I’m pleased and humbled to have an article in this special Covid-19 issue of CONCEPT. In the next few days I hope to return to and extend the argument to be found therein, summed up in the final sentence.
Surely, we cannot wash our hands of, keep our distance from, deny this once in a lifetime moment to turn the tide of history
Leave this aside the issue as ever is rich in its diversity of themes and in its range of practitioners. Guided by Mae Shaw’s editorial I hope very much that you will dip into its critical contents.
Editorial – Mae Shaw
This is the first time we have published a supplementary issue of Concept in our almost 30-year history. We were first motivated by a ‘call for solidarity’ from Luke Campbell (in this issue), drawing on his work with a local community action network since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. We hastily set to, seeking contributions from organisations and individuals we thought may be interesting, or interested to respond. It was not intended to be representative of the field of practice; more of a snapshot. We are aware that alongside a general sense of dislocation at this grim and demanding time, there is also alarming evidence of differential circumstances and experiences on the ground. We hoped to capture some of this for our readers, and to offer a modest opportunity to record, reflect, express, share and, maybe even generate some small sense of solidarity, needed now more than ever. The response has been very encouraging, and the number of contributions has grown beyond our original estimate.
The now ubiquitous claim that ‘we are all in this together’ may be accurate in some general existential sense, but the contributions here demonstrate how existing social and material inequalities are reproduced and heightened in this catastrophe. As many of the articles illustrate, some people are stuck at home, while other people are stuck without homes. Susie Dalton highlights how home can be the most dangerous place for some women, while John Player argues that a decent home has become an almost hopeless aspiration for many homeless people in Scotland today. For some young carers, as Mel Aitken shows, home can be both a prison and a place of protection and affection in a time of lockdown, with exhausting personal consequences. In the South African context, where inequalities of class, race and gender are more endemic and visible, Astrid von Kotze demonstrates how the residual geography of apartheid dictates the parameters of what ‘home’ means in practice, with poor black people (women in particular) trying to mitigate the greatest threats from the virus in impossible conditions.
A matter of increasing and widespread concern is the extent to which ‘vulnerability’ is becoming a shorthand for lack of personal agency for some. George Lamb, disability rights activist, is concerned about the ways in which the current ‘vulnerability’ script may undo the gains made by the disability movement in their decades-long struggle for rights, not charity, denying the voices of disabled people at this critical time. Some of the same concerns about reconstituting forms of dependency, which have been so strenuously resisted in recent years, are emerging in relation to the implicit ‘ageism’ reflected in much public health policy. Emphasising the continuing agency of ‘vulnerable’ people needs to be a primary concern for practitioners in this field. In any case, if this crisis has taught us one very useful human lesson, it is that we are all profoundly vulnerable!
Making donations and volunteering to help others in respectful ways are important forms of agency, but so too is the capacity to question, and to accept that there will be contradictions. In struggling to make sense of the current reality, and using online resources to meet with like-minded others, Anne O’Donnell is rediscovering the ‘healing’ power of theory: the therapeutic properties of thinking, understanding, grasping, revisiting longstanding analytical frameworks and assessing the value of new ones. What’s more, as Lisa Rigby makes clear, this kind of critical awareness can creatively ‘bleed’ into other interrelated spheres which are not at present included sufficiently in public discourse: ‘…. public/private finance, international affairs, and ideas about health, including around the use of illicit drugs’.
Fear and growing anger about the cumulative effects of long-term austerity on the ability of public services to respond to crisis are matched by growing apprehension about the future of precious public assets. Callum McGregor is concerned that the now commonplace collective displays of ‘symbolic solidarity’ for ‘frontline’ workers do not inadvertently undermine a model of genuine ‘civic solidarity’ which expresses a selective determination to secure more equitable rights and rewards mediated through a democratic state polity. In the midst of such sincere outpouring of public goodwill, it can seem churlish to remind people that the British National Health Service is a tax-funded public service, not a charity – and certainly not a business. There will undoubtedly be attempts in due course to depoliticise this crisis, to reinforce rather than challenge the current ideological orthodoxy. But there will also undoubtedly be attempts to seize the crisis as an urgent educational opportunity; as a warning of even worse things to come unless that ideological orthodoxy is seriously challenged.
The immensely unequal distribution of private goods, gained at the expense of the wider public good, may become even more transparent as vast inequalities of wealth and privilege are laid bare. Tony Taylor believes that neoliberal fetishism of the free market and the sovereign individual has been fatally wounded; found completely inadequate to the demands of the current crisis, as ‘society turns to the nurse, not the entrepreneur’. At the same time, and depending on its severity, the crisis may force a fundamental rethink of what is a reasonable way to inhabit the planet, and the economic and social relations which sustain or destroy it.
Many of the contributions here draw attention to the power of community (in all its ambivalence), and to the creativity, empathy, reciprocity and mutuality inherent in human beings which can be either fostered or squandered. The question is how this critical and fearful rupture can generate a genuine and vibrant curriculum for educational work and action with communities of place, identity and interest. As Arundhati Roy rightly observes ‘Nothing could be worse than a return to normality’! We all look forward to looking back on this benighted time sooner rather than later. In the meantime, if you want to contribute to this discussion, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
I suspect only a handful of people know of my admiration for Cornelius Castoriadis, the remarkable Greek philosopher, psychoanalyst and political activist. Even some of my closest friends haven’t been persuaded to spend time with my faltering attempts to acquaint them with his thinking. Yet, across the years, his simple, yet profound proposal continues to resonate.
