Forever Young? Youth Work Then and Now

I’m pleased, even if the times seem dark, to have an article in this special edition of CONCEPT, the always challenging and diverse Scottish Community Education journal.

Entitled ‘The Decline of the Local Authority Youth Service in England – Reflections of an actor in its demise’ its conclusion written a few months ago is not too far off the mark.

Let me finish, though, on a fanciful if melodramatic note. Given the present political turmoil, it is possible that by the end of the year we will be governed by either an authoritarian, right-wing, populist administration or by a progressive alliance [Labour, SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru] committed to a social-democratic programme of redistribution and renationalisation. In these contrasting scenarios, what price youth work, what price a Youth Service?

Mel Aitken and Mae Shaw, the editors explain:

This is a special issue of Concept which considers the changed and changing landscape of youth work in the UK.  It includes contributions which take a backward look in order to locate present day developments, articles which reflect on contemporary themes, issues and practices, and interviews with current youth workers who are striving to manage the contradictions of politics and policy for young people, on the ground.

ARTICLES

FULL ISSUE (PDF FORMAT)

Dave Backwith counsels caution, whilst continuing to hope

I’m really pleased to post this response to my piece, ‘Seizing the Moment’ from a dear friend and comrade of thirty years, Dave Backwith, author of ‘Social Work, Poverty And Social Exclusion‘. I do so late on a Wednesday evening, full of dread about tomorrow, but hanging on to hope.

As Ken Loach’s video says the UK general election on 12th December does indeed promise to be a Fork in the Road (https://twitter.com/kenloachsixteen/status/1204365910947061760) a game changer, one way or the other. It the Tories get a clear win we’re likely to have the most right-wing, anti-working class and racist government in living memory. And given the polls and the bile the mainstream media are pumping out, uncertainty about the result and what to do to try to influence it, is hardly surprising

But Tony urges us to seize the moment and vote to oust the Tories. Well, I would if I could.

I share much of Tony’s ambivalence towards Labour. But, like it or not Labour or, more likely, a Labour-led coalition are the only viable alternative to another Tory government – and we’ve had more than enough of them: ten long years!!!). That said, I’ve doubts about Tony’s conclusion that “We have a fleeting opportunity to close the era of social selfishness and launch a renewed era of social solidarity”.

One doubt is about the some of the limits of the ‘our’ much-trumpeted democracy and whether the election is likely to bring a government that can lead a shift from ‘social selfishness to social solidarity’. Like Tony I was pleased to see Akala and co’s letter and support the gist of it. But the fact is for a lot of people, whether they’ve registered and, if so, whether they vote, and who they vote for will make no difference at all to the overall result. Where I live the Tories had majorities of around 19-20,000 in both 2015 and 2017 – taking about 60% of the vote. In other words, if the ‘left’ parties formed an anti-Tory pact and they all backed the same candidate, the Tories would still win – comfortably. According to Wikipedia there were 172 safe Tory seats in 2010. Much of the south of England is so-called ‘electoral deserts’ where effectively the Tories face no contest. Of course, the electoral landscape is shifting and what were once taken for granted votes are no longer guaranteed. And, apparently, it is people on low incomes who are most likely to change their vote.

But as Clare Ainsley also argues (http://www.transformingsociety.co.uk/2019/11/27/class-still-matters-in-elections-but-its-changing-nature-needs-to-be-understood/) these working class votes have to be won and what matters most to them are incomes, welfare reform, housing and the NHS. In a country with 14 million people living in poverty, rising homelessness and ever starker inequalities that’s not surprising. Where these things come together is that for Labour to form a coalition government in which “which politicians listen acutely to the people and to each other” needs a social movement which addresses the issues which impact on people’s lives, mobilizes them and thereby offers a convincing prospect of radical change. I think Tony is right to emphasize that, ‘People-led change’ goes beyond voting and is built on, “ongoing involvement in politics, in the grass-roots struggles to transform our collective existence”.

Historically, it’s not hard to show that the Labour Party has never been about people led change and even at its reforming best (the 1945 government) has made top-down changes for people rather than leading a movement, or movements, of the people. Today, however radical Labour’s manifesto might be, there’s little sign of them leading a popular movement against neo-liberalism. I think Tony’s right to say that ‘Corbynism’ has rattled the establishment, hence the landslide of vitriol intended to discredit Corbyn. But that would flood of poison will be as nothing compared to what would be unleashed if he did become prime minister. To withstand such an onslaught the parliamentary Labour Party, and any coalition partners, would need to be rock solidly defiant and would need the popular, active support of poor, oppressed and exploited people. I don’t think that’s likely to happen but if it would be a start in making democracy real: by people struggling for control over their lives. That would definitely be a nail in the coffin of the selfish bullshit of neo-liberalism..

