Critical and Radical Social Work
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Social work in the face of collapse

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David John KenkelUnitec Institute of Technology, New Zealand

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This article starts from the position that while generally unacknowledged in the mainstream academic literature, some degree of ecological and societal collapse is inevitable over the next few decades. Hence, social work has a responsibility to steward the future of our profession to support solidarity under what seems likely to be a situation of fracturing state capacity for social care provision in what will likely remain a neoliberally informed global hegemony. The argument is made that the activist ethos of community development will be essential to social work’s moral integrity in the future in resisting becoming an oppressive instrument of state control in a degrading environmental context.

Abstract

This article starts from the position that while generally unacknowledged in the mainstream academic literature, some degree of ecological and societal collapse is inevitable over the next few decades. Hence, social work has a responsibility to steward the future of our profession to support solidarity under what seems likely to be a situation of fracturing state capacity for social care provision in what will likely remain a neoliberally informed global hegemony. The argument is made that the activist ethos of community development will be essential to social work’s moral integrity in the future in resisting becoming an oppressive instrument of state control in a degrading environmental context.

The following is taken from ‘Trajectories of the earth system in the anthropocene’, published in the proceedings of the well-respected National Academy of Sciences:

The Anthropocene represents the beginning of a very rapid human-driven trajectory of the Earth System away from the glacial–interglacial limit cycle toward new, hotter climatic conditions and a profoundly different biosphere. The current position, at over 1 °C above a preindustrial baseline, is nearing the upper envelope of interglacial conditions over the past 1.2 million years. More importantly, the rapid trajectory of the climate system over the past half-century along with technological lock in and socioeconomic inertia in human systems commit the climate system to conditions beyond the envelope of past interglacial conditions. We, therefore, suggest that the Earth System may already have passed one ‘fork in the road’ of potential pathways, a bifurcation taking the Earth System out of the next glaciation cycle. (Steffen et al, 2018: 2, emphasis added)

Moreover, written in a different register taken from ‘Un-civilisation – the Dark Mountain manifesto’: ‘We are the first generations born into a new and unprecedented age – the age of ecocide. To name it thus is not to presume the outcome, but simply to describe a process which is underway’ (Hine and Kingsnorth, 2009). Hine and Kingsnorth go on to argue that humanity at this juncture is not in the scientific-rational position of having an ecological crisis to resolve, but instead in the position of needing new cultural tools to face the inevitable future predicaments that will need to be managed and endured. It is perhaps unusual to commence an article on radical social work with, first, a quote from a hard science journal and, second, the musings of two eco-poets. I start in this way because it is important to foreground this piece in both the well-founded assertion that unstoppable physical processes are already in place and the fact that ordinary people will need to manage the consequential devastating change. The efforts of green social work and the Extinction Rebellion movement are admirable and offer a great deal in shifting cultural attitudes towards how societies will need to live in a resource-poor future. However, the best scientific evidence to date is that even with the most heroic of efforts commencing now, some catastrophic degree of environmental collapse, sea rise and consequential societal disruption is inevitable at this point. Arguably, for most people, it is an unpalatable thought that the time passed some decades ago when efforts to halt climate change and environmental degradation could have been successful. Right now, the real challenge for social work is not how social work can assist in trying to avert crisis and potential eco-collapse; instead, it is to begin thinking about and planning for how social work can aid society in a very different future facing new and likely terrible predicaments. The different epistemological positions of the hard sciences and the poetic literature both have a great deal to offer in how we adjust to what is coming. First, the hard sciences (only now beginning to tentatively step away from the reticence of understating the challenges to come) are vital in informing society about what is likely to happen in the future. Second, the arts, poetry and literature may be vital in the cultural processes of discovering and languaging how we must (of necessity) live differently in a very different future.

I argue that to be of assistance in the future, social work will need what the ethos of community development offers more than ever if it intends to remain committed to socially just practice. I do not apologise that this article discusses some bleak likelihoods that are painful to consider. However, this is an article about hope: not hope that we can avert future environmental and societal catastrophe; but instead hope that as communities face the coming predicaments, they will rediscover collective solidarity and wiser ways of living together and with the planet. Social work, particularly when it draws on community development perspectives, can have a key role in this transition to sanity. An early brief outline of some of the central tropes of community development may be useful at this point.