I ask to be able to participate directly in all the social decisions that may affect my existence, or the general course of the world in which I live. I do not accept the fact that my lot is decided, day after day, by people whose projects are hostile to me or simply unknown to me, and for whom we, that is I and everyone else, are only numbers in a general plan or pawns on a chessboard, and that, ultimately, my life and death are in the hands of people whom I know to be, necessarily, blind.
Indeed back in 2010 I contributed an article,’What has Cornelius Castoriadis to say about Youth Work?’ to Youth & Policy – see more below. In the ensuing years I have drawn on my understanding of Castoriadis, especially in a critique of neoliberalism’s overwhelming behavioural modification project, its goal being to turn us in on ourselves, to privatise our existence. Yet, in truth, I have ducked using explicitly key motifs in his work, notably the idea of the ‘imaginary’ as a way of shedding light on what’s going on in the world. Without doubt this reluctance stems from my long-lasting experience of an anti-intellectual and anti-theoretical tradition in youth work, little affected, it seems, by the shift in its full-time garb to being a graduate profession. I am on record as recognising this hostility to theory as not being at all simply bloody-mindedness. A significant amount of theory, as Castoriadis himself argues, is an effort to impose a template on reality, which often fails to convince. In this context it’s no wonder that practitioners fall back on ‘common-sense’.
However, as a New Year, hardly glowing with radical optimism dawns, I am motivated to have a fresh dialogue with youth workers [and perchance others] as to whether Castoriadis connects with our contemporary concerns. In seeking to do so I continue to be indebted to David Curtis, his tireless advocate, who maintains the Cornelius Castoriadis Agora International Website, which contains a recently updated version of his exploration of ‘the rising tide of insignificancy’, a dominant theme in the later writings of Castoriadis.
Social work is a contested tradition, torn between the demands of social governance and autonomy. Today, this struggle is reflected in the division between the dominant, neoliberal agenda of service provision and the resistance offered by various critical perspectives employed by disparate groups of practitioners serving diverse communities. Critical social work challenges oppressive conditions and discourses, in addition to addressing their consequences in individuals’ lives. However, very few recent critical theorists informing critical social work have advocated revolution. A challenging exception can be found in the work of Cornelius Castoriadis (1922‐97), whose explication of ontological underdetermination and creation evades the pitfalls of both structural determinism and post-structural relativism, enabling an understanding of society as the contested creation of collective imaginaries in action and a politics of radical transformation. On this basis, we argue that Castoriadis’s radical-democratic revisioning of revolutionary praxis can help in reimagining critical social work’s emancipatory potential.
Hopefully we might spark together an engagement across youth, community and social work about the import of Castoriadis.
In the meantime I’ll begin my return to Castoriadis with two offerings. The first is this absorbing interview with the man himself from 1989.
The second is the stumbling effort I made back in 2010 to introduce Castoriadis to a wider audience. It appeared in Youth and Policy, 105, November 2010. Other thinkers featured in this series were Paolo Freire and John Holt.
INTRODUCTION For over 30 years Cornelius Castoriadis has done my head in! In the mid-70’s, being a pamphlet junkie, I could not resist his ‘History as Creation’, written under the pseudonym of Paul Cardan. Inside a few pages my head was throbbing. At the time I was a recent Marxist convert, bowled over by the sweeping explanatory power of Karl’s grand theory. To be honest, the last thing I desired was some little known dissident revolutionary sowing uncertainty just as I had discovered certitude. Here was Castoriadis casting doubt as to whether any social theory or political programme could hold the key to understanding humanity’s past, present or future. I was torn from his dangerous embrace by the damning verdict of my Trotskyist group’s leadership. He was condemned as being little better than a liberal, a revisionist undermining the historical mission of the working class. This scathing put-down touched the raw nerve of my own liberal wavering in the face of Leninist orthodoxy and discipline, so I internalized my misgivings. To my shame, for most of the next decade, Castoriadis was consigned to a cardboard box under the stairs. For my part I strove to be the dedicated Marxist youth worker, armed with the correct scientific analysis, committed to politicising work with young people.
However, my cry of ‘get thee behind me, Castoriadis’ did not spare me the questions posed by life to anyone arguing for the radical transformation of society:
To what extent do we have a real grasp of why people think and act in the ways they do? What do we mean by notions of individual and collective consciousness, by the very idea of personality?
And, given that ‘personalities’, amongst other things, are black, white, straight, gay, women and men, born into contending classes, how might they discover and act upon a common sense of purpose in all their interests?
How indeed might revolutionary social and political change come about? As Castoriadis puts it, “to what extent does the contemporary situation give birth in people the desire and capacity to create a free and just society?” [1988a:33]
As a would-be agent of change, inside and outside of work, I wrestled with these fundamental dilemmas. Neither Marxism nor Youth Work provided convincing answers. Both fell short of comprehending the whole picture. Of course Marxism’s supposed commitment to class struggle as the motor of history seemed to resolve the matter. However, its singular failure to appreciate the individual in all her idiosyncrasy weakened its collective aspiration. As for Youth Work, its claim to be person-centred was built on the shakiest of foundations, an eclectic mix of generalisations drawn from a social psychology devoid of any sense of exploitation and oppression. Confronted with this divide I rushed from pillar to post, arguing in Marxist circles for the importance of individuality, ranting in the Youth Work milieu about the centrality of class conflict. Neither side was won over. It was the late 1980’s before I began to renew my acquaintance with Castoriadis and his fix on this mess of contradictions.