Corbyn and Anti-Semitism – Prof Gus John answers Archbishop Welby

Back in 2015 Gus John took a breath at the age of 70, reflecting on fifty years of struggle. On the In Defence of Youth Work web site we observed, ‘Prof. Gus John arrived in the UK in August 1964, aged 19, to study for the priesthood. But almost from the moment he arrived he became involved in what was to become his life’s calling – education, youth work and the struggle for social justice and human rights for embattled communities as an activist and an academic.’

Thankfully Gus is still struggling and following his motto, ‘Do Right! Fear No One!’, he has resigned from his position on the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns in protest at Archbishop Welby’s endorsement of the Chief Rabbi’s condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. I hope you will find time to engage with his coruscating rebuke to what might be called ‘the establishment at prayer’ and its damaging intervention into the most significant election for decades – see my ‘From Social Selfishness to Social Solidarity’.

Corbyn and Anti-Semitism 
Prof Gus John answers Archbishop Welby 

Of Stained-Glass Houses and Stones

On 26 November 2019, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, backed the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis in his condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, stating that Mirvis’ criticism of Corbyn and the Labour Party should ‘alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews’.  In response, Professor Gus John, independent consultant and a lay member of the Archbishops’ Council’s Committee on Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC)*wrote:

                                                                                                                                         

So, the jury has returned its verdict. 

Jeremy Corbyn has failed the fitness to practice test.  His fitness to lead the nation has been tested in his handling of complaints of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party and he has failed that test.  What is more, under his watch the Labour Party is suffering the ‘shame’ of being investigated by the government’s anti-discrimination watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission.  

This is all most intriguing.  Let’s take a moment to dissect it.  Corbyn is considered unfit to lead a government because with him at the helm his party has failed to deal swiftly and decisively with the anti-Semitic conduct of a minute proportion of its members.  This has cause hurt among the Jewish population and alienated Jewish supporters of Labour. So, Corbyn is presumed to be guilty of ‘joint enterprise’, because although he himself is a committed anti-racist and against anti-Jewish racism, by implication he has colluded with those who are not by failing to act decisively against them.  As such, his is taken to be a failure of leadership in that he did not ensure that appropriate mechanisms existed within the Labour Party to deal with complaints of anti-Semitism in a timely fashion. But, the absence of such mechanisms and processes is an organisational and institutional issue. The matters being complained against and being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission are ones which are to do mainly with the conduct of individuals, whether they are rank and file members of the Labour Party or people holding official positions in the party.

Why this distinction? It seems to me that what is missing in this whole hysterical discourse which sounds increasingly like populism on speed, is that discrimination against any group or population in society who are rendered outsiders and not quite considered integral to the body politic typically manifests in at least four observable ways:  structural, cultural, institutional and personal. In this case, the actions of individuals in the Labour Party and what those actions indicate about their attitudes to the Jewish community are considered to be indicative of an embedded culture of anti-Semitism within Labour, a culture presumably endorsed and sustained by Jeremy Corbyn, if only by his failure to deal with the people responsible for perpetuating it in a timely fashion.

So, the Chief Rabbi proclaims with all the authority that goes with his position that Jeremy Corbyn is not fit to lead a government of a country in which Jews that have been so let down by him have to continue not only to live but to be full citizens. The actions of people within the Labour Party whom he has failed to deal with have caused the entire Jewish community to have cause to look over their shoulders as they go about their daily business and the responsibility for that must be laid at Corbyn’s feet.  The sense I make of that is that combating racism and anti-Semitism will not be safe in Corbyn’s hands, so on 12 December, people should think carefully about what they do in the ballot box and let their conscience lead them, because if he has failed to do his duty by the Jewish community and to get that right, he surely cannot be trusted to get anything else right. The media on the other hand reacts to the Chief Rabbi as if he were the Pope, speaking for all British Jews as the Pope would for all Roman Catholics.  Secular Jews and those who do not hold with the views of Jews for Labour are considered not to matter.

