STUTTERING STEPS IN POLITICAL EDUCATION: FORTY YEARS ON

I’m not sure if this piece, which appeared in the ninth issue of the Inner London Education Authority’s Schooling and Culture forty years ago, is of much interest today. Certainly, across the decades, it resonates for me, if for no one else, particularly so as its final paragraph mirrors the concluding call I make in the recent post, Resistance in a Climate of Anxiety and Precarity.

Compare the two:

1981 We are putting energy into building our local union branch to act as a focus for our political action. Crucial to this development is the building of links with other Community and Youth Service Association (CYSA) branches in the country and with other oppositional groups. But we do not want to be seen to be trotting out empty slogans about collectivity and solidarity. For instance we are struggling to make any contact at all with our local labour movement. Our own cohesion itself is very fragile, but we have made a start at the coalface. That is with our own feelings to one another. We will feel stronger in this struggle if we hear from other people across the country. Such a network of support is vital if we are to create a movement in opposition to the resurgence of repression and reaction that is upon us.

2021  Gazing outwards I wonder whether this is a moment when IDYW should explore directly with its supporters the reasons for our reluctance to organise collectively. Am I being old-fashioned in believing that, when push comes to shove, if resistance is to strike fear into the powerful it will spring from acting together on the basis of the classic slogan, ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’? Am I living in a dream to believe that a passionate and organised IDYW democratic alliance of workers, volunteers and young people could be part of the absolutely necessary social and political resistance to the dystopian prospect offered by the global elite and the World Economic Forum?

Of course, one the one hand, the similarity might well reveal the weariness of my thinking, that I am trapped in romantic nostalgia. On the other it might well illustrate that the will and commitment to self-organise, to come together under our own steam, remains fundamental. More than ever in these self-centred neoliberal times, it marks a break from the cul-de-sac of individualistic virtue. It is a choice we can make. It is a difficult choice, made ever easier the more we choose to do it together.

It’s more than interesting that the 1981 piece is a defence of liberal education as expressed in a process-led youth work faced by conservative resistance on the ground. In 2020 we strive to oppose a holistic liberal education to behavioural neo-liberal education and its technocratic imposition of prescribed outcomes.

STUTTERING STEPS IN POLITICAL EDUCATION

TONY TAYLOR AND ROY RATCLIFFEat the time of writing I was the Wigan Youth Service’s Training Officer and Roy, an Area Youth Worker.

[Schooling and Culture, Issue 9, London, ILEA Cockpit Arts Workshop, Spring 1981
The issue, Youth, Community: Crisis, included a number of relevant articles. See in particular, Mica Nava, ‘Girls aren’t really a problem…’, Tony Taylor and Roy Ratcliffe, ‘Stuttering steps in political education’, and Bernard Davies, ‘Social Education and Political Education: In Search of Integration’.]

Within the present political and economic climate the Youth Service is once again in depression. The future is clouded. However, crises are a recurrent feature of youth work’s recent history and the response thus far suggests that the field is sceptical of this latest Armageddon. “Wolf’s been cried once too often!”—it is merely a time to keep one’s head down until the situation passes over. We would hope that this latest trough is not the slough of a very desperate despond. It is not just the Youth Service that faces calamity, but the whole of liberal education. Strategies of resistance are urgently needed. Here we wish to share our experiences about the attempted development of a Social Education Programme for a local authority statutory Youth Service and so participate in producing a positive collective response to the conservative onslaught.

Back in 1974 local government reorganisation offered the possibility of reviewing the state of the Youth Service. In Wigan a working party dominated by conservative elements within the voluntary sector produced a pale pamphlet which proposed (as objectives for youth leaders) tired and trusted tenets such as ‘the moral and spiritual development of young people.’ An increased youth work staff inherited this static apology as a blueprint for its practice. The dominant modes of operating available as examples to field workers were rooted in either ‘garden fete’ paternalism or activity oriented authoritarianism. Ideas of person-centred counselling and group work, the staple diet of training courses, floated on the margins of debates about the future. The underlying tension caused by this marginalisation and differing levels of perception was heightened by the influx of some workers more committed to a liberal perspective. Increasingly the long-standing traditional leadership base of youth work imposed an uneasy truce on the non-directive structures promulgated by training agencies following the post-Albermarle resurrection of Youth Service and the community emphasis of Milson/Fairbairn.

Over the first two years after reorganisation this lack of ‘compatibility’ between rival theories and practices caused frequent problems. As a response to this turmoil a group of full and part-time workers produced a document entitled The Programme of Action, which insisted that the Service’s objectives were the heightening of young people’s awareness (personal, social and political) and greater member participation. Quoting Brecht in “assisting the little fishes”, the introduction argued the Youth Service’s priority role in supporting the disadvantaged young person. Faced by such a clear statement of the liberal position’s concern for the individually deprived, the Youth Service hierarchy endorsed the submission and rushed it through Council to become the official Youth Service line. There was no attempt to familiarise the councillors and other advisory bodies with the content of the Programme. It was normal practice to treat them contemptuously as mere ‘rubber stamps’. Our acceptance of this manipulation and failure to discuss the issue seriously with the local politicians was to have severe repercussions in later years. However on the surface there was now the prospect of encouraging liberal youth work within the framework of the Programme of Action as a secure and agreed basis for the Youth Service staff. On paper we were now officially ‘Social Educators’.

In the following period the gulf between the rhetoric of the Programme of Action and the day to day reality caused further confrontations over such issues as policing the building; supporting the young homeless; swearing and moral decency. Reactionary positions continued to win the day and eventually several staff fled the scene. Crucial to the weakness of the ‘liberal’ position in this period was the poor relationship between full-time and many part-time staff. The latter’s overall support for status quo was often decisive. Linked to this failure the full-time staff itself became further fragmented. It was then a relatively simple task for the hierarchy ‘to divide and rule’.

Early in 1978 when the last remaining radical (and highest qualified) of the staff was ironically promoted  to a training position, divisions within the staff grew worse. Bloodied and isolated the new Training Officer pursued a purist policy that created radical initiatives, which received only token support from the majority of the staff, who often used the argument that training occupied an ‘ivory tower’. Contradictorily the hierarchy tended to support this radical thrust, realising perhaps that it was unlikely to impinge problematically on practice, having themselves only a ‘wishy—washy’ pragmatism to put in its place. Crisis management was the order of the day and intervention only came after ‘things had blown up’. 

The same year also saw the recruitment of further full-time staff new to the borough and it was against this background that training constructed a new strategy early in 1979. This was the setting up of a Training and Development Unit. Our argument was that this venture would provide a fresh angle on the problem of building a bridge between theory and practice. The view we took was that the liberal theories as they appeared in the Programme of Action, whilst containing the possibility of many alternative interpretations, also presented a sufficient brief to support a struggle against many elements of oppression in our society particularly as they affected young people. We considered that these liberal ideas and sentiments supported verbally by the hierarchy were evidence that these notions had general support from the majority of staff. We accepted the criticism that training was often cut-off from the day to day practice of youth work and needed to be brought closer to reality. We were aware that many part-time staff, some in the past and some recently, had tried and were trying against overwhelming odds to implement sections of the Programme of Action. The odds we all struggled against comprised of an ineffective, unimaginative, one year trained group of advisers for whom the status quo offered a peaceful if uneventful life; a general apathy and cynicism; and a lack of materials and resources with which to work. In developing the idea of a Training and Development Unit along with other innovations, we hoped to support current efforts; to develop good practice;  to reinvigorate the demoralised;  to convert the cynical; and call the bluff of the reactionaries. Some of the suggested initiatives were judged impractical for that year and so were shelved but the whole staff team welcomed the setting up of the Training and Development Unit.