Ironically, whatever its rhetoric, state-funded Youth Work seems to have embraced with few tears the prescriptive agenda espoused until its recent demise by New Labour. In tune with the times, reflecting the widespread fatalism felt by so many, youth workers seem to be shrugging their shoulders in resignation at their situation. And yet, the struggle is not over. We do not need to accept the prevailing heteronomous view that human beings are the objects of history; that somehow we are nothing but pawns in the hands of a destiny determined either by God, Nature or the Global Market. In the spirit and pursuit of autonomy we must reaffirm that human beings create history. In doing so, therefore we know that the task is to nurture our striving to be individually and collectively autonomous. This never-ending process of mutual education will take place wherever we decide to give it a go – in the family, in school, in the workplace, within the community. It will be at its most intense in the collective passion of political struggle. Without doubt Youth Work can be such an arena, but it will be tough. Practitioners such as me have wasted perhaps more promising circumstances, but we can learn from the past if we are self-critical together. What’s certain is that isolated individuals will not reforge a creative and questioning youth work practice. For this task we need each other’s energy, analysis, experience, warmth, wit and humanity.
In his earlier writings, for instance, ‘On the Content of Socialism’, Castoriadis [1988b: 90-193] attempted to map out in detail the character of a future society, but over the years his work became more abstract. Nonetheless, David Curtis, his indefatigable translator, is right to stress the presence in his writings of the evocation of a way of living together that is cooperative and improvisatory, like the best kind of jazz or the finest moments in Youth Work! It is “a kind of life that does not deny rationality, planning and organising, but does not confuse the plan with living nor does it live for the plan.” [Foreword, 1988a: xviii] It is a kind of life that requires the passionate commitment of its participants. In his fondness for Greek sources Castoriadis quotes from the great chorus in ‘Antigone’, ‘there are many amazing phenomena, but none as amazing as the human being’. His emphasis on the heights to which humanity can climb contrasts with the sullen or complacent routine passivity prevalent today, summed up in the absurd adage, ‘nothing ever changes and nothing ever will’. As citizens and youth workers we must keep aflame a belief in the possibility of creating together a world that truly belongs to us all, the autonomous society of Castoriadis’ and our imagination. Indeed, in the last year or so the embers of resistance have been poked into life by the emergence of the In Defence of Youth Work Campaign, which asserts in the name of democracy and emancipation, ‘the essential significance of the youth worker, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy is at the heart of fashioning a serious, yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people’ [IDYW: 2009 ]. I will leave the last word with Castoriadis himself.
“It is not what is, but what could be and should be, that has need of us.” [ 1997:130]
I’m pleased, even if the times seem dark, to have an article in this special edition of CONCEPT, the always challenging and diverse Scottish Community Education journal.
Entitled ‘The Decline of the Local Authority Youth Service in England – Reflections of an actor in its demise’ its conclusion written a few months ago is not too far off the mark.
Let me finish, though, on a fanciful if melodramatic note. Given the present political turmoil, it is possible that by the end of the year we will be governed by either an authoritarian, right-wing, populist administration or by a progressive alliance [Labour, SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru] committed to a social-democratic programme of redistribution and renationalisation. In these contrasting scenarios, what price youth work, what price a Youth Service?
Mel Aitken and Mae Shaw, the editors explain:
This is a special issue of Concept which considers the changed and changing landscape of youth work in the UK. It includes contributions which take a backward look in order to locate present day developments, articles which reflect on contemporary themes, issues and practices, and interviews with current youth workers who are striving to manage the contradictions of politics and policy for young people, on the ground.
BEING CRITICAL, CREATIVE & COLLECTIVE: RENEWING RADICAL YOUTH WORK
“I’ve never thought of myself as a radical, but the other day I was accused of being one because I asked a question.” Thus spoke a quizzical youth worker participating in a workshop, ‘Is there a history of radical youth work?’ at the 2007 History of Youth & Community Work Conference. The lively discussion sparked by this cry of confusion moved me to ponder exploring anew the possible character of Radical Youth Work today. Hoping not to patronise the worker’s bewilderment I looked to argue that whilst questioning is vital, it is hardly the sufficient condition for being radical. I flirted with writing a Draft Manifesto! However it was not long before doubts set in, some serious, some self-indulgent. Then I dithered as I heard myself caressing clichés and trotting out truisms as if it was still 1977 not 2007.
Thinking historically though was helpful. It took me back to an illuminating moment in 1984 at the height of the Great Miners’ Strike. At a Community Education conference in Leicestershire the question was posed, “are you a radical youth worker?” To the consternation of those present, Malcolm Ball known as a troublemaker, on and off the campus, on and off the picket line, responded in the negative. “No”, he continued, “I am a radical who happens to be a youth worker.” In cold print this reply may seem unremarkable or a mere play on words. Yet my own experience suggests this distinction is profound in its implications. Within Youth Work I have met only a minority who have grasped its significance.
Immediately it implies that being radical, imagining and striving for a revolutionary transformation of society, is something that touches every part of our lives. Though I have fallen well short of the mark it means that I’ve tried to be a radical companion, a radical parent, a radical trade unionist and, hopefully, a radical youth worker. It suggests that being a radical youth worker is not some cloak of identity to be worn at work, only to be divested on the way home to the travails of ‘ordinary’ life. It stresses that being radical rests ultimately on the existence of supportive groups, however small, inside and outside of work. It demands our involvement in the (re)creation of social movements opposed, if you’ll forgive a clumsy but useful definition of yesteryear, to racially and sexually structured patriarchal capitalism, dressed nowadays in its global neo-liberal garb. For the sake of brevity I will call this plurality of social and political struggles, the Radical Project.
So I’m going to test out some thoughts on the reciprocal relationship between the overarching Radical Project and Radical Youth Work. It will be my contradictory contention that without the Radical Project, Radical Youth Work is an illusion, but that Radical Youth Work could be an influential thread within the Radical Project itself. My starting point is that both the Radical Project and Radical Youth Work are haunted inevitably by similar dilemmas, although I will speak largely to the Youth Work side of the coin.
