I was perplexed from the outset at what seemed to be the absence of debate and the utter lack of opposition to the demanded closures of children’s and young people’s provision – from playgrounds through schools and youth facilities to universities. I am being diplomatic. I was pissed off and angry. It was plain that such draconian, disproportionate action would be deeply damaging. The belated acknowledgement in the summer of 2021 that the lockdown was creating serious mental health issues for the younger generation, crocodile tears, merely confirmed my angst. Then, a humble breath taken, I recognised it was easy for me to be so moved. If I was still a practising youth worker. teacher or lecturer what would I have done during the last two years?
Towards the end of the piece I commented:
Certainly in the coming weeks, as the pandemic narrative unravels, it would be revealing to hear the thoughts of UK youth workers, teachers and lecturers about their sense of the impact upon children and young people, upon themselves of the two years lost.
Something unexpected happened in Spring and Summer of 2020. I found myself standing apart from my colleagues. I could understand that in the initial stages of the pandemic, due to the particular threat that Covid posed to the elderly, the government’s decision had been to focus on the protection of older members of the population. But as the weeks wore on and I imagined the harm being done to children across the country, informed both by my training and my professional experience, it was clear to me that too much weight was being focussed on the protection of adults at the enormous expense of the less obvious (but more long-term) damage to the future and well-being of children and young people. And yet those who I would expect to be my natural allies due to shared knowledge and experience remained silent. There was no national, grown-up discussion anywhere about how we might balance the need to protect the most vulnerable from Covid with the interests of the young, and how we could remain faithful to our national commitment to children’s best interests being paramount. Any attempt to introduce such discussion was met with derision and accusations of moral decrepitude. To my astonishment, this was also the case on professional online forums, where it became increasingly difficult to raise concerns. It seemed to me that psychologists, who describe themselves as ‘scientist-practitioners’, should be asking serious questions about society-wide decisions to impose restrictions and mandates that would inevitably harm children and young people (and other vulnerable groups). At the very least, they should all be calling for a broader discussion, which they would be uniquely placed to inform, and at best, an extremely high bar (in terms of cost-benefit analysis) for the introduction of such measures. Yet the general view amongst those working with children and young people – and the official view of most professional bodies including my own – was that the moral responsibility of child professionals was to support government policy (at whatever cost to society and whilst asking no questions – or so it seemed to me) and then to work to mitigate the impact on mental or physical health. The alternative view – that policies that kept children out of schools, cut them off from families and friends, kept them from participating in outdoor sports, normal play, activity and socialising and prevented them from accessing healthcare and other support services should not be in place at all – was anathema. This was disturbing and confusing. I could not understand how, given the values and knowledge we had all shared before March 2020, this had come about.
We always knew what circumstances and experiences children needed in order to thrive, to be physically well and to be mentally healthy, and we knew that the unprecedented social experiment that took place from March 2020 deprived them of many of these things and would put many at risk of serious harm. The collateral damage outlined in all these studies and reports could have been foreseen and warned against by many more child professionals than ever spoke out. In moving into the post-pandemic era, it is essential that we continue to speak of these harms, to measure and describe them and to share these findings with our colleagues and the general public. We need to welcome into the discussion the concerns of many people who, at the time, were persuaded that reduced transmission of Covid trumped everything else, including the safety and mental and physical health of children and young people. It would be good to reach a point where there is full acknowledgement of the harms caused and the catastrophic errors made that led to them. Perhaps the Covid Inquiry will lead society to ask itself how we ever got to a point where children and young people were routinely subjected to harmful and unevidenced interventions and restrictions. As we support recovery, all those working with children and those in government must re-commit to the principles of the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child. And we must ensure that we never subject a generation of children to such experiences ever again.
Speaking purely of youth workers, managers and lecturers, fond of proclaiming themselves to be critical practitioners par excellence, to what extent at a local, regional and national level are they coming together to consider what has been going on over the pandemic years? To what extent are they encouraging young people to discuss the rights and wrongs of the authoritarian clampdown on their lives? Or is the profession pretending the last two years never happened? Such collective myopia bodes ill for a future, within which an emboldened ruling class is confident that its diktat will be fearfully obeyed and that amongst its messengers of anxiety will be indeed youth workers, managers and lecturers.