Although the authority insisted on line management relationships,  the endeavour was organised collectively. Internally within the unit there was no hierarchy, but the Youth Service structure accepted only one person, the Training Officer, as being responsible. Nevertheless it was hoped that many practical barriers would be removed by the provision of resources and the means to deliver them to the clubs. Principally the creation of a resource centre with a library, group work room, printing facilities, audio and video equipment and filming capability was to be the material factor that would overcome liberal Youth Work’s traditional inadequacies in the areas of planning, preparation and delivery. The centre would not, however, wait passively to be utilised but would be an active component brought to life by the Development Team. Exciting stimuli could be created at the centre on topics of social education and then taken into the world of table tennis and discos. The Development Team of one full-time worker and six part—time workers would be able to respond to requests, and prompt responses. Its main, if not sole brief was to lubricate the path of liberal theory to the seat of practice and then to return it for examination. Training was to move from ‘one-off’ exhortations and short courses to a view that sought to unite training, youth workers and young people in an educational dialogue.

Over the last two years the Training Centre, the Development Team and individual workers have indeed made moves towards these objectives. Yet the effect of theory on practice continues to be muted. The gap and therefore the contradiction between a liberal theory and a conservative practice remains. However, the efforts have served to sharpen our awareness of the depth of the blockages to the implementation of a social education praxis. In particular it has highlighted the rigidity of hierarchical structures; the flaccid response of many youth workers to authority; the insidious grip of ‘common-sense’ empiricism; the low self-image of the Service as a whole; and our own specific failure to build a solid base of support within and without the Service. Instead of now being in a position to examine how liberal theory enlightened practice, we are in the unfortunate position of being confronted by the mass of conservative practice which negated liberal theory. A number of ‘problems’ occurred, some of which we outline below. In each case we suggest that the practice was not checked against the supposed objectives of the Service, but that a summary arbitration was imposed on the basis of the lowest ‘common-sense’ denominator.

Case 1: THE ALL NIGHT PARTY

The Programme of Action underlines involvement as a major objective; it speaks of young people’s active involvement in the organisation of youth centres. Under a heading Strategies it recommends ‘identifying their own needs’; ‘involvement in decision-making’; ‘collecting subscriptions’; ‘keys to the centre’. In line with this authority policy, one club, apparently backed by its management committee, extended democracy and eventually achieved a locally unprecedented level of attendance and participation. Then an incident occurred in which young people trusted with keys were judged to have ‘gone too far’. They had held an all night party at the club on what later evidence proved to be a very orderly and tame basis. The young people concerned sought and obtained parental consent and displayed a host of other ‘responsible’ actions before embarking upon the venture. None of these actions were checked out and instead rumours of sexual license and permissiveness abounded. They were hastily considered to have gone ‘over the top’ and their access to keys was immediately withdrawn from them. There was no consultation with these young adults (the majority were over 18, and the party was for the 21st birthday of one of the members). Our position as a Service in the face of an orchestrated attack on our philosophy was to desert the young people in question, and the full-time staff members who supported them, and capitulate before dark threats about club closures and the forthcoming education cuts.

Case 2: THE MEMBERS’ COUNCIL

Embodied in the Programme of Action is a commitment to political awareness. We read under Objectives: ‘Development of questioning attitudes within young people’, and under Strategies: ‘Members’ Councils with power, e.g. finances.’  In line with this policy a group of youth club members from different clubs overcame considerable organisational difficulties and formed an embryo Members’ Council. After visiting a ‘Youth Charter—Towards 2000’ Conference called ‘Making Ourselves Heard’, they produced a bulletin of their impressions which they hoped would become the basis of a local youth council magazine. The bulletin contained a small number of Anglo-Saxon swear words which expressed the anger and frustrations which many of them felt. Response to the publication was swift and decisive. All support and facilities were removed from the young people and they, once more isolated, soon disbanded. As a Service we washed our hands of the affair and disciplined the full-time members of staff who had supported the Members’ Council. No evaluation was made of the situation. Members’ Councils ceased to be on the agenda of priorities.

Case 3: MEMBERS ONLY MAGAZINE

Bearing the Programme of Action’s statements about political awareness and participation in mind, about 60 copies of an NAYC publication, Members Only, were ordered. The magazine contained articles on writing and producing club newspapers. However on its front cover was a picture of a group of punks dressed in their ‘gear’ with one young male giving a V-sign to the camera. Distribution of the magazine was banned. Our response as a Service was to bow our heads and meekly comply with the censorship. What had happened to developing questioning attitudes?

Case 4: SEXISM

In this case a practical ‘problem’ has not yet arisen. We include it merely as a pointer to the future.A section of the training programme proposed a policy of positive discrimination in favour of young women. It suggested the setting up of a working party to investigate the male orientation of the Service; the organisation of a Workers Against Sexism Group; the publication of a Guidelines Against Sexism booklet; and the planning of ‘Boys Rule Not OK’ weekends. At the committee meetings to approve the programme, objections were made to the Training Section’s ‘obsession’ with sex and its trendy sociological approach. Fears were expressed about the direction of this type of youth work. As a Service our response was ‘to box clever’ and to rewrite the offending passage, but seeds of doubt had already been liberally (!) sown. The ’response’ in this case has occurred at the level of theory and we can perhaps anticipate how a practical implementation will be greeted.

[ December 2020 – Indeed tackling sexism within the Service did create all manner of tensions. However the emergence of a self-organised Women Workers Group, the power and sophistication of its strategy and tactics, was to prove crucial to Work With Girls and Young Women moving to the centre of the Service’s practice.]

The issue carried this article on a Paddington Girls Night

In all of these cases, it is seductive to define the problem as being one of ‘mistakes’ made by theparticipants: “If only they had handled things differently and in a more sensible way.” This simplistic analysis allows critics of the situation to claim that they are still in favour of social education but not of incompetence – witness their fashionable exasperation with the Tyndale teachers, whose actions they allege have made it so difficult to be progressive. It amounts to the view that anything less than a perfect initiative is too risky to try—an obvious recipe for the status quo. The charade though of support for experiment so long as it’s bland, keeps ajar the refuge that radical practice is possible provided we are familiar with and take heed of the constraints of ‘common-sense’.