Having a Vision
“To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing” ― Raymond Williams
Imagination, passion and commitment are vital. Embracing together a vision of emancipation from the chains of capitalist consumption, dreaming that ‘another world is possible’, is crucial. Yet such an optimistic outlook is derided as utopian. The contemporary arrangements for life are held to be the final solution. Our Market-given Western leaders claim that this is as good as it gets and the rest of the World is going to get it, like it or not. An arrogant pragmatism prevails. The tactics are behavioural, people being objects, in need of management by diktat. Sadly this pessimistic perspective is insinuating itself deep into the character of Youth Work. By and large both management and workers have abandoned purpose and philosophy in favour of the Brown banality ‘do what works’! In this claustrophobic climate, youth workers who defend an unpredictable practice rooted in dialogue with young people are dismissed as politically naïve. Feeling isolated and disillusioned is a distinct danger. In arguing for a Radical Youth Work vision, ‘informed by political and moral values: opposition to capitalism and authoritarianism, belief in equality and respect for the environment’, Tania de St. Croix challenges us to decide which side we are on. ‘Unless we want capitalism and social control to become permanently entrenched in the work, neutrality is not an option’. [St. Croix 2007]
Theory and Practice
However proposing the necessity of a shared sense of political purpose begs more than a few questions. It returns us to the theory-practice divide criticised caustically as ‘actionless thought’ versus ‘thoughtless action’ [Ledwith, 2007]. In pursuing this further, following Castoriadis , I am inclined to be suspicious of Theory as it is usually constructed, which is not the same as being hostile to Thinking, forever thinking. In particular social and political theory is so often the imposition of an explanatory template upon the shifting complexity of social relations. This dogmatic tendency, exemplified by Leninism, but to be found in Feminism too, has played its part in weakening the vitality of the Radical Project. It is reflected in Youth Work, where the negative response of many youth workers to the ideas served up to them in Training is not as ‘anti-intellectual’ as is often suggested. In reality, faced with young people on a street corner or wherever, youth workers conclude that the theories advocated without sufficient argumentative debate in the institutions, make no better sense than that mainly conservative ragbag of ideological bits and pieces called common-sense. Toeing the Party line has damaged deeply the Radical Project. Imposing a correct professional line, informed by the pyrrhic victory of Anti-Oppressive and Anti-Discriminatory perspectives, forgetful of class, has undermined the growth of Radical Youth Work.
In the last fifty years the Radical Project has been rejuvenated, shocked and divided by the demands of the social movements based on gender, race, sexuality and ‘disability, but has also retreated problematically from class. In the light of this contradictory experience how might we build a formidable movement of humanist solidarity, which remains ever alert and sensitive to the differently exploited and oppressed within its ranks? From the 70’s Youth Work was thrown into turmoil by the impact in particular of feminist, black, gay and ‘disabled workers. Yet the advances dissipated as the radical agenda was recuperated, alongside the system’s incorporation of some of its leading advocates. Neither the Radical Project nor Radical Youth Work require disciples of a particular theory or ideology, but rather philosophers, who interrogate ceaselessly whatever ideas or proposals are put before them, in the service not only of interpreting the world, but of changing it.
A Radical Psychology
The Radical Project has never been informed by a Radical Psychology. This failure to develop a deep and useful understanding of why individuals think and act as they do, a working insight into how personality is formed, has caused great harm. I grew weary in Marxist circles, in the trade unions, of arguing for the importance of a more informed feel for how individuals tick, when all I got in return were crude dualist assertions about human behaviour more at home in the pub or kitchen than the corridors of the working class’s supposed leadership. For a brief period I threw myself into a short-lived affair with the likes of Rogers and Goffman, but it ended in tears. To my mind they did not grasp the inextricable relation of individual and society, captured in Marx’s thesis that ‘the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations’ [Marx, 1977]. Ironically, Youth Work itself, given its desire to be a profession of adolescent psychologists, has foundered on the shortcomings of its eclectic mix of social psychological generalisations, largely ignorant of the relations of exploitation and oppression. It pains me to reflect that I have not found youth workers as a whole to be any more insightful about why young people do this, that, or the other than anyone else. Common-sense stereotypes dominate discussion. Of course I need be wary of slamming the door shut on the oft-hidden world of voices of practice, full of complexity and contradiction [Spence, 2007]. It would be fruitful to pursue this research further and indeed expose my failure perhaps to see the positive even when it’s staring me in the face! However I do maintain that Radical Youth Work cannot take for granted that somehow the Youth Work basics are right; that Youth Work possesses an adequate grasp of social individuality, backed up by all the necessary communicative skills; that all it has to do is breathe some politics into the profession’s technical excellence. In my view there is a tragically neglected body of thinking, featuring such folk as Seve, Vygotsky, Elias and Castoriadis, which strives to overcome the present dichotomy between individual and society [Burkitt, 1991, Castoriadis, 1997]. I harbour hopes that a revitalised debate about the social and political self, our struggle to be personally and socially autonomous is possible, within which those of us from youth and community work, adult education and teaching might be leading participants.
