Further to my thoughts Tim Price, who was involved in all the collectives I mention, offers his distinctive take on life with Malx.
“Know what I mean..” Some of the time, yes, but a lot of the time ‘no’. Malx had a ‘Yes Minister’ ability to prevent me from ever finding out what he meant when he said “Know what I mean” after a verbal ramble over familiar or unfamiliar terrain. I tried on a number of occasions to unpick what he meant with very little success. But as long as he didn’t reach that phrase he was very illuminating.
He had intelligence in spadefuls, wit and humour that made his presence always a blessing – unless you were trying to get to sleep or were hung over. I can remember one occasion when I was seriously hungover and he decided to treat to me to his relentless cheerfulness. It’s torture!
It was through my involvement in Tony Taylor’s shenanigans in my early youth work practice in Leicestershire that I first met Malx. This soon evolved to our sharing attendance at the weekly miner’s solidarity pickets in and around Coalville where I was working at the time. That period was for me a time of great political development.
In CYWU (the youth workers union) we were both involved in first, the Broad Left caucus and after, its child, the Socialist Caucus. This became a very serious commitment with monthly weekend meetings around the country plus our inputs into union meetings, wherever they were. It is worth noting that we were very serious about doing what we did but we also had a collective sense of humour, liked a drink and so made these meetings largely thoroughly enjoyable. During that time the caucus issued a regular bulletin. Malx was not a prolific contributor in the written form. He was a phone person. He didn’t mind texting and when he finally did use emails, they were written in text. Nonetheless he was prolific in ideas and thinking.
He could see the limitations of a small craft union and always felt that we should be involved in wider struggle. So, when CYWU was forced to consider its future he helped bring us around to the idea that NALGO was a better option than NUT or NATFHE. And while it troubled me in some ways, when the membership chose the NUT we decided to leave as a group, recommending this course of action to others and joined NALGO.
In the next year or so I became the South West rep on NALGO’s national youth workers committee. (Who else was crazy enough to put themselves through it?) I remained on this committee and it’s recreation when UNISON was formed by the amalgamation of 3 local government unions until I retired about 10 years ago. This meant that I had to go to London a fair bit and usually met Malx, if he was in the country.
During the 1990s the Caucus crumbled until only Malx, Tony and I were left to meet.
After Tony and Marilyn moved to Crete Malx and I would spend a week or so every 2 years on Crete, usually with a few days stop off on another island. We went to Hydra a few times, an island we both liked.
Tony was not quite writing something (the book) much of this time. Malx came up with the idea of us each sharing our memories of being teenagers and involvement in youth work as young people then getting into youth work as workers. It was very memorable to me. In many ways our working class backgrounds were similar and proved very interesting. It is a shame that we never did put some of these discussions on paper. It gave me a greater insight into Malx and his sense of heritage, intelligence, rebellious nature and humour. One thing I remember clearly was him describing how he would skive off school to go to the local library to read. He was a prolific reader always.
He loved the real culture of the working class community where he came from and the area round about. Deptford was Gods Own Country. Apart from those few years in Leicester while at Scraptoft College, he lived in or near to Lewisham which was the theatre for his work.
There is much more I could say. But I will finish with one of his ‘lines’ that I think expresses who he was well:
Malx “You have to stick to rule 2.”
Me “What’s that?”
Malx “ You gotta keep the missus sweet.”
Me “So what’s rule 1?”
Malx “ Not only strive to understand history but also to change it.”
Following upon the momentum created by Gus John’s account of his clash with the BBC, Sanitising Racism, Past and Present it is all the more challenging to post his passionate rejection of the almost taken-for-granted and ‘hideous’ acronym, BAME – Black, Asia and Minority Ethnic. More than a few questions herein for the youth work world I have inhabited across the decades….and society at large.
DON’T BAME ME
Just before the lockdown, my granddaughter came home from school one day very upset and confused. That afternoon, a classmate sitting at her table suddenly announced that from now on we will all call Anna (not her real name) ‘nigger’. They are both 10 and British white and African respectively. Anna remonstrated with him and one of her mates, white, insisted that she should tell the teacher. In a discussion that ensued later, questions were asked about what the school was doing about race and one adult added ‘especially as there are so few Bame students in the school’. Anna had no clue as to what Bame meant and when she was told, she asked why it mattered that there were few students like her in the school, given the fact that it was the white boy who had used the racial slur. When on reaching home she called to tell me about it, I found it considerably less problematic to explain to her the origins and usage of ‘the n-word’ than that of BAME.
So, here is a British born child, confident in her own skin, unapologetic about her blackness and totally comfortable with her white classmates having sleep overs at her home and vice versa, being made to feel that she was a problem; a problem that required the school to deal with the issue of race; being made to feel that if she had not been there, the white boy would not have had cause to call anybody ‘nigger’ and the school would have had no need to concern itself with race.
But, that school had long demonstrated to her that it saw no need to concern itself with race, not least by virtue of the fact that nothing in its library or displayed on its walls sent out to students, teachers or parents that there were people in Britain, let alone the world, other than white people like themselves.
So, why was it was more difficult to explain the origin and use of the word ‘nigger’ than that of the hideous and equally demeaning acronym BAME?
How does a parent tell a 10 year old that by virtue of the colour of her skin, by virtue of the fact that she is melanin rich, she is rendered ‘other’ and racialised as ‘black’ and as ‘nigger’ as the worst and most contemptible embodiment and existential manifestation of black? How does a parent equip that child with the mental energy, the self esteem, the self confidence and the determination to defend her essential humanity and make sure that no one takes liberties with her and denigrate her on account of her blackness?
And, while her parents are building with and within her those essential tools for resistance and survival, what are the parents of her white classmates doing to ensure that they are not being socialised within the putrid culture of racism in Britain to become racist oppressors, whether by commission or omission?
So, what is the context of this conversation about the terminology we use to denote racial identity and to denote ethnicity?
The context I suggest is the racialisation of difference and of different populations across the globe; racialisation of people, their ethnicity, their history, their culture and cultural products. Such racialisation has been the historical function of imperialism and colonialism and with it has evolved a language that serves the purpose of underpinning racial hierarchies and trapping those at or near the bottom of the hierarchy in mindsets and ways of being and of self-perception that correspond to those hierarchies.
We ignore the relationship between language, power and identity at our peril. Words matter. They convey deep meanings and they help to frame identities. They are the medium through which we give expression to our existential reality and through which others seek to deny, denigrate and negate our existential reality.