It seems to me that the Chief Rabbi and those powerful figures like the Archbishop of Canterbury who have weighed in behind him are being more than a little sectarian and establishing a hierarchy of oppression if they seriously expect the entire nation to judge Corbyn and his capacity to run the country for the good of all its citizens on the basis of their assessment of his performance in dealing with anti-Semitism.

This is all happening at a time when, despite the government and the media focusing on Brexit as the only show in town, people’s lives are being lost and their fundamental rights being trampled upon as a direct consequence of the government’s hostile environment.  At a time when citizens of the African and Asian diaspora have to be constantly ‘looking over their shoulder’ for fear of being ambushed by border force apparatchiks, or by right wing vigilantes who appoint themselves as defenders of our country and its borders. At a time when employers, landlords, schools/colleges/universities, doctors surgeries, A & E departments and other health providers are being appointed without their say so as immigration officers and extensions of the UK’s border force under the Immigration Act 2016; when people who as young black men were harassed and criminalised by the police 40 years ago under the ‘Sus’ law are being told now that they are undocumented and they must leave the UK because they have a criminal record and have therefore forfeited their right to remain; when undocumented workers who having been denied benefits are having whatever earnings they derive from casual work confiscated as ‘proceeds of crime’; children being excluded from school for not having the proper uniform because they are being fed from food banks and their parents/carers cannot afford to buy the clothes and shoes that would make them compliant with the school’s uniform policy.  One could go on.  

I am not aware of the Chief Rabbi or/and the Archbishop of Canterbury alerting the nation to the quality of leadership that perpetrates and sustains such human rights violations.  I have been an external examiner for colleges and universities for the last forty years. I have lived in the UK since 1964. I am to attend an examining board next week where a student will be defending her PhD thesis and I have been given strict instructions to make sure and bring my passport to prove I have the right to work, or else I won’t be able to present my external examiner’s report.  

This is the state at structural level doing to sections of the population what the Chief Rabbi is accusing the leader of the Labour Party of being nonchalant about with respect to his party’s treatment of Jews.  If the number of deaths in custody that the African community has suffered for half a century without a single police officer being found guilty of murder or manslaughter had occurred within the Jewish community, by now the entire nation would have been brought to a standstill.   Given our interlocking histories on the axis of race, ethnicity and class in post-colonial Britain, no one group in the society has a monopoly on oppression, or on hurt.

And what gives the Archbishop of Canterbury the right to endorse the Chief Rabbi’s scaremongering about Corbyn and adopt such a lofty moral position in defence of the Jewish population?  I have often had cause to wonder how it is that Justin Welby was made Archbishop of Canterbury, rather than John Sentamu.  Sentamu consecrated Welby as Bishop of Durham in York Minster in October 2011. By November 2012, just one year after becoming a Bishop, it was announced that Justin Welby was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, though it was widely expected – in some circles at least – that Sentamu would get that post.  Sentamu was a highly respected black senior cleric and had been a Bishop since 1996 and Archbishop of York since 2005, six years before he consecrated Welby a Bishop. It may well be that the appointments committee prayed and fasted and sought divine revelation before making their choice, so let me not gainsay the workings of the Holy Spirit!  Be that as it may, if Anglicans in the UK from the African and Asian diaspora were to judge Justin Welby as the leader of the established church by the same criteria he appears to be employing in his assessment of Jeremy Corbyn, he too would fail the fitness to lead test. There are numerous reasons why Anglican clergy, laity and employees within the Anglican Church who are so-called black and ethnic minority don’t call out the Archbishop of Canterbury on racism in the church and its leadership, in the same way that he sees fit to join the orchestrated condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn.  Maybe, just maybe, he has now given them permission to do so. Those who occupy houses clad with stained glass should perhaps be a trifle more careful when they join others in throwing stones.

Professor Gus John – 26 November 2019

In addition a copy of Prof Gus John’s resignation letter

If you are unfamiliar with Gus John’s history, you might find the following links revealing.

Seizing the moment – from Social Selfishness to Social Solidarity

Over the last few weeks I’ve discarded a number of responses to the fast-approaching General Election, fearing they were self-indulgent and added little to the overwhelming priority – to oust the Tories and to break from the selfish bullshit, that is neoliberalism.

