I have said my piece in my contribution to the In Defence of Youth Work website. As it is I will be making a flying visit to attend the celebration and hope to meet up with folk, old and new.
Across my working life I spent a significant amount of time being responsible for youth, adult and community work, even if the latter was more often honoured in the breach than the observance. Whilst Wigan’s Youth and Community Officer in the 1990s I struggled vainly to resist the undermining of Adult Education by the Further Education Funding Council, whose instrumental ideology demanded that classes and courses should be vocational or else. In this context it is sobering and revealing to read Doug Nicholl’s overview of the neoliberal assault on the rich and radical tradition of life-long learning as a whole.
Lifelong learning – dead.
Only publicly funded places of learning, communities of exploration, can instil the excitement to think critically and assimilate knowledge and provide the personal support needed to develop.
Virtual search engines are no substitute for the real investment in real people in real institutions engaging together in a community of learning from birth to old age. Useful knowledge may be gained from a random google or Wikipedia search, but the discovery of truth and real understanding are skills accrued and nurtured with others.
It is an organised presence of educators at every stage of life from pre-school to retirement years that can make lifelong learning a lived reality.
The building of lifelong learning resources and methods has a wonderful history in Britain. Practitioners and academics, local councils and voluntary organisations, trade unions and community groups, sometimes separately, sometimes together, always on very meagre budgets, created in most areas, the architecture of cradle to the grave learning provision.
Sure start and other early years provision sowed seeds. Play work nurtured the growing mind in beautiful ways. Youth work, also a British pioneering methodology, engaged and promoted young people in an empowering and much underestimated way. Community development work involved and educated often the most beleaguered and brought social coherence and social justice, hope and joy.
Adult education, arising originally from a long tradition of democratic practice in dissenting churches, brought us the opportunity not just to have second chances to learn, but to transform our lives and thereby our world. In the workplace, intense exploitation and discrimination and brutal working conditions would be more prevalent today were it not for generations of trade unionists learning negotiating moves, but importantly too, history, politics, economics and philosophy.
In terms of funding these strands of lifelong learning were always seen as Cinderella services. In reality their widespread popularity and effectiveness in developing confidence and capability put them at the forefront of advanced pedagogies.
I am using the past tense. The lifelong learning house has been pulled down. Only isolated pockets of excellent practice, largely unsupported by the state, and funded on something far more precarious than a shoe string, now seek to keep alive what were once internationally pioneering services and educational interventions throughout life.
A requiem for Coleg Harlech was produced as a documentary last year. This was a dynamic place that brought so much education to those who had had too little, the premises were sold off. Unfortunately there will be more property developers looking at the remaining English adult residential colleges. A new unfair government funding regime has already seen the iconic Ruskin College end its residential offer to students. This is representative of a new, deep assault on the best of adult learning opportunities and the Labour and community movement links behind them.
Most people do not go to university and relative to our life span and the number of hours in the day, we spend little time at school. Lifelong learning services have been the main provider of education for our people for generations. It’s where most of the learning linked to enlightenment, collective action and social purpose has taken place, and where some of our greatest educators have worked and the environment where some of our keenest intellects have been created. Not to mention some very important community and political leaders.
Lifelong learning opportunities have disappeared and now two relatively small yet extremely impactful and important components of the national offer are up for the chop. The government has proposed to end its funding of trade union learning despite its demonstrable success in delivering the upskilling agenda.
But I want to draw attention here to the imminent, potential complete demise, of adult residential education.
University is not for everyone so for over a hundred years trade unions, co-operative organisations, the Labour Party, faith groups, community organisations and educational associations have found ways of creating residential learning opportunities for adults. This has provided a range of options from essential skills development, preparation for university, specialist higher education courses, short residential programmes, community leadership training and so on.
Just as some have their public schools and elite universities, so we, the majority, have had our special places of useful and inspiring learning. The founders of Ruskin deliberately built this in Oxford, not just to give students access to the Bodleian library, but to ensure women and men from the UK and all around the world exercised their rights to access the best learning environment.
Unions, community networks and churches would pay for members to go to colleges like Ruskin, Hillcroft, Northern, and Fircroft. Miners, steel workers, shop workers, railway workers, you name it, they would get an education because of their union giving them grants to spend two or three years growing through learning.
My own organisation funded particularly women to go to Ruskin as long ago as the 1940s. And many went from there to University, including the dreaming spires, and most came back to serve trade unions, community organisations, governments, political parties or caring professions like social work. I can think easily of many leading academics today who came through this route too.
As the quality of education was so good tens of thousands of students from overseas came to Ruskin and returned home in some cases to lead their countries. At least one British Prime Minister, Clem Attlee, was a Ruskin tutor.
Residential provision not only gave time and space to learn how to learn for those who had left school at the youngest age and been rejected by formal learning, it gave a welcoming environment with colleagues from all over the world to broaden horizons and enjoy cultural and academic variety to stimulate the imagination.
Special debates and initiatives could be held in the safe exploratory spaces of these colleges and many examples can be given, but at Ruskin we celebrated recently the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Womens’ Liberation Movement there. We also celebrated last year our 120th anniversary and many moving stories of personal transformation from over the years were shared.
Pedagogically the adult residential experience was exceptional as many detailed studies have revealed, most recently by Professors Sharon Clancy and John Holford in their report. Economically, like all its relatives in the other strands of lifelong learning, adult residential education represented champagne at lemonade prices as all cost benefit research reports have shown as John Schifferes showed.
The adult residential financial settlements, previously agreed by Ministers of all stripes, who appreciated the vital role the Specialist Designated Institutions, as they are referred to in the Further and Higher Education Act, were never generous, but adequate. The formulae that underpinned them, agreed at the time by Ministers, seems to have been forgotten by the notoriously forgetful Department for Education, and new rules have been introduced which, for the main provider at least, have led to the closure of residential provision altogether.
Not only that, the current government is seeking to claw back spending from previous years in such a way as to prevent any future growth or sustainability. They are trying it feels to force complete closure and the remodelling of specialist designated institutions into merged FE providers. Punishment is being meted out for providing education (the quality of which Ofsted have consistently applauded) to students who would have had no other chance.
Such manoeuvres fly in the face of the most significant report on adult education for a hundred years published last year under the stewardship of Dame Helen Ghosh, The Centenary Report into Adult Education. They ignore too the report by Dame Mary Ney reviewing college financial oversight where she says the ESFA and FEC should take a more nurturing and developmental, supportive approach.
Adult education, as even the 1919 national Adult Education Committee report said, is a permanent national necessity. Moves afoot now are closing its vital residential component just at the time when all those residential providers are at the front line of supporting some of the most significant initiatives to retrain redundant workers, and reskill others keen to be at the heart of building back better.
The pattern is clear: destroy education and institutions designed to create new generations of Labour Movement leaders.
Doug Nicholls is General Secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions.
In my effort to articulate my feelings about my dear friend and comrade Malcolm Ball’s death, I referred to our initial meeting at the old Leicester Polytechnic. I’d been invited to talk about a piece I’d written, ‘Anti-Sexist Work with Young Males’. Originally scribed in 1981 a shortened version had featured in the National Youth Bureau’s ‘Youth In Society’ but the full paper had to wait until the summer of 1984 for its emergence in Youth & Policy, number 9. Stimulated by this memory, my many conversations with Malcolm and the fact that once more in the wake of the tragic death of Sarah Everard the nature of masculinity was on the front pages [for a day or two, at least], I revisited the article. I’ve decided that with all its flaws and weaknesses, my own discomfort with some of the analysis and its dated emphasis on youth sub-cultures, it’s worth sharing afresh to see if it’s of any relevance today. I’ve resisted for the moment prefacing its appearance forty years on with an interrogation of its failings. As it is it’s a long haul, 9,492 words! I see that nowadays it’s the norm to suggest an approximation of the time needed to read the writing on offer. However I know that I read quickly, even shallowly, requiring often a second assay. I’m no judge. Thus I can but say, I hope it’s interesting enough to hold your attention over a glass or few of what you fancy.
ANTI-SEXIST WORK WITH YOUNG MALES
The last fifteen years have witnessed the continuing revival and developing political influence of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The question of Women’s subordination introduced once again onto the political agenda has been prioritised in the minutes by the renaissance of feminism, despite the efforts of men to have this embarrassing item demoted to any other business. Struggles against the State have secured some legislative concessions. Feminism’s crucial insistence that ‘the personal is political ‘ has established sexual politics as a primary area of debate and concern. Within the educational site of social relations, the pronounced upsurge in feminist theory has influenced the form and content of at least some social studies and social science courses. ‘The problem without a name’ (1), women’s oppression, has forced its way out of anonymity to become part of the curriculum of Higher Education. However even here the problematic of incorporation and adoption has haunted the feminist incursion into the traditional male academic world. And at primary and secondary levels within schooling the extent to which an understanding of male/female power relations has begun to shift the practices of the classroom is open to both debate and exaggeration. Interestingly one marginal section of educational provision, pejoratively referred to as ‘a Cinderella Service’, namely Youth Work, has seen the reactionary ramparts of its conservative practice subjected to stress with the breakthrough of feminist ideas and practices organised through ‘Boys Rule Not OK’ initiatives and Girls’ Projects (2). Despite its apparent multiplicity of motivations (philanthropic, paternalist, religious, militarist, liberal et al) the dominant theme of youth work’s perspective remains the policing and control of working class young men with a subsidiary concern regarding the societal induction of middle class young people. Given this suffocating scenario, women youth workers have caucused to consider this overall mismatch between a male-oriented provision and the needs of young women themselves; to reflect on the gulf between liberal rhetoric’s concern for the individual and the reality of an authoritarian, misogynist practice; and to explore the development of a feminist praxis based on the insights of their theory and interlinked explorations in the field.