But it is important to look more closely at part of the opposition to attempts to implement such liberal documents as Wigan’s Programme of Action. As a group of responses they are not the irrational or erratic whims of individuals, but flow in a complex way from the movement of wider forces in society. As a tool to look at this situation we concur with the concept of “moral panic”, first mooted by Stan Cohen in Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1973), and subtly developed by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in their Policing the Crisis (1978). At a certain moment in each of our examples a response of ‘moral panic or outrage’ can be identified. In Case 1 the focus was alleged sexual promiscuity; in Case 2 the vulgar words signalled the approach of anarchy and the subversion of moral standards; in Case 3 the punks, folk-devils of the late seventies, exuded a provocative contempt for authority; in Case 4 the contentious mixture was defined as being obsessed with sex and women’s lib, wishy-washy, yet manipulative and deviously subversive. Much of the outrage appeared genuine, although the sexual obsession resided with the critics rather than with those on the stage. However, what is significant is the way in which the narrow moral/sexual concern was expanded into an increasingly broader context in which the future of society was held to be at stake. Thus a particular form and style of educational approach was deemed to be responsible for the demise of traditional values and standards. This is demonstrated by the fact that the response does not limit itself to the specific issue alone, but is extended so as to prevent all further development i.e. not a restriction on swear words but a complete restriction of Members’ Council’s activities, etc. Thus what at first sight appears to be an outbreak of situation-specific moral indignation later grows into a more general authoritarian reaction to the whole of progressive youth work and more! The form is moral outrage but the content is political reaction.

We are not arguing that such developments are peculiar to youth work. Clearly all those involved ineducation and wishing to pursue in practice strategies in opposition to oppression and exploitation run the risk of being attacked in this way. Education authorities do not as a rule smile benevolently on school/student unions, pupils representation and the like, especially if there is any suggestion of autonomous decision-making. As far as the Youth Service is concerned we would venture that the problems and responses noted above are a normal feature of its existence. This is to suggest that workers involved in social education initiatives are likely to be caught in a depressing circle of frustration. It is still sometimes fondly thought that youth workers are less hamperedby authoritarian structural constraints than their colleagues in schools. Whilst it will come as no surprise to learn that they are fettered rather than free, it may be a shock to realise how little roomthey have for manoeuvre; how quickly reaction can come; and how little needs to be done to provoke the wrath of authority. Alongside the grandiloquent rhetoric about sexual awareness; political awareness; and member participation, we must note the outrage that will accompany almost immediately, mention of masturbation and the clitoris; talk of Marxism;  and discussion about political demonstration. Stuttering steps towards opening up political issues precipitate ‘moral panic’ and the bureaucratic guillotine. 

And where are the mass of youth workers in the face of this opposition to the very life blood of their supposedly unique educational organism? We fear that many are hiding their heads in the sand and we would accept some responsibility for their ostrich-like state, but as A J Jeffs comments,

Analysis of current practice inevitably invokes self-criticism and is likely to threaten thefragile consensus that service to bind the disparate wings of the Youth Service together,therefore it tends to be avoided.”

So too the ‘liberalism’ that underpins much of the youth work ethos is assessed by Hall et al to be ill-equipped to resist the ‘direct impact or pragmatic immediacy of the traditionalist world view.’

In the light of these reflections we would put a question mark alongside all current liberal initiatives in support of young people. Serious struggles against, for instance, sexism and racism aimed at changing the basis of human relationships are obviously a threat to those who wish to preserve their privilege by controlling the existing conditions of inequality. However the chosen axis of response by authority to such efforts is unlikely to be one of a  frontal assault upon ‘equality’, given this liberal notion’s deep rooted position in our culture. The forces of resistance to change are more likely to utilise the dynamic that is expressed firstly as outrage at a particular characteristic of a situation e.g. ‘vulgar language’, ‘nudity’,’sexual excess’, but which is then able to escalate these phenomena into the tell-tale signs of a general threat to the very fabric of our society. In this way the needs of authority and power are presented as the mutual concern of ‘all good men and true’ and ‘anybody with any common-sense’. So too the promotion of even liberal ideas in education is by slides and elisions identified as extremist and violent.

Thus the question mark, when placed alongside these efforts to motivate liberal youth work practice, reveals a conspicuous lack of success. But the tale is not to end here in circular depression. At one level our Programme of Action and developments such as the National Youth Bureau’s ‘Enfranchisement’ initiative are in dire straits. In 1980-81 liberal efforts to advance the status of young people, of the unemployed, of women, of blacks, are swimming against the tide of cuts, closures and the drift to a law and order society. But while it is idealistic and naive to talk of individual freedom and the whole liberal baggage without recognising the present economic base and political structure, it is pessimistic and undialectical to view the present situation as static and without contradiction; the state as monolithic and people as unchangeable. Thus we are now trying to apply an understanding of our failure to our present practice. We ourselves noted in an article in Youth in Society (October 1980) that a global analysis needs to be sensitised by the understanding on a personal level that comes from counselling and group work. So at the top of our list of priorities now is the exhausting task of coming together with our fellow workers to talk about ‘where we’re at’; to discuss why we alienate one another; to begin to find common ground. It is about examining our real rather than our imaginary differences in order ‘to hold hands with each other’, both actually and metaphorically; it is about creating a climate of relative, but real trust and honesty. In short it entails utilising those group work skills, which are our supposed youth work inheritance.

We weren’t just talk. This call for dialogue and action brought together workers and academics from across the country.

Alongside this we are putting energy into building our local union branch to act as a focus for our political action. Crucial to this development is the building of links with other Community and Youth Service Association (CYSA) branches in the country and with other oppositional groups. But we do not want to be seen to be trotting out empty slogans about collectivity and solidarity. For instance we are struggling to make any contact at all with our local labour movement. Our own cohesion itself is very fragile, but we have made a start at the coalface. That is with our own feelings to one another. We will feel stronger in this struggle if we hear from other people across the country. Such a network of support is vital if we are to create a movement in opposition to the resurgence of repression and reaction that is upon us.

REFERENCES

S Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Paladin, 1973.

S Hall et al, Policing the Crisis, Macmillan, 1978.

A J Jeffs, Young People and the Youth Service, RKP, 1979. 

A Shattering Silence: The Biggest General Strike in the World, November 26

Of this clamorous collective cry of anger I knew nothing. The mainstream media was conspicuously silent. Perhaps its bosses and editors filed the event under misinformation or fake news. Or perhaps fond nowadays of defining any deviation from the dominant narrative as born of illusory ‘conspiracy theory’ they persuaded themselves that a general strike of 200 million workers in India never happened.

However it did and should be celebrated, even as we recognise the limitations and dilemmas. As it is I discovered the news only because of my presence on alternative web sites, about which I have been warned. These, unlike the responsible and truthful mainstream media, are out to manipulate my mind, being no more than purveyors of propaganda.

With these qualms in mind I hope you might take some time to absorb this description of the perilous situation faced by the Indian people and their inspiring response. The piece is written from a Trotskyist perspective, the tradition through which I was radicalised fifty years ago. It has all the strengths and weaknesses of its political outlook, which I put to one side respectfully long ago. Thank goodness though for the coverage.