Jim Ife’s (2013) work on community development in a global age summarises what the key points of a community development practice ethos might be. Community development practices involve both acts of resistance and collective responses to the ways in which globalisation, neoliberalism and environmental degradation have fractured and individuated communities. Above all, activist community development is about rediscovering and reinforcing solidarity in the face of shared troubles. The following principles underpin this endeavour: understanding the connection between the global and the local; recognising that full humanity is achieved in community; having a capacity to analyse oppression and injustice; committing to ecological sustainability, holism, diversity, social justice and human rights; honouring change from below, bottom-up development and local knowledge; understanding citizen participation/local democracy as critical to the building of empowered communities; and honouring the integrity of process, cooperative empowerment and conscientisation rather than imposing solutions.

As briefly described, the usually unmentioned backdrop to social work’s future is that the world has passed an ecological crisis point of no return and there is little (to zero) chance that near-term catastrophe can be averted (Beddington, 2008; 2015; Smith, 2013; Hamilton, 2017; Steffen et al, 2018; Jamail, 2019). These are harsh truths that the Western world is perhaps only just beginning to tentatively face. As Bendell (2018) points out, while it is widely understood in the scientific community that catastrophe is basically unavoidable at this point, the academic world produces almost no writings that commence from this premise.

Authors such as Hine and Kingsnorth (2009) assert that the greatest cultural challenge for the current generation is to find ways to stare into the abyss of the coming unavoidable difficulties and to collectively and individually consider how to appropriately respond. A willingness to do so seems uncommon at present. We find ourselves in the frankly bizarre situation where academics tasked with being the critics and conscience of society and the publicly accessible voice of reasoned warning appear to operate according to an unspoken convention of never bluntly naming the situation. This is a major problem for the public and the social work profession alike: it is difficult to plan for and consider future predicaments that are never named. Bendell (2018: 16) describes the phenomenon of ‘implicative denial’, where a large majority of people who are aware that human-induced environmental change is potentially, or inevitably, catastrophic busy themselves with activities such as transition towns or environmental campaigns as an alternative to stopping to simply consider the real implications of what is known to be coming. Neither social work as a profession nor community development can afford to wait for academia to give up its collective dithering. Nor can we afford the luxury of diving into the sorts of displacement activities that act as mechanisms to avoid considering the wider implications of what we know will happen in future. Just as a ‘greenwashed’ business-as-usual capitalism will not save us, neither will green social work.

If the social work of today is to ethically steward the future of our profession, then we must look squarely now at what the future is likely to bring. The risk of not facing these harsh realities is that we then become complicit in how the rump end of neoliberalism both continues to siphon the world’s resources to a tiny number of people and continues to blame individuals for structural and environmental problems quite outside of individual control (Harvey, 2013; Piketty and Goldhammer, 2014).

The opportunity for social work is to become one of the professions championing collective and community approaches to managing and surviving the coming ecological and societal predicaments. Social work is a potentially courageous profession that is at its best when it does not shy away from the painful and difficult circumstances that all too often make up the daily reality of those we work with. I believe that it is time for social workers to use that same courage to lift our professional gaze and see the larger set of painful and difficult circumstances in the coming predicaments that the world faces. Facing these predicaments is not simply a doleful matter of canvassing possible disaster. My personal hope is that much that is good in terms of healthier and more connected ways of living may emerge through the experience of catastrophe and post-catastrophe. The principles and practices of community development, as well as the structural reach of activist social work into a wide range of social sites, may be of great assistance in societies managing the difficult changes to come.

Contrasting what are often the dystopian assumptions of movements such as the American ‘prepper movement’ (Onion, 2016), societal collapse (either partial or total) instead creates possibilities for solidarity and mutual care. Communities do not usually break down in the face of shared disaster; rather, they typically become stronger. Fritz (1996), in his extensively researched work on communities and mental health, makes the point that the evidence shows time after time that through breakdown, catastrophe and disaster, communities emerge stronger, more connected, more generous and with a much greater awareness on the part of individuals of the value of the social bond. Fritz’s work reveals that the depictions in zombie apocalypse movies of tiny fractious survivor groups in vicious and lethal competition are simply a fiction and do not reflect what is known about how people truly respond to shared challenges. Social work and community development are ideally placed to be an articulate force for good in the sorts of community transitions that much of the world will soon face.

Regarding the future, the blunt reality is that even if there is a miraculous change of heart by those controlling the global economy and ecological policy, we are in for some forms of ecological and societal collapse within the next 15 years, with the best predictions put 2030 as when the perfect storm commences (Beddington, 2008; 2015). As Hine and Kingsnorth (2009) assert, the Western world needs to begin the process of escaping from the attractive fantasy that science, progress, optimistic activist movements or some greener version of business as usual will save us from the coming calamities – they will not. Social work and community development can either be at the forefront of lifting this beguiling and harmful ‘all-will-be-well’ veil and actively respond to the social implications of what is coming, or collude with the delusion by remaining silent and thereby be an active source of social harm.