“We are engaged in a war against the virus”- Boris Johnson
” In this fake war children are set to be vaccine fodder” – A concerned parent
From the very beginning, March 2020, of the utterly undemocratic imposition of COVID-inspired sweeping restrictions on social existence I feared for children and young people. Perhaps this was a knee-jerk response. After all, I have spent the last 50 years conversing with and about them – as a teacher, youth worker, lecturer and, latterly, a commentator-cum-spectator on the sidelines. Indeed in late 2008, I penned an Open Letter, arguing that youth work should side with young people and not the State; that it should not assume it knows what’s best for young people; that it should be in a critical conversation with them about how together we see the world; and that it should aspire to be ‘volatile and voluntary, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees’.In short it ought, first and foremost, to be a democratic practice. On the back of this missive, a campaign, In Defence of Youth Work [IDYW], emerged.
Against this history, given these commitments, I was perplexed from the outset at what has seemed to be the absence of debate and the utter lack of opposition to the demanded closures of children’s and young people’s provision – from playgrounds through schools and youth facilities to universities. I am being diplomatic. I was pissed off and angry. It was plain that such draconian, disproportionate action would be deeply damaging. The belated acknowledgement in the summer of 2021 that the lockdown was creating serious mental health issues for the younger generation, crocodile tears, merely confirmed my angst. Then, a humble breath taken, I recognised it was easy for me to be so moved. If I was still a practising youth worker. teacher or lecturer what would I have done during the last two years?
I find it difficult to imagine that, as a youth worker I would have caved in without protest as the youth centre was boarded up or that on the streets I would insist the young people be masked or else. I find it difficult, as a former primary school teacher, to believe I could cope with imposing upon children, I knew well with all their idiosyncrasies, the general requirement to don face coverings and keep their distance from each other and me. I find it difficult to accept that as a lecturer teaching upon a course committed to vibrant argument I would have meekly capitulated to the assault on critical thought, the depiction of the campus as a theatre of contagion and the arrival of on-line learning. As far back as Spring 2019, a modicum of independent research would have shown that masking was about obedience rather than transmission and that children/young people were in little danger from COVID and little danger to anyone else.
Of course, I’m probably deluding myself, thinking I would have swum against the conformist tide. The calculated campaign of fear disseminated without demur by the mainstream media has known no moral or ethical bounds. Management and trade unions in the public sector, along with the caring professions, armed with the ideology of ‘safetyism’, which in a trice provides both explanation and justification, have all embraced the dominant narrative with at times a nauseating pomposity. If you want to follow the unfolding of this smug self-righteousness delve into the archives of the Guardian.
Hence, where would I have found support in desiring to resist – certainly not in the trade union. little chance in the staff team and, to my chagrin, not through In Defence of Youth Work? In this context, speaking up might well have meant losing my job. However, deep in my decaying bones, I want to believe that there has been guerilla activity, which by its nature is underground. In my pretentiousness, I want to believe that with others I would have sought somehow to bring these guerillas together in some supportive form of solidarity – see the history of the Socialist Caucus and Critically Chatting Collective. You might well say, ‘dream on,Tony, dream on’.
Certainly in the coming weeks, as the pandemic narrative unravels, it would be revealing to hear the thoughts of UK youth workers, teachers and lecturers about their sense of the impact upon children and young people, upon themselves of the two years lost.
As a stimulus to reflection, I’m reposting this moving and stimulating article by a Canadian teacher, which appeared on Common Sense, one of many alternative news sites that have sprung up during the pandemic. This outlet seeks to situate its politics as rejecting both the hard Left and the hard Right. Classically it seeks to find the middle ground with all the contradictions therein. To my mind, the very categories of Left, Centre and Right are in such a state of meltdown that the vital thing is to be aware of one’s own prejudices and history, to explore expansively, be open to critical dialogue and committed at every turn to the democratic process in the struggle against authoritarianism.
I am proud to be a teacher. I’ve worked in the Canadian public school system for the past 15 years, mostly at the high school level, teaching morals and ethics.