The Biggest General Strike in the World: Over 200 Million Workers and Farmers Paralyze India

On Thursday, some 200 million workers held a one day general strike in India. This massive day of action was called by 10 trade unions and over 250 farmers organizations and was accompanied by massive protests and a near total shutdown of some Indian states. According to the call put out by unions, the general strike was organized against “the anti-people, anti-worker, anti-national and destructive policies of the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” 

Thanks to FirstPost

Their demands included:

  • The withdrawal of all “anti-farmer laws and anti-worker labour codes”
  • The payment of 7,500 rupees in the accounts of each non-tax paying family
  • Monthly supply of 10 kg of food to needy families
  • The expansion of the MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005) to include 200 workdays each year, higher wages, and the Act’s extension to urban industries
  • Stop the “privatisation of the public sector, including the financial sector, and stop corporatisation of government-run manufacturing and service entities like railways, ordnance factories, ports, etc.”
  • The withdrawal of the “draconian forced premature retirement of government and PSU (public sector) employees”
  • Pensions for all, the scrapping of the National Pension System and the reimposition of the earlier pension plan with amendments

Workers in nearly all of India’s major industries — including steel, coal, telecommunications, engineering, transportation, ports, and banking — joined the strike. Students, domestic workers, taxi drivers, and other sectors also participated in the nationwide day of action. 

In addition to the demands of the nationwide strike, certain sectors made industry-specific demands to fight back against the government’s attacks to their industries that affect the entire working class in India. For example, bank employees are fighting against bank privatization, outsourcing, and for a reduction in service charges and action against big corporate defaults. 

Thanks to consortiumnews.com

Other industries framed their demands in the context of the government’s appalling response to the pandemic and economic crisis hitting India. As the Bombay University and College Teachers’ Union’s statement stated:  

This strike is against the devastating health and economic crisis unleashed by COVID-19 and the lockdown on the working people of the country. This has been further aggravated by a series of anti-people legislations on agriculture and the labour code enacted by the central government. Along with these measures, the National Education Policy (NEP) imposed on the nation during the pandemic will further cause irreparable harm to the equity of and access to education.

The article ends on a classic Trotskyist call to extend and deepen the strike, with which I have not the slightest quarrel. Indeed extending and deepening our collective resistance on all fronts to the increasingly authoritarian face of capitalism is paramount.

Read in full at https://www.leftvoice.org/the-biggest-general-strike-in-the-world-over-200-million-workers-and-farmers-paralyze-india

See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_Indian_general_strike and https://www.newsclick.in/worlds-biggest-strike-begins-in-India

Resistance in a Climate of Anxiety and Precarity

A few weeks ago I was ready to make a contribution on the theme of resistance to an In Defence of Youth Work Zoom seminar. However an electricity cut in our village scuppered that idea. In the end I’ve messed around with my notes and produced for what it’s worth the following piece. As it happens I’m withdrawing from the IDYW Steering Group to sit on the backbenches. For nigh on 12 years I’ve prioritised playing a part in the life of IDYW but have grown evermore uncomfortable about pontificating about youth work in the UK from kilometres away. Nevertheless I intend to continue with this Chatting Critically blog and hope in the coming months, even years to feature interviews with characters, famous, infamous and unknown from within the world of youth and community work. As they say, watch this space.

If you’re interested I can recommend reading the three challenging contributions at the Zoom seminar, which were not derailed by thunder and lightning.

Resistance, rebellion, revolution! – Sue Atkins

Our fears and resistance to working collaboratively – Ruth Richardson

Youth workers’ every day marvels… when does persistence become resistance? – Janet Batsleer

Resistance in a Climate of Anxiety and Precarity

“The future will challenge our understanding of what it means to be human, from both a biological and a social standpoint” [Klaus Schwab FIR p35]

In Defence of Youth Work [IDYW] was born in resistance. Its emergence in early 2009 was an explicit two fingers to the neoliberal assault on social-democratic, open access and open-ended youth work. This was a form of youth work we defined as ‘volatile and voluntary, creative and collective- an association and conversation without guarantees’. Scoffing at our idealism neoliberalism demanded that youth work be the imposition of structured, time-limited interventions led by prescribed and predictable outcomes. We described a clash between our sense of ‘becoming a person, individually, socially and politically aware’, which held good for ourselves and young people and neoliberalism’s desire to manufacture self-centred conformism and obedience to the status quo amongst both ourselves and young people.


We contrasted our commitment to unfolding relationships and conversations, to intimate and collective democracy with the short-term, calculated, supposedly measurable interventions recommended by the powerful Impact lobby. We defended our crucial understanding of young people as heterogeneous, born into a matrix of class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith, against the neoliberal revival of the abstract young person denied their diversity. In short, we opposed the depoliticisation of practice.

We have been swimming against the tide over the last decade. Even if, in a naive moment prior to the last General Election we wondered whether the tide might even be turning. The orchestrated humiliation of Jeremy Corbyn dispelled that dream. Nevertheless, we have been a prickly thorn in the side of Youth Work’s self-proclaimed leadership. Indeed it has been admitted in private that from time to time we have disturbed the collaborative pragmatism of such as the NYA and UK Youth, not that they would ever admit this in public.

Yet, whilst neoliberal ideology prevails, its free-market economic model is broken. Thus I want to suggest that we are in transition to technocratic capitalism as the dominant section of the ruling class seeks to reassert its control over a fractured global society. In this scenario, spelt out in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the nation-state acts as the ruling class’s senior management enabling the imposition of its global policies. Disobedient populations “risk becoming isolated from global norms, putting these nations at risk of becoming the laggards of the new digital economy” [Schwab FIR p78].

Inevitably, if this shift comes to pass, the nature of this new regime will influence the character of youth work in all its forms.

The reference group for grasping the strategic thinking of the powerful in a period of profound social, political and economic crisis is the World Economic Forum [WEF], which in its own words is “the global platform for public-private cooperation, of partnerships between businessmen, politicians, intellectuals and other leaders of society to define, discuss and advance key issues on the global agenda.” On board amongst many are Amazon, Google, Facebook, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Chase, AstraZyneco, Pfizer, the Gates Foundation – all powerhouses on the international scene – not to mention the World Health Organisation and International Monetary Fund.

Now if I had been venturing some critical thoughts a year ago on a WEF political perspective, which embraces enthusiastically global governance, the glories of automation, artificial intelligence, neurotechnology and mass surveillance we could have held a friendly, rational, even concerned discussion – even if I came across as having just read Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. However the pandemic has put paid to that. My speculative musings of 2019 on an insidious drift to authoritarianism are likely now to be dismissed as ‘conspiracy theory’, a weary insult which excuses the accuser from any serious scrutiny of events.

For there is no way of commenting on the WEF’s politics separate from the remarkable unity of 198 countries in following the unelected World Health Organisation’s declaration of a pandemic and the blanket adoption of the same narrative of fear by politicians and the mainstream media across the world. Against this backcloth, lest I be accused of not being concerned about both the suffering, the dying and the deceased, let’s agree the hegemonic version of events promulgated is the informed truth devoid of complication and contradiction. I will say no more therefore than that the pandemic has amplified key themes in the WEF’s vision of the future. Indeed Kurt Schwab, the founder and executive chair of this self-appointed body has welcomed warmly in the book, ‘The Great Reset’, the window of opportunity provided by the virus in accelerating the WEF’s agenda.