At the heart of my abandoned efforts was a desire to explain my love/hate relationship with the Labour Party [LP] – from enthusiastic young canvasser in 1964 to being the committed Chesterfield delegate at the LP national conference in 1987 through to having little good to say about neoliberal New Labour for nigh on thirty years. All this was a preface to seeking to persuade you that I carried no naive torch for Jeremy Corbyn. This said, I did hope that something was on the move within the Party. The 2017 election LP comeback from the depths suggested that my fragile optimism should not be cast aside.

The passing years have dented inevitably my perspective. Whilst to be expected the coordinated mainstream media assault, from the Mail to the Guardian, on Corbyn’s character has been overwhelming. This pseudo-psychological narrative has so insinuated itself into people’s thinking that, for example, contributions on the youth work’s social media sites echo the fixation. Politics is reduced to personality. Corbyn’s dithering versus Johnson’s deceit is about as insightful as it gets.

Rarely do we find an engagement with the profound ideological, economic and political choice posed by this ‘snap’ election. On the one hand the Tories stand for a continuity with the ‘free’ market, dressed up in an authoritarian, populist, nationalist garb. The rich stay rich, the poor stay poor. On the other Labour aspires to resurrect afresh a social-democratic, redistributive agenda ‘for the many, not the few’.

To back the latter offers no guarantees, but it opens a door to possible progress that will be slammed shut if the Tories prevail.

This stark choice is caught in the following letter sent to The Guardian by leading contemporary musicians, about whose work I know little, but who represent certainly a significant current on the music scene.

Stormzy backs Corbyn. Ta to the NME.

We are musicians, artists, rappers and grime MCs, and we will be voting for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party this election. We’re not voting Labour in the naive hope that they will solve all the problems our communities face. We vote because they offer an urgent alternative to the destructive policies of the Conservatives.

Ending austerity will, for the first time in many of our lifetimes, use the taxes we all already pay into, to reinvest in the housing, youth clubs, community groups and cultural centres being destroyed by the current government. These spaces made many of us who we are today, and while we don’t rely on them like we used to, we know how important they will be for the next generation. It is only by restoring them that our communities can take charge of our own destinies, and build our own solutions to the problems we face.

We are under no illusions about Labour’s own imperial history, and we don’t think the British establishment is fundamentally going to change. But we are sick of our taxes being spent on fighting more wars and building more jails. Jeremy Corbyn has been one of the few people who has fought against injustice all his political life, from apartheid South Africa to the bombing of Libya.

To deny from our own, now quite comfortable places, that a Labour government would improve the lives of millions would betray the communities we come from. The opportunity for people-led change can be made possible under a Jeremy Corbyn Labour government. End austerity, rebuild our communities and take back the means to change our lives for the better.

Surely, in an election that could transform the livelihoods of many, and be the difference between life or death for many more, life is something worth voting for. Join us. Register to vote before midnight on Tuesday 26 November. And vote Labour on Thursday 12 December.

Signed by Akala, Stormzy and others – see Musicians backing Labour

I don’t think they exaggerate, whether talking about life or death in the present or the future. Crucially they recognise that a vote for Labour is no more than the start, a Labour victory merely the beginning. People-led change requires our ongoing involvement in politics, in the grass-roots struggles to transform our collective existence.

ta to snopes.com

Even as I pen the phrase, a Labour victory, I falter. Calling for a vote for Labour in England, exceptions such as the Greens in Brighton aside, is utterly understandable, but what about the situation elsewhere in the disUnited Kingdom? Two interrelated concerns colour my sense of what best to do. Firstly the bottom line is that we rid ourselves of the Tories and break from the Thatcherite legacy of self-centred individualism. Secondly I am deeply at odds with the idea that Labour is the sole repository of compassion and justice, a form of ‘monopoly radicalism’. It is caught in the leadership’s dismissal of a post-election progressive alliance, involving, say, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. My heresy is that I feel a coalition government led by Labour, within which politicians listen acutely to the people and to each other, would be an important step towards a more democratic British politics.

Since 1979 we have endured the conscious undermining of our commitment to one another, of our belief in the common good. We have been coaxed and cajoled into being first and foremost passive consumers rather than critical citizens. Since 2008 neoliberalism has been a broken model, but the vision of ‘another world is possible’ seemed to be beyond us. It is clear that the totally unexpected election of Corbyn to the Labour leadership shocked the status quo. Put aside, for a moment, the inevitable criticism that the LP leadership could have done this, that or the other better, the orchestrated, toxic campaign against Corbyn in particular has ironically little to do with the supposed weakness of his character or his alleged virulent anti-semitism. It has everything to do with the challenge posed to the ruling class or elite, if you prefer, by an economic and political programme focused on social equality and social justice. Such a proposal is an anathema to the most influential fractions of the powerful.