To the male retina, one of the most disturbing aspects of this range of interventions into the masculine world of youth work has been its declaration of the need for autonomous work by women with the girls – its separatism. Mixed provision, particularly a product of social democracy’s strategy of comprehensive equality, has been finally defined as good and natural common-sense. Thus on this level of policy, the advance of Girls Work is viewed suspiciously as a regressive aberration from an established harmony of mixed normality. Val Marshall’s (3) eloquent argument for the rebirth of the girls club movement, as a means of creating space free from male influence to foster the flowering of a feminist youth work strategy, has been interprted as proof of the wild-eyed extremism of these dangerous women. The crude argument goes as follows: ‘We have fought so long for a coming together of the sexes within an educational setting and now these man-hating lesbians are trying to divide us from one another, perverting our daughters in the process.’ In Wigan, where I formerly worked, officers claimed that their youth work approach was in no way sexist, whilst in the very same breath produced reports and programmes riddled with both male pronouns and male assumptions. The Director of Education argued that to include in a job advert a reference to the building of a non-sexist youth work practice was in itself sexist. Advocates of a non-sexist educational perspective were ridiculed at each and every opportunity.
The threat to men from the feminists in youth work reveals itself at the gut-level of our personal politics. The day-to-day sexist chauvinism of our ‘public’ and ‘private’ dealings with our male and female colleagues starts to be increasingly exposed. Our male professionalism is illustrated to be a facade, behind which the spectre of our patriarchal privilege begins to be revealed in all its oppressive detail – the sexual harassment of female clerical staff and the solidarity of the shared sexual innuendo, which bonds the most elevated of male principals with the hierarchy. This paper is an attempt to contribute to the debate about the role of progressive men in this limiting masculinist script. Is our contribution to the redrafting of the play to be taking the ‘walk-on’ parts of token males making the right noises off-stage in the creche? Or should we rewrite our lines and act differently? Or does such a seizing of the authorship mean hogging the whole show yet again? Part of what I shall be trying to articulate in this essay is a criticism of this rather tired Goffmanesque metaphor about playing ascribed parts in a pre-ordained script. It will be my contention that male youth workers do need to examine precisely what they are doing with each other, with their young male ‘clients’ and with the women with whom they work and live. I will argue that these interactions are not the products of mindless programmed behaviour patterns (some form, for instance, of brain-washed sexist conditioning) rather they are sets of social practices rationally undertaken for one sense-making reason or another. In this important sense our male actions are thus accessible to influence and change. Our principal task at this specific moment is to begin constructing alternative ways of working with our fellow male workers, and with the young men in our youth centres or on the streets; ways of relating which do not ceaselessly contribute to the strength and longevity of the male imperative, but which actually oppose the exploitation of more than half the world by the lesser half.
A Local Melodrama
“This sort of thing is an insult to femininity” (4)
To move from the merely rhetorical to the practically personal marks a necessary stage in the unfolding of my argument. How come I think I have something to say about the creation of a serious masculine response to the questions posed by feminism, in this instance, for the supposedly person-centred welfare world of youth work? An unrelenting test of my posture is the history of the modification of my own practices. At this point I want to describe some of the problems posed for myself as the Training Officer of a Local Authority Youth Service (5) by the awakening of Girls Work in the area. Spurred on by the news of the NAYC’s pioneering work (6) and the unremitting struggle of scattered women’s groups, the Training & Development Unit, for which I was hierarchically responsible, decided to go ahead with promoting its own ‘Boys Rule Not OK’ week in January 1980. The two full-time and six of the part-time female workers , supported seriously by a few of the male staff, and more importantly by the local women’s group, organised workshops on sexuality and sex-role stereotyping, commissioned a play from another native feminist grouping, invited an acrobatic and musical theatre troupe; and arranged a number of all-female discos. Tension pervaded the week’s activities and some of its sources could be found in the following areas:
(i) The uneasy relationship between the organisers and the male hierarchy, whose attitudes ranged from a lukewarm token support, through sulky non-co-operation to downright hostility, summed up in a senior officer’s refusal to comply with a request from the women that no male should attend the weekend’s sessions, except if offering assistance in the creche or kitchen.
(ii) The contradictory attitude to both male and female full and part-time workers to the initiative – many men, but also a substantial number of women were obstructive, constantly jibing, “But what about the boys? What are you doing for them?” At the time our angry response was that the young males had far more than their fair share of the Youth Service’s facilities, so why all this fuss about one week’s activities for young women?
(iii) The young men themselves, when excluded from their club, were at best irritated, at worst heavily aggressive. One of the all-girls’ discos was run in an atmosphere of siege warfare.
(iv) The ‘supportive’ male workers lacked any coherent strategy towards the frustrated lads or the sceptical youth service staff that spoke positively from an appreciation of the contradictions of the situation. Whilst being ready to act as facilitators when needed i.e. providing transport, preparing food, looking after children, we had given little thought to the task of coping with the lads. Indeed ironically we finished up asking ourselves the same question as the one we had been taunted with earlier: “Yes, but what about the boys? What do we do with them?” Our position in practice had been to support the struggle against sexism as being the women’s task. We were in sympathy, but it was not actually our problem!
In one particularly harrowing episode for me personally, I finished up in a tense and bitter confrontation with lads I didn’t know, which verged on the physically violent. As the argument raged over their exclusion from the centre on their Weight-Training Night, my voice and my hand were among the first to be raised. Quite clearly I remember thinking in the midst of the fray, that the simplest way out of the mess would be to side conspiratorially with the lads’ sense of indignation on the basis that after all what was the use of getting so worked up about silly women anyway.
The offer of such a brotherly hand of misogynist solidarity could (would) have been the signal for a relaxing of the ‘aggro’ and the sign for the beginning of a dialogue premised on our superiority to the women and the girls inside. In the event the tension dissipated only through the favours of a fast freezing evening, which led the lads to seek warmer pastures in the pub. They left the scene in cold hostility towards my bluffing macho stance. I had even ‘blown’ the possibility of going for a pint with them. Hardly the stuff of a developing anti-sexist youth work practice.
Immediately after the events of the week, the difficulties unearthed prompted an initial response that future anti-sexist ventures should be ‘mixed’. Such a co-optive compromise suited many of the workers, releasing us from the need to analyse what had been going on. Only later was this capitulation reversed in the light of one female detached worker’s continuing relationship with a girls’ group, a council-estate based women’s group (7) and the embryo beginnings of a part-time women workers’ organisation. All of these endeavours pointed to the enormous value of autonomous work by women within the Service. And the few men still struggling, at least on the level of ideas, were acknowledging the inadequacy of their position and their need to foster an understanding of the implications of a ‘separatist’ approach with the lads. It became gradually apparent that without the parallel developments of anti-sexist girls’ work and anti-sexist boys’ work we possessed no material base for building cross-gender enterprises. Thus despite continued widespread and distorted misgivings, Girls’ Work within the Borough is being slowly consolidated. The matter of investigating and devising alternative strategies for work with the boys has been posed, but only tentatively confronted.
Searching for an Understanding
“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” (8)
Faced with this problematic, to where might the concerned and confused male youth worker turn for insight and guidance? Within youth work’s own gender-blind and/or gender-biased tradition there is little succour. Male youth workers have failed to formulate any opposition to the persistence of their own sexist practice. In fact the opposite is rather the case – there is a rich tradition of training for manhood; of turning boys into men, running from the Scouts through the Boys’ Clubs to the Outward Bound movement. We cannot be surprised at the presence of this deafening silence. The very notion of examining one’s own political privilege is personally threatening. An analysis of patriarchal relations id conspicuously absent from the curricula of full or part-time youth work training courses. Even within the avowedly radical outpourings of the male writers on youth cultures and youth subcultures, the question of sexual division has been rendered marginal. So whilst Mungham and Pearson (9) do emphasise the carelessness of much unitary oriented writing about ‘youth’, allowing that young people are differentiated by class, occupation, education, ethnic origin and finally gender, they, together with Hall and Jefferson (10) are most notable for their lack of attention to the centrality of male/female power relations. However the genre’s empirical observation does provide us with a vein of valuable material which needs to be resifted in the light of our recognition of its gender blindness. All the descriptions reveal much about the ‘maleness’ of both researcher and researched: Mungham on the cattle-market atmosphere of Saturday night at the local ‘Palais’; Pearson on the defensive chauvinism and aggressive scaredness of ‘Paki-bashing’; Clarke on the collective ‘mob’ community of skinheads; Corrigan on the spheres of resistance to schooling of the ‘Smash Street Kids’; and Hebdige on the dispossessed style and unity of black ‘rough and tough rudies’. (11) Within Willis (12), rich sources of details are to be found in his transcripts of interviews with those ‘learning to labour’. One section, briefly but graphically articulates the objectification of young women, the fear of the female body, the lascivious tales of conquest, the lads’ sense of superiority, their “knowing masculinity” caught crudely in Joey’s classically chauvinist “I don’t know, the only thing I’m interested in is fuckin’ as many women as I can if you really wanna know.”(13) Only Brake (14) among the male sub-culturalists begins to respond stutteringly to Angela McRobbie’s challenge to the sub-cultural ‘celebration of masculinism’ and its ignorance of ‘the culture of traditional femininity’ or of the alternatives created by young women themselves. In a recent article aimed at ‘settling accounts with sub-cultures’ McRobbie (15) underlines bitingly the ‘silences’ within Willis and Hebdige on the resilience of the divisions within the sexes; their failure to address the savage hypocrisy of male attitudes to women ; and the absence of ‘a full sexed notion of working class culture’, which could begin to comprehend the complexity of the ensemble of social relations. She argues persuasively for a feminist re-reading of sub-cultural texts, which places on the table central issues sidestepped by their male authors. Following this important lead, it is also necessary and useful to suggest a re-reading of these ‘classics’ from a self-consciously male perspective; from a masculine viewpoint, which places men themselves clearly into the reality of the gender struggle and which seeks to explore ways of opposing the spectre of male domination and female subordination.