The short-form version of what Beddington (2008; 2015) describes as the ‘perfect storm’ is the current hard-wired entrenchment of a global neoliberal economic system committed to endless growth, with no off switch and controlled by a self-protective hyper-rich elite. In logical consequence, there will be: dying fisheries; rapidly diminishing arable soil and fresh water; sea-level rise; global heating/extreme weather events; and the worldwide convulsion of hundreds of millions of people forced out of countries no longer able to feed them, with the accompanying internecine warfare.

Predictably, the fragile global interconnected web of trade and travel that defines our current civilisation will either partly or fully collapse, taking with it most of the global and national institutions designed to provide care and support to those in need (Bender, 2003; Hansen, 2010; Emmett, 2013; Jamail, 2019).

As a number of reputable researchers argue, business as usual is killing much of the planet, and a significant proportion of humanity will die in consequence. Aotearoa New Zealand (where the author lives) is fortunately placed in terms of latitude but will not escape the turmoil. This is not science fiction or fantasy; these are predictions made by credible and cautious researchers (Beddington, 2008; 2015; Motesharrei et al, 2014). Life in future will mean populations struggling to survive in a fractured resource-poor global environment much harsher than that of today.

Neoliberalism is the political dimension that must be factored into any serious consideration of the future policy environment of global governance and corresponding social and ecological consequences. We live in a world dominated by neoliberal ideology and this is likely to be the case for some time to come. The policies and practices of neoliberalism and the coming ecological catastrophes are intimately intertwined. Consider that more CO2 has been released and more ecological damage done since 1989 than in the previous 200 years (Hausfather, 2018). To briefly explain, the year 1989 is approximately when a neoliberal hegemony truly seized the reins of global power and commenced remaking the world in its own image and to the advantage of its hyper-wealthy advocates (Harvey, 2013).

I argue that hope for the future is important but individual actions have little likelihood of stopping the climatic and environmental changes that are already happening. Most serious researchers suggest that it is too late. Human-driven climate change processes already in train mean that major sea rise is inevitable. Every degree of warming precipitates new problems that will further accelerate global warming and worsen environmental degradation, with a concomitant shrinkage of the resource base that humanity requires to feed itself. Spiralling cycles of warming and extreme weather conditions will render large parts of the globe functionally unliveable for humans for at least some parts of the year without resource-greedy air conditioning (Wallace-Wells, 2019). Life will retreat towards the poles (Lovelock, 2014). What compounds, or drives, the situation is the fact that current global power configurations are dominated by entrenched growth-at-all-costs neoliberal policies that have no capacity or real will to alter the lethal status quo. Those who most benefit from neoliberal policies are also those who are effectively in control of the global economy, as well as those who have the resources to protect themselves from the worst effects of environmental degradation. It is the poor and the already disenfranchised who will suffer the most (Motesharrei et al, 2014).

Neale (2019) argues that societal collapse will not necessarily involve the disintegration of current society into wandering savage bands, but rather mean the re-crystallisation of existing power and governing structures into new and more brutal forms. Referencing the horrors of the 20th and early 21st centuries, as well as the megadeaths that have accompanied drought, famine and the political responses to such events, he states:

Almost none of those horrors were committed by small groups of savages wandering through the ruins. They were committed by States, and by mass political movements. Society did not disintegrate. It did not come apart. Society intensified. Power concentrated, and split, and those powers had us kill each other. It seems reasonable to assume that climate social collapse will be like that. Only with five times as many dead, if we are lucky, and twenty-five times as many, if we are not. Remember this, because when the moment of runaway climate change comes for you, where you live, it will not come in the form of a few wandering hairy bikers. It will come with the tanks on the streets and the military or the fascists taking power. Those generals will talk in deep green language. They will speak of degrowth, and the boundaries of planetary ecology. They will tell us we have consumed too much, and been too greedy, and now for the sake of Mother Earth, we must tighten our belts. Then we will tighten our belts, and we will suffer, and they will build a new kind of gross green inequality. And in a world of ecological freefall, it will take cruelty on an unprecedented scale to keep their inequality in place. (Neale, 2019: 6)

Neale paints an all-too-likely picture of the future that fits with what is known about the tendency for authoritative totalitarian fascism to arise in response to straightened circumstances (Davies and Lynch, 2002). Given social work’s historical complicity with fascist and totalitarian states, it is important that global social work be alive to the possibility that social work can all too easily become an enforcement tool of the vision of oppressive states of what constitutes the ideal family and individual.