The pandemic will mark a turning point by accelerating this transition. It has crystallized the issue and made a return to the pre-pandemic status quo impossible.” [Schwab TGR p110]

Amongst these themes are:

  • The crucial need for the financial sector, together with the corporate, technological and pharmaceutical giants, to be the leadership of the way forward in tackling the world’s problems. “The combined market value of the leading tech companies hit record after record during the lockdowns, even rising back above levels before the outbreak started… this phenomenon is unlikely to abate any time soon, quite the opposite”. [Schwab TGR p119].
  • The necessity of transforming digitally our private and public existence, whether through shopping, via a shift to on-line education, tele-medicine or even e-sport.“In the summer of 2020, the direction of the trend seems clear: the world of education, like for so many other industries, will become partly virtual”.[Schwab TGR p116]
  • The requirement that our physical and psychological presence on earth is subject to the policing and surveillance of what we do and what we think – see also Shoshanna Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’
  • The demand that we speed up becoming identifiable, immunised, traceable, card-carrying, cash-less consumers.“The current imperative to propel, no matter what, the ‘contactless economy’ and the subsequent willingness of regulators to speed it up means that there are no holds barred”[Schwab TGR p124]

This dominant fraction of the 1% is not without nous. In the name of stakeholder capitalism, its prefered definition of itself, it claims to care about poverty, injustice and the environment. Classically it seeks to co-opt for its own ends radical ideas and practice, for example, intersectionality, LGBTQ rights and youth activism. Whilst the liberal rhetoric is seductive, its programme of action is arrogant and authoritarian. It seeks both to persuade and intimidate. Its proposals are marketed as being in the common interest. The rules of existence will be made by experts for our own good. To doubt this expertise is to be misinformed or even just plain stupid, no more than a Covidiot.

Conspicuously absent in the WEF scenario is the demos, the people. Missing crucially is any sense of democracy, the power of the people. Utterly absent is the very notion that we [and no one else] should make the laws by which we live together. At best in the WEF’s vision of the future the people will be consulted.

To return to the implications for youth work it is the democratic question that is at the heart of the matter. Open youth work is education for democracy. Youth workers and young people enter into a dialogue, within which the starting point is uncertain, the journey is still to be created and the destination is open to change. It is a conversation founded on listening to each other, the prerequisite for a democratic exchange.

My anxiety is that the transition to technocratic capitalism will strengthen the neoliberal emphasis on youth work as behavioural modification, the moulding of the compliant, individualised young person. This is expressed in the continued ‘formalising of the informal’ whereby it seems that many of today’s youth workers cannot envisage contact with young people that is not planned or scripted in some way in advance. Our own IDYW Facebook group is flooded with requests for what are lesson plans in all but name. It is a practice that suggests we do know best what’s good for young people before we’ve even spoken to them. It is a practice, for what it’s worth in my rusty experience, from which many young people will recoil.

Where does all this leave us in today’s conversations with each other and young people? For ourselves we need to explore whether our grasp of the present situation leads us to accommodate to or resist the dominant narrative. In terms of our relationships with young people we need to listen to their sense of going along with or challenging the prescribed behaviours demanded by the government. This seems to me to be fertile ground on which to converse. As I suspect that many, young and old, both accommodate and resist. We might well wear a mask as requested, keep our distance in shops yet visit our friends in their homes and give false addresses in the pub.….and so on. Or is the fear of questioning the government’s diktat so threatening that we are reduced to telling young people to do as they are told? And, like it or not, at least some young people will be conscious via the social media of alternative interpretations of what’s happening, some bizarre, but some perfectly plausible.

As ever the dilemmas intensify when we find ourselves in dialogue about collective resistance. Sadly across the neoliberal decades with the undermining of the trade unions and the social movements youth workers have often submitted to management instructions to stay clear of public demonstrations alongside young people. With this backcloth in mind how are we responding to young people ‘partying’? Do we judge this as selfish anti-social behaviour or as an act of resistance to draconian restrictions? If, for whatever reason, enough is surely enough, young people take to the streets about the corner they find themselves in, do we join them or sit on the sidelines as the protest is dispersed on ‘health and safety grounds’?

To talk of resistance is one thing, to resist is another. To resist as an individual is noble, but likely to lead to disciplinary action and/or exhaustion. If we are to defend democratic youth work in the coming period we must renew our commitment to one another as a collective. In Defence of Youth Work has failed to encourage the coming together of youth workers at a local level as a first step, where worries about accommodating too much or resisting too little can be kicked around. Such gatherings of even two or three people are vital without which talk of resistance is empty. Or are we now so fearful, so precarious, so divided that even to agree to meet regularly for an hour in our own time over a drink, to chew over what’s going on, is a step too far?

Finally, my concern is that we are experiencing a slide to authoritarianism at global and national levels, the former being expressed in the WEF’s ‘expercratic’ ideology, its aversion to democracy and its desire to alter what it means to be human, “advances in neurotechnologies and biotechnologies are forcing us to question what it means to be human” [Schwab FIR p36].

In this context I’ll share a couple of heretical thoughts.

  • In the face of rule by experts we must refuse to be seen as experts. One of our great strengths is humility. Of course to say this is to question the very existence of youth work as a closed profession, its claim that it possesses a unique body of expertise and its desire to license practice. In terms of IDYW itself this very question returns us to our roots. At its birth IDYW was not about the defence of a profession as such or indeed about the defence of Youth Services. It was about being with young people on a voluntary journey of mutual education, within which ‘the educator is as much educated as those she seeks to educate’. Our first conference brought together people from both the statutory and voluntary sectors, who shared this philosophy. The process revealed also that, whatever the lip service paid, much mainstream practice was at odds with the IDYW cornerstones laid down in the Open Letter.
  • What also became clear in our initial debates was that we were defending a certain sort of ‘space’, within which we could relate to young people. And for this privileged site of practice to be in harmony with our philosophy it needed to be as independent as possible from Church, State or Philanthropy. Obviously this precious space cannot float free from relations with the community, with funders, with sponsors and so on. However it is vital that the space is afforded a high degree of ‘relative autonomy’ such that young people and workers are able to create together democratic processes and relationships. Perchance too there is a contradiction in campaigning for this democratic space to be rendered statutory by increasingly authoritarian governments.

Perhaps I’m being melodramatic but I believe we are living through a critical moment in history. More than ever the struggle against neoliberal or technocratic capitalism, against oppression and exploitation must be authentically democratic, illustrating in its practices the profound limitations of institutionalised democracy. Resistance will come from below through a renaissance of the social movements.