I don’t claim to be a doctor or an expert in virology. There is a lot I don’t know. But I spend my days with our youth and they tell me a lot about their lives. And I want to tell you what I’m hearing and what I’m seeing.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, when our school went fully remote, it was evident to me that the loss of human connection would be detrimental to our students’ development. It also became increasingly clear that the response to the pandemic would have immense consequences for students who were already on the path to long-term disengagement, potentially altering their lives permanently.
The data about learning loss and the mental health crisis is devastating. Overlooked has been the deep shame young people feel: Our students were taught to think of their schools as hubs for infection and themselves as vectors of disease. This has fundamentally altered their understanding of themselves.
When we finally got back into the classroom in September 2020, I was optimistic, even as we would go remote for weeks, sometimes months, whenever case numbers would rise. But things never returned to normal.
When we were physically in school, it felt like there was no longer life in the building. Maybe it was the masks that made it so no one wanted to engage in lessons, or even talk about how they spent their weekend. But it felt cold and soulless. My students weren’t allowed to gather in the halls or chat between classes. They still aren’t. Sporting events, clubs and graduation were all cancelled. These may sound like small things, but these losses were a huge deal to the students. These are rites of passages that can’t be made up.
In my classroom, the learning loss is noticeable. My students can’t concentrate and they aren’t doing the work that I assign to them. They have way less motivation compared to before the pandemic began. Some of my students chose not to come back at all, either because of fear of the virus, or because they are debilitated by social anxiety. And now they have the option to do virtual schooling from home.
One of my favorite projects that I assign each year is to my 10th grade students, who do in-depth research on any culture of their choosing. It culminates in a day of presentations. I encourage them to bring in music, props, food—whatever they need to immerse their classmates in their specific culture. A lot of my students give presentations on their own heritage. A few years back, a student of mine, a Syrian refugee, told her story about how she ended up in Canada. She brought in traditional Syrian foods, delicacies that her dad had stayed up all night cooking. It was one of the best days that I can remember. She was proud to share her story—she had struggled with homesickness—and her classmates got a lesson in empathy. Now, my students simply prepare a slideshow and email it to me individually.
My older students (grades 11 and 12) aren’t even allowed a lunch break, and are expected to come to school, go to class for five and a half hours and then go home. Children in 9th and 10th grades have to face the front of the classroom while they eat lunch during their second period class. My students used to be able to eat in the halls or the cafeteria; now that’s forbidden. Younger children are expected to follow the “mask off, voices off” rule, and are made to wear their masks outside, where they can only play with other kids in their class. Of course, outside of school, kids are going to restaurants with their families and to each other’s houses, making the rules at school feel punitive and nonsensical.
They are anxious and depressed. Previously outgoing students are now terrified at the prospect of being singled out to stand in front of the class and speak. And many of my students seem to have found comfort behind their masks. They feel exposed when their peers can see their whole face.
Around this time of year, we start planning for the prom, which is held in June. Usually, my students would already be chatting constantly about who’s asking who, what they’re planning on wearing, and how excited they are. This year, they’ve barely discussed it at all. When they do, they tell me that they don’t want to get their hopes up, since they’re assuming it will get cancelled like it has for the past couple of years.
It’s the same deal with universities. My students say, “If university is going to be just like this then what’s the point?” I have my own children, a nine-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son, who have spent almost a third of their lives in lockdown. They’ve become so used to cancellations that they don’t even feel disappointed anymore.
I think all of my students are angry to some degree, but I hear it most from the kids who are athletes. They were told that if they got the vaccine, everything would go back to normal, and they could go back to the rink or the court. Some sports were back for a while but, as of Christmas, because of the recent wave of Covid-19 cases, club and varsity sports are all cancelled once again. A lot of the athletes are missing chances to get seen by coaches and get scholarships.
I try to take time at the beginning of class to ask my kids how they’re doing. Recently, one of my 11th grade students raised his hand and said that he wasn’t doing well, that he doesn’t want to keep living like this, but that he knows that no one is coming to save them. The other kids all nodded in agreement. They feel lied to—and I can’t blame them.
What’s most worrisome to me is that they feel deep worry and shame over the prospect of breaking the rules.