Ferguson, Ioakimidis and Lavalette (2018) paint a horrific picture of the historic activities of social workers in Spain and Greece. During Franco’s rule after the Second World War, 300,000 children from left-wing families were uplifted by social workers and placed with supposed right-thinking middle-class families. Franco’s vision of the ideal Spanish family was, in large part, enforced by social workers. During the reign of the military Junta in Greece, many children were also uplifted from families displaying the apparently problematic characteristics of socialism. Many adults suffering from the supposed illness of communism were also forcibly hospitalised in mental institutions. Disturbingly, courses on managing the mental illness of communism remained on the social work teaching curriculum in Greece until the mid-1960s. Social work as a profession needs to recognise that tyrannical political forms are likely to form one aspect of the predicaments that the future will bring, and we need to be ready to resist calls to endorse and enforce tyrannical norms of the ideal family.

As Ferguson et al (2018) and Andrews and Reisch (2002) describe, social work has histories of both brutality and liberation, and there is a fundamental tension between strands of social work committed to either solidarity with the oppressed or the instrumentalities of charity/politically informed social work. The roots of social work track back to a time of crisis and societal disruption, with some resemblances to the coming environmental and social disruptions. Some hundred and more years ago, concerned authorities and charities tried to understand and address the brutal social legacies of rapid forced urbanisation, extreme urban poverty and an expanding industrial revolution driven by a viciously unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism (Polanyi, 1965). Two strands of thought intertwined in the early evolution of what much later became the social work profession. These ‘still-present’ strands offer both a risk and an opportunity: first, the urge to blame the individual poor for their condition and then forcibly re-moralise the apparently immoral classes; and, second, the understanding that the problems of the poor and apparently feckless are a consequence of appalling social and economic conditions rather than moral weakness.

What is clear (in retrospect) is that blaming the poor for their situation was one of a well-practised lexicon of tactics used by the benefactors of 18th- and 19th-century laissez-faire capitalism to avoid visible culpability for the social impacts of their economic policies. The strategy of blaming the oppressed for the conditions that arise as a consequence of their oppression is, of course, alive and well today, as starkly evident in the punitive welfare policies of neoliberal governments and in phrasings such as the so-called problem of ‘welfare dependency’ (Knaus, 2017).

The forebears of today’s social workers were often complicit in enforcing the view that problems caused by structural issues were instead the consequences of individual fault; at the same time, a wide range of activists sought to improve societal conditions and address the brutal structural inequities of the day. In describing the pre-First World War one suspicions of conservative social workers over activities such as the Settlement Movement (supported by radical social workers), Andrews and Reisch (2002: 27) state:

Perhaps this was because they were not engaged in social service in the traditional sense. In a manner reflected in the late twentieth century by proponents of empowerment theory and practice, radical social workers did not work for their clients and constituents but with them….

They recognised the strengths of low-income groups and the potential to establish mutual interests and mutual goals. This clearly represented a threat to traditional conceptions of charity.

One hundred (and counting) years later, we are again facing a time of massive social, ecological and economic disruption in our near future. The 21st-century twist is that the destruction will also include ecological catastrophe on a global scale and potential societal collapse. Neoliberalism (today’s version of laissez-faire capitalism) repeats the blaming song sheet of the early days of capitalism. Once again, the minority benefactors of ruthless economic and social policies seek to find multiple ways to shift culpability onto victims for the effects of their rapacious stripping of the human and environmental commons. The typical neoliberal response to societal and environmental ills is to individualise fault and tailor responses to crisis towards the individual not the driving structural issues (Rose, 1998; 1999; Kenkel, 2005; Mayer, 2016). The call to responsibilise individuals as authors of their own difficulties when they might more realistically be understood as victims of structural circumstance is one that has strongly impacted on social work practice, and it is a call that needs to be strongly resisted (in my opinion) by the broader social work profession if we are to maintain moral integrity.

Instead of listening to the neoliberal siren call to blame/fix the individual, social work needs to refocus on assisting communities to develop compassionate and workable responses to the coming troubles, and it is here that social work needs the ethos and practice of community development, particularly in assisting and supporting solidarity. It is impossible to predict the exact nature of the coming collapses and this will, of course, be different in different geopolitical contexts. However, one can speculate with some likelihood of certainty that, as Ife (2013) points out, just as the welfare state is generally incompatible with neoliberalism, the continuity of state welfare provision will also be incompatible with a future of crumbling or refigured government infrastructure amid a shrinking resource base.