Where might IDYW fit in this wider background of would-be resistance? As it is, IDYW lives on as a critical voice within Youth Work as a whole. A temptation might be to look inwards and be drawn into seeking to influence the policies, say, of the National Youth Agency or Centre for Youth Impact. I think this would be a mistake, an act of accommodation rather than resistance. Gazing outwards I wonder whether this is a moment when IDYW should explore directly with its supporters the reasons for our reluctance to organise collectively. Am I being old-fashioned in believing that, when push comes to shove, if resistance is to strike fear into the powerful it will spring from acting together on the basis of the classic slogan, ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’? Am I living in a dream to believe that a passionate and organised IDYW democratic alliance of workers, volunteers and young people could be part of the absolutely necessary social and political resistance to the dystopian prospect offered by the global elite and the World Economic Forum?

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Women and Resistance – The Miners’ Strike 84/85

The In Defence of Youth Work campaign, of which I was the coordinator has just hosted a Zoom Seminar on Resistance. My dear friend, Sue Atkins opened the event with a tour de force on the 3R’s – Resistance, Rebellion and Revolution. to be found on the IDYW web site. Other contributions will appear in the next few weeks. All of these in different ways pose the question of how we resist the closing down of alternative, dissenting voices in reactionary circumstances.

By coincidence I discovered belatedly the other day an on-line version of the special exhibition, ‘Women in the Miners Strike 1984/85′ which is being hosted in the National Coal Mining Museum. It contains an essay on the significance of women in the Great Strike, photos and a video.

Download the exhibition essay here

By twist of fate Marilyn and I found ourselves involved closely with the women of the Derbyshire coalfield. Part way through the strike we had moved from Leicestershire where we had been members of the ‘Dirty Thirty’ Miners Support Group to Chesterfield. Marilyn was caught off guard, not being a miner’s spouse, by the invitation to join the Chesterfield Women’s Action group. The women decided her heart was in the right place and ‘with her being a clever lass who could type’, she became the Minutes Secretary. It’s a matter of great historical and political regret that the tapes of the meetings she kept were lost.

Women from North-East Derbyshire prior to a sponsored run

As for my part I took up the job of Community Education Officer for the district, which contained, amongst others, the Bolsover and Shirebrook collieries. Going to work on my patch meant running the gauntlet of police harassment. In Shirebrook itself the old primary school had been converted into the food distribution centre, housing the supplies brought in solidarity from near and far. At the end of the strike such had been the immense contribution of the women – organising the canteens, ‘womanning’ the picket lines and speaking eloquently from the platforms, here, there and everywhere – the school was transformed into the Shirebrook Women’s Centre, offering a creche run by qualified staff and a diverse programme of workshops and activities. I was proud to have my office tucked away on the first floor and privileged to be swept away in the energy of the first few years.

On our way in solidarity round the now silent colleries

Inevitably as the neoliberal project to undermine traditions of solidarity and community deepened its hold on society even this partial gain was to disappear, all the more so as employment prospects in the coalfield communities dwindled.

Where is this perhaps romantic nostalgia leading? For now it renders me obliged to visit afresh the legacy of neoliberalism’s ideology of self-centred individualism and to explore whether we are in transition to a form of technocratic capitalism, an anti-democratic rule by experts. In doing so the crucial question is to ponder how we resist collectively the conscious closing down by the powerful of our relationships with each other in the personal, social and political sphere? To be melodramatic how do we fight back against an assault on our very humanity?

Whether I write anything of use is quite another matter but I’ll give it a go.

In the meantime the women and men of the Strike remain an inspiration as does the very best of a youth work practice that knows it does not know what is best.

Thanks to Dave Dronfield for the photos.

Trump falls: The celebration falls flat

Leave aside I’m a miserable old git I felt only the fleeting sliver of satisfaction at the defeat of a narcissistic, opportunist maverick. Celebratory was not my mood. Biden, corrupt and cynical, played his Democrat part in the conditions that allowed Trumpism to prosper. At least 67 million Americans still voted for Trump and/or against the Democrats, who under the self-regarding Obama bailed out the bankers and abandoned the working class in all its diversity.

Ta new republic.com

This shot across the bows from Yannis Varoufakis is utterly necessary.

Hoping for a return to normal after Trump? That’s the last thing we need

He concludes:

So yes, Joe Biden has won. And thank goodness for that. But let’s understand that he did so despite, not because of, his social graces or promise to restore normality to the White House. The confluence of discontent that powered Trump to power in 2016 has not gone away. To pretend like it has is only to invite future disaster – for America and the rest of the world.

Clipping the wings of Black Lives Matter? An interview with Gus John

Following on from my last post, ‘Is anti-capitalist youth work next?‘ Gus John’s complementary, challenging perspective focuses in particular on the authoritarian threat to Black Lives Matter, whilst also questioning sharply what he describes as ‘the alternative provision industry’.

Clipping the wings of Black Lives Matter

In this wide-ranging interview on the Institute of Race Relations web site, veteran educational campaigner Gus John draws connections between initiatives currently pursued by three government departments (education; children and families; culture, media and sport), and lays out what the government has in store for anti-racism, particularly Black Lives Matter. 

He concludes:

Gus John: In summary then, this is the increasingly authoritarian state trying to tell BLM ‘we’re coming for you’. They are letting black campaigners know, we want to put you on the Prevent list and treat you as enemies of the state and of wider law-abiding society.

This, I fear, is the thin end of the wedge as far as the drift into totalitarianism is concerned. I would be delighted to be proven wrong, but it would not surprise me in the least if at least 50 percent of the strictures that have been introduced as a consequence of COVID are not written into law to hem us in for all time, thus curtailing many of our hard-won freedoms, while civil society feels it has to be similarly authoritarian, snooping and snitching on neighbours and seeking to criminalise every single non-conformist behaviour.

So, we must never fail to be vigilant and to see the connection between these seemingly consensual things. Above all, we need to take collective action and demonstrate to Boris Johnson and his government that we will not stand by and let them harass and curtail the freedoms of Black Lives Matter.

Professor Gus John is a lifelong campaigner for children’s education rights, a visiting professor at Coventry University and associate professor at the UCL Institute of Education. In 1999, he co-founded the Communities Empowerment Network (now INCLUDE, which he currently chairs), a charity that provides advocacy and representation for excluded students and their families. He was the first black director of education in the UK (1989-1996) as director of education and leisure services in the London Borough of Hackney.

David Graeber, the enemy of bullshit, rest in power

David Graeber as ever listening

Last week the wonderful anarchist, activist and academic, David Graeber met an untimely death. The obituaries are united in acknowledging the insight, optimism and humour he brought into the political sphere. In his words, “capitalism dominates, but it doesn’t pervade”. He argued that “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it‘s something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” My only quibble would be ‘easily’?

For my part the most illuminating remembrance, penned by Nathan Robinson, is to be found at https://www.currentaffairs.org/2020/09/what-david-graeber-noticed?

It ends:

Losing Graeber is difficult, because having people with his attitude is so essential to preventing horrors and improving the world. But the good news is: David Graeber’s framework rejects the idea that David Graeber is unique. It does not assume that knowledge and insight are handed down from intellectuals. It treats people as intelligent, and respects them rather than talking down to them.