At this juncture the choice is plain, even if the consequences depend critically on our political involvement beyond the polling booth. We have a fleeting opportunity to close the era of social selfishness and launch a renewed era of social solidarity.

FROM SOCIAL SELFISHNESS TO SOCIAL SOLIDARITY

SEIZE THE MOMENT! VOTE TO OUST THE TORIES!

Are Young People no more than ‘bare life’ to be forgotten, ignored or killed?

Sitting in my simple, but comfortable house set beautifully, even romantically on a Cretan hillside it is easy to turn in on myself, to indulge my narcissistic desires. And, yet with all its dilemmas my access to social media precludes my withdrawal from reality. Over the last few days harrowing stories of the plight of refugees on the Greek islands have emerged afresh out of the silence imposed by the mainstream media’s short-term attention-span.

On Samos, new arrivals set up camp where they can. Thanks to Gemma Bird for the photo

Just the other day Symi, a small island in the Dodecanese, a haven of mine 30 years ago as I escaped every summer my paid labour, saw 400 refugees arrive. The mayor Eleftherios Papakaloudas at his wits end cried, “children are sleeping on the streets, wandering, crying. There is no doctor, there is no food. The people depend on the kindness of the local tavernas. The government is not interested.’

Whilst, feeling hopeless, easing my conscience by donating to the Dirty Girls of Lesvos, I came across the latest piece to flow from the always challenging pen of Hans Skott-Myrhe, entitled ‘Homeless Young People under 21st century Capitalism are Disposable!’

It begins:

As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, we are surrounded by reports and images of abandoned and neglected children worldwide. From images of drowned immigrant children in Europe and the U.S., to young people in cages at the U.S. border, and youth living on the street in barrios, favelas, ghettos and urban centers across the planet, the 24-hour news cycle presents us with a flood of images demonstrating, in the harshest terms, our social brutality towards the next generation.

We have great rhetoric about the importance of young people as the future, but just as we seem to have lost interest in genuinely caring for the future in ecological terms, we also seem to have lost interest in caring for the next generation. There appears to be a cynicism driving my generation that precludes taking the necessary material actions necessary for care of anything or anyone other than ourselves. We go on and on about the importance of “self” care, while abandoning any “other” to the whims and mercies of a rapidly deteriorating social and biological milieu.

Drawing on Giorgio Agamben, Hans ponders whether ‘in our current system of unbridled and ever-proliferating erosion of material care for living things, including young people, I have to wonder how many of us and the next generation have become “bare life.” – bodies that can be killed [or I would add, forgotten and utterly ignored] without transgressing the laws of 21st century global capitalism.

He ends:

There are powerful hints that we have entered a new era of feudalism in which the wealthy decide who and what is valuable and worthy of continuance and support. As the late Toni Morrison said in a conversation with Angela Davis, we have moved from being citizens to becoming consumers and in that shift we have lost our sense of collective force and accountability to each other. Our worth is no longer measured in terms of our social contribution, but only in terms of our ability to generate wealth for the ruling class.

And what of those bodies that fall outside the parameters of wealth generation? What of those whose skills and inclinations don’t fit within the system of perpetual training and a seemingly endless conveyor belt of low-wage jobs? Those bodies whose families already face the social devastation of addiction, the corruption of generational care, the violence of endlessly deferred expectations? The young people whose hopes and expectations are bound to a world already past or a world that has not yet arrived?

These are our homeless children and youth. Some of them literally without a home, living on the streets or shifting from place to place without stable or safe shelter. But these are also those young people seeking asylum, bodies flowing across borders, forced into refugee camps and subject to the bullets and bombs of those who seek death for death’s sake. These are the ways that we treat the next generation as disposable bodies, as bare life. But they are not and never have been disposable or dispensable. They are valuable beyond measure. They are us and we are them and if we are to avoid extinction, we must affirm the living force we share together.

READ IN FULL AT HOMELESS YOUNG PEOPLE ARE DISPOSABLE

Hans Skott-Myhre is a professor in the Social Work and Human Services Department at Kennesaw State University, is cross-appointed to the graduate program in psychology at the University of West Georgia and holds appointments at Brock University and the University of Victoria.