What also seems likely is that the elite groups for whom neoliberal policies have worked so well will not relinquish the levers of control, but instead attempt to implement a range of strategies to embed the iniquitous status quo even more firmly into the world’s social and economic structures (Neale, 2019). As various commentators have argued, neoliberal ideology operates as a closed tautological loop (Marshall, 1995; Kenkel, 2005). Within the zeitgeist of neoliberalism, there is no conceptual device for critiquing its own foundational assumptions; hence, the response to any external crisis is to apply neoliberal policies even more firmly. This is likely to be the case even as the evidence of collapse and catastrophe becomes ever-more apparent to the general population. As Hyslop (2009) asserts, under neoliberal conditions, social work all too easily becomes a state instrument for individualising and dividing practices such as child rescue. Social work becomes part of a hegemonic array of governing and disciplining societal devices designed to reinforce and police notions of individual responsibility for life’s outcomes, irrespective of context (Rose, 1998; 1999, Kenkel, 2005).

The moral task for social work (which, in its best heart, so strongly aligns with the liberatory nature of activist community development) will not be to determine the final nature of community post-environmental and social breakdown. That determination will be the task of surviving communities themselves. Instead, the task of social work will be supporting solidarity and humane behaviour, and resisting political calls for xenophobia and the blaming of the ‘other’ during the interregnum between the present and an unknown post-collapse future.

Arguably, as conditions become more chaotic and the coherency of society stretches and tears, it seems likely that social work will be called upon to police and discipline those most affected by resource deprivation in ways significantly more draconian than now. Wacquant (2009) suggests that the neoliberal political project has increasingly shifted the aim of the state from a degree of re-moralisation and re-inclusion of the poor towards an increasingly punitive and controlling approach, with little interest in rehabilitation.

Wacquant postulates a current two-tiered system of state regulation running in parallel: a liberal and light-handed regime for the very rich; and an accompanying massive investment in instrumental social systems for punishing, imprisoning and controlling the poor. If we accept Wacquant’s assertion, it is hard to imagine this bifurcated system of state regulation softening as resources shrink and the effects of ecological collapse are felt by growing masses of the unruly poor.

The moral risk for social work is its redeployment as just another instrument for the management of the poor, and a movement away from activist social work’s ethical roots of recognising and addressing structural inequity. It will only be by calling on the radical strand of social work’s traditions and the community development thinking embedded in good social work practice that the social work profession will be able to resist calls to assist in asserting the dominance of a neoliberal world view and concomitant brutal practices.

In considering past and future contexts, I have made reference to similarities between the moral challenges of direction that social work faced in its earliest days and the challenges that it is likely to face in future. In this consideration, it is important to acknowledge that the future context is likely to be very different and that this will affect social work’s viability as a profession.

In the past, social work antecedents arose in the West in response to a particular set of societal conditions caused by early-stage capitalist modernity (Polanyi, 1965). In brief, these were the historic shift of large numbers of people to cities in the early days of industrialisation, with the accompanying fracturing of the broader support networks of connection with extended family. There was also the dominance of laissez-faire forms of capitalism with little regulatory care provision for those marginalised peoples unable to thrive in an economic context driven by profit seeking rather than notions of social good. Social work antecedents then became both a device to forcibly rehabilitate those without the supposed good character to thrive under laissez-faire conditions, and, conversely, a force of solidarity with those recognised by many as unfairly oppressed by an iniquitous society.

As Hyslop (2013) argues, social work subsequently evolved into an early 20th-century device to contain middle-class social anxieties about and fears of the immoral poor. Post-Second World War social work also operated alongside a social welfare system designed to mitigate the harshness of living at the margins that a capitalist society inevitably creates.

I argue that social work as a profession is a time-limited phenomenon, arising in response to particular conditions and perhaps only useful or viable so long as those conditions continue to apply. The conditions for social work’s existence are those of well-established nation-states utilising some form of capitalism as a primary economic mode, with the inevitable detritus of social damage that arises from capitalism. If these conditions change significantly, then perhaps the relevance of social work as a profession will be reduced to the point of no longer being applicable to the circumstances. Arguably, it is difficult for a well-established profession to imagine its own demise; yet, as conditions change in the difficult future that is coming, it does seem possible that social work as an arm of the state (rather than as a position of solidarity with the oppressed and struggling) may become either irrelevant or a co-opted mechanism of social control and harm.