In a crucial sense such a lifting of the mists from around the myth of masculinity, such an enterprise of radicalised comprehension will have to be grounded in that site of social relations so palpably ignored by male sociologists, the family and the sphere of domestic life. Few men have spoken to the conflicting themes surrounding the social construction of the heterosexuality of both adolescent females and males – being ‘straight’ has been taken as given – or have begun to situate the transition of young women and young men as ‘employee/employer’ into the domestic economy of reproduction – the division of labour within the home being taken for granted as social fact.
There have been psychoanalytic-based efforts to extend our understanding of maleness as in Paul Hoch (16), whose attempted synthesis of Freud and Marx strives to uncover ‘the mask of masculinity’, locating working class machismo as repressed homosexuality. And at least the Men against Sexism movement has begun to open up the area of males talking about their sexuality in a language not consumed by sexual aggression and sexual domination. Within this literature we can appropriate fertile descriptions of the male bonding process; rape within marriage; accounts of male childhood; the heterosexual hunt and homosexual ‘cruising’. (17) Grappling with this range of material on an intimate level is required if we are to confront being male. Yet the guilt-ridden idealism, which so often permeates its pages, needs to be transcended if we are to construct ways of being with young men that do not in themselves lapse into a pseudo-religious strategy of confession and conversion. The young men of my acquaintance are unlikely to suffer long a pious preaching perspective that exhorts them to mend their evil ways. For the problem with much of this literary output (even Stoltenberg (18), who influentially proposes the notion of a ‘heterosexual model’ in which men are the arbiters of sexual identity for both themselves and for women) is that it slides on the one hand to biological determinism. Man is reduced to being innately evil and exploitative. Or on the other to a kind of masochistic moralism – guilt grows in the genitals. In the former all hope is lost in a sea of biological pessimism, in the latter a retreat from the world would seem to be in order. Neither constitutes a viable optimistic alternative faced on an evening-to-evening basis with a group of young macho males. How are we to move forward in a purposeful way with our feet, both metaphorically and materially, on the ground?
Before more directly facing this daunting dilemma, it is worth noting that the theoretical tension around male myopia has filtered into the world of youth work itself. This has happened both as a result of the critical emphasis of female sociologists such as Tricia McCabe and Mica Nava, who have talked about youth work itself as a site of struggle and as a consequence of the actual shifts in practice prompted by the Girls Work movement. Thus Phil Cohen, reflecting on his analysis of the dynamic contained in working with young people, allows that his original work should have been subtitled ‘Growing Up Masculine in a Working Class City’ (19). He tries to explain the lacuna in his paradigm by reference to the impossibility of his developing analytically useful relationships with young women and to his implication in and manipulation of the dominant macho norms within the young male groups. This collusion distorted his appreciation of the ways in which young men and women were constrained by gender stereotypes and blinded him to the contradictory function of masculine ideals. However despite this admission, as McCabe (20) points out, he goes on to subsume yet again women’s subordination under the general heading of capitalist oppression. To add insult to radical feminist injury, he dismisses youth and women as “by definition ‘non-class’ agents” and collapses young women into a homogeneous category of ‘youth’. On a political and organisational front, Nava charges him with “conflating ignorantly feminist attempts to win some separate youth provision for girls with political separatism” (21). To his credit though Cohen does acknowledge that male radicals must take on board the issue of male power within the adolescent milieu, but in despair asks,
“How do we tackle the chauvinism of working class boys in a way that does not simultaneously undermine the cultural sources of their resistance to Capital and the State and intensify their sexual anxieties?” (22)
McCabe’s rejoinder is that chauvinism is precisely the source of their resistance. Now it is not necessary for McCabe to be absolutely correct in her conclusion for the barb to strike home accurately and painfully into the male ego. The whole width of the male front resisting capitalist exploitation is not entirely predicated upon a parallel and compensatory subordination of women, but this does not detract one jot from the feminist insistence that men oppose the pervasiveness of patriarchy’s perversity. We need also to examine more carefully why Cohen sees challenging the sexism of working class young males as leading almost inexorably to their demise at the hands of the capitalist imperative and to the deepening of their sexual trauma. The reality of the complexity of the lads’ mode of resistance and their intertwined relationships with young women is more contradictory than this fatalistic picture supposes. I have worked with young men and women involved together in a struggle against their bosses at work in which, gradually and painfully, efforts by management to set them at each other’s throats were resisted, and through which real gains were made in terms of how they acted to one another, both in the workplace and on the streets. So too the implication of Cohen’s question is that there exists some unsullied male sexuality which may be besmirched by the creation of sexual neuroses through a process of confrontation with the interfering youth worker. Does this mean that in the presence of lads who verbally and physically abuse young women I must stand mute for fear of upsetting some delicate sexual balance? Clearly in the context of male heterosexual aggression it is difficult to empathise with an idea of male sexual apprehension, but there are many other instances of male sexual insecurity which do not have their roots purely in the male control of women. It is to these moments of contradiction that we must attend, whilst also confronting openly sexual violence and to hell with the risk of subsidence in the sexual minefield.
In terms of the continuing debate about the relation between patriarchy and capitalism, it is not possible here to strike up an engagement with the argument. However it is important to reiterate that the focus of this paper is on the problematic of women’s oppression and the gender struggle. Hopefully by moving forward from a masculine standpoint a theory-in-practice (about working with young men) which is conscious of the sexual division of production and reproduction, it will be possible to contribute in a small way to the unravelling of the dialectic of gender, race, class and age. Within youth work it is time for the men to take responsibility for the present sexist state of affairs and to act to do something about the situation.
The Reality of Youth Work
“Men’s houses ……….. Are the arsenals of male weaponry.” (23)
So what is the actual nature of day-to-day youth work practice? The Youth Service itself is heterogeneous in terms of its organisational forms, its differing statements about aims and objectives and its varying styles of interaction with young people. To add to the confusion myths abound about what really goes on – the Youth Service is infamous for its juggling with attendance figures and its rewriting of history and herstory within its reports to all manner of committees. Yet it is possible by scratching beneath the surface of the widespread rhetoric about preparations for membership of a participative democracy to identify the majority of youth work as being contained within a conservative character-building integrationist model, whilst scattered pockets of client-centred practice strain towards a liberal pluralist paradigm. (24) And this practice, conservative, social democratic, or even radical, together with whatever resources, is focussed dominantly on young males. As Nava observes, youth work aims largely to exercise some form of supervision over the leisure time of working class youth and aims to ‘cope with’ oppositional cultures and potential delinquency, being concerned principally with the ‘failed’, ‘inadequate’ and ‘disadvantaged’. Indeed as I have tried to show elsewhere, liberal youth work’s renaissance in the 1960’s was grounded precisely in the belief that social democracy had triumphed over the vicissitudes of capitalist development and that the task for youth workers was to sweep up those individuals unable to respond to the endless spiral of available opportunities. And these individual threats to social harmony would almost certainly be male in gender. Nava illustrates how because historically girls present less of a ‘street’ problem than boys, the forces of the Youth Service are directed to a form of control of young males, which in its very manner plays upon, utilises and buttresses male chauvinism. (25)
Such an analysis corresponds accurately to the phenomenon of ‘mixed’ youth clubs, which are usually ‘boys’ clubs with a fringe female presence. The facilities of the youth centre are in male hands – the girls left to organise the coffee bar or rendered ‘invisible’ in the toilets. (26) Members of staff often do little to disturb this status quo, accepting it as being the way of the world and being themselves motivators in encouraging male-oriented competition and activity as the raison d’etre for the club’s existence. Even the weekly disco, partially an opening for the girls to enjoy their own physical expertise, is shadowed by the sense of the surrounding male presence and the inevitable sexual overtures of the heterosexual hunt. Male leaders, fancying themselves as real hard men, stand on touchlines around the country’s sports fields, indulging their machismo by encouraging young males to ever-rising standards of manliness, naked aggression and violent skullduggery, all in the cause of winning: “don’t be a puff, you chickened out”,; “get stuckin, you cissie”; “kick his balls in, you soft cunt”.
A substantial portion of my own face-to-face experience hinged around the almost desperate need to win acceptance from and gain acceptance from and gain access to the young men’s groups. And the passport for entry was to prove that I was even more of a man than the next man! To this end I told even dirtier, misogynist jokes than they could remember; I colluded as I drove the minibus in our orchestrated leering at female pedestrians; I conspired to seek their approval of my supposed sexual successes, being termed ‘a rum bugger’ by them, a considerable boost to my parochial prestige; I played sports with them and was seen to be a hard competitor. In short I was an eminently successful youth worker, praised for developing relationships with ‘difficult young customers’ and admired for my persuasive social education techniques. I would be asked how I got these lads to discuss social and political issues – what was the basis of my good practice? My answer would be couched in terms of trust, sensitivity, an anti-authoritarianism of a contradictory hue and, above all, to do with “being one of the lads, being on their side”. In retrospect, the cruel irony is that the opening up of the dialogue with the lads about politics was rooted in a wilful ignorance of that most profound feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political’. My youth work practice slid ineluctably towards a fetish of the masculine, an incorporation with the lads in a set of mutual attitudes and practices that were the curriculum of an education for manhood. That there were gulps and hiccups in this process is also clear. We found being hard all the time, impossible and much more besides, but I shall return to this hopeful contradiction later. For the moment I do not want to duck the conclusion, that the mass of male-inspired youth work practice remains masculinist and misogynist in its intent and its consequences.
Grounding an Alternative Praxis
Before attempting to sketch some possible ways of struggling against the prevailing sexist tide in youth work, we need to ground our understanding of male/female power relations, particularly with regard to the specific period of young women and men ‘growing up’. It is fundamental to recognise that patriarchal power is based in the material circumstances of men’s control over women’s labour and women’s sexuality. This male domination is organised through a grid of social relations and a network of socially constructed practices – exemplified by the male grouping of solidarity, be it at work, in the pub or in the Masonic lodge – that support men in the exploitation of their women. The adolescent male stands at a specific stage in the growth of this system of male collectivism, that is itseld dynamic and incomplete. Thus youth work is concerned during a transitional period (‘adolescence’), a process of enfranchisement during which two essential themes unfold. Firstly, the social construction of the young men’s sexuality into the compulsory mode of heterosexuality is accelerated (27) and secondly they are prepared for their forthcoming position as husband/father (patriarch) in the familial home. In young men’s relationships with young women these two unwinding threads are inextricably interwoven. For the male this period may be seen as an education for patriarchy – an endless effort to get his end away, whilst searching for his ideal partner of dependable and dutiful domesticity.