Teenage girls are notoriously empathetic. I see that many of my students, but especially the female ones, feel a heavy burden of responsibility. Right before Christmas, one of my brightest 12th graders confided in me that she was terrified of taking her mask off. She told me that she didn’t want to get anyone sick or kill anybody. She was worried she would be held responsible for someone dying.
What am I supposed to say? That 23 children have died from Covid in Canada during the whole of the pandemic and she is much more likely to kill someone driving a car? That kids in Scandinavia, Sweden, and the Netherlands largely haven’t had to wear masks at school and haven’t seen outbreaks because of it? That masks are not a magic shield against the virus, and that even if she were to pass it along to a classmate, the risk of them getting seriously sick is minuscule?
I want to tell her that she can remove her mask, and socialize with her friends without being worried.
But I am expected to enforce the rules.
At the beginning of the pandemic, adults shamed kids for wanting to play at the park or hang out with their friends. We kept hearing, “They’ll be fine. They’re resilient.” It’s true that humans, by nature, are very resilient. But they also break. And my students are breaking. Some have already broken.
When we look at the Covid-19 pandemic through the lens of history, I believe it will be clear that we betrayed our children. The risks of this pandemic were never to them, but they were forced to carry the burden of it. It’s enough. It’s time for a return to normal life and put an end to the bureaucratic policies that aren’t making society safer, but are sacrificing our children’s mental, emotional, and physical health.
Our children need life on the highest volume. And they need it now.
Across the period of the pandemic, I have scribbled a host of responses in an effort to shed light on what has been going on. They have slid surreptitiously into my computer’s bottom drawer or spiralled away embarrassed into the hidden mists of the Cloud. However, I’m provoked to retrieve them. I do think we are living through a pivotal historical moment. It feels better to be wrong than be silent. The title of this post, ‘Searching for Understanding in the face of Power and Propaganda’, makes obvious my conflict with the endlessly circulated mainstream narrative. I will try to give substance to this discord in the hope that it’s possible to debate rather than declaim.
This first post is personal and biographical. It seeks to illustrate, amongst other things, why from the very beginning of the pandemic the leading role played by behavioural science set my dentures on edge. It will become plain why I was thus rattled.
It was a meeting out of the blue that woke me with a start and saw me climbing into the Cloud to rescue my thoughts. A few weeks ago, in the heaving embrace of a maskless Cretan taverna, I hugged and kissed a very dear friend, who I hadn’t seen since the authoritarian lockdown on association and expression was imposed, almost 18 months ago. The hubbub hardly lent itself to thoughtful conversation. Yet as we shook our heads in unison about the manufactured melodrama, within which we were playing our part, the question hung in the nocturnal, perfumed air, ‘Why?’
The morning after, my head clearing, I felt obliged to answer the question for myself, if nobody else. In trying to unravel ‘why?’ I won’t focus immediately on the nature of the virus itself, the deaths, the cost of lockdowns and so on. Such a necessary encounter will come later. For now I’m just trying to get my head around why I was suspicious about the pandemic from the very outset.
I will begin with a couple of truisms.
Firstly, across history, the first commandment of the ruling class in any epoch has been the retention of its power, the maintenance of its control over the majority, almost at whatever cost. Yet I would venture that even at the height of its hubris the elite has displayed a certain psychological insecurity, afraid of its own shadow, the people it dominates. In response, the powerless, the exploited and the oppressed have been forced to accommodate or resist or indeed to do both, most times unaware of their rulers’ fragility. From time to time, thank goodness, the ruling class has been ousted or where would we be now?
Secondly, societies, simple or sophisticated, have sought to socialise their members into an acceptance of and adherence to a set of dominant values and norms. Overwhelmingly these rules were imposed from above, for example, the Monarchy, the Church or the State. Cornelius Castoriadis defined such societies as heteronomous, closed societies of obedience. Insofar as there has been a period of exception in the West, this began in the 17th century with the Enlightenment, the ceaseless questioning of the status quo and was inspired by the struggle for democracy, the clash between the working classes and their masters in the 19th and 20th centuries. Castoriadis dubbed this self-conscious, critical and collective activity, ‘the project of autonomy’. Thirty years ago he worried that the project had stalled. He suggested that there were increasing signs of a retreat into heteronomy, the abandonment of a radical, improvisatory vision of another world being possible, a flight from the struggle for an authentic democracy.