I’ll confess something to you: on my bike ride to the office, I began to cry a little bit, because everything fucking sucks so much already this year, and things are getting so bleak and may get bleaker, and now it’s David Graeber this time, really? And I realized the only way I’m ever going to be able to keep myself from lapsing into despair if I can get myself to truly internalize the anarchist attitude of limitless defiance. To keep David Graeber’s death from being a total devastating loss, I will have to ensure I learn his lessons. I made a vow to myself through my tears: I will always notice things. I will notice what I am not noticing. I will help others to notice things. I will expose the criminal squandering of human potential. I will be nice to the reader. I will see joy as an end in itself. I will try to cultivate the kind of intelligence and humor that David Graeber showed. And I will fight, because that is what anarchists do. They do not put up with bullshit or bureaucracy. They refuse to accept the inevitability of tedium and the squandering of the gift of life. They dare to demand the “impossible.”
Rest in power, David Graeber.

At some point you have to look into each others’ eyes

Find below in full as tribute his provocative pamphlet of August 2013, later to become a book, with thanks to the STRIKE coop and magazine.

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant
by David Graeber

Ta to autonomynews.org

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

Why did Keynes’ promised utopia—still being eagerly awaited in the ’60s—never materialise? The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ’20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.

So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, ‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers’ tripled, growing ‘from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.’ In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be.)

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call ‘bullshit jobs’.

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ’60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done—at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does. I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.

Now, I realise any such argument is going to run into immediate objections: ‘who are you to say what jobs are really “necessary”? What’s necessary anyway? You’re an anthropology professor, what’s the “need” for that?’ (And indeed a lot of tabloid readers would take the existence of my job as the very definition of wasteful social expenditure.) And on one level, this is obviously true. There can be no objective measure of social value.

I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, ‘taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.’ Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call ‘the market’ reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.) But even more, it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely (one or t’other?) Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.

This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told ‘but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?’

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.)—and particularly its financial avatars—but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3–4 hour days.

Protecting Life, Interrogating Death, Seeking Truth: Phil Scraton, May 27


Merseyside Writing on the Wall Festival

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Protecting Life, Interrogating Death, Seeking Truth

Phil Scraton

Inquests offer the only opportunity for bereaved families to hear and cross-examine evidence concerning the context in which their loved one died. The Chief Coroner’s guidance on Covid-19 deaths advises against inquests investigating the significance of national policies and their implementation, concentrating only on the ‘facts’ of each death. In fact, there is no obligation on care homes or hospitals to report Covid deaths to the Coroner nor to hold inquests. Reflecting on the ground-breaking Hillsborough Inquests, 2014-2016 and the unprecedented jury findings at the inquest into the prison death of Joseph Rainey in Northern Ireland (2020), this talk focuses on bereaved families’ ‘right to know’, and have examined, the full circumstances and wider context in which their loved ones died.

Phil Scraton is Professor Emeritus in the School of Law, Queen’s University, Belfast. Widely published, his books include: In the Arms of the Law – Coroners’ Inquests and Deaths in Custody (with Kathryn Chadwick); The Violence of Incarceration (with Jude McCulloch); Power, Conflict and Criminalisation; Hillsborough The Truth. From 2010 he led the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s research, was principal author of its 2012 Report, Hillsborough and was seconded to the families’ legal teams throughout the 2014-2016 inquests. In 2018, with Rebecca Scott Bray, he co-convened the University of Sydney’s research programme on coroners’ inquests into deaths in custody and is co-investigator for the Irish Council of Civil Liberties’ project Deaths in Contested Circumstances and Coroners’ Inquests. In 2016 he was awarded the Freedom of the City of Liverpool.

Venue: Facebook
Time: 6pm
Tickets Available here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/phil-scraton-tickets-104540657922

All ticket donations will go to: Fans Supporting Foodbanks, South Liverpool Domestic Abuse Services and WoW.

A virus-created radical moment: Not to be missed?

The following piece was written a few weeks ago for inclusion in a CONCEPT Covid-19 special. Its opening is overtaken by events. As I write the unlocking of restrictions here on Crete gathers pace. Yet tension prevails. We wish to mingle, but with whom? We were safe on our island. We need tourism to survive, but do we fear the tourists? More than ever we need philanthropy, a love for our fellow human beings, solidarity not charity, but the virus in the hands of the powerful feeds misanthropy and xenophobia. I’ll try to tangle with this dilemma in the next week or so and pursue my call for resistance to either ‘business as usual or a ‘new normal’within and without of work

A virus-created radical moment: Not to be missed?

I am sitting in splendid isolation on a lush hillside above a Cretan village, where even the patriarchal kafeneio is closed. Outside its shuttered face a group of old men sit, less than socially distant, defying spasmodic police surveillance. A few kilometres away people queue obediently outside the supermarket, clutching in their plastic gloved hands the required Out-of-Home pass and their ID. There are health concerns, even though the island of 650,000 souls has precious few Covid-19 cases and only one death, but such melancholia is hardly new. Crete is awash with chemists, testing one’s blood pressure a daily routine. Notwithstanding the benefits of the Mediterranean diet it’s tempting to note that Hippocrates hailed from hereabouts and that hypochondria stems from Ancient Greek.

Crete’s splendid isolation

There is real fear, though not so much of the virus per se but of what lies ahead. As I write the island is closed for business. The tourism-oiled life blood of the local economy congeals. With cafes, tavernas, hotels, even beaches, empty of purpose, unemployment and debt soars. The Orthrus-headed threat of poverty and hunger hangs in the air. The questions on everybody’s lips are ‘when will this end?’ and ‘will we, do we, want to return to normal?’ At this moment, if assuredly we are not all in this together, from capitalist to peasant, humanity faces a fragile future.

For now, it’s ironically common-place for commentators to write that the neoliberal obsession with the free market and the self-centred individual has been utterly exposed. In this profound social crisis society turns to the public, not the private sector. Society turns to the nurse, not the entrepreneur. Capitalism’s endless pursuit of profit and growth is shown to be at odds with the common good and at odds with Nature itself

Against this tumultuous backcloth what are the alternatives as and when the virus loosens its grip? Three perhaps stand out on the grand canvas.

I. Despite the rhetoric that this is impossible, there will be an almost irresistible desire to return to normal. Even though this sordid ‘business as usual’ has created widening inequality – the world’s richest 1% have more than twice as much as 6.9 billion people – and life-threatening climate change.

2. And if, as is likely, this return to the status quo fails amidst what is speculated to be a second Great Depression of recession and austerity, there is the ever-present danger, as we bow to increased surveillance and policing, that an authoritarian, xenophobic politics with strong men at its helm moves to centre stage.

3. The third possibility depends on us. Are we able to build afresh on the recognition that we are essential; that our labour is the bedrock of society? Are we able to hold onto our renewed community experience of mutual aid and solidarity?

To wonder if the latter is possible brings us inexorably to the matter of consciousness. Do the circumstances thrust upon us herald the fulfilment of the revolutionary dream, the emergence of a people, conscious of themselves as the creators of history? Half a century ago as Cornelius Castoriadis revealed presciently neoliberalism’s moneyed ‘meaninglessness’, he posed the question, “to what extent does the contemporary situation give birth in people the desire and capacity to create a free and just society?”