Thus for the young man, the heterosexual model is the God-given goal. Through a social process, which includes increasingly the political content of male bonding, patriarchy (in the form of living men’s real practices rather than as some reified abstraction) confers power and privilege upon those born with male genitalia. The young male is initiated into the knowledge of a sexual programme which lays down guidelines about how penises should work. The agenda of this ‘pogrom’ acknowledges three stages: Objectification; Fixation; and Conquest (28), culminating in the ultimate victory, ‘the fuck’: “the hard cock, the vaginal penetration, the tense pelvic thrusting and the three second ejaculation”. (29) In this learning of the tactics of sexual terrorism, the woman is reduced to a faceless passivity. Compellingly, the sexual act is overlaid with the requirement to have power over and possession of the female partner.
Within the young men’s groups in which I have worked, the male bonding curriculum and its supremacist vocabulary of ‘cunts and tits’ held an uneasy but dominant control over our male-male social intercourse. Whatever we were actually doing at any one moment – listening to records, climbing mountains, going to the match, having a pint – the sense of our collaborative mission to learn more about ‘how we did it’ and ‘how we could get it’ was always bubbling near the surface of our relationships. After all in the last analysis ‘we’ were after ‘them’. The insidious grip of this ‘battle of the sexes’ perspective revealed itself repeatedly in the violence of our sexual anecdotes and fantasies. And the importance of competition in this male world became inseparable from the ways in which we perceived women and their possible usage. As one young bloke often remarked to me upon the feeling inspired by scoring a goal, “it’s nearly as good as a fuck”, whereupon he would clench his fist and tense his forearm in the male motif for an all-consuming enormous erection. Male phallic-centred sexuality, aggression and power become congruent. Rape is the logical and inexorable outcome of the celebration of might and right.
The institution within which rape is legally impossible, the sanctuary of male prerogative, is marriage. My own experience in working with largely working class young women is that matrimony is viewed as a necessary and inevitable destination which at least holds out the promise of increased autonomy compared to the parental home. Given its imminence, this preordained nuptial resting place inhibits the girls’ choices prior to the wedding and often suffocates the young women’s potential on passage through its portals. For the lads too, it is an uncertain prospect, but in general they do foresee being ‘the master’ and argue that it will not cramp their style. The male clique in the pub will rank males according to the amount of control held over the wife, just as the lads reflect this in their scorn for those mates who are ‘under the thumb’ (30). Christine Delphy’s analysis locates the family, formerly ‘a haven from a heartless world’, as the site of women’s oppression with the husband appropriating the unpaid domestic services of the wife/mother (31). Indeed this sexual division of labour asserts its stranglehold prior to matrimony. Several of the courting couples at the youth club were practising a routine in which the girls’ genuineness (love? sense of duty?) was examined through her willingness to accept laundry and cooking duties, especially over the weekend. The lads’ part of the experimental bargain was to have enough money to take the girl out to the pub, the disco or the pictures. In Willis one young male defines his expectations and his success in finding the appropriate mate within the grudging admiration of:
“I’ve got the right bird. I’ve been going with her for 18 months now. She wouldn’t look at another one. She’s fuckin’ done well, she’s clean. She loves doing fuckin’ housework. Trousers I bought yesterday, I took ‘em up last night and her turned ‘em up for me. She’s as good as gold and I wanna get married as soon as I can.” (32)
It is the compelling force of this master/faithful domestic servant scenario that continues to invade the young male’s focus on the marital condition. Sex aside (and that could be had ‘on the side’) such a catch as the domesticated young woman described above is not to be missed from the male point of view. This girl is everything a man could want from a replacement for his mother. In spite of the effects of feminism on social relations over the last decade and some weakening of the servicing function accorded to women, working class young men and women (in particular?) continue to operate within a set of options predicated on a male wage earner and a female baby-producing family house-worker (whether or not she works outside the home too). Even where some shifts in the allocation of domestic tasks has taken place the embracing arch is still one of male privilege. Indeed the gnawing problem is that the expectations heaped upon the young woman are even greater than before. And a fall from grace, a failure to accommodate all the varying pressures upon her can lead quickly to violent male expressions of frustration with a situation gone sour.
Much more work needs to be done on extending our understanding of heterosexuality’s social construction and the ‘forces’ and relations of production within the domestic economy as we seek to fill out our comprehension of the male/female power relationship and seek to construct strategies of change. However, it is this paper’s proposal that even this rough grasp of adolescence as a period of preparation for heterosexuality and marriage is central to sorting out a ‘fix’ on the possible parameters for a radical practice with young males. How can male youth workers intervene in a cycle of oppression that often has as its finale domestic violence?
In and Against Patriarchy
The basis for an anti-sexist masculine strategy needs to be grounded both in the theoretical and practical appreciation of the fact that male power is, in no sense, absolutely monolithic. In trying to take on board the general reality of male supremacy, it is easy to slide into a universalist and ahistorical view of patriarchy which renders its oppressive relations eternal and inviolate. Clearly it is necessary to historicise our analysis. In 1981 this must lead to rooting our understanding in the development of feminism in the 80’s and its consequences for patriarchal structures inside and outside the home. The female initiatives of the last decade have set in motion specific tensions within the dominant system of gender relations and its important to mark this turbulence as the direct product of historical human activity. Structures are not functionally all powerful. Women are acting to change the circumstances in which they are born and in which they are forced to live. Their oppositional practices have sent tremors through the patriarchal facade. Radical men must learn from the endeavours of the Women’s Liberation Movement and begin their own struggle against sexism from within the enemy camp. As we go about our daily contact with young men and with each other, we need to start exploring our common experience of the contradictions in masculinity – the rubs, the advantages, the disadvantages of the male identities on offer. It is essential to identify the ways in which we experience the constraints and limitations of traditional maleness; to articulate our disenchantment with the ideal of the male supremacist ‘Action Man’; to note the suffocation of our sensitivity towards one another; to admit to being frightened; to acknowledge our ignorance and our insecurity as a prelude to and as a part of sharing our worries and doubts with the young men with whom we relate. I am not plucking these generalisations about being male from some liberal, rhetorical mid-air, for these doubts about the sacredness of manhood are contained in the following quotes from recordings of my ongoing work with both ‘adult’ and ‘adolescent’ men:
“I’m only 17 and a bloody failure already ……..laughed at because I’m not strong enough, not hard enough to be a man”. (Youth club member)
“I was cock of the school, a real tough nut. Always in scraps of one kind or another. But you know I had nobody I was close to, a proper friend. There were just kids who wanted to be like me and they hated me really.” (35 year old volunteer community worker)
“Why is it the only time men dare touch one another is on the soccer field? I’d really like to get near to some blokes, but they keep you at a safe distance……it’s sad……and as I’m crap at football I never get hold of anyone!” (18 year old on a Social Awareness Weekend)
“When we go away to matches, I piss myself sometimes I’m so scared. And then on the way home we make up all these stories about who we’ve done over and how many of them there were. Really I’ve never fuckin’ hit anyone……I just watch for the time to run like fuck!” (15 year old member of Bollton Wanderers Supporters group)
“I know so little about women, it’s not fuckin’ true. But you have to pretend you’ve done this and done that or they call you a wanker…….when I’m with a girl I’ve not a bloody clue and I’m supposed to fuckin’ know it all.” (16 year old youth club member)
But in terms of our youth work practice how do we concretise the process of prising open the multitude of cracks and strains in the seemingly cohesive cement of the ruling masculinist ideology? How do we get in touch with and pick up upon the emotions contained in the statements made by men in the preceding paragraph? An immediate concern for us is the foundation of our coming together as men, our joining of hands as oppressors. In direct contrast, women’s groups have been formed precisely on the basis of bringing together into collective situations the oppressed individual female. Crucially an opposition to the isolation of individual women has been built through the formation of women’s groups. Similarly in youth work, feminist workers have striven to create spaces within which girls’ groups could be nurtured. This is not to argue that there are no young women’s groupings outside of the feminist intervention, but is to remark that the paucity of separate spaces for young women and the closing down of their collective choices has made working towards building autonomous girls’ groups is a powerful political strategy for female youth workers. Men do not face the same scenario of deprivation. Indeed there is rarely a shortage of young men’s groups within which to operate. On the whole these collectives are preformed and the persistent problem, mentioned earlier, is one of gaining access to these gatherings. For the male youth worker the dilemma is not one of creation, but is primarily one of subversion. The young men are already organised and are united on the basis of their maleness and their presupposed biological superiority to women.
I want to propose therefore that we need to situate two general strategies to be pursued by male youth workers attempting to resist and change the male imperative.
(i) The defensive mode operates on their territory in their groups. As has been illustrated, joining in brotherhood with the young men is fraught with implication and collusion. In engaging with other men around this question, my own dilemma is that I begin to shift slowly my ways of being with the young men in an anti-sexist direction only from within. That is I had been accepted initially on traditional grounds, especially on the basis of my sporting prowess ( I had been in the early 70’s an international athlete and wearing my Great Britain track top was a jingoist-sent passport to conversation). Given this legitimising backstop, I was now allowed to create a personal ‘style’ which they suffered, laughed at and half-admired because of its slightly non-conformist, ‘gay’ eccentricity. It would be valuable to unearth the approaches of men not so able to wheel on stage the macho credentials of the 500cc motorcycle or to run on court profuse with masculine sweat. How have they succeeded in fostering relationships without being so credibly and obviously a ‘real man’?