Before I arrived in Britain in 1964 aged 19, I had not heard the word ‘coloured’ used to describe African people except in the specific context of apartheid in South Africa. As a teenager, I was deeply affected by reading Alan Paton’s, ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’.So, when I heard white people and even Caribbean people calling other Caribbean people like myself ‘coloured’, I was quite alarmed. And then I read Stokeley Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s ‘Black Power’ and I learnt about the Negritude Movement and I read James Baldwin, Claude Mackay, Ralph Ellison and saw images of Black Panther and civil rights marches and of Jim Crow barbarism as African Americans struggled against state racism in the USA.
I found it interesting that the bestial British who for centuries had treated African people worse than they did animals had suddenly converted to humanity, such that they were insisting that it was not just impolite but downright offensive to call us ‘black’. We were being condemned for using our supplementary schools to teach ‘Black Power’. Black was considered to be associated with violence, armed resistance against the state and its apparatuses and generally with a radical and revolutionary mindset. ‘Coloured’ was more consensual and conformist and in any event, it made white folk feel better, except of course when they were ready to cuss us. I’ve never heard the racial slur ‘you coloured bastard’. No, we got the full monty, including and especially from the police: ‘You black bastard’.
And then, the contorted language of race relations brought us ethnic minorities and black and ethnic minorities. This gave rise to a protracted debate about whether we were ethnic minority or minority ethnic. That debate completely missed the point, i.e., a) that whether ‘ethnic minority’ or ‘minority ethnic’, we were consenting to being minoritized and ‘othered’ for all time and that we were considered and treated as ‘minority’, not just in relation to our ‘per capita’ representation in the population as part of the African and the Asian Diaspora, but minority in intelligence, in capabilities, in moral values, in our contribution to human evolution, etc. The society which automatically valued and validated white folk, began to demand that we prove ourselves and demonstrate that we had the capacity to hold certain positions before we could be accepted as eligible for appointment to a wide spectrum of posts; b) that as far as ethnicity was concerned, we were not just ethnic minorities, we were ethnic outcasts, vying with other ethnic minorities like ourselves and scrambling for crumbs and handouts from those in power, who were always facing a potential backlash from the white majority who saw us as undeserving and as taking what should have been given to them.
No one ever spoke or wrote about the ethnic majority in the society and how they engaged with their racial and ethnic identity. People and things were only ethnic when they were, or were related to, people and cultures that were not white. It is as if we had come into a land of ethnic neutrality and cultural homogeneity and were clumps of trees in vast forests of melanin starved corn; in other words, a population of people without colour (PWC) in more ways than one.
In time, those halcyon days when black denoted struggle of the sort that African people had waged for centuries against enslavement, colonisation and neo-colonialism and therefore was thought to encompass liberation struggles, broadly speaking, of oppressed and dispossessed peoples everywhere, including against the caste system in the Indian subcontinent, against Israeli occupation of Palestine and against the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australasia, those halcyon days gave way to a far narrower definition of black as signifying African – as in Africa and its Diaspora -, with most diasporan Africans seeing themselves as having either a hyphenated identity, – African-American, African-Caribbean, French-African – and many emphatically rejecting their African heritage altogether. Among the latter are significant numbers of Caribbean people of all ages, who while being comfortable with being called Black would never call themselves and resent being called African. In other words, they have no time whatsoever for Peter Tosh’s famous declaration:
‘Don’t care where you come from As long as you’re a black man, you’re an African’
Asians in Britain determined that they were not Black and they were no ‘ethnic minority’ either. In time, BME morphed into Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME).
BAME is a hideous acronym and it is one that does no justice to any of the sections of the British population encompassed by that ill-defined term. Black is an umbrella classification for whom exactly? Black African? Black British of African and of Caribbean parentage? Black British of African, or Caribbean and white European parentage? How about the large Indo-Caribbean population of Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, almost as numerous as the African-Caribbean population? In Britain, are they and their offspring Black Caribbean, or are they Asian as in BAME?
And what do we understand by Asian? What does that umbrella classification encompass? People from the Indian subcontinent only, as in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh? People from the Indian Ocean? People from countries that form the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN):Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Phillipines, Vietnam, Brunei, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos? People from China? People from Taiwan?
And if ‘Asians’ as in BAME signify people from the Asian continent and its Diaspora, why are people from the African continent and its Diaspora represented as ‘Black’ in BAME? I would suggest that ‘Black’ in that context has less connotations of Black as in “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’ than as black representing historical enslavement, reserve pools of labour, endless struggle for fundamental rights and entitlements and from the bondage of endemic racism.
As for ethnic minority/minority ethnic, we have to lead the way in abandoning this terminology.
The population of Europe’s ethnic majority, ie, white Europeans, is roughly 748 million. The population of the Indian subcontinent alone is approximately 1 billion, 765 million. 25% of the world’s population live in South Asia. Whites make up 60% of the population of the USA. The UK has a population of 68 million, of whom 9 million are non-white.
There is no evidence that I have seen of people from the Asian or African Diaspora regarding themselves as ethnic minorities in Britain. On the contrary, migrant and settler communities from those continents project anything but a minority consciousness. Yet, we readily adopt and persist with a language of hierarchy and of oppression, both here and in the USA. Among the bewildering array of terms that are in increasingly regular usage in Britain are: People of Colour; Black and Non-Black People of Colour and more recently Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC).
Who determined that Black or Indigenous people are ethnic minorities? Even numerically, why are we minoritizing ourselves who constitute 85% at least of the world’s population? Nigeria has a population of over 200 million. Britain has a population of 68 million. Why should Nigerians see themselves as an ethnic minority in Britain or anywhere else in Europe? And as for ‘People of Colour’ or ‘Visible Minorities’, why are we defining ourselves against globalised whiteness as some assumed norm and minoritizing ourselves as if we don’t fully belong, especially given Europe’s historical exploits around the globe?
There are little and large enclaves of white folk all over the world and on each continent. They never define themselves, nor do we ever define them, as ‘ethnic minorities’. We call them and they refer to themselves as ‘expats’, expatriates from their homeland who happen to be in some other country (typically seen as inferior to theirs). In other words, people are only ‘ethnic’ and ‘minority’ when they are not white. And yet, we fail to see how we ourselves are privileging whiteness as the ‘norm’ when we call ourselves ‘people of colour’, ‘ethnic minorities’ and the rest.
BAME is bad enough, but BIPOC for heaven’s sake…. So, we tacitly and implicitly accept that ‘white’ is a unified concept, all embracing, all encompassing. No diversity, ethnic minorities or multiculturalism in the white majority. It’s one undifferentiated, melanin starved mass. When it comes to us, however, we are BAME, POC, BIPOC, non-White ……and Backward.
If African people are People of Colour, why deny white Europeans the privilege of being called People without Colour, in other words, not having to carry the burden of blackness with all its historical baggage of unacceptability and undesirability?