In considering a future of societal and ecological collapse to an extent that we do not yet know, I would imagine (and that is all anyone can do at this point) that a range of possibilities will coexist. First, there will undoubtedly be a massive movement of population from areas insufficiently resourced to support their populations, and this is likely to involve a global convulsion of warfare and struggle. Second, it seems very likely that there will also be well-defended technological enclaves that support the descendants/recipients of those who have benefited from the last 30 years of neoliberal policies. Third, it seems quite possible that there will be many communities who operate with a large degree of autonomous self-sufficiency subsequent to partial or complete state collapse. Fourth, there also exists the possibility of tyrannical governmental forms with new forms of imposed inequality that social work will need to engage with as a moral and professional issue.

None of these putative conditions bear much resemblance to those under which social work arose. What will remain and is within the mandate of social work as a profession is the need for people to work with peoples to resist oppression and encourage solidarity, connection and mutual support.

When thought is given to what social work is ‘now’, the International Federation of Social Work (IFSW, 2014) global definition of the social work profession offers one description:

Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledges, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.

When I read this definition, I am not greatly reassured that social work in its current configuration is able to serve the needs of what will be a very different world in our near future. The definition is clearly aspirational about human well-being, and makes direct reference to social cohesion and empowerment. That said, what is missing is an overt political position which recognises that in the convulsions that our world is likely to face in the coming decades, the sectional interests of entrenched wealth and the disadvantaged are likely to become ever starker, and that social work will need to take a side.

What is also missing is a recognition that our current social and state structures may well be time limited in response to potential environmental and societal collapse, requiring social work to adopt a new face in response to these changes. For instance, can social work still viably exist as a profession if the nation-state devolves to a series of well-defended technological enclaves surrounded by small communities forced into complete self-sufficiency? This sort of scenario seems a very likely possibility.

I argue that a position of solidarity will be key to how social work will need to change in order to become a force for social cohesion rather than a vicious disciplining arm of desperate states/groups working in the interests not of all citizens, but rather of a small number of rich elites. The question, then, arises as to what will need to change in terms of social work practice, thinking and education.

My initial thoughts are that, first, social workers may need to give up the dividing and othering practice of referring to the people they work with as ‘clients’. As Russell (2015) argues, social work’s use of the word ‘client’ implies both dependency and a user of needed services. The rhetoric of ‘social worker and client’ produces a human relationship from the foundation not of people in solidarity in the face of shared troubles, but rather of one group in need and another group with the capacity to offer (or not) resources, assistance or advice. The language inherently produces a power relationship that diminishes the possibility of simple fellowship. ‘Client’ is a word that replaces ‘we’ with ‘I’ and ‘the other’.

As a social work educator, I am increasingly aware of how complicit social work education is in this othering phenomenon. Students often come to study social work, in large part, because of their identification with, and solidarity with, those who have experienced struggle and difficulty. In my personal experience, it is a rare social work student who has not experienced a range of life’s difficult travails. The process of ‘professionalising’ students over their years of study has a consequence that may, in future, be a disservice to them and the people they work with. The consequence is the increasing distance between their new identity as social workers and their earlier experiences of simple solidarity with those who suffer and struggle. Of course, as social work educators, we aim for empathy and compassion to remain intact. However, as Russell (2015) argues, there is an inevitable distancing that occurs as part of the linguistic creation of a professional identity. As Andrews and Reisch (2002) detail, the tension between a social work of solidarity and a social work of divisive, instrumentalising, ‘we-know-best’ charity inhabits social work’s history, and it is unsurprising that this tension is now expressed in how the social work profession variously languages those with whom we work and how our relationship with these people should be understood and actioned.

The dissonance of simple solidarity with those we work with against professionalising language that constitutes clients as something other than ‘we’ is likely to grow greater as conditions become more strained in the coming years. A prefigurative social work approach (Boggs, 1977) may offer some possibilities. Prefigurative social work is the practice of undertaking forms of social work that enact ‘in the now’ our current understanding of what future best practice will demand of us (Kenkel, 2018). In this instance, it would mean maintaining an attitude of solidarity with clients, a recognition that we are all positioned much alike by global structural inequities destructive of our shared environment and an active willingness to support the political struggle of those marginalised by a system that works in the best interests of a rich elite.

In a sense, the process of becoming the social workers of the future may require us to somewhat dissolve our current professional identities and to reconfigure the confining cloth of our profession. As social workers, we will need to find ways of practising the solidarity of closeness, not the distance of conversations across professional boundaries.