Whatever though the terms of acceptance, it is difficult to carve out a non-sexist headway in the climate of Friday night ‘boozing’ at the pub, Saturday afternoon chanting on the terraces, or Sunday morning actually kicking one another on the football field. In this environment of restricted possibilities, it would be idealist to propose anything but a range of responses and techniques that coax, cajole and confront the sexism of young males (and of ourselves!), but which have to be utilised with reference to the fluctuations of the specific situations in which we find ourselves. Thus there will be moments of confrontation, but on their ground more often instances of a principled compromise. Yet there is oppositional space around the chinks in the masculine armoury and the male worker should be ready to seize any chance to move into the openings created by the lads discussing the size of penises, homosexuality, masturbation and the Yorkshire Ripper on those occasions when a male’s frailty and sensitivity is ridiculed by the group. But the task in this arena is principally one of keeping an alternative perspective on the agenda and watching for opportunities which can be taken up outside the group itself, perhaps even in a corner of that very pub the same night, or more probably on a separate occasion. In the groups within which I worked, once accepted, I was allowed to disagree with the collective norm whilst retaining my honorary membership. There is no ‘pure’ line of attack available, but by moving in and about the contradictions within the group dynamic, ‘floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee’, it is possible to be a challenging irritant to the group’s dominant practices, and more specifically to be on hand to support individual males stepping outside the status quo. Fundamental to the authenticity of this enterprise is the necessity for the male worker’s history to be available to the group, the need to have oneself and one’s own contradictory practices written clearly into the dialogue. I do not propose this as some soul-searching exercise in guilt-tripping, but as the vital link between our practices and those of the lads. The anti-sexist initiative is our joint struggle.
But in advancing this proposal we must beware reality. Too rosy a picture of the possibilities will lead quickly to a frustrated pessimism with the whole enterprise. Workers need to keep a realistic hold on what will be an uphill task. A typical Friday night at the pub is intensely contradictory. It is likely to include pissing people off and being abused for being a social bore – ‘you’re always harping on about the same things. Men are men and you’ll never change that’; will involve being accused of being homosexual, prompting an agitated discussion between virulent anti-gays and those adopting a more tolerant stance; will find the worker having a snatched five minutes with the panic-stricken lad whose girlfriend is pregnant, leading to fixing up another meeting; will see the worker playing a game of darts through which he can offer an alternative to the win-at -all-costs/to lose-is-a-tragedy brigade; will find him immersed in a row about why the group’s got to have some ‘aggro’ with the Chelsea fans the following afternoon; will lead to him questioning the lads about why they play the Space Invader all night and only acknowldege roughly the presence of their girlfriends after closing time. The situation is problematic for the male worker, but it is also unbearably rich in its contradictions and its educational potential.
(ii) The offensive, active mode of working with the young men shifts somewhat the terms of our relationship and seeks mainly to operate in the spaces outside of their own specific groupings. Often this freer, more flexible site of interaction, one less overpowered by the group norm, is available only with individual lads, but it can be created by taking the young men to a change of habitat at weekends or during the holidays. In proposing individual work and the use of residential experience, we appear to be underpinning two cherished cornerstones of Youth Work’s person-centred approach. Yet, whilst not wishing to throw away the insights and sensitivities of the person-oriented perspective, it is necessary to transcend the individualism, the apoliticism and underlying moralism of this much proselytised but little practiced Youth Work stance. We need to remind ourselves that the liberal Youth Work rhetoric of the past twenty years wished away gender, racial and class divisions and in its elevation of the classless, raceless and genderless individual as the object of its intervention failed conspicuously ro address reality.
In seeking to explore with individual young men how we might move our sexist stance, we need to begin the task of comprehending human action in a way which locates its social origin and which situates the possibility of changing human action in the phenomenon of collective resistance and struggle. It is not, as in the Rogerian counselling (beloved of youth work trainers) about finding individual responses to the spectre of ‘bad’ ideas in our heads. This is to suggest, following Seve and Ashcroft (33), that rather than acquiesce to a scenario of men as ‘socialised or cultural dopes’, drowning in a sea of macho values, we need to examine the ways in which men develop sets of social practices, generally consistent with their levels of power and prerogative. In the domestic situation this means that men, despite differences in power levels at work and in other social spheres, construct ways of being in this specific situation, which match the dominant ideas and practices around being a husband, a father, the breadwinner. But they do not develop this position mindlessly, it is chosen rationally as making the most acceptable sense of this setting, despite the felt contradictions and weaknesses in the role adopted. Given the absence of alternative and oppositional ‘sets of practices’ about being male, being a father, men settle in the main for a traditionalist position. Yet this decision to act in certain ways as a man is not a product of behavioural brainwashing, but is a rational, albeit an oppressive choice which represents the key to change. A view of men as actors, whose practices can be altered in the light of alternatives, prevents us lapsing into a pessimistic view of men as either biologically evil or as ‘socialised’ beyond the pale. It allows us to understand why some men, drawing on their access to oppositional lifestyles or acting out of contrary collectives, have developed relatively sensitive and egalitarian relationships, whilst a majority of males remain more overtly oppressive.
In my individual work with young men these dilemmas have surfaced in a variety of ways. The most consistent contact I have had with young males was during a period when two previously homeless lads lived with me. Late at night, having shed the macho conscience from our shoulders, the lads and I shared experiences about their burgeoning sexuality, our fears of relating to each other and to women, our sense of having to prove ourselves as men. In this climate, we floated many thoughts about how we would like things to be and this was am important stepping stone, but it remained inherently idealist. It continued to wish the world to be different. Gradually I learnt the importance of rooting our discussion about being different in the reality of our material circumstances. If we were serious about change, we had to investigate the constraints on our present practices. We needed to find ways of shifting the limitations on our actions, so that we could change in a real and positive sense. What became obvious was the necessity to root this desire for transformation in the strength and the solidarity of being together, and to situate this movement of change precisely in the expression of being different together as men – being frail, being emotional, being more honest, being less competitive, being more co-operative and supportive. I would not want to exaggerate the quality of this experience of ‘being different’, but I do not want to lose a hold on the positive and purposive aspects of our relations. In this particular case, prompted by my politics, separate individual work moved towards a collective of five men, connecting male with male; towards recognising that individual prejudices and fears were social and collective at birth and that struggling with the contradictions of masculinity needed social and collective resistance and action.
This example illustrates the gap between how young men act within and without the gang. The ideas and practices of the group do not represent the totality of the ideas and practices of each individual young male. Inconsistencies abound and given an area of neutrality, it is vital to start investigating anti-sexist strategies in the sphere of groupwork. Away on a weekend, a programme of single-sex activity and discussion can be more openly threatening to the dominant values of chauvinism. In suggesting such an enterprise, it is necessary to break with a mainstream groupwork approach predicated on catalysing harmonic relations between individuals abstracted from social relations. To this end we need to begin from an analysis that recognises people as divided from one another by the power relations of gender, class, race and age, and by a host of linked further sub-divisions. In working with one group of young men, rather than hiding the variations between them (in terms of education, type of home, method of transport, football team supported, type of music enjoyed, style of dress, etc.), I pursued an exercise through which we placed on the table the gamut of our motley differences and through which we explained and examined our division from one another. In then putting onto the agenda the gender division, it became more possible to recognise its social origin and its debilitating effect on relations between men and women. Certainly a groupwork perspective serious about opposing sexism must be grounded in the reality of a gender-divided social structure.
But these are but tentative proposals. In actuality there will be a complicated interplay between the offensive and the defensive, the group and the individual, the public and the private, their territory and ours. But we will only unravel the strands of this complexity in practice. The urgent need at this moment is for radical males to propel the enterprise and the launching pad has to be the establishment of an anti-sexist male network of oppositional solidarity, than can motivate and strengthen local and national initiatives.
This recommendation in itself begs many questions. Radical men have often failed to respond seriously to the demands of the Women’s Movement, seeking succour in a politics of adoption and token support; taking refuge in patronage and co option. But wanting to transcend this strategy of subordination by moving to a recognition that the gender struggle is our struggle, men are forced to deal with a welter of contradictions. For instance, are we merely bent on building a Men’s Movement, which will manoeuvre to take control of proceedings? Is our strategy destined to be a sophisticated device in the maintenance of male privilege? Given that the majority of resources within Youth Work are focussed on young males, on what basis do we argue for further, alternative, experimental initiatives directed at young men? In response to the latter query, it has been suggested that Work with Boys should not be started in any area unless Girls’ Work in that district is already off the ground and in a process of consolidation. Similarly, it is advanced that Boys’ Work advocates should not seek funds from limited experimental work sources, thus draining away possible finance for Girls’ Work, but should be arguing for the diversion of monies from traditionalist practice. Clearly these are amongst the many thorny problems to be faced by a pioneering group of would-be sexist men. However the crying need at this juncture is not to be bogged down in producing a perfect political position prior to actual activity, rather it is to initiate, albeit imperfectly, a strategy of opposition to gender oppression and exploitation. It is to act ina manner which is not parasitic upon the Women’s Movement.
If we do not make a start upon this project, the future looks gloomy. Many feminists view suspiciously any moves towards joint endeavour. The only way through this impasse is for male youth workers to begin transforming the notion of a non-sexist male praxis into an actual ‘set of practices’ open to observation and criticism, which lay the foundation for any future negotiations with female workers. Amongst some of the steps we could be taking are the setting up of area and national forums to open up the issue amongst male workers; the development of male worker groups on local patches with a clear brief to examine and share the experience of trying to shift their face-to-face practice; the running of complementary and parallel weekends/weeks with the lads on sexism alongside the Boys Rule Not OK programmes organised by women; and the introduction into full and part-time training courses of the issue of male domination/female subordination and its implications for work with Boys (as opposed to simply its consequences for work with Girls!) Obviously the theory and practice of a genuine anti-sexist male youth work approach is at its embryo stage. At this moment it is premature to try to forge links between anti-sexist males and feminists except on the simple basis of keeping some lines of communication open. To propose discussion about anti-sexist mixed work without any evidence of a real stand by men against their own sexist practices is likely to be a divisive disservice to the growth of a radical youth work praxis, which opposes the oppression and exploitation of women by men and which looks to change the material basis of inequality and injustice. It is time to take our responsibility for the present sorry state of affairs into our own hands. Herstory will judge us.
