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.
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?”
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.
To find out more about my love of Cornelius Castoriadis see as a starter.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
I suspect only a handful of people know of my admiration for Cornelius Castoriadis, the remarkable Greek philosopher, psychoanalyst and political activist. Even some of my closest friends haven’t been persuaded to spend time with my faltering attempts to acquaint them with his thinking. Yet, across the years, his simple, yet profound proposal continues to resonate.
I ask to be able to participate directly in all the social decisions that may affect my existence, or the general course of the world in which I live. I do not accept the fact that my lot is decided, day after day, by people whose projects are hostile to me or simply unknown to me, and for whom we, that is I and everyone else, are only numbers in a general plan or pawns on a chessboard, and that, ultimately, my life and death are in the hands of people whom I know to be, necessarily, blind.
Indeed back in 2010 I contributed an article,’What has Cornelius Castoriadis to say about Youth Work?’ to Youth & Policy – see more below. In the ensuing years I have drawn on my understanding of Castoriadis, especially in a critique of neoliberalism’s overwhelming behavioural modification project, its goal being to turn us in on ourselves, to privatise our existence. Yet, in truth, I have ducked using explicitly key motifs in his work, notably the idea of the ‘imaginary’ as a way of shedding light on what’s going on in the world. Without doubt this reluctance stems from my long-lasting experience of an anti-intellectual and anti-theoretical tradition in youth work, little affected, it seems, by the shift in its full-time garb to being a graduate profession. I am on record as recognising this hostility to theory as not being at all simply bloody-mindedness. A significant amount of theory, as Castoriadis himself argues, is an effort to impose a template on reality, which often fails to convince. In this context it’s no wonder that practitioners fall back on ‘common-sense’.
However, as a New Year, hardly glowing with radical optimism dawns, I am motivated to have a fresh dialogue with youth workers [and perchance others] as to whether Castoriadis connects with our contemporary concerns. In seeking to do so I continue to be indebted to David Curtis, his tireless advocate, who maintains the Cornelius Castoriadis Agora International Website, which contains a recently updated version of his exploration of ‘the rising tide of insignificancy’, a dominant theme in the later writings of Castoriadis.
Social work is a contested tradition, torn between the demands of social governance and autonomy. Today, this struggle is reflected in the division between the dominant, neoliberal agenda of service provision and the resistance offered by various critical perspectives employed by disparate groups of practitioners serving diverse communities. Critical social work challenges oppressive conditions and discourses, in addition to addressing their consequences in individuals’ lives. However, very few recent critical theorists informing critical social work have advocated revolution. A challenging exception can be found in the work of Cornelius Castoriadis (1922‐97), whose explication of ontological underdetermination and creation evades the pitfalls of both structural determinism and post-structural relativism, enabling an understanding of society as the contested creation of collective imaginaries in action and a politics of radical transformation. On this basis, we argue that Castoriadis’s radical-democratic revisioning of revolutionary praxis can help in reimagining critical social work’s emancipatory potential.
Hopefully we might spark together an engagement across youth, community and social work about the import of Castoriadis.
In the meantime I’ll begin my return to Castoriadis with two offerings. The first is this absorbing interview with the man himself from 1989.
The second is the stumbling effort I made back in 2010 to introduce Castoriadis to a wider audience. It appeared in Youth and Policy, 105, November 2010. Other thinkers featured in this series were Paolo Freire and John Holt.
INTRODUCTION For over 30 years Cornelius Castoriadis has done my head in! In the mid-70’s, being a pamphlet junkie, I could not resist his ‘History as Creation’, written under the pseudonym of Paul Cardan. Inside a few pages my head was throbbing. At the time I was a recent Marxist convert, bowled over by the sweeping explanatory power of Karl’s grand theory. To be honest, the last thing I desired was some little known dissident revolutionary sowing uncertainty just as I had discovered certitude. Here was Castoriadis casting doubt as to whether any social theory or political programme could hold the key to understanding humanity’s past, present or future. I was torn from his dangerous embrace by the damning verdict of my Trotskyist group’s leadership. He was condemned as being little better than a liberal, a revisionist undermining the historical mission of the working class. This scathing put-down touched the raw nerve of my own liberal wavering in the face of Leninist orthodoxy and discipline, so I internalized my misgivings. To my shame, for most of the next decade, Castoriadis was consigned to a cardboard box under the stairs. For my part I strove to be the dedicated Marxist youth worker, armed with the correct scientific analysis, committed to politicising work with young people.