BEING CRITICAL, CREATIVE & COLLECTIVE: RENEWING RADICAL YOUTH WORK

You will find below another of my pieces from the past, which appeared initially in CONCEPT, Volume 18 and then in a still relevant Special Issue Youth Work Reader – Standing at the Crossroads: What future for Youth Work? (2013). I’d encourage you to explore its contents.

BEING CRITICAL, CREATIVE & COLLECTIVE: RENEWING RADICAL YOUTH WORK

“I’ve never thought of myself as a radical, but the other day I was accused of being one because I asked a question.” Thus spoke a quizzical youth worker participating in a workshop, ‘Is there a history of radical youth work?’ at the 2007 History of Youth & Community Work Conference. The lively discussion sparked by this cry of confusion moved me to ponder exploring anew the possible character of Radical Youth Work today. Hoping not to patronise the worker’s bewilderment I looked to argue that whilst questioning is vital, it is hardly the sufficient condition for being radical. I flirted with writing a Draft Manifesto! However it was not long before doubts set in, some serious, some self-indulgent. Then I dithered as I heard myself caressing clichés and trotting out truisms as if it was still 1977 not 2007.

Thinking historically though was helpful. It took me back to an illuminating moment in 1984 at the height of the Great Miners’ Strike. At a Community Education conference in Leicestershire the question was posed, “are you a radical youth worker?” To the consternation of those present, Malcolm Ball known as a troublemaker, on and off the campus, on and off the picket line, responded in the negative. “No”, he continued, “I am a radical who happens to be a youth worker.” In cold print this reply may seem unremarkable or a mere play on words. Yet my own experience suggests this distinction is profound in its implications. Within Youth Work I have met only a minority who have grasped its significance.

Immediately it implies that being radical, imagining and striving for a revolutionary transformation of society, is something that touches every part of our lives. Though I have fallen well short of the mark it means that I’ve tried to be a radical companion, a radical parent, a radical trade unionist and, hopefully, a radical youth worker. It suggests that being a radical youth worker is not some cloak of identity to be worn at work, only to be divested on the way home to the travails of ‘ordinary’ life. It stresses that being radical rests ultimately on the existence of supportive groups, however small, inside and outside of work. It demands our involvement in the (re)creation of social movements opposed, if you’ll forgive a clumsy but useful definition of yesteryear, to racially and sexually structured patriarchal capitalism, dressed nowadays in its global neo-liberal garb. For the sake of brevity I will call this plurality of social and political struggles, the Radical Project.

So I’m going to test out some thoughts on the reciprocal relationship between the overarching Radical Project and Radical Youth Work. It will be my contradictory contention that without the Radical Project, Radical Youth Work is an illusion, but that Radical Youth Work could be an influential thread within the Radical Project itself. My starting point is that both the Radical Project and Radical Youth Work are haunted inevitably by similar dilemmas, although I will speak largely to the Youth Work side of the coin.

Having a Vision

To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing”
― Raymond Williams

Imagination, passion and commitment are vital. Embracing together a vision of emancipation from the chains of capitalist consumption, dreaming that ‘another world is possible’, is crucial. Yet such an optimistic outlook is derided as utopian. The contemporary arrangements for life are held to be the final solution. Our Market-given Western leaders claim that this is as good as it gets and the rest of the World is going to get it, like it or not. An arrogant pragmatism prevails. The tactics are behavioural, people being objects, in need of management by diktat. Sadly this pessimistic perspective is insinuating itself deep into the character of Youth Work. By and large both management and workers have abandoned purpose and philosophy in favour of the Brown banality ‘do what works’! In this claustrophobic climate, youth workers who defend an unpredictable practice rooted in dialogue with young people are dismissed as politically naïve. Feeling isolated and disillusioned is a distinct danger. In arguing for a Radical Youth Work vision, ‘informed by political and moral values: opposition to capitalism and authoritarianism, belief in equality and respect for the environment’, Tania de St. Croix challenges us to decide which side we are on. ‘Unless we want capitalism and social control to become permanently entrenched in the work, neutrality is not an option’. [St. Croix 2007]