Notwithstanding, for example, anarchist and feminist efforts to be otherwise, the history of the Radical Project is blighted by our inability to resist the certainties of hierarchy and the bureaucratisation of our attempts to organise. I am not blaming in the time-honoured way a treacherous leadership betraying the cause. Rather I am emphasising the insidious hold on our individual and collective consciousness of the socially created belief that without authoritarian structures, without strong leadership, without an army of experts, society could not function. In this context the task of organising inclusively, ‘horizontally’, in ways that guard against the tendency to authoritarianism but also enthuse through their appropriateness, is a requisite for the re-emergence of the Radical Project. Interestingly Radical Youth Work, drawing on the ‘non-directive’ tradition, ought to have something to say in this debate. At the same time it must criticise and oppose both the bureaucratisation of Youth Work’s structures and of the very relationship of youth worker to young person. It must challenge the instrumental imperative of ‘new managerialism’. Uncomfortably, it ought to confront its own profession, the closed ranks of a group which claims to have a special expertise on the basis of its own rhetoric and illusions. Radical youth workers have much more in common with, say, radical teachers or social workers than with the majority of their own profession, who are embracing, willingly or otherwise, an agenda of social conformity.
Democracy, the Power of the People
Rethinking Democracy is at the heart of the Radical Project. This makes it all the more disappointing that a great deal of argument about this abused concept rarely goes beyond proposals for improving representative democracy itself. This perspective cannot see beyond an elected House of civic-minded souls, who in some mystical way will truly represent the people, even though the system itself remains the same. To put it plainly, there can be no democracy without economic equality, without Aristotle’s citizens capable of both governing and being governed. In the meantime Radical Youth Work must struggle for direct democracy in the workplace and for direct democratic control by young people over resources. It will criticise the charade of consultation and participation within which power remains firmly in the hands of councillors and managers. To argue this is not utterly far-fetched. A large number of adults and young people are rightly disillusioned with the barrenness of democracy as presently practised. It is not our job to return them to the passivity of the fold set aside for them by the ruling class. In contrast we have to explore ways of making decisions in which all those affected participate, to put in place ways of keeping our representatives under proper manners. We can only become more democratic by forever trying it out, by doing democracy.
Doing it for Ourselves
To mean anything the Radical Project will rest on our own self-organisation. Leaning on the past, the inspiration of workers’ councils and autonomous women’s groups, learning from the present, the dissenting groups at the G8 Summit, we will work out in concert creative ways of managing our affairs. Radical youth workers will emphasise their own self-organisation, independent of their paymasters, but most crucially, they will prioritise support for the self-organisation of young people, reclaiming the future for themselves [Waiton, 2007]. The truth is that such a stance remains rare across Youth Work, precisely because it is threatening to so many quarters, not least the profession itself.
Underpinning such an emphasis on ‘doing it for ourselves’ is a commitment to a radical pedagogy, to self-reflective activity, to a never-ending mutual quest ‘to identify, explore, reflect upon and resolve, individually and collectively, issues and contradictions in our social existence’ (my change of pronoun: Moir, 1997). That we struggle to do so is no surprise. Capitalist society seems to hold all the cards, imposing a closed agenda, declaring that its norms and values are the Last Word. However, as ever, the basis of our resistance, the desire to create a way of living together that is always up for grabs, is rooted in the myriad of major and minor moments, wherein people refuse to do as they are told.
Radical Youth Work, subversive and oppositional in its intent, cannot exist separate from the Radical Project itself. But, in developing our own critical praxis as educators, we can do something for ourselves and offer an important contribution to the wider political struggles, which make up the Radical Project. As usual, this is easier to say than do – ‘all I did was ask a question?’ The bottom line is that in our efforts to be critical, creative and collective, we need one another or we are lost.
Special thanks to Malcolm Ball, who is still stirring things up and to Tania de St. Croix, who led the workshop at the History conference for their stimulus.
Burkitt, I.  ‘Social Selves: Theories of the Social Formation of Personality’, London: Sage
Castoriadis, C.  ‘The World in Fragments’, edited and translated by David Ames Curtis, Stanford: Stanford University Press
It’s perhaps indulgent, but a promise I made to myself in reviving this blog was that I would take the risk and unearth bits of my thinking from the past, which seemed still to be of relevance and interest. Thus below you will find the transcript of a contribution I made to an In Defence of Youth Work meeting held in Lewisham on September 9, 2010. I’ve resisted making alterations in hindsight, but now and again, in the light of shifting political circumstances, I insert a comment or two.
This morning I want to focus on the vexed question of Youth Work Values. Is this idea a slogan around which we can unite or rather is it a claim, which is potentially harmful and divisive?
The immediate irony is that the Open Letter, ‘In Defence of Youth Work’, never once mentions values. However this has not prevented commentators on the Letter in the pages of Children and Young People Now and The Edge (the paper aimed at local government) arguing that those of us in support of the Letter are calling for a return to core values. So too I know that the supposed exceptional significance of Youth Work values has been raised in one way or another at all of the In Defence meetings held across the country this year. Indeed at the launch meeting of the Letter held in Durham back in early March, I was taken to task for voicing my doubts about the very notion of a special set of Youth Work values.
Thus I will try to explain the basis of my concern as a contribution to the critical debate, which ought to be the lifeblood of our collective activity.
Let me begin by suggesting that ‘values’ are very slippery customers in our market-oriented world. It can be argued that under New Labour [and indeed succeeding governments] we have endured an obsession with values:
our common values
our community’s values
our historical values
our British values
our decent values
our democratic values
without ever seriously disentangling what any of this really means.
My suspicion is that the more politicians, commentators, bureaucrats and managers talk about values, the emptier their vision of the future. Talk of values becomes a smokescreen behind which hide those who wish to preserve the status quo. So for the moment, we have much ado about the problematic nature of greed, but little in the way of a recognition that this is, rather than an unfortunate individual aberration, a systemic ingredient of Capitalism itself.
Trying to find a path through this maze is not rendered easier by the fact that the values intoned so pompously mean everything, something and nothing.