The critical question in all this is: When is it going to end? It is estimated that in less than 50 years, the non-white population of Britain will outnumber the melanin starved, the WIPONC (White and Indigenous People of No Colour). Do we have to wait until then before we Africans and Asians develop and project a majority consciousness and stop minoritizing ourselves? Meanwhile, what does BAME tell us about the way the diverse populations we group as Black and Asian and Minority Ethnic experience the society and its endemic racisms? Do Indians, Bangladeshis, Chinese and Malaysians experience the society and its institutions in identical ways? Do they have equal access and equal opportunity? Similarly, those of us Africans who are lumped together as ‘Black’?
Convenient though policymakers no less than academics and journalists find it to use BAME and POC, I believe that we have a duty to disrupt the hegemony of that language and its power to racialise, marginalise and exclude. For one thing, young Black British people such as my children and grandchildren need a home. They need to see themselves as being the continuum of an Ancestral line, as having an African ancestry. Britain is where they live, but it can never be their ‘home’. Their ‘Mother country’ is Africa. While we believe in people’s right to self-identify and that therefore, Caribbean people have a right to declare that they are not African or Asian, or British for that matter, we would all consider it rather bizarre if they all started calling themselves Innuits.
I have no idea, any more than you do, how long it would take before we abandon the language of BAME and POC and BIPOC. But, we can all start by taking responsibility to avoid using it in our speech and in our writing. Although many regard it as being equally problematic, I increasingly use terms such as Global Majority, or African and Global Majority, instead of BAME. I never ever use ‘People of Colour’, for as far as I am concerned there is no difference between being called a person of colour, or a ‘woman of colour’ and a ‘coloured woman’.
Problematic it may be, but psychologically it nurtures my sense of wellbeing in this racist society to define myself and my offspring as African and Global Majority, rather than endorsing the label of BAME and POC.
I rest my case.
Gus John International Consultant & Executive Coach Visiting Professor – Coventry University Honorary Fellow and Associate Professor The UCL Institute of Education – University of London
A week ago I attended from afar the streamed New Cross Fire 40th anniversary memorial service. Through my close friendship with Malcolm Ball, a leading Lewisham youth worker and activist across the decades, my frequent visits to Deptford and indeed the St Andrews Centre, I felt I had an inkling of the grief and anger sparked by the tragedy. A week ago too Gus John was interviewed on BBC radio. You will find below his passionate, perceptive and uncomfortable account of the issues raised by the encounter.As Gus argues, ‘There is a serious debate to be had about all of these matters.’Responses encouraged and welcomed to firstname.lastname@example.org
From ‘Nigger-hunting’ to ‘Paki-bashing’ to Police Murders….Very British Pastimes.
On 18 January 2021, on the 40th Anniversary of the New Cross Massacre, I did an interview with Robert Elms, BBC Radio London
At the start of the interview, I was setting out the background to the New Cross Fire and the history of neo-fascist activity in London and the country generally and said that there had been years of neo-fascist activity in our communities including ‘Paki-bashing’ as the perpetrators themselves called it’…. And before I could complete the sentence with ‘and ‘nigger-hunting’, Elms interrupted saying ‘please don’t use that language. We cannot use such language on the BBC’. I determined that it would be more productive to move on to the core subject rather than remonstrate with him, but after the programme I wrote to the producer as below. His reply was both instructive and deeply concerning. What I said and Elm’s objection to my saying it have been elided from the recording in the link above.
I believe the BBC’s position is untenable and to invoke the potentially hurt feelings of their own black staff in support of dodgy editorial decisions is just disgraceful.
I joined the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) in 1965 and a couple years later I was one of those going around London and Leicester gathering evidence of the most vicious race discrimination, evidence which helped in no small measure to convince Harold Wilson and his government of the need for the 1968 Race Relations Act.
I saw my father stumble into our house that same year, bloodied, cut and bruised all over because he had been set upon on his way from work just after 06.00 on a winter’s morning and nearly beaten to death by a group of racists with baseball bats, motorbike chains and sticks. They seemed to come from nowhere and all he heard was ‘one less nigger’ and they were all over him. He had the presence of mind to run into somebody’s yard, pick up a bottle of milk, smash it and cut off the ear of one of his assailants, at which point they saw that he was ready to kill or be killed and they all ran off.
A matter of weeks later, my 16 year old brother was arrested for riding his bike in the park not far from our home. The police took him to Acton police station because he was ‘lippy’ and one of them defecated in a toilet and then pulled him out of a cell (he had not even been charged), took him to that same toilet and two of them held his head down in the faeces while they flushed the toilet. He nearly drowned in that filth. They then kicked him out of the police station. He arrived home totally traumatised and couldn’t eat for days. He remained traumatised for the rest of his short life. He went to prison for assaulting police a couple years later and was constantly having problems with them. He took to drink and died aged 49. Having drunk too much on his birthday, he fell down the stairs in his own flat and broke his neck.
My father came here in 1957 and by 1972 he and my mother were back in Grenada, having vowed never to set foot in England ever again. They both passed on without ever visiting the UK thereafter. They must have been among the earliest returners of their generation.
I fought off ‘nigger hunters’ in Notting Hill in 1968, especially after what had happened to my father and was angry at how nonchalant the police were about their activities, while being ever ready to frame us for having offensive weapons. As a youth worker in Ladbroke Grove at the time, I and other youth workers constantly walked young people home or to their bus because of the relentless harassment and provocation they suffered at the hands of the police.
I of all people therefore do not need the BBC to tell me how offensive terms like ‘nigger hunting’ and ‘Paki-bashing’ actually are. I conducted the Burnage Inquiry into the racist murder of 14 year old Bangladeshi student Ahmed Iqbal Ullah with Ian Macdonald QC and colleagues. Having stabbed Ahmed to death, his 14 year old white student attacker ran around the school shouting hysterically ‘I killed a Paki, I killed a Paki’.
There is a serious debate to be had about all of these matters.
One disturbing feature of the New Cross Fire story is the number of people in our communities and in the country generally below the age of 50 who have no knowledge of it. They have no knowledge either of the firebombing of premises in New Cross, Deptford, Ladywell and Lewisham generally and attacks on Asian families in their homes and on the streets that had been perpetrated by white terrorists and neo-fascists for more than a decade before the New Cross Fire. Such activity had a history that dated back to the 1919 racial attacks upon black service personnel demobbed from the First World War, through to ‘nigger hunting’ in London and elsewhere in the 1950s and ‘Paki-bashing’ right up to the present.