Since writing this piece, I have shared its argument with men and women in Youth and Community Work. It has been sharply pointed out that the paper is ridden with white assumptions. Ironically, given my critique of male sociologiists for their marginalisation of gender, my own effort to understand sexism ignores the social relations of race. The stuttering analysis presented above is grounded in my work with white working class young people and in my own whiteness. Its shortcomings are obvious. In focussing on the relations of gender I have been accused of ‘forgetting’ class. I would defend my attempt to analytically prioritise the possibility of an anti-sexist male strategy. However, I do accept that ‘the theoretical moment’ of suspending the interconnectedness of reality is immediately suspending the interconnectedness of reality is immediately challenged by the inevitable contradictions of practice. This is how it must be. Certainly in my own dealings with men I have worried that the absence of an interrelated comprehension leads some males to a position of self-centred, indulgent liberalism. For men, the tension is between a genuine striving towards a revolutionary critique of masculine practices and the tempting possibility of arguing that feminism has gone ‘over the top’. The former requires consistent and serious self-criticism. The latter heralds the end of personal scrutiny, disguised as the need to produce a more sophisticated analysis.
Some tentative progress has been made around developing contacts between would-be anti-sexist men. A conference was held in early 1983, out of which two regional groupings of men (London and Midlands) were formed. A newsletter is on the edge of existence. In Leicester, where I now work, a fragile bunch of male workers is meeting on a regular basis to examine practice. It would be heartening and helpful to hear from individuals or groups struggling against sexism, especially as it might be possible to connect them up with fellow strugglers.
I am indebted to many people for being prepared to debate the paper, but in particular my thanks go to Steve Bolger, Julie Hart, Janet Hunt, Marilyn Lawson, Angela McRobbie, Mica Nava, Roy Ratcliffe and Andy Smart for their criticism. A special note of gratitude must be expressed to Jalna Hanmer for both the warmth and sharpness of her encouragement.
Apologies for the poor quality of the references neither Marilyn nor I could bear to type them out!!
If, by chance, anyone refers to the piece, the acknowledgement should read:
Taylor, T. , ‘Anti-Sexist Work with Young Males’ in Youth & Policy, Summer 9
Fittingly this commemorative post appears on the 150th Anniversary of the Paris Commune. Malcolm would have been honoured.
Malcolm Ball [1959-2021], dearest friend and comrade: Rest in Power
“ It seems to me” [Malcolm Ball]
“ We do not have any Book to recommend whose reading would exempt one from having to seek the truth for oneself” [Cornelius Castoriadis]
“To do nothing and grumble and not to act – that is throwing one’s life away” [William Morris]
Our journey together began one evening on the Scraptoft campus of the Leicester Polytechnic sometime in 1983. Since that chance moment, our odyssey has been inextricably intertwined. Malcolm was a fresh-faced student on the Youth and Community course. I had been invited to speak to an article I had written, ‘Anti-sexist youth work with young men’, a fumbling effort to respond to the vital issues raised by increasingly confident feminist youth workers. At the end, Malcolm approached me, inquisitive and challenging in exploring what I’d been trying to say. Above all, he stressed his admiration and support for the provisional nature of my thoughts. He ventured that my self-effacing claim, ‘this is my best understanding for now’ was, as he put it, ‘blindin’. Within a few weeks as our friendship blossomed I realised that Malcolm’s version of my cautionary caveat was the succinct preface, ‘it seems to me’. This turn of phrase delivered in his soft, sometimes hardly audible Deptford accent echoes across the four decades of our comradeship.
In the ensuing years, we spent a lot of time together on trains, in cars and on foot. Our conversations were dominated by our political allegiance, a desire to play a part albeit small in changing the world. Interestingly we never applied political labels to one another, even though, my Marxism saw me in and out of political parties and sects for quite some time. Malcolm was a freer spirit, resisting the safety afforded by signing up to an ideology. Ironically his agnosticism meant that on demonstrations he was warmly welcomed by friends from across the political spectrum. This said, sometimes enough was enough. I remember a NALGO Broad Left meeting in the early 1990s where its Socialist Worker Party leadership argued we were on the brink of insurrection. In welcoming such a historical moment Malcolm asked cheekily, ‘in that case where are the Kalishnakovs?’ In support, I ventured that my village cricket team’s committee was infinitely better run than the Broad Left itself. Lacking both firearms and organisation we expressed our fear that we might well mess up the opportunity to overthrow the State. We were ignored by the stern-faced platform but congratulated by those in the hall with a sense of humour and a grip on reality.
Central to Malcolm’s politics was a faith in the power of collective activity from below. His story is one of creative involvement in a succession of diverse social and political groupings. To give you a taste in roughly chronological order.
- In Leicester in the 80s we formed a Community Education Workers support group with the embarrassing acronym, SYRUP, together with the mandatory membership of the ‘Dirty Thirty’ Miners Support Group. As Malcolm would reflect later the year 1984/85 was one of a vibrant popular education, of which we were privileged to be a part.
- Within the Community Youth Workers Union, he became a key member of the Socialist Caucus, which became a thorn in the side of the National Committee, calling the body to account for the slightest deviation from conference policy. Not surprisingly, a dear friend, Sue Atkins, then President, dubbed us ‘a bunch of shites in whining armour’. She had a point! In the 90s following our defection to NALGO to join the ranks of other local government workers, a move advocated by Malcolm, we continued as a socialist caucus, meeting regularly in places as far apart as Wigan, London and Exeter. These weekends combined animated debate and much frolicking, oiled by real ale and retsina, serviced by Malcolm knocking up fried egg butties and me ironing everybody’s Saturday Night’s Live outfits. In short a classic youth work residential.
- In the same decade Malcolm contributed to the emergence of the short-lived, heretical and thought-provoking initiative, the Revolutionary Social Network, which sought to bring together anarchists, Marxists and socialists in open discussion and allied activity.
- As the new century dawned the remnants of the Socialist Caucus with Malcolm to the fore formed the Critically Chatting Collective: Youth, Community and Beyond, which again organised events around the country. One topic, close to his heart, was how to refuse management’s right to manage.
- By 2008 the Collective’s low key success led Malcolm and me to wonder in the light of the neoliberal banking crisis whether a broader call to defend young person-centred practice would be heard. The result was the Open Letter, which catalysed the creation of In Defence of Youth Work, which lives on today. Malcolm has been a prominent Steering Group member since its inception, even as his illness bore down upon him.
Leave aside the radical but brief episode in CYWU’s history, wherein caucusing was defined as the lifeblood of a democratic union, all of the collectives described here treasured their independence from the formal institutions. As Malcolm insisted, we met in our own time, on our terms without permission from above, taking our inspiration from the women’s, black and gay liberation movements. He was anxious too that all of these groups were inclusive, not exclusive. Hence they were pluralist in character, desiring sharp exchanges of views yet seeking, if possible, common ground. Thinking of Malcolm in this context is to evoke an ironic smile. In his early CYWU days he gained the reputation of being a headbanger, a working-class lad not to be crossed. To our shame we went along sometimes with the caricature, laughing about his ‘Donkey-jacket’ moments and confessing to shifting seats away from him when he rose to speak. He enjoyed making us all squirm. Yet in reality, he was the exact opposite of the stereotype. He was a mediator and conciliator, looking always to forge a shared sense of purpose, warning against blaming ‘the Other’, whoever that might be.
The pen portrait of the youth worker to be found in the Open Letter might well have been inspired by Malcolm. Perchance it was.
The essential significance of the youth worker, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy are at the heart of fashioning a serious yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people.
He was the very embodiment of a thoughtful yet spontaneous youth work offered with a twinkle in the eye. In his later endeavours within the Young Mayor’s Project and its European offshoots what stands out is his refusal to countenance training the young people to adopt the behaviours expected by the establishment. Young representatives entering the political stage were not offered scripts or role models. Rather they were encouraged to be themselves, to trust their intuition and to speak their truth to power. By all accounts, for much of the time the impact of such openness was something to behold.
Whilst fancying myself as something of an improviser in my relationships with young people I don’t think I was ever as brave as Malcolm in flying by the seat of my pants. And when it came to operating in the world of formal education his laid-back approach drove me to distraction. When preparing a speech or workshop, say, for a conference I was diligence itself, arriving with sheaves of handwritten notes for security. To my credit I never once used PowerPoint! On the other hand, Malcolm budged not one inch from his confidence that ‘all would be alright on the night’. On one occasion we were down to do a double act. Dutifully I sent in advance my profuse notes with detailed instructions on how we could dovetail seamlessly our contributions. Cometh the day he ignored utterly my manicured proposal and went off on one, as we used to say. The audience was wooed and our session closed to generous applause. He winked at me as if to say, ‘you worry too much’. I was lost for words.
I was more at ease with an alternative version of our doubles pairing. In this performance I offered the meticulously prepared input from the stage whilst Malcolm waited in the wings, ready to reveal his take on the question in hand. In fact he took to hovering on his feet at the back of the room, awaiting the perfect moment to intervene. The only snag from my point of view was that sometimes he was so carried away with the sharpness of his insight he began to revisit its acuity unnecessarily, prompting me to wave as if asking for the bill in a taverna but rather calling on him to wind up. Let me tell you he was not well pleased.
In recent years both of us have criticised the consolidation of a form of neoliberal behavioural youth work, which ducks explicitly purpose and politics. At a European conference in Plymouth we asked:
Do we wish to manufacture the emotionally resilient young person, who will put up with the slings and arrows of antagonistic social policies, accept their precarious lot and do the best for themselves – utterly individualised and responsibilised?