Theory and Practice

However proposing the necessity of a shared sense of political purpose begs more than a few questions. It returns us to the theory-practice divide criticised caustically as ‘actionless thought’ versus ‘thoughtless action’ [Ledwith, 2007]. In pursuing this further, following Castoriadis [2005], I am inclined to be suspicious of Theory as it is usually constructed, which is not the same as being hostile to Thinking, forever thinking. In particular social and political theory is so often the imposition of an explanatory template upon the shifting complexity of social relations. This dogmatic tendency, exemplified by Leninism, but to be found in Feminism too, has played its part in weakening the vitality of the Radical Project. It is reflected in Youth Work, where the negative response of many youth workers to the ideas served up to them in Training is not as ‘anti-intellectual’ as is often suggested. In reality, faced with young people on a street corner or wherever, youth workers conclude that the theories advocated without sufficient argumentative debate in the institutions, make no better sense than that mainly conservative ragbag of ideological bits and pieces called common-sense. Toeing the Party line has damaged deeply the Radical Project. Imposing a correct professional line, informed by the pyrrhic victory of Anti-Oppressive and Anti-Discriminatory perspectives, forgetful of class, has undermined the growth of Radical Youth Work.

In the last fifty years the Radical Project has been rejuvenated, shocked and divided by the demands of the social movements based on gender, race, sexuality and ‘disability, but has also retreated problematically from class. In the light of this contradictory experience how might we build a formidable movement of humanist solidarity, which remains ever alert and sensitive to the differently exploited and oppressed within its ranks? From the 70’s Youth Work was thrown into turmoil by the impact in particular of feminist, black, gay and ‘disabled workers. Yet the advances dissipated as the radical agenda was recuperated, alongside the system’s incorporation of some of its leading advocates. Neither the Radical Project nor Radical Youth Work require disciples of a particular theory or ideology, but rather philosophers, who interrogate ceaselessly whatever ideas or proposals are put before them, in the service not only of interpreting the world, but of changing it.

A Radical Psychology

The Radical Project has never been informed by a Radical Psychology. This failure to develop a deep and useful understanding of why individuals think and act as they do, a working insight into how personality is formed, has caused great harm. I grew weary in Marxist circles, in the trade unions, of arguing for the importance of a more informed feel for how individuals tick, when all I got in return were crude dualist assertions about human behaviour more at home in the pub or kitchen than the corridors of the working class’s supposed leadership. For a brief period I threw myself into a short-lived affair with the likes of Rogers and Goffman, but it ended in tears. To my mind they did not grasp the inextricable relation of individual and society, captured in Marx’s thesis that ‘the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations’ [Marx, 1977]. Ironically, Youth Work itself, given its desire to be a profession of adolescent psychologists, has foundered on the shortcomings of its eclectic mix of social psychological generalisations, largely ignorant of the relations of exploitation and oppression. It pains me to reflect that I have not found youth workers as a whole to be any more insightful about why young people do this, that, or the other than anyone else. Common-sense stereotypes dominate discussion. Of course I need be wary of slamming the door shut on the oft-hidden world of voices of practice, full of complexity and contradiction [Spence, 2007]. It would be fruitful to pursue this research further and indeed expose my failure perhaps to see the positive even when it’s staring me in the face! However I do maintain that Radical Youth Work cannot take for granted that somehow the Youth Work basics are right; that Youth Work possesses an adequate grasp of social individuality, backed up by all the necessary communicative skills; that all it has to do is breathe some politics into the profession’s technical excellence. In my view there is a tragically neglected body of thinking, featuring such folk as Seve, Vygotsky, Elias and Castoriadis, which strives to overcome the present dichotomy between individual and society [Burkitt, 1991, Castoriadis, 1997]. I harbour hopes that a revitalised debate about the social and political self, our struggle to be personally and socially autonomous is possible, within which those of us from youth and community work, adult education and teaching might be leading participants.

Against Hierarchy

Notwithstanding, for example, anarchist and feminist efforts to be otherwise, the history of the Radical Project is blighted by our inability to resist the certainties of hierarchy and the bureaucratisation of our attempts to organise. I am not blaming in the time-honoured way a treacherous leadership betraying the cause. Rather I am emphasising the insidious hold on our individual and collective consciousness of the socially created belief that without authoritarian structures, without strong leadership, without an army of experts, society could not function. In this context the task of organising inclusively, ‘horizontally’, in ways that guard against the tendency to authoritarianism but also enthuse through their appropriateness, is a requisite for the re-emergence of the Radical Project. Interestingly Radical Youth Work, drawing on the ‘non-directive’ tradition, ought to have something to say in this debate. At the same time it must criticise and oppose both the bureaucratisation of Youth Work’s structures and of the very relationship of youth worker to young person. It must challenge the instrumental imperative of ‘new managerialism’. Uncomfortably, it ought to confront its own profession, the closed ranks of a group which claims to have a special expertise on the basis of its own rhetoric and illusions. Radical youth workers have much more in common with, say, radical teachers or social workers than with the majority of their own profession, who are embracing, willingly or otherwise, an agenda of social conformity.