In retrospect, I wonder tentatively if I was born into what might be viewed as a promising but ultimately frustrating, even worryingly final period in the project’s progress, the post-1945 settlement between Capital and Labour. On my way in 1958 to being an upwardly mobile working-class young man, the culture of my grammar school was more open than closed, rich rather than poor in its choices. An English teacher, I loved, ran an after-school Music Appreciation Society, procured for us free tickets to the Halle Symphony Orchestra’s concerts and directed us in a performance of the ‘Seven Ages of Man’, a tableau of extracts from Shakespeare’s works with musical interludes. Meanwhile, a physics teacher, who was a famous international rugby player, found time to encourage me in my eccentric desire to be a successful race walker. Even my disastrous GCE results proved not to be the end of the world. I managed to get a place at a Teacher Training College and flourished in its welcoming, student-centred, liberal climate, strutting the stage as president of the Dramatic Society and representing the college in all manner of sports. I began to find my voice intellectually, even if it sounded through literary rather than political criticism. Whatever my political naivete in those days I always felt stimulated as well as manipulated. Does this marry today with the experience of a working-class lass or lad entering Higher Education?
Of course, my picture of the past is too pretty by far, brush-stroking away contradictions and inconsistencies at a personal and societal level. My first teaching post in a Church of England primary school witnessed a tense relationship with other members of staff, who thought I was far too friendly with the children, threatening the disciplinary ethos of the institution. Yet the gentle headmaster, who did still contrarily and occasionally use a ruler on ‘naughty’ children’s legs, allowed me full rein to teach as I thought fit. As indeed did the Council’s Education Department with a charismatic Director at the helm. He was determined that every child should have a rounded educational experience so schools vibrated in time with the arts, music and outdoor education, encouraged by an abundance of specialist advisers and teachers. When I moved into youth work my centre housed the Department’s very own challenging and controversiall theatre group. You must beware my rose-tinted spectacles. What I am sure of is that this was a period within which there was trust and faith in an open and improvisatory educational process. As best as I remember the words outcome and impact never passed our pursed lips.
Certainly, the 1970s, a decade of discontent and dissension, were the years of my political awakening and my conscious commitment to the project of autonomy, which at the time I would have called the struggle for socialism. Through youth work, I discovered humanistic psychology in its Rogerian variant. Through my growing political activity, I discovered Marxism, Anarchism and Feminism. All these influences in differing and imperfect ways were expressions of the struggle for an autonomous society, within which in concert with one another the people, and no one else, make the laws by which they [we] live. This was no academic experience. It was to be part of the passionate social movements of the time, sometimes at one, sometimes at odds with each other, which looked to develop in theory and practice the inextricably intertwined politics of class, gender, race, sexuality and disability. However, as I moved in and out of the worlds of youth work and political activism I was often dismayed by the crude judgements made about other human beings, whether as individuals or in groups. The person-centred psychology I advanced was devoid of politics. The politics I pursued was psychologically bereft. The task seemed plain – to bring politics into psychology and vice-versa.
In this context, Marilyn Taylor and I began to explore what might be a radical psychology that situated the unique individual and her actions within the matrix of social relations not of her choosing. From the beginning, our effort was plagued by behaviourism in its day-to-day ‘common-sense’ form and by behaviourism’s scientific pretension, its desire to create a theory of personality and human activity, good for all times, all places and all people. In both its amateur and professional manifestations on its best behaviour, it tends simplistically to know what is right or wrong, always confident it knows what is best for others. It nudges us to do its bidding. It is judgemental and disinterested in context or history. It generalises and categorises. At a theoretical level behavioural psychology posits the preposterous notion of a general individual, who floats above the messy complex reality of social relations. Hence the targets for its manipulation are always groups of undifferentiated human beings, for example, youth defined as a homogeneous category or, for that matter, the population of the United KIngdom in March 2020.