Do we wish to play a part, however fragile and uncertain, in the emergence of a young critical citizen, committed to challenging their lot in concert with one another and indeed ourselves, struggling to forge a more just and equal society, believing that ‘another world is possible’?
On a less grand level, Malcolm argued that our task is to support young people becoming who they want to be. Isn’t this risky, you might ask? What if they turn out differently than we hope? In responding he would invoke the IDYW definition of youth work – volatile and voluntar,y, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees. Going on, though, he would stress his faith in the unlimited potential of convivial conversation, of chatting critically about our lived circumstances, knowing that issues of oppression and exploitation would emerge ‘naturally’. The notion of imposing enlightenment via behaviourism was anathema to him, a contradiction in terms.
Last year in October Malcolm made an enormous effort to come to Crete, determined to tell of his terminal illness face-to-face. It was fitting that our last physical meeting took place on Greek soil. We, together with close friends and partners, had become unashamed Graecophiles. Being on the island allowed us to revisit memories, of many a cheeky retsina imbibed, of much-loved tavernas, of stunning beaches and dramatic mountain walks. Tears flowed with the wine and the Mythos beer Malcolm craved.
As you might expect the week allowed us to take a deep breath together about the past, present and future. There were elements of despondency in our discourse.
- We shared our frustration at the continuing ‘formalisation of the informal’, symbolised on the IDYW Facebook page by the requests for what were in all but name, lesson plans. So too, we touched upon IDYW’s failure to become a living network of worker and academic activists, blaming obviously the neoliberal undermining of the instinct of solidarity as well as pondering to what extent professionalisation had sapped our independent spirit.
- Linked to this question of self-organisation we revisited the perennial dilemma of agency. If change is to take place, who will make it happen? Or 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?” When faced with our aspiration to change what’s going on, Malcolm had always asked what social force supports our desire? Without which we are pissing in the wind.
- Inexorably this did lead us to our analysis of the contemporary situation. We shared our anxiety about a society sleep-walking into authoritarianism. We marked the shift to a technocratic capitalism, the rule of unelected and unaccountable experts. We expressed our distaste and disdain, often visible, for behavioural psychologists.
At this point, I was sinking into a trough of despond, but Malcolm wouldn’t have it. Facing imminent death himself he wasn’t for being miserabilist. He affirmed that we had a moral and political obligation to those, who had gone before us to continue the fight for a better world, to defend their hard-won gains. Brushing aside my frustration that he had rarely set pen to paper except in text, smiling at my charge that if he’d spent less time on the phone he might have, he extolled me to keep on, keep on writing. As we bad each other a tearful farewell he mooted that faced with Dystopia we must revive our belief in Utopia; that technocracy must be defeated by democracy.
In the aftermath of his visit I found myself, wondering how well we knew one another. This was sparked by a question about how much we knew about each other’s personal lives. The implication was that we steered clear of sharing our emotions, being typically male. The cliched generalisation didn’t fit. We loved another and said so publicly, hugged and kissed. We were passionate politically about the future of humanity. That is enough for me.
In the shadow of his death I am determined to do his bidding. I won’t retreat into an idiotic, private life. Sadly a hope that I could interview him about his Youth Work Journey fell foul of the encroaching cancer. What I do recognise now, more than ever, is that, as I wrote, Malcolm was often holding the pen with me; that my scribbling was always influenced by our eclectic conversations, even if sometimes we seemed to be talking in riddles. In this sense I will continue a commentary on youth work and beyond, knowing that Malcolm is beside me, whispering into my ear, ‘it seems to me’…….
La Lutta Continua
Ο αγώνας συνεχίζεται
The struggle continues
“It is not what is, but what could be and should be, that has need of us.” [Cornelius Castoriadis}
There are many gaps in this reminiscence. I have consciously left out names. I didn’t know where to begin and end in terms of introducing people into my recollection. It is my hope that the missing people will offer their own reminiscences and thus write themselves into the story, contributing to a fuller account of Malcolm’s memorable life. If you feel so moved, send your memories to email@example.com My reminiscence will also be appearing appropriately on the In Defence of Youth Work web site.
The latest CONCEPT, the always probing Scottish Community Education Journal, has landed in my lap at a moment of some personal and political despair. A dearest friend and comrade of nearly 40 years is terminally ill. His cancer was missed – the other side of the COVID balance sheet. As he slips away I feel my [our] hopes for the future, our faith that ‘another world is possible’ slipping away too. As it is I hold his hand from afar, trapped on Crete, this locked-down island ‘paradise’. I send photos and anecdotes, phone and hope to hear his distinctive voice but he is often exhausted and distracted. The very title of this blog, ‘Chatting Critically’ is born of our shared conviction that at the heart of any would-be emancipatory relationship in youth work and far beyond is a willingness to listen, question and explore. In short to chat attentively, respectfully and openly. Perhaps I exaggerate but such a culture of contested concern seems to be on the wane. If we allow the parameters of public debate to be set by behavioural psychologists, who believe they know us better than we know ourselves, what else to expect?
In this light I can but thank all of those involved in CONCEPT and the Letters from Lockdown included in this Spring issue for making me smile a little and reflect afresh. Whilst I doubt whether I have departed the trough of despond, they have prevented me from falling further into its depths. It was much needed and is thoroughly appreciated.
Vol 12 No 1 (2021): Volume 12 No1 Spring 2021
- ‘Slamdance the cosmopolis’: Political Discourses around Drugs and Alcohol – John Player
- A Chatter That Matters: A Conversation About Severe and Multiple Disadvantage – Lorina Gilroy
- Making Connections – Mae Shaw, Louise Kelly, Jemma Eveleigh
- More letters from lockdown…Creative responses to Covid-19 – Jane Meagher, Jo McFarlane, Rosie R Meade
- Jorge Tamames (2020) For the People: Left Populism in Spain and the US – Nigel Hewlett
- Edinburgh Recovery Activities (2020) Letters from Lockdown, PDF available from Concept website – Lyn Tett
- Edinburgh Recovery Activities (2020) Letters from Lockdown, PDF available from Concept website – Jo McFarlane
ON THE BLOCK
A few weeks ago I was ready to make a contribution on the theme of resistance to an In Defence of Youth Work Zoom seminar. However an electricity cut in our village scuppered that idea. In the end I’ve messed around with my notes and produced for what it’s worth the following piece. As it happens I’m withdrawing from the IDYW Steering Group to sit on the backbenches. For nigh on 12 years I’ve prioritised playing a part in the life of IDYW but have grown evermore uncomfortable about pontificating about youth work in the UK from kilometres away. Nevertheless I intend to continue with this Chatting Critically blog and hope in the coming months, even years to feature interviews with characters, famous, infamous and unknown from within the world of youth and community work. As they say, watch this space.
If you’re interested I can recommend reading the three challenging contributions at the Zoom seminar, which were not derailed by thunder and lightning.
Resistance, rebellion, revolution! – Sue Atkins
Our fears and resistance to working collaboratively – Ruth Richardson
Resistance in a Climate of Anxiety and Precarity
“The future will challenge our understanding of what it means to be human, from both a biological and a social standpoint” [Klaus Schwab FIR p35]
In Defence of Youth Work [IDYW] was born in resistance. Its emergence in early 2009 was an explicit two fingers to the neoliberal assault on social-democratic, open access and open-ended youth work. This was a form of youth work we defined as ‘volatile and voluntary, creative and collective- an association and conversation without guarantees’. Scoffing at our idealism neoliberalism demanded that youth work be the imposition of structured, time-limited interventions led by prescribed and predictable outcomes. We described a clash between our sense of ‘becoming a person, individually, socially and politically aware’, which held good for ourselves and young people and neoliberalism’s desire to manufacture self-centred conformism and obedience to the status quo amongst both ourselves and young people.
We contrasted our commitment to unfolding relationships and conversations, to intimate and collective democracy with the short-term, calculated, supposedly measurable interventions recommended by the powerful Impact lobby. We defended our crucial understanding of young people as heterogeneous, born into a matrix of class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith, against the neoliberal revival of the abstract young person denied their diversity. In short, we opposed the depoliticisation of practice.
We have been swimming against the tide over the last decade. Even if, in a naive moment prior to the last General Election we wondered whether the tide might even be turning. The orchestrated humiliation of Jeremy Corbyn dispelled that dream. Nevertheless, we have been a prickly thorn in the side of Youth Work’s self-proclaimed leadership. Indeed it has been admitted in private that from time to time we have disturbed the collaborative pragmatism of such as the NYA and UK Youth, not that they would ever admit this in public.
Yet, whilst neoliberal ideology prevails, its free-market economic model is broken. Thus I want to suggest that we are in transition to technocratic capitalism as the dominant section of the ruling class seeks to reassert its control over a fractured global society. In this scenario, spelt out in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the nation-state acts as the ruling class’s senior management enabling the imposition of its global policies. Disobedient populations “risk becoming isolated from global norms, putting these nations at risk of becoming the laggards of the new digital economy” [Schwab FIR p78].
Inevitably, if this shift comes to pass, the nature of this new regime will influence the character of youth work in all its forms.
The reference group for grasping the strategic thinking of the powerful in a period of profound social, political and economic crisis is the World Economic Forum [WEF], which in its own words is “the global platform for public-private cooperation, of partnerships between businessmen, politicians, intellectuals and other leaders of society to define, discuss and advance key issues on the global agenda.” On board amongst many are Amazon, Google, Facebook, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Morgan Chase, AstraZyneco, Pfizer, the Gates Foundation – all powerhouses on the international scene – not to mention the World Health Organisation and International Monetary Fund.
Now if I had been venturing some critical thoughts a year ago on a WEF political perspective, which embraces enthusiastically global governance, the glories of automation, artificial intelligence, neurotechnology and mass surveillance we could have held a friendly, rational, even concerned discussion – even if I came across as having just read Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. However the pandemic has put paid to that. My speculative musings of 2019 on an insidious drift to authoritarianism are likely now to be dismissed as ‘conspiracy theory’, a weary insult which excuses the accuser from any serious scrutiny of events.