Throughout that period, also, hundreds of black people have been killed by the police with none being brought to justice since the murderers of David Oluwale in Leeds in 1969 were charged, not with murder or manslaughter, but with grievous bodily harm.
British historians have typically airbrushed the history of the barbarism of African enslavement and of British imperialism across the globe. Now, the media is leading the way in sanitising the barbarism of British racism, even as the police continue to kill black people indiscriminately while enjoying the full protection of the state and the judicial system. One could justifiably conclude that black people, males in particular, have an unnatural propensity to die of natural causes while in the custody of the police.
So, in a society where it is deemed offensive to spell the word ‘nigger’ and the word ‘Paki’ in full in any context, black people are routinely killed by the police without the state or the nation batting an eyelid. That is why this nation and its institutions reacted as if they needed a George Floyd event to trigger their epiphany, oblivious of the fact that we have ignored hundreds of British George Floyds, despite years of campaigning for justice in plain sight across the country. The hope is, no doubt, that it would soon be forgotten that there was a time when black people were called ‘niggers’ and ‘wogs’ and anyone who looked like they might be from the Indian subcontinent attacked and killed on the streets or in their homes with impunity.
Racism has been sanitised and recast as ‘unconscious bias’. British social history is being sanitised to expunge un-British activities such as ‘nigger hunting’, ‘Paki-bashing’ and police murders of black people. The expectation no doubt is that history will absolve the nation for this induced amnesia.
I am glad I had the opportunity to help put the events of 40 years ago in New Cross in proper historical and political perspective and I have full admiration for the way Robert conducted the interview. Please pass on my thanks to him.
When you reminded me to watch my language, I did not for one moment imagine that you meant I should not mention what the NF, Column 88 etc called that barbaric activity they indulged in up and down the country against the South Asian community. I am not naive enough as to expect you and Robert Elms to change BBC policy, but as a social historian, I do worry about the full scale attempt by broadcast or for that matter print media, to sanitise the nasty and unadulterated racism to which black people are subjected in this country by not reporting such phenomena as historical fact. In my writing and my lectures, I remind people of campaigns in the 1960s by myself and others against landlords and hoteliers who posted signs saying: ‘No Coloureds, No Dogs, No Irish’, or ‘No Wogs, No Dogs, No Irish’, or against what the neo-fascists themselves called ‘Paki-bashing’ and ‘nigger-hunting’. To report the barbarism of the Far Right and the atrocious terminology that they used AND THAT THE MEDIA REPORTED at the time is important in my view because Britain needs to be reminded about that history and about the fact, as I was saying in the interview, that the state did not react proportionately, or at all, to those barbaric attacks which left scores of people of the African and Asian diaspora dead. If I say that the activities of such Far Right groups resulted in the deaths of people who were targeted only because of their ethnicity and that the perpetrators called their actions ‘Paki-bashing’, I am neither appropriating that language myself, nor using it to inflame passions within the Pakistani or Bangladeshi communities. Context is everything, even in broadcasting. I cannot understand why the BBC should want to so infantilise its listeners as to assume that they cannot tell the difference between describing neo-fascist activity and what that activity was called by neo-fascists themselves on the one hand, and the same term(s) used contemporaneously by myself or anybody else.
The murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959 was a consequence of the routine ‘nigger-hunting’ that black communities in Notting Hill and elsewhere endured at the time. What is of consequence it seems to me, is not the fact that that terminology was and remains deeply racist, offensive and oppressive, but that white neo-fascists were allowed by the state and its police to indulge in those murderous activities with impunity. That fact is incontrovertibly more obscene than the words themselves.
The question is though, where in the BBC is this debate taking place and whom does it involve?
Turning to matters over which you do have some control, please send me a recording of the interview and a link to it so that I can share with others here in Wales and elsewhere.
From: Jamie Collins Sent: 18 January 2021 16:43 To: Gus John <email@example.com> Subject: RE: BBC Radio London / Robert Elms Importance: High
I thought you were great – extremely important and poignant considering to this day many of the issues faced by those then are still having to be fought against and survived to this day. We received several messages and calls from listeners that appreciated the way we highlighted the anniversary on the show and you were integral to this.
We as an editorial team and the wider station have had numerous conversations on the use of words such as the n word or p word in full – even for illustrative purposes as you did. While I fully understand and accept why you feel it is important to say it – many of our listeners of colour and indeed staff members are offended by the full use of the word and can find it triggering. And so the reason we do not use such words is so as to ensure it does not offend those minority communities- but we also recognise that this in itself divides opinion.
I fully understand the worry that by censoring the words in this context might dilute the threat, violence and racism faced by the Black and Asian community at the time by those groups. I also recognise that a white person using the words for illustrative purposes is hugely different to a person of colour who is doing the same.
The editorial decision has been made to edit out that portion of the interview when it goes live in iPlayer/BBC Sounds and I’m planning on clipping the interview separately for our BBC Sounds page and will send you the link as soon as it’s up.
If you would like I would be happy to refer you to the Editor and Assistant Editor if you would like to discuss further – and I would sincerely like to thank you once again for your contribution – it made a real impact.
Professor Augustine John International Consultant & Executive Coach Visiting Professor – Coventry University Honorary Fellow and Associate Professor The UCL Institute of Education – University of London
I’m not sure if this piece, which appeared in the ninth issue of the Inner London Education Authority’s Schooling and Culture forty years ago, is of much interest today. Certainly, across the decades, it resonates for me, if for no one else, particularly so as its final paragraph mirrors the concluding call I make in the recent post, Resistance in a Climate of Anxiety and Precarity.
Compare the two:
1981 We are putting energy into building our local union branch to act as a focus for our political action. Crucial to this development is the building of links with other Community and Youth Service Association (CYSA) branches in the country and with other oppositional groups. But we do not want to be seen to be trotting out empty slogans about collectivity and solidarity. For instance we are struggling to make any contact at all with our local labour movement. Our own cohesion itself is very fragile, but we have made a start at the coalface. That is with our own feelings to one another. We will feel stronger in this struggle if we hear from other people across the country. Such a network of support is vital if we are to create a movement in opposition to the resurgence of repression and reaction that is upon us.
2021Gazing outwards I wonder whether this is a moment when IDYW should explore directly with its supporters the reasons for our reluctance to organise collectively. Am I being old-fashioned in believing that, when push comes to shove, if resistance is to strike fear into the powerful it will spring from acting together on the basis of the classic slogan, ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’? Am I living in a dream to believe that a passionate and organised IDYW democratic alliance of workers, volunteers and young people could be part of the absolutely necessary social and political resistance to the dystopian prospect offered by the global elite and the World Economic Forum?