As neoliberalism in the late 1970s became economically paramount, behavourism became its favoured ideological tool. In 1981 whilst defending the notion of an holistic social education approach within youth work I criticised the Manpower Service Commission’s promotion of instrumental Social and Life Skills Training for young people, the arena of so-called Youth Opportunities. In an arcane turn of phrase I charged the MSC with desiring nothing less than ‘the behavioural modification of the young proletariat’. Getting on for three decades later I felt able to resurrect the charge.
Possessing no vision of a world beyond the present New Labour has been obsessed with the micro-management of problematic, often demonised youth. Yearning for a generation stamped with the State’s seal of approval the government has transformed Youth Work into an agency of behavioural modification. It wishes to confine to the scrapbook of history the idea that Youth Work is volatile and voluntary, creative and collective – an association and conversation without guarantees.
Neoliberalism seems a broken economic model. However its ideology, the values and ideas it has promoted across three decades, remains hegemonic, ‘the common-sense of our age’ (Hall, 2011). Few remain untouched by a behavioural modification project conducted on the grandest scale, the manufacturing of a possessive and self-centred, satisfied yet never satiated, consumer for whom a notion of the common good is almost blasphemous. Individuals are forced to deal with the social problems outsourced by the state – of poverty, health, housing and indeed education. As for the last of these, neoliberal ideology is instrumental and reductive, deeply suspicious of critical thinking. Teachers teach to test, lecturers cram consumers and, as we shall see, youth workers are led by outcomes.
In July 2012 the Young Foundation produced a Framework of Outcomes for Young People, which sought to bring under manners the volatile world of informal youth work via the introduction of ‘measurable’ outcomes and impact. Marilyn and I wrote a rejoinder, within which we noted:
The die is cast immediately. The product of the framework is to be the ’emotionally resilient’ young individual, who through the planned interventions of youth workers, will shrug their shoulders at adversity. Utterly in tune with government policy this manufactured individual will have less need for public services such as health and social welfare and will be willing to work for whatever wages, zero-hour contracts or indeed benefits are on offer. This is the self-centred, compliant young person of neo-liberalism’s dreams. The last thing such an obedient cipher would do is to ask, “how come this is happening to me, my mates, to thousands of others?” Nowhere in the Framework is there an acknowledgement that to talk of personal change demands an engagement with the social and political circumstances underpinning young people’s lives.
Remarkably the Framework’s fix on young people takes us back half a century. Throughout its pages young people are viewed as a homogeneous category – young people are young people are young people. The young person is denied his or her class, gender, race, sexuality, disability and faith. Despite all the talk about the individual in the Framework the individual described is that theoretical monstrosity, the general individual, who in reality does not exist. It is as if the gains of the late twentieth century in understanding the social individual never occurred. For example a working-class black young woman does not experience the world in exactly the same way as a white middle-class young woman and so on. And indeed the individual working-class black young woman herself can never be reduced to a general expression of her own social grouping. Comprehending the individual is no simple matter.
Indeed I spoke to this critique at several youth work seminars and conferences within the UK , Europe and, even to my delight, Brisbane in Australia, the last of these at Plymouth in 2017. The analysis struck a chord with many who were led to apologise for not singing along. With sadness they advised that there was no option but to chant from the behaviourist hymn sheet or risk losing their place in the choir. As for the behavioural choir leaders they thanked me for composing an alternative tune, pinched a well-pitched note or two and continued to coach the enforced collective rendition of their mechanistic melody. Like it or not, and I didn’t, I returned from such gatherings, heavy of heart. Words were not wounding the confidence of the behaviourists. And on the ground, willing or unwilling, practitioners complied, appealing to each other for the latest in prescribed scripts and recommended tools.
Today, the voices in English youth work emanating from such as the National Youth Agency and the Centre for Youth Impact reflect the watchwords of the so-called ‘third culture’ -‘no politics, no conflict, no ideology, simply science, delivery and problem-solving’. The apolitical hypocrisy on display is par for the course, hardly troubling anyone anymore.
In this context, the dominance of the behavourists and fading resistance to their stranglehold, I had all but withdrawn, to my shame, from the fray. I had been involved in a running battle with a dehumanising opponent, who was well ahead on points. In the last year I’ve written just one piece, Resistance in a Climate of Anxiety and Precarity, which, a single reply apart, did not take seed in parched pastures. Rightly or wrongly I felt isolated, even indulgently sorry for myself. Castoriadis’ concern seemed increasingly pertinent. An arrogant technocratic and managerial outlook prevailed. Intuition, compassion and love exiled.