However, my cry of ‘get thee behind me, Castoriadis’ did not spare me the questions posed by life to anyone arguing for the radical transformation of society:
To what extent do we have a real grasp of why people think and act in the ways they do? What do we mean by notions of individual and collective consciousness, by the very idea of personality?
And, given that ‘personalities’, amongst other things, are black, white, straight, gay, women and men, born into contending classes, how might they discover and act upon a common sense of purpose in all their interests?
How indeed might revolutionary social and political change come about? As Castoriadis puts it, “to what extent does the contemporary situation give birth in people the desire and capacity to create a free and just society?” [1988a:33]
As a would-be agent of change, inside and outside of work, I wrestled with these fundamental dilemmas. Neither Marxism nor Youth Work provided convincing answers. Both fell short of comprehending the whole picture. Of course Marxism’s supposed commitment to class struggle as the motor of history seemed to resolve the matter. However, its singular failure to appreciate the individual in all her idiosyncrasy weakened its collective aspiration. As for Youth Work, its claim to be person-centred was built on the shakiest of foundations, an eclectic mix of generalisations drawn from a social psychology devoid of any sense of exploitation and oppression. Confronted with this divide I rushed from pillar to post, arguing in Marxist circles for the importance of individuality, ranting in the Youth Work milieu about the centrality of class conflict. Neither side was won over. It was the late 1980’s before I began to renew my acquaintance with Castoriadis and his fix on this mess of contradictions.
Ironically, whatever its rhetoric, state-funded Youth Work seems to have embraced with few tears the prescriptive agenda espoused until its recent demise by New Labour. In tune with the times, reflecting the widespread fatalism felt by so many, youth workers seem to be shrugging their shoulders in resignation at their situation. And yet, the struggle is not over. We do not need to accept the prevailing heteronomous view that human beings are the objects of history; that somehow we are nothing but pawns in the hands of a destiny determined either by God, Nature or the Global Market. In the spirit and pursuit of autonomy we must reaffirm that human beings create history. In doing so, therefore we know that the task is to nurture our striving to be individually and collectively autonomous. This never-ending process of mutual education will take place wherever we decide to give it a go – in the family, in school, in the workplace, within the community. It will be at its most intense in the collective passion of political struggle. Without doubt Youth Work can be such an arena, but it will be tough. Practitioners such as me have wasted perhaps more promising circumstances, but we can learn from the past if we are self-critical together. What’s certain is that isolated individuals will not reforge a creative and questioning youth work practice. For this task we need each other’s energy, analysis, experience, warmth, wit and humanity.
In his earlier writings, for instance, ‘On the Content of Socialism’, Castoriadis [1988b: 90-193] attempted to map out in detail the character of a future society, but over the years his work became more abstract. Nonetheless, David Curtis, his indefatigable translator, is right to stress the presence in his writings of the evocation of a way of living together that is cooperative and improvisatory, like the best kind of jazz or the finest moments in Youth Work! It is “a kind of life that does not deny rationality, planning and organising, but does not confuse the plan with living nor does it live for the plan.” [Foreword, 1988a: xviii] It is a kind of life that requires the passionate commitment of its participants. In his fondness for Greek sources Castoriadis quotes from the great chorus in ‘Antigone’, ‘there are many amazing phenomena, but none as amazing as the human being’. His emphasis on the heights to which humanity can climb contrasts with the sullen or complacent routine passivity prevalent today, summed up in the absurd adage, ‘nothing ever changes and nothing ever will’. As citizens and youth workers we must keep aflame a belief in the possibility of creating together a world that truly belongs to us all, the autonomous society of Castoriadis’ and our imagination. Indeed, in the last year or so the embers of resistance have been poked into life by the emergence of the In Defence of Youth Work Campaign, which asserts in the name of democracy and emancipation, ‘the essential significance of the youth worker, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy is at the heart of fashioning a serious, yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people’ [IDYW: 2009 ]. I will leave the last word with Castoriadis himself.
