yet, even a rudimentary understanding of what was involved proved that to be an illusion. Second, as he played, the relation between the creative thoughts he was having about what he would play and what he played looked to be seamless. It was as though his mind and body in relation to the bass were operating as one organism. It all came at once; thought and action.

Both instances of bodies and machines (bikes and basses) could not have occurred without strenuous and long periods of practice and training. I am reminded of the psychiatric hypnotist Milton Erickson who reached levels of hypnotic skill still unrivaled in the decades after his death. Watching him work also gave the impression of effortless performance. However, his biography demonstrated skills forged in extreme hardship and struggle. He was paralyzed from the neck down twice in his life and had to regain control of his body muscle by muscle until he had full utilization of all his bodily functions. He was tone deaf, color blind and dyslexic and yet, through tirelessly exploring alternative methods of apprehending sound, tone, color, and language he became powerfully adept at deploying all these aspects of his capacities in his work. Those who knew him reported that he was someone who practiced and experimented with his capabilities tirelessly and relentlessly. He treated his faculties the way athletes, musicians and artists treat their bodies, instruments, and tools of their craft. In each of these instances, the craft/art of each endeavor doesn’t stop at the end of the work day but extends into every aspect of a life until there is no barrier between the artist and the art, the musician and the music, the healer and the healing.

If we take seriously the idea proposed at the beginning of this column, that we are the only tool we have in working with young people, then the examples we have explored so far have some powerful implications. Possibly the most accessible is the idea that if we are to get good at working as CYC practitioners, we need to go beyond the well-intentioned and necessary training wheels offered to us by the field as a profession. The idea that we are professionals has unfortunate resonances of limits and boundaries. It can imply that there is a distance between us and others, including those we work with. It can call for state regulation of our work, in which bureaucrats begin to legislatively dictate the terms of best practice. It can inadvertently instantiate training wheels on our work and give us the idea that there are universal ways to do what it is we do, rather than idiosyncratic, creative, and experimental responses to the living engagement we find in our work. Professional training wheels can be stultifying and draw us away from the messy and entangled realities of the encounters we have with those in our daily work. This is not to say that training wheels aren’t useful in small doses. We all begin this work somewhere and it can be very helpful to have some guidance and mentoring along the road. However, we need to be cautious about institutionalizing training wheels. We need to explore when to let go and how to allow each of us to discover the unique capacities we alone can manifest as we learn from the encounters we have with others. In this sense, we are always practicing and our practice as CYC (like that of artists, musicians and athletes) is never limited to the job site. We work with people and people are everywhere.

The idea that we only work with some people some of the time is an extremely limited idea premised in capitalist ideas about labor time and payment for time worked. This way of thinking would have us believe that we are only CYC workers when we are being paid to be so. That our work is for an agency or organization and that the young people we serve are only accessible to us when they are within the purview of that organization. In a sense, the argument is that we and the young people we encounter are subject to the organization and the terms of employment that the organization imposes on both of us. We are told to separate our work and our life; to achieve a “life-work balance.” The idea is that our time spent with young people is a kind of labor like that done in a factory and that our relationships outside the place of labor is radically different.

I would argue that this is a very silly idea. Young people are young people and they populate our lives inside and outside work. To the degree we see our job as founded in the idea that the young people we encounter in our work are broken or damaged, then our work is constrained by this idea. If we believe that the young people we work with are somehow radically different from us, then our work is also constrained by this idea. If somehow we see what we do as helping young people deal with things that are significantly different than the world in which we live, then we will not seek to expand our work outside the CYC factory. However, if we come to understand our work as intimately and extensively connected to our lives and the communities in which we live, then our work and lives are afforded the possibility of not being fragmented, but seamless.

The tool that is us, does not come fully formed or with a universal set of instructions. It is formed and shaped over time through entangled encounters with everything and everyone it encounters. If we pay attention to who we are becoming in our ongoing relations with the world, then we can begin to understand both the limits and infinite possibilities of how the tool that is us may be deployed. To discover what we are capable of requires an openness to experimentation and extensive applications of what we think we can do and who we think we are. It means being open to seeing ourselves as unknowable in any final way. The goal is not to discover who you are, but to discover all that you might become. To do this implies that we comprehend ourselves as more than just a “self.” It means to see how we are shaped in an infinite number of ways by each and every encounter we have with the world around us. As CYC workers, if we want to access the true capacities of the tool we are, we must understand that our capacity is interlinked with all the capacities of the living force that surrounds us.

The psychoanalyst, philosopher, and activist Felix Guattari suggest in his work, that we might apprehend ourselves as a work of art in progress. That we are constantly creating ourselves as an experimental canvas. That, like all art, we are an expression of the world out of which the work of art emerges. We are both the artist and the art simultaneously. How diligent we are in investigating the compositional elements, techniques, and practices involved in producing ourselves as an emerging work of art, will define the depth, integrity, and beauty of the piece. Our practices as CYC workers, across the span of our lived experience, is a rich field of materials through which we can co-create ourselves in the work we do inside and outside our formal work space. After all, in the end there is really nothing in CYC that is outside this process. In this sense, just us is all we got and that is very probably more than we could ever need.

Hans Skott-Myhre

hskottmy@kennesaw.edu

 

 

The perils of privatising social care

I’m posting afresh this blog ‘The perils of privatising social care’ from Justin Wyllie, who has been very supportive of In Defence of Youth Work over the years.

care
Thanks to sott.net

The New Observer

This is a story in the Guardian about how children in care are treated as commodities in a market-system of placement.

The Guardian often does these kinds of stories quite well. However; they never draw the obvious conclusion. The system is not ever going to be fixed by a worried / outraged article in the press and some more regulation / money.

The problems described in this article are the inevitable result of bringing the profit system into the field of social care for looked after young people. Of course if you do this calculations are going to be made on the basis of profiteering and of course this will not result in the “best care” for young people.

There may be some fields where the profit-motive can produce results which socialised production cannot. An obvious example is the case of any field in which technological innovation can be stimulated…

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