In the early months of 2020 the dramatic arrival upon the scene of a virus said to be an existential threat to humanity jolted me from my malaise. From the begining I was deeply sceptical about the remarkable overnight unity of 198 countries in following the unelected World Health Organisation’s declaration of a pandemic and the blanket adoption of the same narrative by politicians and the mainstream media across the world. Perhaps it was merely a matter of coincidence.
In particular, given the above diatribe on the dangers of behaviourism, I was alarmed by the central role being played in the UK by the initially anonymous Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours [SPI-B]. The group was charged with providing ‘behavioural science advice aimed at anticipating and helping people adhere to interventions that are recommended by medical and epiemiological experts’. I bridled at the messages contained in the paper, ‘Options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures’, March 22, 2020. Within its pages the group asserted that ‘a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently threatened’. Hence ‘the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased amongst those who are complacent using hard=hitting emotional messages’. Thus did a political, unethical and undemocratic campaign of fear begin. I was fearful – not of the virus but of the authoritarianism at the heart of of the SPI-B’s propaganda.
As it was my critical stance did not lead immediately to the renaissance of a sense of solidarity with others, even good friends and comrades – far from it. Slowly, as I delved further into the dilemmas posed, I did discover new collective reference points, some unimaginable a few years ago. These will become apparent. In parts Two, Three and Four I will tangle with some of the tensions underpinning the divisions created by the pandemic. In part Two I will offer my best understanding of the political and economic aspects of the pandemic; in part Three I will look more closely at the propaganda of fear, which still continues; in part Four I’ll explore the suppressed conflicts of medical and epidemiological opinion; and, if I get this far, in part Five I will ponder what resistance and solidarity might now mean.
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?
As I prevaricate as to whether I’ve anything useful to say about the present crisis, my old friend and once fellow youth worker, Roy Ratcliffe is on to his seventh response to COVID-19 and its implications. In this one in particular Roy introduces his analysis with an appealing and revealing reworking of an old nursery rhyme.
For the want of…..?
With each update of news since the Pandemic commenced, I have been reminded of a childhood story told to me about how a king lost a war against an invader. The story went something along the lines of; For want of a nail, a horseshoe was lost; for the want of the shoe a horse was lost, for the want of the horse, the rider was lost, for the want of the rider, the message was lost, and for the want of the message the battle was lost. I also remember reading the story to my young children from a Ladybird book and then explaining its meaning to two four year olds. Later I reminded them of the moral when something occurred which illustrated the point from their immediate experience and not something only relevant to childhood fiction.
Surely this moral is, in one narrative form or another, a universal story based on many chains of cause and effect with costly negative consequences. If it was taught to at least two generations of working class kids in a moderate sized industrial town in Lancashire, surely it cannot have passed by the Eton, Harrow, Oxford, and Cambridge trained elites, many of whom sit atop our governmental, medical and scientific institutions. Are we not informed that they are in receipt of jaw-dropping salaries, perks and pensions precisely because they are the most intelligent and far-sighted individuals we have on this sceptered isle?
Perhaps future children should be taught a more updated narrative based upon events and elite incompetence so far but making the same obvious points of the consequences of a lack of foresight and due diligence. Such as;
For the want of compassion – bush meat was bled. For the want of diagnosis – a virus was spread. For the want of restrictions – a pandemic was fed. For the want of protection – doctors and nurses were dead.
For the want of precautions – the contagion went wide For the want of hand gel – infection came like a tide For the want of testing – people were herded inside For the want of ventilators – weak patients then died.
For the want of hospitals – empty buildings were sought For the want of health workers – volunteers were taught For the want of truth and honesty – excuses were thought For the want of an alternative – a bailout was bought.
For the want of humanity – big-business came first For the want of a home – some were not nursed For the want of a carer – many victims felt cursed. For the want of a conscience – not much was reversed.
READ IN FULL ROY’s FURTHER ANALYSIS OF THE SITUATION at