As social work educators, we will also need to be in the vanguard of academics who are prepared to begin telling the truth about the coming catastrophes. Having personally trialled this kind of ‘truth telling’ in a wide range of community and educational forums, I can report that it is not happily received and is only done at some cost to the teller. I suspect that this kind of ‘truth telling’ will attract significant sanction from both professional social work bodies and the institutions that we teach within. At a practical level, this may mean social work academics turning aside from their usual textbooks and journals, and researching what is known about the likelihood of ecological and social collapse. Frankly, at the level of gaining information, this is not a difficult matter. Anyone with the inclination can easily find relevant and well-researched material that supports the basic thrust of the argument that some form of catastrophic collapse is inevitable, and very likely within the lifetime of those reading this article.

Again, just as social work is a profession with the potential courage to face the myriad painful challenges that those we work with bring to us, at this juncture, social work education needs to find a similar courage in speaking painful truths to future social workers about what is likely to happen in the coming years. If we lie by polite (or frightened) omission, we become complicit in a process of collective denial. If we lie (or remain silent), then rather than arming people with the tools of community connection, engagement and solidarity that we will all need to survive the coming predicaments, we instead do harm. If we fail to inform the coming generations of social workers of what the best scientific predications tell us the future holds, then we unintentionally collude with the possible refiguring of social work as an arm of frightened states that will all too likely serve to oppress the poor and struggling in a rapidly degrading environment.

I would argue that once again, social work is in the business of choosing a moral pathway among the many profound contradictions that are inherent to our profession. I argue for us to use the conscience given to us by the community development perspective to maintain the honour and integrity of our profession in its service to those with whom we work.

As alluded to (with some differences), the fundamental ethical questions that we now face as a profession are similar to those that we faced during earlier decades of laissez-faire capitalist hegemony. The difference is that in the late teens of the 21st century the predicaments that we now experience will not be amenable to regulatory, policy or economic and technological solutions, but rather condemn our descendants to living among the damaged and diminished environmental detritus resulting from the current decisions that our societies make. In terms of our futures, the stakes are higher than they have ever been. Some degree of disaster is coming. Whether that is a disaster that includes social work as another oppressive force or as an advocate and support for communities of solidarity in managing drastic change is our profession’s decision to make.

The questions that I am left with are: in the face of potential collapse, will we commit as a profession to the solidarity with the oppressed that arises from the basic structural recognition that individual circumstances among a collapsing social and ecological environment are outside of individual control? Or, in the face of collapse, will we persist in blindly coaxing and coercing socially outlying and suffering groups into obedience to the norms and interests of those who benefit from an increasingly lethal global capitalist structure of elitism?

When considering the future of social work, I am reminded of the astute comment that a colleague of mine made in 2008 when we were considering the continuation of a New Zealand child advocacy service that employed many people at that time. When there was discussion of the importance of assuring the continuation of the service, she argued that the more important question was whether, in fact, the child advocacy service that we wished to continue actually operated for the well-being of children (conversation with E. Davies in 2008).

I believe that social work is in a similar position now. We can argue for our own continuance, simply based on the argument that many people are employed as social workers and that we are an integral part of the social fabric. Or, challenging the possibility of social complicity in increasing oppression, we can face as a profession the need to move outside of 20th-century stories of social work in order to support people moving into a dangerous and as-yet-unknown future. To do so may mean the partial dissolution of social work as a profession and instead a social work embrace of community development ideals of solidarity. I personally foresee the future of social work as increasingly split between a state-funded and -oriented perspective of evidence-based interest in individual trauma/pathology and the concomitant control of purported damaged groups, and a growing movement of social workers committed to managing the impacts of increasing structural inequity in an increasingly harsh environment. Where social work aligns itself as a global profession is a critical moral question yet to be answered.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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  • Andrews, J. and Reisch, M. (2002) The Road not Taken: A History of Radical Social Work in the United States, Kindle edn, New York: Taylor and Francis.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Beddington, J. (2008) Food, energy, water and the climate: a perfect storm of global events?, CMG FRS Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government, Government Office for Science, UK,

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Beddington, J. (2015) Tackling threat of climate change ‘has become more challenging’, www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/news/2015-Beddington-seminar

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bendell, J. (2018) Deep adaptation: a map for navigating climate tragedy, IFLAS Occasional Paper 2, 27 July, UK: University of Cumbria, www.iflas.info

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bender, F. (2003) The Culture of Extinction: Toward a Philosophy of Deep Ecology, Kindle edn, New York: Amherst.