RESPECT EQUALITY JUSTICE EMPOWERMENT
There is a sense in which everyone from Gordon Brown to Barack Obama, from Rupert Murdoch to Berlusconi, even can you imagine, Nick Griffin of the British National Party, can wheel on for their purposes these ideas, these values. [I suspect you can replace these with contemporary characters, May, Corbyn, Tsipras, Zukenberg, Orban and Farage. I’ll leave you to decide.] At this level it is all a matter of interpretation or cynical rhetoric. All is smoke and shadow as the Latin saying goes. The test of what these folk might actually mean by Justice can only be gauged in practice.
We are not helped either by the fact that where there is talk of values, there is also talk of principles, beliefs, norms and ethics . . . . . .and it seems that these words are interchangeable. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Youth Work literature.
But I’ll resist getting bogged down in semantics. When is a principle a value, or vice-versa and so on. Especially as in documents I’ve perused from the National Youth Agency, from the Welsh Office and from a couple of local councils, nobody seems that bothered. Under the headings of ‘Principles and Values of Youth Work’ we find:
Respect for Young People Equality & Inclusion Involvement in decision-making Empowerment Support through the transition to adulthood Promotion of Young People’s Rights Welfare and Safety Social Justice Informed Choices/Fulfilling Potential Critical Reflection – and last but not least Voluntary Relationship (to which we shall return later )
Now if these are core Youth Work values (and they are repeated endlessly) I’ve some misgivings. As I have touched on earlier such a list of values, floating at the level of nice ideas in our heads, is likely to gain universal approval by everyone – councillors, managers, workers, young people and communities. Yet this nodding support is meaningless. For example, almost 30 years ago I worked in Wigan, which boasted proudly a Programme of Action, including a commitment to the fullest level of youth involvement in decision-making. When a few of us took this seriously an embryo Youth Council emerged, critical of both the Youth Service and the Local Authority. In the blink of an eye nearly everyone seemed aghast. The management closed it down and we were disciplined. Conspicuously the majority of our fellow workers ran away from us, crying that we had gone too far, too soon. And those were perhaps more liberal times.
How many of you in differing situations have experienced that sinking feeling within the staff meeting when you have sought to challenge your agency’s failure to live up to its values and found yourself attacked by management for being naive, whilst your fellow workers, who agreed with you utterly the day before, shuffled their feet and stared at the floor in embarrassed silence.
Our collective problem is that if Youth Work, if Youth Services were seriously seeking to implement these values in a consistent and committed way, we would not be sitting in this room worrying that Youth Work is losing its sense of self, its identity. We would still be sitting here but in defence of a Youth Service, whose integrity had earned it the respect of many and the wrath of New Labour. In rejoinder, you might well say that there would be nobody sitting in this room because we would all be out of a job!
And if we do for a moment set aside our concern about the gulf between words on paper and what goes on in practice, tell me where is the teacher or social worker who would not sign up at least in theory to:
The centrality of Equality and Social Justice Respect for Young People Helping Young People make informed choices Supporting Young People in a transition to adulthood?
Of course, a teacher or social worker works in different circumstance and under differing constraints, but to suggest that a belief in Equality is especially a Youth Work value doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Now it is this very ambiguity which led us in the Open Letter to eschew talk of values. The Letter contends that we need to reaffirm our belief in an emancipatory and democratic Youth Work, whose cornerstones are:
The sanctity of the voluntary principle; the freedom for young people to enter into and withdraw from Youth Work as they so wish.
A commitment to conversations with young people which start from their concerns and within which both youth worker and young person are educated and out of which opportunities for new learning and experience can be created.
The importance of association, of fostering supportive relationships, of encouraging the development of autonomous groups and ‘the sharing of a common life’.
A commitment to valuing and attending to the here-and-now of young people’s experience rather than just focusing on ‘transitions’.
An insistence upon a democratic practice, within which every effort is made to ensure that young people play the fullest part in making decisions about anything affecting them.
The continuing necessity of recognising that young people are not a homogeneous group and that issues of class, gender, race, sexuality disability and faith remain central.
The essential significance of the youth worker themselves, whose outlook, integrity and autonomy is at the heart of fashioning a serious yet humorous, improvisatory yet rehearsed educational practice with young people.
In this context what might be special about Youth Work (although I think Community Work and Adult Education walk hand in hand with us) is the voluntarily negotiated space, an educational setting within which the young person and youth worker are involved in a mutual critical dialogue about the world in which they are both living. It is a space upon which prescribed targets and outcomes ought not to be imposed. It is a space in which the youth worker is both privileged and astute enough to face up to its volatility. It is a space where the unexpected is cherished. It is a space with no guarantees.
This leads me to propose to you that what we are defending most crucially is not a cluster of values, but a distinctive place and space, a setting and site of practice founded on the voluntary relationship, where an unpredictable process, hugely rich in its possibilities unfolds at whatever pace seems fitting.
And this distinctive setting, if it is to be used for a democratic and emancipatory practice, does require youth workers of a particular kind, improvisatory educators who are capable of both seizing and letting go of the myriad of passing moments that are thrown up by simply being with young people.
This said I must acknowledge that this distinctive place has always been riven with tension. For what it is worth across almost 40 years from being a part-timer in 1970 I have always felt to be in a minority when struggling to be a democratic youth worker. And I’ve felt this even though the version of Youth Work presented in the Open Letter is in many ways a respectful if politicised acknowledgement of the practice promulgated by the training agencies since Albemarle. Indeed back in 1980, together with Roy Ratcliffe, I wrote a piece analysing the hostility to a piece of political education in which we were involved. We commented ruefully, “Instead of now being in a position to examine how liberal theory enlightened practice, we are in the unfortunate position of being confronted by the mass of conservative practice which has negated liberal theory.”