A recently discovered street sign in memory of Castoriadis Cornelius [Greek philosopher]. Thanks to David Curtis and Noelle McAfee.

Speaking of which brings me to the part that youth and community workers might play in the renaissance of collective, reflective solidarity. At its best, the radical tradition contesting the ideological space to be found within our practice has been founded on critical conversations and supportive relationships through which we are as much educated as those we aspire to educate. This is a dialogue riven with moments of intimate democracy, listening to one another, as the foundation of an authentic public democracy.

Alas, over the last 40 years we have been on the retreat. The agenda of social conformity has been strengthened immeasurably by the imposition of prescribed, predictable targets and outcomes, aimed at manufacturing the compliant and resilient individual. Pressured practitioners have sought to make the best of a bad job. However, certainly in England, a generation of workers in their acceptance of the planned interventions demanded from above have cooperated with ‘formalising the informal’. For my part, the recuperation by neoliberalism of even radical elements in our practice is symbolised by the now ritual abuse on all sides of the notion of empowerment, whereby we accept without demur the absurdity that the powerless can be empowered by the powerful.

In closing, I’ll propose that, as we return to work beyond the crisis, there is a fleeting, unmissable chance to revive our commitment to an open-ended, emancipatory dialogue with young people and the community. It will mean challenging, resisting a return to the managerialist implementation of imposed norms and expectations, the catechism of ‘impact’. Such resistance will necessitate the urgent renewal of our collective capacity in the workplace, through workers’ self-organisation and the trade unions.

At the risk of being melodramatic, this unexpected rebuke of Capitalism’s arrogance and excess marks an opening we cannot afford to let slip by. Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history.

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To find out more about my love of Cornelius Castoriadis see as a starter.

https://chattingcritically.com/2019/12/29/towards-personal-social-and-political-autonomy-revisiting-cornelius-castoriadis/

CONCEPT -Vol. 11, Covid-19 Supplementary Issue, 2020

I’m pleased and humbled to have an article in this special Covid-19 issue of CONCEPT. In the next few days I hope to return to and extend the argument to be found therein, summed up in the final sentence.

Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history

Leave this aside the issue as ever is rich in its diversity of themes and in its range of practitioners. Guided by Mae Shaw’s editorial I hope very much that you will dip into its critical contents.

Editorial – Mae Shaw

This is the first time we have published a supplementary issue of Concept in our almost 30-year history. We were first motivated by a ‘call for solidarity’ from Luke Campbell (in this issue), drawing on his work with a local community action network since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. We hastily set to, seeking contributions from organisations and individuals we thought may be interesting, or interested to respond. It was not intended to be representative of the field of practice; more of a snapshot. We are aware that alongside a general sense of dislocation at this grim and demanding time, there is also alarming evidence of differential circumstances and experiences on the ground. We hoped to capture some of this for our readers, and to offer a modest opportunity to record, reflect, express, share and, maybe even generate some small sense of solidarity, needed now more than ever. The response has been very encouraging, and the number of contributions has grown beyond our original estimate.

The now ubiquitous claim that ‘we are all in this together’ may be accurate in some general existential sense, but the contributions here demonstrate how existing social and material inequalities are reproduced and heightened in this catastrophe. As many of the articles illustrate, some people are stuck at home, while other people are stuck without homes. Susie Dalton highlights how home can be the most dangerous place for some women, while John Player argues that a decent home has become an almost hopeless aspiration for many homeless people in Scotland today. For some young carers, as Mel Aitken shows, home can be both a prison and a place of protection and affection in a time of lockdown, with exhausting personal consequences. In the South African context, where inequalities of class, race and gender are more endemic and visible, Astrid von Kotze demonstrates how the residual geography of apartheid dictates the parameters of what ‘home’ means in practice, with poor black people (women in particular) trying to mitigate the greatest threats from the virus in impossible conditions.

A matter of increasing and widespread concern is the extent to which ‘vulnerability’ is becoming a shorthand for lack of personal agency for some. George Lamb, disability rights activist, is concerned about the ways in which the current ‘vulnerability’ script may undo the gains made by the disability movement in their decades-long struggle for rights, not charity, denying the voices of disabled people at this critical time. Some of the same concerns about reconstituting forms of dependency, which have been so strenuously resisted in recent years, are emerging in relation to the implicit ‘ageism’ reflected in much public health policy. Emphasising the continuing agency of ‘vulnerable’ people needs to be a primary concern for practitioners in this field. In any case, if this crisis has taught us one very useful human lesson, it is that we are all profoundly vulnerable!

Making donations and volunteering to help others in respectful ways are important forms of agency, but so too is the capacity to question, and to accept that there will be contradictions. In struggling to make sense of the current reality, and using online resources to meet with like-minded others, Anne O’Donnell is rediscovering the ‘healing’ power of theory: the therapeutic properties of thinking, understanding, grasping, revisiting longstanding analytical frameworks and assessing the value of new ones. What’s more, as Lisa Rigby makes clear, this kind of critical awareness can creatively ‘bleed’ into other interrelated spheres which are not at present included sufficiently in public discourse: ‘…. public/private finance, international affairs, and ideas about health, including around the use of illicit drugs’.

Fear and growing anger about the cumulative effects of long-term austerity on the ability of public services to respond to crisis are matched by growing apprehension about the future of precious public assets. Callum McGregor is concerned that the now commonplace collective displays of ‘symbolic solidarity’ for ‘frontline’ workers do not inadvertently undermine a model of genuine ‘civic solidarity’ which expresses a selective determination to secure more equitable rights and rewards mediated through a democratic state polity. In the midst of such sincere outpouring of public goodwill, it can seem churlish to remind people that the British National Health Service is a tax-funded public service, not a charity – and certainly not a business. There will undoubtedly be attempts in due course to depoliticise this crisis, to reinforce rather than challenge the current ideological orthodoxy. But there will also undoubtedly be attempts to seize the crisis as an urgent educational opportunity; as a warning of even worse things to come unless that ideological orthodoxy is seriously challenged.

The immensely unequal distribution of private goods, gained at the expense of the wider public good, may become even more transparent as vast inequalities of wealth and privilege are laid bare. Tony Taylor believes that neoliberal fetishism of the free market and the sovereign individual has been fatally wounded; found completely inadequate to the demands of the current crisis, as ‘society turns to the nurse, not the entrepreneur’. At the same time, and depending on its severity, the crisis may force a fundamental rethink of what is a reasonable way to inhabit the planet, and the economic and social relations which sustain or destroy it.

Many of the contributions here draw attention to the power of community (in all its ambivalence), and to the creativity, empathy, reciprocity and mutuality inherent in human beings which can be either fostered or squandered. The question is how this critical and fearful rupture can generate a genuine and vibrant curriculum for educational work and action with communities of place, identity and interest. As Arundhati Roy rightly observes ‘Nothing could be worse than a return to normality’! We all look forward to looking back on this benighted time sooner rather than later. In the meantime, if you want to contribute to this discussion, please contact mae.shaw@ed.ac.uk

ARTICLES

POETRY