“It is not what is, but what could be and should be, that has need of us.” [ 1997:130]
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.
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 , 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.
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.
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.
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.
Burkitt, I.  ‘Social Selves: Theories of the Social Formation of Personality’, London: Sage
Castoriadis, C.  ‘The World in Fragments’, edited and translated by David Ames Curtis, Stanford: Stanford University Press
I’m pleased to have played a part in persuading my dear friend, Bernard Davies to enter the world of blogging. Indeed I’ve lent a helping hand in setting up the blog, ‘Youth Work’s Living History’.
Find below the opening post, which outlines the reasons behind Bernard taking this step into the contrary world of social media.
Introducing the Blog
YOUTH WORK (DE)CONSTRUCTION – UPDATED
Doing the research for my book, ‘Austerity, Youth Policy and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England’; actually writing its 100,000+ words; and then waiting for it to find its way through the publishers various editing and production procedures – all that took well over two years. Given that the book’s main focuses are a constantly evolving educational provision and practice set within wider policy contexts which also change all the time, it’s hardly surprising that nine months after it was finished some of its content has been overtaken by events – by new facts on the ground, shifting ideas and priorities, re-considered analysis, revised perceptions and interpretations.
So… as an alternative to even contemplating a ‘sequel’ which would itself also soon fall behind the times, what follows is the first of (hopefully) a series of occasional pieces on one of the areas covered by book which in my judgement merits – needs – ‘updating’ and even perhaps extending. By the very nature of the exercise, how often these will appear is unpredictable since – a key defining feature, surely, of any ‘living history’ – researching and then writing them will depend not just on when but also if significant relevant events, proposals, pronouncements etc occur.
Topics which however could justify and so would get similar attention might be:
Young people and their ‘condition’
Other youth policies and provision, including what I call in the book ‘gestures policies’
NCS and ‘youth social action’
The voluntary and community sector
Youth work training and qualifications.
As my plan is also from time to time to update the updates, critical feedback to email@example.com or via the Comments facility is welcome and indeed needed – not least on gaps, new evidence (with sources) and examples (with where appropriate quotes and again sources).
It may be too that I begin to post some of my past writing, which seems to retain a measure of interest and relevance.
Across my decades involved in youth work I have bemoaned its failure to engage seriously with the impact of class division and struggle upon both our own and young people’s lives and futures. After forty years of neoliberal capitalism’s relentless assault on the common good most youth work remains in denial.
In this context I’m posting a piece, ‘Youth Work & Class: The Struggle That Dare Not Speak Its Name’, which appeared in ‘Essays in the history of youth and community work : Discovering the Past’, one of Youth & Policy’s publications, which appeared in 2009. I don’t think the thrust of its argument has been deflected in the following period, which has seen New Labour give way to Coalition and Conservative governments, all of whose policies have increased social inequality and rendered existence increasingly precarious. Yet the re-imagining of a radical class politics, briefly and frustratingly hinted at by the unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn, remains a fragile venture, undermined by both Labour’s desire to govern in its own name and the collective weakness of the social movements in the face of co-opted, individualistic identity politics.
Indeed only a few weeks ago I attended the Sheffield Rally held to commemorate the 35th Anniversary of the Battle of Orgreave, marching behind the sound of brass band and swirling trade union banners borne on the wind. And as I applauded rousing socialist speeches and the singing of the anthem, ‘Women of the Working Class’ I knew that these outpourings of passion looked back to the past, yet, at one and the same time, looked forward with hope.
The eight hundred or so women and men present are not outdated relics of the 1970s and 80s, as the weary jibe suggests. Rather they are struggling to build links and alliances in the best tradition of the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike with its rainbow network of Support Groups, captured in the film ‘Pride’, which depicts the unfolding of the relationship between mining communities and gay/lesbian activists.
Thinking about this reminded me of a section in the piece I’m posting, which argues:
In focusing on a notion of the Class Struggle and its absence from Youth Work discourse I risk being seen as a geriatric Leftie, trying stubbornly to resurrect the discredited idea that class is primary, relegating the significance of other social relations. This is not at all my desire. My point is no more and no less than that the political struggle for equality, freedom and justice must have a rounded and interrelated sense of the relations of class, gender, race, sexuality and disability. None of them make proper sense without reference to each other. If this inextricable knot is recognised, the silence about class within most Youth Work is deeply disturbing.