Nevertheless, over the ensuing years, many of us have ducked and dived to preserve that space, within which both conformist and radical approaches to the work argued with and suffered one another. The significance of the last decade has been the way in which this space has been policed. This sense of the increasing censorship within practice has been conveyed by practitioners’ responses to the Letter, which often paint a picture of an isolated worker surrounded by colleagues who have settled for obeying the diktat of Every Child Matters [the 2003 government inter-agency initiative on children and family services], whilst still mouthing their allegiance to Youth Work values. It appears that many in Youth Work are of the ‘both sides buttered’ persuasion.
My argument is that our defence of Youth Work should not be based on the supposed possession of a separate and unique set of Youth Work values, which is preposterous. It should be based on the defence of a distinct voluntary educational relationship and setting. That claiming a special relationship to what are universal and indeed contested social and political values divides us from those with whom we should be making alliances – for example, other education and welfare workers in both the statutory and voluntary sectors. Frankly, it is pompous and pretentious.
We are running a workshop on the In Defence campaign at the Social Work Action Network [SWAN] conference in Bath. For my part, I will be criticising both the idea of an exclusive set of Youth Work values and the correspondingly unhelpful notion of a Social Work value base, which is promoted by SWAN. My stress will be upon the joint pursuit of a democratic practice by both youth and social workers. My concern will be to clarify the differing constraints experienced by youth and social workers in struggling towards an emancipatory practice. In doing so I will underline the ways in which the distinctive terrain occupied by youth workers has been increasingly closed down under New Labour.
As the Letter notes this squeezing of the space is seen in:
The shift from locally negotiated plans to centrally-defined targets and indicators.
The growing emphasis on identifying the potentially deviant or dysfunctional young person as the centre of Youth Work’s attention.
The increasing incorporation of youth workers into the surveillance of young people, perceived as a threat to social order.
The insidious way in which delivering accredited outcomes, even if only on paper, has formalised and thus undermined the importance of relationships in the work.
The distorting effect of identifying individuals as suitable and urgent cases for treatment and intervention, ‘to be worked on rather than worked with’.
The changing role of the youth worker, from being a social educator to a social entrepreneur, submitting plan after bid after plan, selling both themselves and young people in the market-place.
And finally, but not exhaustively, the delicate issue of to what extent professionalisation, hand in hand with bureaucratisation, has assisted the suffocating grip of rules and regulations upon the work and played a part in the exclusion of the volunteer, once the lifeblood of the old Youth Service [see Jeffs and Smith 2008: 277-283].
Our argument is that the struggle to defend a democratic Youth Work, to resuscitate a radical Social Work, to revive an independent voluntary sector,- amongst other things- are all part and parcel of a common battle against the authoritarian legacy of three [and now four] decades of neoliberal politics.
I know it’s easy to say this, to spout the rhetoric. I know that for many of you it remains difficult to express dissent and criticism. Whilst our masters and managers have had a rough time recently they are already regrouping to defend the status quo. But we have made a start and I hope we can maintain some momentum and gather strength from each other.
Of course, I’m not sure that we can. There are no predictable and guaranteed outcomes when it comes to social and political struggle. But if we do hang in together, play a part in reviving a collective commitment to the creation of an equal, just and democratic society then we will have something of which to be proud. And what, as youth workers, we might contribute is not some abstract set of values, but something far more intimate and meaningful. At our best, we offer an insight into a way of being with others, a way of making and sustaining relationships, which ought to be at the heart of all human activity.
I’m reminded as I come to this perhaps pompous conclusion of a dear friend of mine, a miner recently passed away, who would urge us to keep arguing and struggling. His favourite saying was: “Those who stand up and are counted, while the rest remain silent, they are the salt of the earth.” Let’s help one another to stay on our feet and to make our voices heard.
Thanks for listening.
Ratcliffe,R. and Taylor, T.(1981) ‘Stuttering Steps in Political Education’ in Schooling and Culture (9)
Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. (2008) Valuing Youth Work in Youth & Policy (100)
I’ve got a half-written, critical response to the National Youth Agency’s announcement of a Youth Covenant-cum-Promise with its other-wordly notion that our task is to render young people ‘happy and positive about the future’ – tell that to the young people out on the Climate Change Strike a few weeks ago. Hopefully, I’ll post my specific reply to the Happiness agenda in the next week. However much of my unfinished piece focuses on the NYA’s confident assertion that adolescent developmental psychology, aided by ‘teen brain’ speculation is to be the theoretical underpinning for our relations with young people. It’s not clear who is party to this very significant shift in how we choose to understand our practice. For instance, are the training agencies on board? Is developmental psychology now a central feature of the curriculum in Higher Education?
The Nationa Youth Agency argues:
“Youth” is the adolescent developmental phase between childhood and adulthood that brings significant physical and emotional changes. It requires particular skills to support young people at an important time for making significant life choices, to safely explore risky impulses, form new relationships and take on new challenges. Adolescence starts around the beginning of puberty and finishes in the late teens, but with critical stages of transition from 8 years old and as young adults typically up to 25 years in particular for vulnerable or marginalised young people.
Where help and investment in early years and older people is well-recognised and reflected in public policies, the Youth Covenant helps ‘make the case’ with a clear narrative in support of adolescence as a period of life that brings significant physical and emotional changes; the latest neuroscience tells us that the teenage brain undergoes huge physical changes during adolescence which impact on behaviour, self-image, social interactions and decision-making. It is also an important time for making significant life choices and decisions, increasingly complex social interactions and dealing with an online world.