Of course, one the one hand, the similarity might well reveal the weariness of my thinking, that I am trapped in romantic nostalgia. On the other it might well illustrate that the will and commitment to self-organise, to come together under our own steam, remains fundamental. More than ever in these self-centred neoliberal times, it marks a break from the cul-de-sac of individualistic virtue. It is a choice we can make. It is a difficult choice, made ever easier the more we choose to do it together.
It’s more than interesting that the 1981 piece is a defence of liberal education as expressed in a process-led youth work faced by conservative resistance on the ground. In 2020 we strive to oppose a holistic liberal education to behavioural neo-liberal education and its technocratic imposition of prescribed outcomes.
STUTTERING STEPS IN POLITICAL EDUCATION
TONY TAYLOR AND ROY RATCLIFFE – at the time of writing I was the Wigan Youth Service’s Training Officer and Roy, an Area Youth Worker.
[Schooling and Culture, Issue 9, London, ILEA Cockpit Arts Workshop, Spring 1981 The issue, Youth, Community: Crisis, included a number of relevant articles. See in particular, Mica Nava, ‘Girls aren’t really a problem…’, Tony Taylor and Roy Ratcliffe, ‘Stuttering steps in political education’, and Bernard Davies, ‘Social Education and Political Education: In Search of Integration’.]
Within the present political and economic climate the Youth Service is once again in depression. The future is clouded. However, crises are a recurrent feature of youth work’s recent history and the response thus far suggests that the field is sceptical of this latest Armageddon. “Wolf’s been cried once too often!”—it is merely a time to keep one’s head down until the situation passes over. We would hope that this latest trough is not the slough of a very desperate despond. It is not just the Youth Service that faces calamity, but the whole of liberal education. Strategies of resistance are urgently needed. Here we wish to share our experiences about the attempted development of a Social Education Programme for a local authority statutory Youth Service and so participate in producing a positive collective response to the conservative onslaught.
Back in 1974 local government reorganisation offered the possibility of reviewing the state of the Youth Service. In Wigan a working party dominated by conservative elements within the voluntary sector produced a pale pamphlet which proposed (as objectives for youth leaders) tired and trusted tenets such as ‘the moral and spiritual development of young people.’ An increased youth work staff inherited this static apology as a blueprint for its practice. The dominant modes of operating available as examples to field workers were rooted in either ‘garden fete’ paternalism or activity oriented authoritarianism. Ideas of person-centred counselling and group work, the staple diet of training courses, floated on the margins of debates about the future. The underlying tension caused by this marginalisation and differing levels of perception was heightened by the influx of some workers more committed to a liberal perspective. Increasingly the long-standing traditional leadership base of youth work imposed an uneasy truce on the non-directive structures promulgated by training agencies following the post-Albermarle resurrection of Youth Service and the community emphasis of Milson/Fairbairn.
Over the first two years after reorganisation this lack of ‘compatibility’ between rival theories and practices caused frequent problems. As a response to this turmoil a group of full and part-time workers produced a document entitled The Programme of Action, which insisted that the Service’s objectives were the heightening of young people’s awareness (personal, social and political) and greater member participation. Quoting Brecht in “assisting the little fishes”, the introduction argued the Youth Service’s priority role in supporting the disadvantaged young person. Faced by such a clear statement of the liberal position’s concern for the individually deprived, the Youth Service hierarchy endorsed the submission and rushed it through Council to become the official Youth Service line. There was no attempt to familiarise the councillors and other advisory bodies with the content of the Programme. It was normal practice to treat them contemptuously as mere ‘rubber stamps’. Our acceptance of this manipulation and failure to discuss the issue seriously with the local politicians was to have severe repercussions in later years. However on the surface there was now the prospect of encouraging liberal youth work within the framework of the Programme of Action as a secure and agreed basis for the Youth Service staff. On paper we were now officially ‘Social Educators’.
In the following period the gulf between the rhetoric of the Programme of Action and the day to day reality caused further confrontations over such issues as policing the building; supporting the young homeless; swearing and moral decency. Reactionary positions continued to win the day and eventually several staff fled the scene. Crucial to the weakness of the ‘liberal’ position in this period was the poor relationship between full-time and many part-time staff. The latter’s overall support for status quo was often decisive. Linked to this failure the full-time staff itself became further fragmented. It was then a relatively simple task for the hierarchy ‘to divide and rule’.
Early in 1978 when the last remaining radical (and highest qualified) of the staff was ironically promoted to a training position, divisions within the staff grew worse. Bloodied and isolated the new Training Officer pursued a purist policy that created radical initiatives, which received only token support from the majority of the staff, who often used the argument that training occupied an ‘ivory tower’. Contradictorily the hierarchy tended to support this radical thrust, realising perhaps that it was unlikely to impinge problematically on practice, having themselves only a ‘wishy—washy’ pragmatism to put in its place. Crisis management was the order of the day and intervention only came after ‘things had blown up’.
The same year also saw the recruitment of further full-time staff new to the borough and it was against this background that training constructed a new strategy early in 1979. This was the setting up of a Training and Development Unit. Our argument was that this venture would provide a fresh angle on the problem of building a bridge between theory and practice. The view we took was that the liberal theories as they appeared in the Programme of Action, whilst containing the possibility of many alternative interpretations, also presented a sufficient brief to support a struggle against many elements of oppression in our society particularly as they affected young people. We considered that these liberal ideas and sentiments supported verbally by the hierarchy were evidence that these notions had general support from the majority of staff. We accepted the criticism that training was often cut-off from the day to day practice of youth work and needed to be brought closer to reality. We were aware that many part-time staff, some in the past and some recently, had tried and were trying against overwhelming odds to implement sections of the Programme of Action. The odds we all struggled against comprised of an ineffective, unimaginative, one year trained group of advisers for whom the status quo offered a peaceful if uneventful life; a general apathy and cynicism; and a lack of materials and resources with which to work. In developing the idea of a Training and Development Unit along with other innovations, we hoped to support current efforts; to develop good practice; to reinvigorate the demoralised; to convert the cynical; and call the bluff of the reactionaries. Some of the suggested initiatives were judged impractical for that year and so were shelved but the whole staff team welcomed the setting up of the Training and Development Unit.