If this concern strikes a chord I hope you might read my thoughts in their entirety. They begin.
This chapter will seek to explore the relationship between Youth Work and Class, Youth Work and Class Politics, Youth Work and the Class Struggle, albeit with trepidation. Today simply to mouth the phrase ‘the class struggle’ is to invite derision and disbelief, particularly perhaps from those within Youth Work (and I was taken a bit aback by how many there were), who danced in the streets over a decade ago as New Labour came to power. The renovated, former socialist party’s message was clear – class politics were redundant and irrelevant, consigned to the dustbin of history. The then revitalised, now sometime reviled leader, Tony Blair declared, ‘the class war is over’ [BBC 1999]. This evidently persuasive posture seems to be today’s common-sense. Against this backcloth you may be forgiven for wondering whether the following impressionistic history is clinging on to the past for fear of the present. For example, is there any relationship between my participation in the incredibly emotional Durham Miners’ Gala in 1985, the first after the Great Strike, the ranks of unbowed working class men and women surging through the crowded streets in the wake of Lodge banners and brass bands, and my involvement in Youth Work? Is there any connection between the rhythm of the struggle of Capital versus Labour and the changing character and content of Youth Work? Is it possible to wonder whether the defeat of the Miners foreshadowed the retreat within Youth Work from social education to social engineering? These may seem absurd and irrelevant questions, reflecting no more than romantic sentiment, whether for a fighting working class or for youth workers committed to ‘voluntary association’. With the ‘end of history’ it seems that both are deemed to be dead .
The chapter closes.
In one way, it would be refreshing never to mention the Class Struggle in a separate sense ever again. For the title of this chapter could have been ‘Youth Work & Politics: The Relationship That Dare Not Speak Its Name’. By politics is not meant tiresome gossip about the personality clashes inside New Labour’s Central Committee, the contemporary version of the wrangles of the Elizabethan court. Rather we mean the crucial questions of who has power, in whose interests do they use that power, what power do we have to change the situation if we disagree and so on. At this historical moment, we are led to ask, specifically in terms of Youth Work and the Youth Service – What power do youth workers have in terms of the purpose and content of the work? – What power do young people have in terms of arguing the case for what they see as their needs in a critical dialogue with youth workers and the State?
Despite the recurring rhetoric about participation it would seem very little. Leave aside the situation facing young women and men, the profession itself seems reluctant to oppose this state of affairs. By and large youth workers are perceived to be doing as they are told. Yet history illustrates that obeying orders is a class and political question. There is the world of difference between a Capitalist system in which the greed of Capital is contested at every turn by Labour; in which the right of management to manage is questioned and resisted; in which a male hierarchy is challenged in the name of Girls’ Work [back 30 years ago!] and a Capitalist system within which there is severely diminished working class opposition; in which management does as it wishes; in which the gains of the past, such as Girls’ Work and Black Youth Work, are divested of their radical edge, recuperated and rendered safe. In this latter scenario, which corresponds to the situation today, the powerful, their self-serving political and bureaucratic sycophants, and even layers of Youth Work management itself, are imposing an increasingly instrumental agenda [Smith 2003].
It is acknowledged that this historical account of the influence of class politics on Youth Work is highly subjective, fragmented and incomplete. However, it is hoped, that whatever its shortcomings it might encourage others to interrogate the past, present and future with class in mind. For instance,
it would be fruitful to investigate further the relationship between the rise and fall of municipal socialism in the ’80s and the fate of Radical Youth Work. Certainly, reflecting on Youth Work and Class underlines the urgency of [re]creating networks and collectives committed to critical argument and resistance in the face of the ‘Enemy Within’ – capitalist values, ideas and practices. Forgive the invocation of an old class struggle slogan, but yet again it’s time to ‘Educate, Agitate and Organise.’
If by chance anyone wants to reference the chapter.
Taylor, T. (2009) ‘Youth Work & Class: The Struggle That Dare Not Speak Its Name’ in Gilchrist R, Jeffs T, Spence J and Walker J (eds), Essays in the history of youth and community work – Discovering the past, Lyme Regis, Russell House.