Whilst I sort myself out, given I’m still told to grow up, I recommend as an antidote to NYA’s embrace of an abstract, generalised young person going through stages and transitions, who in reality doesn’t exist, Hans Skott-Mhyre’s provocative and moving, ‘I am the Young Person Who Impacts Me’ to be found in CYC-Online, March 2019.
Here are a few extracts to whet your appetite.
To take on adulthood, as the defining characteristic of our identity, is to resign ourselves to an encroaching irrelevance to the lives of the young people we encounter in our work. Immersing ourselves in adulthood, as a way of life, consigns us to a gradual ageing out of the world of lived experience that is at the heart of Child and Youth Care as a relational practice. It is, in a way, a kind of betrayal of our faith in the young people we encounter. To insist on being an adult is to say that being young is never enough. One must move on to something more. In a quietly arrogant way, it is to assert that the something “more” is represented in us as the adults. Perhaps, it is to suggest, with a moderate degree of narcissism that, as adults, we can guide and mentor young people out of the phase they are in and into “reality.”
At one level, we are asked to be missionaries of development, to spread the good word of adulthood as salvation from the “storm and stress” of adolescence. At another level, we are to be youthful but not youth.
[Erica] Burman notes that we internalize development as a set of markers by which we determine our “healthy” progress through life. The world of Child and Youth Care is saturated with this logic in our assessments of ourselves, the young people we encounter and their families. The fear of being developmentally outside the norm is a prominent feature of family life, driving parents (and CYC workers) to constantly assess appropriate developmental trajectories into adulthood and beyond. Developmental truths have a profound influence on social policy, legal statutes, the organization of child welfare systems, as well as agency policies and procedures. Because developmental ideas are so influential, it is sometimes hard to remember that they reflect the values of a particular culture and society.
The idea that I don’t leave a certain aspect of my life behind me opens the possibility to think of myself as a collective. I am not a series of stages, but a composition of everything I have been. Society would have me believe that at my age I am a senior who had passed through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age and so on. In that version of me, I am relatively alien to young people and can’t really relate to them because I have passed beyond those stages of life. I am no longer a child, youth, middle-aged and so forth. I am supposedly more mature, wise and so on. If I put those ideas aside, then I begin to see that I am not so different from people who have spent less year on the planet. The perceived differences that create young people and elders as alien to one another are largely socially constructed.
Perhaps, one of the most egregious effects of developmental ideas is the way they divide us against ourselves. We are put in the position of denying our childishness if we are to mature, to abandoning our adolescent explorations, if we are to be an adult. We are asked to put our lived experience of different stages we have “passed through” into our history. They are relegated to memory and often only revisited to uncover childhood trauma or for the purposes of nostalgic reverie. I would argue that this is a truly unfortunate loss of an important element of who we are now. All that I am and have been is now. Finally, it is this respect that I can say that I am the young person who impacts me the most.
In the spirit of collective, reflective practice I’m minded to buy and send Leigh Middleton, the Chief Executive of the National Youth Agency a copy of Erica Burman’s ‘Deconstructing developmental psychology’ , Routledge.
During a month shadowed by family bereavement I’ve been labouring to put together my opening contribution to last Friday’s annual In Defence of Youth Work conference, ‘If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands – youth work and well-being?’ Hopefully, in the next fortnight I’ll type up my notes [always a tortuous, one-fingered process] and post them on this blog – quite a few folk encouraged me to do so.
Meanwhile, I’ve amassed a number of links to stuff I think deserves our attention. Rather than just compress these into an all-consuming list I’m choosing to give each of them a separate billing over the next week or so.
First off a warm welcome to a piece, inspired by the conference debate, from one of youth work’s favourite bloggers, James Ballantyne. In his inimitable way he rattled this off on the train back to Middlesborough from the Birmingham event, claiming, which I believe, it was done and dusted before Sheffield. Given my leaden progress when writing I am awestruck in the face of such alacrity!
Getting young people off the streets, that was and still is one of the old mandates for youth workers, getting young people into other institutions was another.
Youthworkers effectively were tasked with policing the streets – or policing the third space in between organisations, so that young people wouldn’t fall through the gaps. There is a new place for youthworkers, to effectively police ‘in town’. And, though it is not new, it is back with a vengeance.
Youthworkers now tasked with policing young peoples emotions? Young people are to be happy, and to be well.
The area of value is not the social space of the park, but the heart space, the attitude, the feelings of the young person.
Policing young peoples emotions so that ‘they are not unhappy’ with their lot – I wonder.
If we meet young people in their space, or try and create safe spaces for conversation, what kind of space is a young person going to engage with if it’s not derived by their agenda, their interests and passions and gifts – rather than be a space where their emotions are under scrutiny.
Youthworkers, who curated during the day, are some of the most imaginative around for trying to do practice that ‘looks like youthwork’ even in a space dictated by the latest agenda ( and knife crime is also another one) – and significant credit where credit is due, as any work with young people is valid and important. But policing the streets was an impossibility and best left for police – the intensity of young peoples emotions might be best left with the kind of well trained counsellors who can do this.
But whatever happened to just trying to to create spaces of relationships, of creativity, or groups, of activity, of participation and even entrepreneurship all of which will allow young people to have connectivity, autonomy and become competent. Then, and this done in community, with families, with the institutions, and others, might be the best way of making more than just young people happy. It might make the community happy too.
We would never say that we would want young people to feel worse after meeting us, but happiness might not be likely if we have exposed and helped them become more self aware of the issues that affect them and how they react. They might know more but be less content as a result, needing a personal struggle to assimilate new information into their previously normative world view and identity.
We’ve got a long way to go. But the journey doesn’t start with fixing young people and helping them feel something, despite their circumstances. Policing young peoples emotions… really? Is that what youth work has come to?