Although the authority insisted on line management relationships, the endeavour was organised collectively. Internally within the unit there was no hierarchy, but the Youth Service structure accepted only one person, the Training Officer, as being responsible. Nevertheless it was hoped that many practical barriers would be removed by the provision of resources and the means to deliver them to the clubs. Principally the creation of a resource centre with a library, group work room, printing facilities, audio and video equipment and filming capability was to be the material factor that would overcome liberal Youth Work’s traditional inadequacies in the areas of planning, preparation and delivery. The centre would not, however, wait passively to be utilised but would be an active component brought to life by the Development Team. Exciting stimuli could be created at the centre on topics of social education and then taken into the world of table tennis and discos. The Development Team of one full-time worker and six part—time workers would be able to respond to requests, and prompt responses. Its main, if not sole brief was to lubricate the path of liberal theory to the seat of practice and then to return it for examination. Training was to move from ‘one-off’ exhortations and short courses to a view that sought to unite training, youth workers and young people in an educational dialogue.
Over the last two years the Training Centre, the Development Team and individual workers have indeed made moves towards these objectives. Yet the effect of theory on practice continues to be muted. The gap and therefore the contradiction between a liberal theory and a conservative practice remains. However, the efforts have served to sharpen our awareness of the depth of the blockages to the implementation of a social education praxis. In particular it has highlighted the rigidity of hierarchical structures; the flaccid response of many youth workers to authority; the insidious grip of ‘common-sense’ empiricism; the low self-image of the Service as a whole; and our own specific failure to build a solid base of support within and without the Service. Instead of now being in a position to examine how liberal theory enlightened practice, we are in the unfortunate position of being confronted by the mass of conservative practice which negated liberal theory. A number of ‘problems’ occurred, some of which we outline below. In each case we suggest that the practice was not checked against the supposed objectives of the Service, but that a summary arbitration was imposed on the basis of the lowest ‘common-sense’ denominator.
Case 1: THE ALL NIGHT PARTY
The Programme of Action underlines involvement as a major objective; it speaks of young people’s active involvement in the organisation of youth centres. Under a heading Strategies it recommends ‘identifying their own needs’; ‘involvement in decision-making’; ‘collecting subscriptions’; ‘keys to the centre’. In line with this authority policy, one club, apparently backed by its management committee, extended democracy and eventually achieved a locally unprecedented level of attendance and participation. Then an incident occurred in which young people trusted with keys were judged to have ‘gone too far’. They had held an all night party at the club on what later evidence proved to be a very orderly and tame basis. The young people concerned sought and obtained parental consent and displayed a host of other ‘responsible’ actions before embarking upon the venture. None of these actions were checked out and instead rumours of sexual license and permissiveness abounded. They were hastily considered to have gone ‘over the top’ and their access to keys was immediately withdrawn from them. There was no consultation with these young adults (the majority were over 18, and the party was for the 21st birthday of one of the members). Our position as a Service in the face of an orchestrated attack on our philosophy was to desert the young people in question, and the full-time staff members who supported them, and capitulate before dark threats about club closures and the forthcoming education cuts.
Case 2: THE MEMBERS’ COUNCIL
Embodied in the Programme of Action is a commitment to political awareness. We read under Objectives: ‘Development of questioning attitudes within young people’, and under Strategies: ‘Members’ Councils with power, e.g. finances.’ In line with this policy a group of youth club members from different clubs overcame considerable organisational difficulties and formed an embryo Members’ Council. After visiting a ‘Youth Charter—Towards 2000’ Conference called ‘Making Ourselves Heard’, they produced a bulletin of their impressions which they hoped would become the basis of a local youth council magazine. The bulletin contained a small number of Anglo-Saxon swear words which expressed the anger and frustrations which many of them felt. Response to the publication was swift and decisive. All support and facilities were removed from the young people and they, once more isolated, soon disbanded. As a Service we washed our hands of the affair and disciplined the full-time members of staff who had supported the Members’ Council. No evaluation was made of the situation. Members’ Councils ceased to be on the agenda of priorities.
Case 3: MEMBERS ONLY MAGAZINE
Bearing the Programme of Action’s statements about political awareness and participation in mind, about 60 copies of an NAYC publication, Members Only, were ordered. The magazine contained articles on writing and producing club newspapers. However on its front cover was a picture of a group of punks dressed in their ‘gear’ with one young male giving a V-sign to the camera. Distribution of the magazine was banned. Our response as a Service was to bow our heads and meekly comply with the censorship. What had happened to developing questioning attitudes?
Case 4: SEXISM
In this case a practical ‘problem’ has not yet arisen. We include it merely as a pointer to the future.A section of the training programme proposed a policy of positive discrimination in favour of young women. It suggested the setting up of a working party to investigate the male orientation of the Service; the organisation of a Workers Against Sexism Group; the publication of a GuidelinesAgainst Sexism booklet; and the planning of ‘Boys Rule Not OK’ weekends. At the committee meetings to approve the programme, objections were made to the Training Section’s ‘obsession’ with sex and its trendy sociological approach. Fears were expressed about the direction of this type of youth work. As a Service our response was ‘to box clever’ and to rewrite the offending passage, but seeds of doubt had already been liberally (!) sown. The ’response’ in this case has occurred at the level of theory and we can perhaps anticipate how a practical implementation will be greeted.
[ December 2020 – Indeed tackling sexism within the Service did create all manner of tensions. However the emergence of a self-organised Women Workers Group, the power and sophistication of its strategy and tactics, was to prove crucial to Work With Girls and Young Women moving to the centre of the Service’s practice.]
In all of these cases, it is seductive to define the problem as being one of ‘mistakes’ made by theparticipants: “If only they had handled things differently and in a more sensible way.” This simplistic analysis allows critics of the situation to claim that they are still in favour of social education but not of incompetence – witness their fashionable exasperation with the Tyndale teachers, whose actions they allege have made it so difficult to be progressive. It amounts to the view that anything less than a perfect initiative is too risky to try—an obvious recipe for the status quo. The charade though of support for experiment so long as it’s bland, keeps ajar the refuge that radical practice is possible provided we are familiar with and take heed of the constraints of ‘common-sense’.
But it is important to look more closely at part of the opposition to attempts to implement such liberal documents as Wigan’s Programme of Action. As a group of responses they are not the irrational or erratic whims of individuals, but flow in a complex way from the movement of wider forces in society. As a tool to look at this situation we concur with the concept of “moral panic”, first mooted by Stan Cohen in Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1973), and subtly developed by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in their Policing the Crisis (1978). At a certain moment in each of our examples a response of ‘moral panic or outrage’ can be identified. In Case 1 the focus was alleged sexual promiscuity; in Case 2 the vulgar words signalled the approach of anarchy and the subversion of moral standards; in Case 3 the punks, folk-devils of the late seventies, exuded a provocative contempt for authority; in Case 4 the contentious mixture was defined as being obsessed with sex and women’s lib, wishy-washy, yet manipulative and deviously subversive. Much of the outrage appeared genuine, although the sexual obsession resided with the critics rather than with those on the stage. However, what is significant is the way in which the narrow moral/sexual concern was expanded into an increasingly broader context in which the future of society was held to be at stake. Thus a particular form and style of educational approach was deemed to be responsible for the demise of traditional values and standards. This is demonstrated by the fact that the response does not limit itself to the specific issue alone, but is extended so as to prevent all further development i.e. not a restriction on swear words but a complete restriction of Members’ Council’s activities, etc. Thus what at first sight appears to be an outbreak of situation-specific moral indignation later grows into a more general authoritarian reaction to the whole of progressive youth work and more! The form is moral outrage but the content is political reaction.