For there is no way of commenting on the WEF’s politics separate from the remarkable unity of 198 countries in following the unelected World Health Organisation’s declaration of a pandemic and the blanket adoption of the same narrative of fear by politicians and the mainstream media across the world. Against this backcloth, lest I be accused of not being concerned about both the suffering, the dying and the deceased, let’s agree the hegemonic version of events promulgated is the informed truth devoid of complication and contradiction. I will say no more therefore than that the pandemic has amplified key themes in the WEF’s vision of the future. Indeed Kurt Schwab, the founder and executive chair of this self-appointed body has welcomed warmly in the book, ‘The Great Reset’, the window of opportunity provided by the virus in accelerating the WEF’s agenda.
The pandemic will mark a turning point by accelerating this transition. It has crystallized the issue and made a return to the pre-pandemic status quo impossible.” [Schwab TGR p110]
Amongst these themes are:
- The crucial need for the financial sector, together with the corporate, technological and pharmaceutical giants, to be the leadership of the way forward in tackling the world’s problems. “The combined market value of the leading tech companies hit record after record during the lockdowns, even rising back above levels before the outbreak started… this phenomenon is unlikely to abate any time soon, quite the opposite”. [Schwab TGR p119].
- The necessity of transforming digitally our private and public existence, whether through shopping, via a shift to on-line education, tele-medicine or even e-sport.“In the summer of 2020, the direction of the trend seems clear: the world of education, like for so many other industries, will become partly virtual”.[Schwab TGR p116]
- The requirement that our physical and psychological presence on earth is subject to the policing and surveillance of what we do and what we think – see also Shoshanna Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’
- The demand that we speed up becoming identifiable, immunised, traceable, card-carrying, cash-less consumers.“The current imperative to propel, no matter what, the ‘contactless economy’ and the subsequent willingness of regulators to speed it up means that there are no holds barred”[Schwab TGR p124]
This dominant fraction of the 1% is not without nous. In the name of stakeholder capitalism, its prefered definition of itself, it claims to care about poverty, injustice and the environment. Classically it seeks to co-opt for its own ends radical ideas and practice, for example, intersectionality, LGBTQ rights and youth activism. Whilst the liberal rhetoric is seductive, its programme of action is arrogant and authoritarian. It seeks both to persuade and intimidate. Its proposals are marketed as being in the common interest. The rules of existence will be made by experts for our own good. To doubt this expertise is to be misinformed or even just plain stupid, no more than a Covidiot.
Conspicuously absent in the WEF scenario is the demos, the people. Missing crucially is any sense of democracy, the power of the people. Utterly absent is the very notion that we [and no one else] should make the laws by which we live together. At best in the WEF’s vision of the future the people will be consulted.
To return to the implications for youth work it is the democratic question that is at the heart of the matter. Open youth work is education for democracy. Youth workers and young people enter into a dialogue, within which the starting point is uncertain, the journey is still to be created and the destination is open to change. It is a conversation founded on listening to each other, the prerequisite for a democratic exchange.
My anxiety is that the transition to technocratic capitalism will strengthen the neoliberal emphasis on youth work as behavioural modification, the moulding of the compliant, individualised young person. This is expressed in the continued ‘formalising of the informal’ whereby it seems that many of today’s youth workers cannot envisage contact with young people that is not planned or scripted in some way in advance. Our own IDYW Facebook group is flooded with requests for what are lesson plans in all but name. It is a practice that suggests we do know best what’s good for young people before we’ve even spoken to them. It is a practice, for what it’s worth in my rusty experience, from which many young people will recoil.
Where does all this leave us in today’s conversations with each other and young people? For ourselves we need to explore whether our grasp of the present situation leads us to accommodate to or resist the dominant narrative. In terms of our relationships with young people we need to listen to their sense of going along with or challenging the prescribed behaviours demanded by the government. This seems to me to be fertile ground on which to converse. As I suspect that many, young and old, both accommodate and resist. We might well wear a mask as requested, keep our distance in shops yet visit our friends in their homes and give false addresses in the pub.….and so on. Or is the fear of questioning the government’s diktat so threatening that we are reduced to telling young people to do as they are told? And, like it or not, at least some young people will be conscious via the social media of alternative interpretations of what’s happening, some bizarre, but some perfectly plausible.
As ever the dilemmas intensify when we find ourselves in dialogue about collective resistance. Sadly across the neoliberal decades with the undermining of the trade unions and the social movements youth workers have often submitted to management instructions to stay clear of public demonstrations alongside young people. With this backcloth in mind how are we responding to young people ‘partying’? Do we judge this as selfish anti-social behaviour or as an act of resistance to draconian restrictions? If, for whatever reason, enough is surely enough, young people take to the streets about the corner they find themselves in, do we join them or sit on the sidelines as the protest is dispersed on ‘health and safety grounds’?
To talk of resistance is one thing, to resist is another. To resist as an individual is noble, but likely to lead to disciplinary action and/or exhaustion. If we are to defend democratic youth work in the coming period we must renew our commitment to one another as a collective. In Defence of Youth Work has failed to encourage the coming together of youth workers at a local level as a first step, where worries about accommodating too much or resisting too little can be kicked around. Such gatherings of even two or three people are vital without which talk of resistance is empty. Or are we now so fearful, so precarious, so divided that even to agree to meet regularly for an hour in our own time over a drink, to chew over what’s going on, is a step too far?
Finally, my concern is that we are experiencing a slide to authoritarianism at global and national levels, the former being expressed in the WEF’s ‘expercratic’ ideology, its aversion to democracy and its desire to alter what it means to be human, “advances in neurotechnologies and biotechnologies are forcing us to question what it means to be human” [Schwab FIR p36].
In this context I’ll share a couple of heretical thoughts.
- In the face of rule by experts we must refuse to be seen as experts. One of our great strengths is humility. Of course to say this is to question the very existence of youth work as a closed profession, its claim that it possesses a unique body of expertise and its desire to license practice. In terms of IDYW itself this very question returns us to our roots. At its birth IDYW was not about the defence of a profession as such or indeed about the defence of Youth Services. It was about being with young people on a voluntary journey of mutual education, within which ‘the educator is as much educated as those she seeks to educate’. Our first conference brought together people from both the statutory and voluntary sectors, who shared this philosophy. The process revealed also that, whatever the lip service paid, much mainstream practice was at odds with the IDYW cornerstones laid down in the Open Letter.
- What also became clear in our initial debates was that we were defending a certain sort of ‘space’, within which we could relate to young people. And for this privileged site of practice to be in harmony with our philosophy it needed to be as independent as possible from Church, State or Philanthropy. Obviously this precious space cannot float free from relations with the community, with funders, with sponsors and so on. However it is vital that the space is afforded a high degree of ‘relative autonomy’ such that young people and workers are able to create together democratic processes and relationships. Perchance too there is a contradiction in campaigning for this democratic space to be rendered statutory by increasingly authoritarian governments.
Perhaps I’m being melodramatic but I believe we are living through a critical moment in history. More than ever the struggle against neoliberal or technocratic capitalism, against oppression and exploitation must be authentically democratic, illustrating in its practices the profound limitations of institutionalised democracy. Resistance will come from below through a renaissance of the social movements.
Where might IDYW fit in this wider background of would-be resistance? As it is, IDYW lives on as a critical voice within Youth Work as a whole. A temptation might be to look inwards and be drawn into seeking to influence the policies, say, of the National Youth Agency or Centre for Youth Impact. I think this would be a mistake, an act of accommodation rather than resistance. Gazing outwards I wonder whether this is a moment when IDYW should explore directly with its supporters the reasons for our reluctance to organise collectively. Am I being old-fashioned in believing that, when push comes to shove, if resistance is to strike fear into the powerful it will spring from acting together on the basis of the classic slogan, ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’? Am I living in a dream to believe that a passionate and organised IDYW democratic alliance of workers, volunteers and young people could be part of the absolutely necessary social and political resistance to the dystopian prospect offered by the global elite and the World Economic Forum?
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
- Coronavirus, community and solidarity – Callum McGregor
- What have I become? – Anne O’Donnell
- How to help the ‘vulnerable’ – George Lamb
- A call for solidarity: Community support for the Tollcross Community Action Network amidst the Covid-19 Outbreak – Luke Campbell
- What a time to be working for a drugs harm reduction agency! – Lisa Rigby
- When staying at home can mean danger – Susie Dalton
- Young Carers in a time of COVID – Mel Aitken
- Experiencing dependance on drugs and alcohol and homelessness in a Pandemic – John Player
- Community education in times of Covid-19 – Astrid von Kotze
- A virus created radical moment: Not to be missed? – Tony Taylor
- Poetry in a Pandemic – Jo MacFarlane, Rosie Meade
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.
I’m inspired too by the discovery that two Australian social work academics, Phillip Ablett and Christine Morley, have published recently a piece, ‘Social work as revolutionary praxis? The contribution to critical practice of Cornelius Castoriadis’s political philosophy’. At the moment it is to be found in the November edition of the journal, Critical and Radical Social Work. The abstract goes as follows:
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.
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]
If anyone has time, energy and interest enough to pursue these offerings your critical thoughts would be deeply appreciated.
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.
- Youth Work: A 2020 Vision Editorial Introduction Ian Fyfe
- ‘Open’ Youth Work in 2019: A backward look Bernard Davies
- Youth Work: Converging and diverging responses in Scotland Annette Coburn, Sinead Gormally
- The decline of the Local Authority Youth Service in England: Reflections of an actor in its demise Tony Taylor
- ‘That was another moment where people were like wow! These young people have really done something!’ Christina McMellon
- Relocating Place in the Life of Neo-Liberal Youth Alan Mackie
- On the Ground Interviews with three youth workers Sabrina Tickle, Karen Anderson, Gemma Burn
FULL ISSUE (PDF FORMAT)
- Forever Young? Youth Work Then and Now Mel Aitken, Mae Shaw