Another social work is possible

Issue: 134

Francesca Byron

Michael Lavalette (ed), Radical Social Work: Social Work at the Crossroads (Policy, 2011), £21.99

Right now there is a crisis in social work. The global economic crisis has meant devastating cuts to welfare provision while neoliberal policies have seen an increased emphasis on the privatised provision of services within local authorities. This commodification of health and social care, run on a business model that has put profit before social need, has had a detrimental effect on those dependent on service provisions. Inadequate training, poor facilities and weak or incompetent inspection regimes are the reality of private care businesses which cut back on standards in order to undercut competitors in the welfare market.

This book attempts to re-address the radical tradition that has been marginalised but always present in the profession, most clearly defined in Roy Bailey and Mike Brake’s seminal text Radical Social Work. Bailey and Brake rejected traditional “medical” explanations of poverty and social problems as individual pathologies, instead offering a socialist perspective on the economic and class structures of inequality.

Radical Social Work: Social Work at the Crossroads, which marks the 35th anniversary of that earlier text, consists of contributions by authors attempting to re-orient Bailey and Brake’s concerns towards contemporary social work. Inspiration is drawn from the lessons learned by radical social work activists in the 1970s and applied to the questions of women’s and ethnic minorities’ oppression and inequality. It also examines the impact which Thatcher’s homophobic Section 28, which sought to prevent any attempt to “promote the teaching in any [state] school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”, had on children in school and in care—a policy which has returned in a new guise within the “free school” agenda. Within this, the relationship between social workers and service users is considered, alongside the effects the of service user movements that challenged the notion of control within social services.

Arguably the most useful chapter in this book is “Why Class (Still) Matters” by Iain Ferguson. This reintroduces the importance of class in social work, seemingly pushed out of the contemporary social work agenda by postmodern academics. He argues the importance of class as: (a) a social division and determinant of life chances; (b) an explanatory framework and a way of making sense both of the experience of people who use social work services and those who work in them; and© an agent of social change what he calls the “politics of class”.

The book has a timely contribution to the field of social work, a profession which is “at the crossroads” between privatisation and managerialism on the one hand, and reinvigorating a radical tradition that Michael Lavalette argues originally paved the way for the anti-oppressive practice familiar in the delivery of social care today.

Lavalette also argues that despite the threat of demoralisation neoliberalism poses to those who work in social services, it has opened up a space that is ripe for the rebirth of radicalism within social work in the long run. Furthermore it can be argued that the potential is greater than it was in the 1970s, as evidenced by the various strikes over the past year among social work teams nationwide and the emergence of the Social Work Activist Network.

This book provides an important alternative path to the threats to social services posed by privatisation, which sees service users as secondary to profits, and austerity that will impact on the most vulnerable. The alternative is that service users and health professionals should not have to pay for a crisis that they did not create and these assaults, which have class implications, must be challenged.