We are not arguing that such developments are peculiar to youth work. Clearly all those involved ineducation and wishing to pursue in practice strategies in opposition to oppression and exploitation run the risk of being attacked in this way. Education authorities do not as a rule smile benevolently on school/student unions, pupils representation and the like, especially if there is any suggestion of autonomous decision-making. As far as the Youth Service is concerned we would venture that the problems and responses noted above are a normal feature of its existence. This is to suggest that workers involved in social education initiatives are likely to be caught in a depressing circle of frustration. It is still sometimes fondly thought that youth workers are less hamperedby authoritarian structural constraints than their colleagues in schools. Whilst it will come as no surprise to learn that they are fettered rather than free, it may be a shock to realise how little roomthey have for manoeuvre; how quickly reaction can come; and how little needs to be done to provoke the wrath of authority. Alongside the grandiloquent rhetoric about sexual awareness; political awareness; and member participation, we must note the outrage that will accompany almost immediately, mention of masturbation and the clitoris; talk of Marxism; and discussion about political demonstration. Stuttering steps towards opening up political issues precipitate ‘moral panic’ and the bureaucratic guillotine.
And where are the mass of youth workers in the face of this opposition to the very life blood of their supposedly unique educational organism? We fear that many are hiding their heads in the sand and we would accept some responsibility for their ostrich-like state, but as A J Jeffs comments,
“Analysis of current practice inevitably invokes self-criticism and is likely to threaten thefragile consensus that service to bind the disparate wings of the Youth Service together,therefore it tends to be avoided.”
So too the ‘liberalism’ that underpins much of the youth work ethos is assessed by Hall et al to be ill-equipped to resist the ‘direct impact or pragmatic immediacy of the traditionalist world view.’
In the light of these reflections we would put a question mark alongside all current liberal initiatives in support of young people. Serious struggles against, for instance, sexism and racism aimed at changing the basis of human relationships are obviously a threat to those who wish to preserve their privilege by controlling the existing conditions of inequality. However the chosen axis of response by authority to such efforts is unlikely to be one of a frontal assault upon ‘equality’, given this liberal notion’s deep rooted position in our culture. The forces of resistance to change are more likely to utilise the dynamic that is expressed firstly as outrage at a particular characteristic of a situation e.g. ‘vulgar language’, ‘nudity’,’sexual excess’, but which is then able to escalate these phenomena into the tell-tale signs of a general threat to the very fabric of our society. In this way the needs of authority and power are presented as the mutual concern of ‘all good men and true’ and ‘anybody with any common-sense’. So too the promotion of even liberal ideas in education is by slides and elisions identified as extremist and violent.
Thus the question mark, when placed alongside these efforts to motivate liberal youth work practice, reveals a conspicuous lack of success. But the tale is not to end here in circular depression. At one level our Programme of Action and developments such as the National Youth Bureau’s ‘Enfranchisement’ initiative are in dire straits. In 1980-81 liberal efforts to advance the status of young people, of the unemployed, of women, of blacks, are swimming against the tide of cuts, closures and the drift to a law and order society. But while it is idealistic and naive to talk of individual freedom and the whole liberal baggage without recognising the present economic base and political structure, it is pessimistic and undialectical to view the present situation as static and without contradiction; the state as monolithic and people as unchangeable. Thus we are now trying to apply an understanding of our failure to our present practice. We ourselves noted in an article in Youth in Society (October 1980) that a global analysis needs to be sensitised by the understanding on a personal level that comes from counselling and group work. So at the top of our list of priorities now is the exhausting task of coming together with our fellow workers to talk about ‘where we’re at’; to discuss why we alienate one another; to begin to find common ground. It is about examining our real rather than our imaginary differences in order ‘to hold hands with each other’, both actually and metaphorically; it is about creating a climate of relative, but real trust and honesty. In short it entails utilising those group work skills, which are our supposed youth work inheritance.
Alongside this we are putting energy into building our local union branch to act as a focus for our political action. Crucial to this development is the building of links with other Community and Youth Service Association (CYSA) branches in the country and with other oppositional groups. But we do not want to be seen to be trotting out empty slogans about collectivity and solidarity. For instance we are struggling to make any contact at all with our local labour movement. Our own cohesion itself is very fragile, but we have made a start at the coalface. That is with our own feelings to one another. We will feel stronger in this struggle if we hear from other people across the country. Such a network of support is vital if we are to create a movement in opposition to the resurgence of repression and reaction that is upon us.
S Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Paladin, 1973.
S Hall et al, Policing the Crisis, Macmillan, 1978.
A J Jeffs, Young People and the Youth Service, RKP, 1979.
A 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.
“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 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 In Defence of Youth Work campaign, of which I was the coordinator has just hosted a Zoom Seminar on Resistance. My dear friend, Sue Atkins opened the event with a tour de force on the 3R’s – Resistance, Rebellion and Revolution. to be found on the IDYW web site. Other contributions will appear in the next few weeks. All of these in different ways pose the question of how we resist the closing down of alternative, dissenting voices in reactionary circumstances.
By coincidence I discovered belatedly the other day an on-line version of the special exhibition, ‘Women in the Miners Strike 1984/85′ which is being hosted in the National Coal Mining Museum. It contains an essay on the significance of women in the Great Strike, photos and a video.
By twist of fate Marilyn and I found ourselves involved closely with the women of the Derbyshire coalfield. Part way through the strike we had moved from Leicestershire where we had been members of the ‘Dirty Thirty’ Miners Support Group to Chesterfield. Marilyn was caught off guard, not being a miner’s spouse, by the invitation to join the Chesterfield Women’s Action group. The women decided her heart was in the right place and ‘with her being a clever lass who could type’, she became the Minutes Secretary. It’s a matter of great historical and political regret that the tapes of the meetings she kept were lost.