  • Boggs, C. (1977) Marxism, prefigurative communism, and the problem of workers’ control, Radical America 11 (November), 100; cf. Boggs Jr., Carl, Revolutionary Process, Political Strategy, and the Dilemma of Power, Theory & Society, 4(3): 35993.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Davies, P. and Lynch, D. (2002) The Routledge Companion to Fascism and the Far Right, London: Routledge.

  • Emmett, S. (2013) 10 Billion, London: Penguin.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fritz, C. (1996) Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic Principles Drawn from Disaster Studies, Historical and Comparative Disaster Series #10, Newark: University of Delaware Disaster Research Centre.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hamilton, C. (2017) Defiant Earth: The fate of humans in the Anthropocene, Kindle edn, Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

  • Hansen, J. (2010) Storms of My Grandchildren, New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.

  • Harvey, D. (2013) A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Kindle edn, Oxford: OUP.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hine, J. and Kingsnorth, P. (2009) Un-civilisation – the Dark Mountain manifesto, http://dark-mountain.net/about/manifesto/

  • Hyslop, I. (2009) The White Paper for vulnerable children and the Munro Review of child protection in England: a comparative critique, ANZASW Social Work, 25(4), https://anzasw.nz/wp-content/uploads/Social-Work-Review-Volume-25-Number-4-Articles-Hyslop.pdf

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hyslop, I. (2013) Social work practice knowledge: an enquiry into the nature of the knowledge generated and applied in the practice of social work, PhD thesis, New Zealand: Massey University, http://hdl.handle.net/10179/5139#sthash.syz7UwA3.dpuf

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ife, J. (2013) Community Development in an Uncertain World, Kindle edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • IFSW (International Federation of Social Work) (2014) Global definition of the social work profession, www.ifsw.org/global-definition-of-social-work/

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jamail, D. (2019) The End of Ice, Kindle edn, New York: The New Press.

  • Kenkel, D.J., (2005) Futurority: Narratives of the future, 100 point thesis submitted for Master of Arts in Social Policy. Massey University New Zealand.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kenkel, D.J., (2018) Reclaiming social work with soul: re-imagining social work in Aotearoa New Zealand, http://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2018/10/reclaiming-social-work-with-soul/#more-2493

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Knaus, C. (2017) Welfare dependency ‘poison’ for jobless, human services minister says, The Guardian (international edn), www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/may/26/welfare-dependency-poison-for-jobless-human-services-minister-says

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lovelock, J. (2014) A Rough Ride to the Future, Kindle edn, London: Penguin Books Ltd.

  • Marshall, J. (1995) Skills, information and quality for the autonomous chooser, in M. Olssen and K. Morris Matthews (eds) Education, Democracy and Reform, Auckland, NZ: NZARE/RUME.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mayer, J. (2016) Dark money: How a Secretive Group of Billionaires is Trying to Buy Political Control in the US, Kindle edn, London: Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Motesharrei, S., Rivas, J. and Kalnay, E. (2014) Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies, Ecological Economics, 101(2014): 90102. doi: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2014.02.014

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Neale, J. (2019) Social collapse and climate breakdown, Ecologist: The Journal for The Post-Industrial Age, 8 May, https://theecologist.org/2019/may/08/social-collapse-and-climate-breakdown

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Onion, R. (2016) Ready for the end – works of prepper fiction reveal a dark truth about American virtues, The Slate Book Review, www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2016/10/prepper_fiction_reveals_dark_truths.html

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Piketty, T. and Goldhammer, A. (2014) Capital in the Twenty-first Century, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Polanyi, K. (1965) The Great Transformation, Beacon Hill, MA: Beacon Press.

  • Rose, N. (1998) Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Rose, N. (1999) Powers of Freedom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Russell, A. (2015) Radical community development: we do talk politics here, The Pacific Journal of Community Development, 1(1): 5864.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smith, R. (2013) ‘Sleepwalking to extinction’: capitalism and the destruction of life and earth, www.commondreams.org/view/2013/11/15-3

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Steffen, W., Rockström, J., Richardson, K., Lenton, T., Folke, C., Liverman, D., Summerhayes, C., Barnosky, A., Cornell, S., Crucifix, M., Donges, D., Fetzer, I., Lade, S.J., Scheffer, M., Winkelmann, R. and Schellnhuber, H.J. (2018) C. Clark (ed) Trajectories of the earth system in the anthropocene, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(33): 82529, www.pnas.org/content/115/33/8252

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wacquant, L. (2009) Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity, Kindle edn, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Wallace-Wells, D. (2019) The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, Kindle edn, New York: Penguin Books Ltd.

David John KenkelUnitec Institute of Technology, New Zealand

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