Across my decades involved in youth work I have bemoaned its failure to engage seriously with the impact of class division and struggle upon both our own and young people’s lives and futures. After forty years of neoliberal capitalism’s relentless assault on the common good most youth work remains in denial.
In this context I’m posting a piece, ‘Youth Work & Class: The Struggle That Dare Not Speak Its Name’, which appeared in ‘Essays in the history of youth and community work : Discovering the Past’, one of Youth & Policy’s publications, which appeared in 2009. I don’t think the thrust of its argument has been deflected in the following period, which has seen New Labour give way to Coalition and Conservative governments, all of whose policies have increased social inequality and rendered existence increasingly precarious. Yet the re-imagining of a radical class politics, briefly and frustratingly hinted at by the unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn, remains a fragile venture, undermined by both Labour’s desire to govern in its own name and the collective weakness of the social movements in the face of co-opted, individualistic identity politics.
Indeed only a few weeks ago I attended the Sheffield Rally held to commemorate the 35th Anniversary of the Battle of Orgreave, marching behind the sound of brass band and swirling trade union banners borne on the wind. And as I applauded rousing socialist speeches and the singing of the anthem, ‘Women of the Working Class’ I knew that these outpourings of passion looked back to the past, yet, at one and the same time, looked forward with hope.
The eight hundred or so women and men present are not outdated relics of the 1970s and 80s, as the weary jibe suggests. Rather they are struggling to build links and alliances in the best tradition of the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike with its rainbow network of Support Groups, captured in the film ‘Pride’, which depicts the unfolding of the relationship between mining communities and gay/lesbian activists.
Thinking about this reminded me of a section in the piece I’m posting, which argues:
In focusing on a notion of the Class Struggle and its absence from Youth Work discourse I risk being seen as a geriatric Leftie, trying stubbornly to resurrect the discredited idea that class is primary, relegating the significance of other social relations. This is not at all my desire. My point is no more and no less than that the political struggle for equality, freedom and justice must have a rounded and interrelated sense of the relations of class, gender, race, sexuality and disability. None of them make proper sense without reference to each other. If this inextricable knot is recognised, the silence about class within most Youth Work is deeply disturbing.
If this concern strikes a chord I hope you might read my thoughts in their entirety. They begin.
This chapter will seek to explore the relationship between Youth Work and Class, Youth Work and Class Politics, Youth Work and the Class Struggle, albeit with trepidation. Today simply to mouth the phrase ‘the class struggle’ is to invite derision and disbelief, particularly perhaps from those within Youth Work (and I was taken a bit aback by how many there were), who danced in the streets over a decade ago as New Labour came to power. The renovated, former socialist party’s message was clear – class politics were redundant and irrelevant, consigned to the dustbin of history. The then revitalised, now sometime reviled leader, Tony Blair declared, ‘the class war is over’ [BBC 1999]. This evidently persuasive posture seems to be today’s common-sense. Against this backcloth you may be forgiven for wondering whether the following impressionistic history is clinging on to the past for fear of the present. For example, is there any relationship between my participation in the incredibly emotional Durham Miners’ Gala in 1985, the first after the Great Strike, the ranks of unbowed working class men and women surging through the crowded streets in the wake of Lodge banners and brass bands, and my involvement in Youth Work? Is there any connection between the rhythm of the struggle of Capital versus Labour and the changing character and content of Youth Work? Is it possible to wonder whether the defeat of the Miners foreshadowed the retreat within Youth Work from social education to social engineering? These may seem absurd and irrelevant questions, reflecting no more than romantic sentiment, whether for a fighting working class or for youth workers committed to ‘voluntary association’. With the ‘end of history’ it seems that both are deemed to be dead .
The chapter closes.
In one way, it would be refreshing never to mention the Class Struggle in a separate sense ever again. For the title of this chapter could have been ‘Youth Work & Politics: The Relationship That Dare Not Speak Its Name’. By politics is not meant tiresome gossip about the personality clashes inside New Labour’s Central Committee, the contemporary version of the wrangles of the Elizabethan court. Rather we mean the crucial questions of who has power, in whose interests do they use that power, what power do we have to change the situation if we disagree and so on. At this historical moment, we are led to ask, specifically in terms of Youth Work and the Youth Service
– What power do youth workers have in terms of the purpose and content of the work?
– What power do young people have in terms of arguing the case for what they see as their needs in a critical dialogue with youth workers and the State?
Despite the recurring rhetoric about participation it would seem very little. Leave aside the situation facing young women and men, the profession itself seems reluctant to oppose this state of affairs. By and large youth workers are perceived to be doing as they are told. Yet history illustrates that obeying orders is a class and political question. There is the world of difference between a Capitalist system in which the greed of Capital is contested at every turn by Labour; in which the right of management to manage is questioned and resisted; in which a male hierarchy is challenged in the name of Girls’ Work [back 30 years ago!] and a Capitalist system within which there is severely diminished working class opposition; in which management does as it wishes; in which the gains of the past, such as Girls’ Work and Black Youth Work, are divested of their radical edge, recuperated and rendered safe. In this latter scenario, which corresponds to the situation today, the powerful, their self-serving political and bureaucratic sycophants, and even layers of Youth Work management itself, are imposing an increasingly instrumental agenda [Smith 2003].
It is acknowledged that this historical account of the influence of class politics on Youth Work is highly subjective, fragmented and incomplete. However, it is hoped, that whatever its shortcomings it might encourage others to interrogate the past, present and future with class in mind. For instance,
it would be fruitful to investigate further the relationship between the rise and fall of municipal socialism in the ’80s and the fate of Radical Youth Work. Certainly, reflecting on Youth Work and Class underlines the urgency of [re]creating networks and collectives committed to critical argument and resistance in the face of the ‘Enemy Within’ – capitalist values, ideas and practices. Forgive the invocation of an old class struggle slogan, but yet again it’s time to ‘Educate, Agitate and Organise.’
If by chance anyone wants to reference the chapter.
Taylor, T. (2009) ‘Youth Work & Class: The Struggle That Dare Not Speak Its Name’ in Gilchrist R, Jeffs T, Spence J and Walker J (eds), Essays in the history of youth and community work – Discovering the past, Lyme Regis, Russell House.