As for my part I took up the job of Community Education Officer for the district, which contained, amongst others, the Bolsover and Shirebrook collieries. Going to work on my patch meant running the gauntlet of police harassment. In Shirebrook itself the old primary school had been converted into the food distribution centre, housing the supplies brought in solidarity from near and far. At the end of the strike such had been the immense contribution of the women – organising the canteens, ‘womanning’ the picket lines and speaking eloquently from the platforms, here, there and everywhere – the school was transformed into the Shirebrook Women’s Centre, offering a creche run by qualified staff and a diverse programme of workshops and activities. I was proud to have my office tucked away on the first floor and privileged to be swept away in the energy of the first few years.
Inevitably as the neoliberal project to undermine traditions of solidarity and community deepened its hold on society even this partial gain was to disappear, all the more so as employment prospects in the coalfield communities dwindled.
Where is this perhaps romantic nostalgia leading? For now it renders me obliged to visit afresh the legacy of neoliberalism’s ideology of self-centred individualism and to explore whether we are in transition to a form of technocratic capitalism, an anti-democratic rule by experts. In doing so the crucial question is to ponder how we resist collectively the conscious closing down by the powerful of our relationships with each other in the personal, social and political sphere? To be melodramatic how do we fight back against an assault on our very humanity?
Whether I write anything of use is quite another matter but I’ll give it a go.
In the meantime the women and men of the Strike remain an inspiration as does the very best of a youth work practice that knows it does not know what is best.
[ I posted this piece a few hours ago on the In Defence of Youth Work web site. It felt worthwhile to repost here. It’s rushed and the dilemmas deserve more attention but for the moment my sinuses are exploding on account of a Saharan dust storm.]
Department for Education (DfE) guidance issued on Thursday for school leaders and teachers involved in setting the relationship, sex and health curriculum categorised anti-capitalism as an “extreme political stance” and equated it with opposition to freedom of speech, antisemitism and endorsement of illegal activity.
Put aside for a moment the issue of the impact of this fait accompli upon youth workers in schools I wonder where this leaves an open-ended youth work practice, which seeks to encourage a critical dialogue as to the roots and contemporary manifestations of oppression and exploitation?
Where does it leave In Defence of Youth Work itself, which in its founding letter argues that Capitalism is revealed yet again as a system of crisis: ‘all that is solid melts into air’; which in its cornerstones argues the continuing necessity of recognising that young people are not a homogeneous group and that issues of class, gender, race, sexuality and disability remain central?
In this chapter we argue that the present state of English youth work exemplifies the corrosive influence exerted by neoliberal capitalism upon its character and purpose. In doing so we hope to contribute to a collective understanding of how youth workers might criticise and resist on a national and international level neoliberalism’s arrogant contention that there is no alternative.
and which closes:
Our starting point is not youth work per se. It is a radical educational praxis, often described as critical pedagogy, which does not belong to any particular profession or institution. At heart it is about the struggle for authentic democracy, about the continued questioning of received assumptions. It is obliged to oppose neoliberal capitalism. Educators committed to this radical praxis do so in a diversity of settings, under differing constraints and across the board.
Is it mere coincidence that in the same month the Tories invoke the threat of ‘extreme political stances’, the American President has launched a scathing assault on the liberal New York Times 1619 Project? It sets out its stall as follows:
Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, its diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day. The seeds of all that were planted long before our official birth date, in 1776, when the men known as our founders formally declared independence from Britain.
In an article by Michael Desmond, ‘Capitalism’, well worth reading, he asserts, in order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.
In response Trump rails against decades of Leftist indoctrination in schools, which have defiled the American Story.
I fear that we are not taking the insidious global slide to authoritarianism seriously enough. To be in conversation with young people about prejudice and injustice, sexism, racism and transphobia, precarious work and trade unions, the environment and climate change, anarchism, social democracy and socialism, all these talking points necessitate grappling with Capitalism’s past, present and future. Doing so is to play a part in the emergence of the critical young citizen, who will, whatever their political leanings, resist being told what they have to think.
[This post appeared first on the In Defence of Youth Work web site.]
My days long past in the Trotskyist movement have rendered me supremely cautious when it comes to calls for an International. Back then we had fierce disagreements about what constituted the authentic Fourth International, which would lead the struggle against Capitalism. The Third was but a Stalinist front. Some spoke even of a Fifth International. I have no desire to sneer at this part of my life. In the main we were committed sincerely to changing the world for the better. However our commitment was always haunted by its elitism. We knew best. None of our proposed Internationals were rooted in the social movements from below.
I’m moved to write this brief preface. which begs many questions, because this very weekend sees the launch of a Progressive International following an initiative from the Democracy in Europe Movement and the Bernie Sanders Institute. We are asked to unite around the following vision.
We aspire to a world that is:
Democratic, where all people have the power to shape their institutions and their societies.
Decolonised, where all nations determine their collective destiny free from oppression.
Just, that redresses inequality in our societies and the legacy of our shared history.
Egalitarian, that serves the interests of the many, and never the few.
Liberated, where all identities enjoy equal rights, recognition, and power.
Solidaristic, where the struggle of each is the struggle of all.
Sustainable, that respects planetary boundaries and protects frontline communities.
Ecological, that brings human society into harmony with its habitat.
Peaceful, where the violence of war is replaced by the diplomacy of peoples.
Post-capitalist, that rewards all forms of labour while abolishing the cult of work.
Prosperous, that eradicates poverty and invests in a future of shared abundance.
Plural, where difference is celebrated as strength.
I find it difficult to believe that any youth worker sympathetic to the politics of In Defence of Youth Work and its cornerstones of practice could be at odds with the above. This said, and given the doubts expressed in my opening thoughts, how many of us will be moved to embrace the call to be involved, expressed eloquently if problematically in Noam Chomsky‘s keynote speech.
“We are meeting at a remarkable moment, a moment that is, in fact, unique in human history, a moment both ominous in portent and bright with hopes for a better future. The Progressive International has a crucial role to play in determining which course history will follow.We are meeting at a moment of confluence of crises of extraordinary severity, with the fate of the human experiment quite literally at stake.”
He identifies “the growing threats of nuclear war and of environmental catastrophe, and the deterioration of democracy as the key issues facing humanity”.
He goes on to assert that “the last might at first seem out of place, but it is not. Declining democracy is a fitting member of the grim trio. The only hope of escaping the two threats of termination is vibrant democracy in which concerned and informed citizens are fully engaged in deliberation, policy formation, and direct action.“
There is much to discuss. I have my disagreements. How could it be otherwise? Crucially though, from an IDYW perspective his emphasis on the imperative of creating a vibrant democracy chimes with our sense of open youth work as both a process of ‘intimate democracy’, the vital need to listen to one another, ‘to look into one another’s eyes’ as David Graeber put it and a process of active, collective democracy, which seeks to question and challenge the growing authoritarianism seeping into so many corners of our existence.
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]