Democracy, the Power of the People

Rethinking Democracy is at the heart of the Radical Project. This makes it all the more disappointing that a great deal of argument about this abused concept rarely goes beyond proposals for improving representative democracy itself. This perspective cannot see beyond an elected House of civic-minded souls, who in some mystical way will truly represent the people, even though the system itself remains the same. To put it plainly, there can be no democracy without economic equality, without Aristotle’s citizens capable of both governing and being governed. In the meantime Radical Youth Work must struggle for direct democracy in the workplace and for direct democratic control by young people over resources. It will criticise the charade of consultation and participation within which power remains firmly in the hands of councillors and managers. To argue this is not utterly far-fetched. A large number of adults and young people are rightly disillusioned with the barrenness of democracy as presently practised. It is not our job to return them to the passivity of the fold set aside for them by the ruling class. In contrast we have to explore ways of making decisions in which all those affected participate, to put in place ways of keeping our representatives under proper manners. We can only become more democratic by forever trying it out, by doing democracy.

Doing it for Ourselves

To mean anything the Radical Project will rest on our own self-organisation. Leaning on the past, the inspiration of workers’ councils and autonomous women’s groups, learning from the present, the dissenting groups at the G8 Summit, we will work out in concert creative ways of managing our affairs. Radical youth workers will emphasise their own self-organisation, independent of their paymasters, but most crucially, they will prioritise support for the self-organisation of young people, reclaiming the future for themselves [Waiton, 2007]. The truth is that such a stance remains rare across Youth Work, precisely because it is threatening to so many quarters, not least the profession itself.

Underpinning such an emphasis on ‘doing it for ourselves’ is a commitment to a radical pedagogy, to self-reflective activity, to a never-ending mutual quest ‘to identify, explore, reflect upon and resolve, individually and collectively, issues and contradictions in our social existence’ (my change of pronoun: Moir, 1997). That we struggle to do so is no surprise. Capitalist society seems to hold all the cards, imposing a closed agenda, declaring that its norms and values are the Last Word. However, as ever, the basis of our resistance, the desire to create a way of living together that is always up for grabs, is rooted in the myriad of major and minor moments, wherein people refuse to do as they are told.

A Plea

Radical Youth Work, subversive and oppositional in its intent, cannot exist separate from the Radical Project itself. But, in developing our own critical praxis as educators, we can do something for ourselves and offer an important contribution to the wider political struggles, which make up the Radical Project. As usual, this is easier to say than do – ‘all I did was ask a question?’ The bottom line is that in our efforts to be critical, creative and collective, we need one another or we are lost.

Tony Taylor

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Malcolm Ball, who is still stirring things up and to Tania de St. Croix, who led the workshop at the History conference for their stimulus.

References

Burkitt, I. [1991] ‘Social Selves: Theories of the Social Formation of Personality’, London: Sage

Castoriadis, C. [1997] ‘The World in Fragments’, edited and translated by David Ames Curtis, Stanford: Stanford University Press

Castoriadis, C. [2005] ‘Figures of the Unthinkable’, edited and translated anonymously as a public service at http://www.notbored.org/cornelius-castoriadis.html

De St. Croix, T. [2007] ‘Taking Sides: Dilemmas and Possibilities for ‘Radical’ Youth Work’ at http://www.critically-chatting.0catch.com/recentarticles/index.html

Ledwith, M. [2007] ‘Reclaiming the radical agenda: A critical approach to community development’, Concept, 17/2

Marx, K. [1977] ‘Selected Writings’, edited by David McLellan, Oxford: OUP

Moir, S. [1997] ‘Theory in Practice; Towards a Critical Pedagogy of Youth’, Concept, 7/1

Spence, J. [2007] ‘Youth Work: An Everyday Journey’, at http://www.critically-chatting.com/recentarticles/index.html

Waiton, S. [2007] ‘Does youth have a future?’, Concept, 17/2