The influence of critical theory on critical social work

Fortunately, for the purposes of this chapter and beyond, it is precisely the contradictions discussed above, which critical social work is engaged in working through. They are reflected in the debates within radical social work in the 1970s which were instrumental in the development of critical social work, between Marxists who were ‘pessimistic about progressive change within the state, through to the reformists, who defended progressive welfare reforms and defended working within rather than against the state’ (Pease, 2013: 22). Questions such as how to use casework to resist, rather than reinforce ruling class hegemony' which were at the centre of the Radical Social Work project (Bailey and Brake, 1975: 9) remain central to critical social work. They' echo the questions the Frankfurt School asked about the status of the social scientist and the intellectual — were they to merely observe, and maintain the world as it is, or to change it?

We have seen that even the use of the word ‘critical’ in critical social work signals the influence of critical theory, and for Hick and Pozzuto, there is little doubt that the Frankfurt School were highly instrumental in the development of critical social work; ‘Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (1964) was a significant contributing influence’ (Hick and Pozzuto, 2005: x). They' go on to cite Horkheimer’s Traditional and Critical Theory as influential also, since it emphasizes the importance of situating our theoretical and professional work in a social context. It also calls upon us to be self-reflexive — a central theme in critical social work (2005: xi). Elsewhere, Pozzuto argues that the task of critical social work is to ‘lift the veil of the present to see the possibilities for the future’ (Pozzuto, 2000, unpaginated) and this represents a link to critical theory in at least two elements. Firstly, there is the notion of ideology' critique, where we look through what is said in policy documents, the media and management reports, to find the real meaning, and we see these ‘official’ statements tor what they are — working parts of a system of mystification supporting a system of inequality and oppression. Secondly, there is a utopian element to both critical theory and critical social work. This is not to say utopian in the pejorative sense of something unrealistic or absurd, but rather, the potentiality of a better world within our grasp. Since it is technically within our grasp, both critical theorists and critical social workers are tasked with continuing to break down the discursive and ideological barriers to realizing this better world. Emancipation is front and centre in both critical theory and critical social work (Pease and Fook, 1999: 1) and this is recognized in the key overviews ofboth.

Critical theory and welfare organizations under neoliberalism

The Western democracies, since the 1970s, have been undergoing a process of public service reform. This is associated with the rise of New Public Management (Hyde, Granter, Hassard, and McCann, 2016 chapter 1; see also Healey, 2005). This regime combines highly sophisticated performance management of employees and resource use by organizations, with a supposed devolution of power from the state to welfare organizations. In practice the former element has been dominant. Supposed devolution of powers enables the state to blame welfare organizations for their failings (which can be monitored easily using performance metrics), despite the fact that these failings are usually the result of a lack of resources provided by the state in question. The next stage is to privatize the welfare organization and hand over control, and the ability to extract profit, to a private provider: ‘That’s the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital. That’s the Social Security scam’ (Chomsky, 2011).

Various discursive frameworks offer ideological legitimacy to this process and they include: the market; the consumer; and management (as opposed to bureaucracy and ‘administration’). These discursive frameworks have been highlighted by critical social work writers and they can also be traced back to critical theory. Hough (1999, and see also Lawler, 2013), draws on organization theory to illustrate the way marketization, consumerization and managerialism serve to format welfare professionals so that they ‘are turned into budget holders and inserted into a chain of command, they must operate in entrepreneurial ways in a quasi-market that has been decreed’ (Hough, 1999: 49). Writers he refers to, such as Clegg, Alvesson, Deetz, Burrell and Morgan are associated with a field known as critical management studies. Once again, the use of the term ‘critical’ not only denotes a critical stance, but also a debt to the Frankfurt School. Since the 1970s and 80s, scholars such as these have served as a point of translation between the critical theory of the past, and the organizations of the present (Granter, 2014). They have focused on the way changing economic conditions have been translated through organizational culture and discourse, in ways which shape the workers in those organizations, and how they behave.

It is established by now that consumerism, markets, and managerialism were key themes in critical theory. For Marcuse, the welfare state served to sustain the consumerist culture which distracts citizens from the injustice in their midst. Society as a whole represents a vast market, but one that (unlike in classical liberal economics) is highly administered (Marcuse, 1986: 52). Managerialism is a more contemporary understanding of the Frankfurt notion of the subversion of rationality in society, which, echoing Weber, appears ever more devoted to domination through administration (management), rather than using administration / management as a means to a commonly defined end. Behind these more conceptual terms, however, lies a more easily observable phenomenon — privatization. The Frankfurt School were early observers of the tendency for elites to seek to privatize a range of services, from banking and insurance, to welfare.

Their view on the motivations for this is clear: ‘Of course, only the powerful profit from that’ (Horkheimer, 1939). Marcuse was particularly prescient when, writing in the 1960s, he prefigured the rise of neoliberalism — the ideological support for privatization. For him, this ‘sinister’ critique represents a ‘fight against comprehensive social legislation and adequate government expenditures for anything other than those of military defense’ (Marcuse, 1986: 54).

Conclusion: critical theory and welfare in the twenty-first century

In the 1960s Marcuse noted that privatization was represented as being in the interests of the whole of society, when in fact it is only in the interest of economic elites:

Even the most highly organized capitalism retains the social need for private appropriation and distribution of profit as the regulator of the economy. That is, it continues to link the realization of the general interest to that of particular vested interests.

(1986 11964/: 56)

In countries such as the UK, prisons, probation, social care, services for the unemployed and healthcare have all been extensively privatized. Education, through the introduction of ‘academy schools’ is undergoing a similar transition. In the USA, private social work is now an established phenomenon (Benn, 2006) and although some way behind, the outsourcing of child services, for example, is ‘on the doorstep’ in the UK (Stevenson, 2017).

Evidence on the privatization of public services has highlighted two tendencies which we can understand through the work of the Frankfurt School. Firstly, the political elites who create the policy that privatizes public services, tend to be linked in more-or-less labyrinthine ways to the companies who will benefit from this privatization (see Leys and Player, 2011; Klein, 2008; Pollock, 2005). The politicians concerned tend to share not only an ideological interest in mar-ketization with private companies, but also frequently find themselves employed by them once they leave politics. In the case of healthcare, for example:

The privatization of healthcare sendees in the UK has seen frequent and multidirectional entries and exits through the revolving door connecting government with the corporate world and its orbiting think tanks and research units.

(Gran ter, 2017: 106)

This kind of process speaks to the fusion of corporate and political elites, and its predominance in contemporary society is captured by the Frankfurt School concept of a ‘society of rackets’. Here, hidden channels of influence link political and corporate powers into a collection of cliques. Power is operationalized outside the usual legislative channels, or these channels are subverted. The second tendency is for services, once privatized, to become corrupt not only in the sense of serving private interests and subverting the public interest, but in the more conventional sense of malfeasance and criminality. And so academy schools are beset by ‘financial irregularities’ (BBC, 2013), employment agencies create ‘ghost’ clients (BBC, 2012) and in the USA, judges take bribes from the owners of prisons to provide them with young inmates (Getlen, 2014). Given the vulnerabilities of the clients involved in social work, the potential harms associated with privatization under the aegis of corporate-political rackets should give pause for thought.

In this chapter I have tried to sketch the points of intersection between critical theory and critical social work, showing how the perspectives of the Frankfurt School can inform emancipatory theory and practice around welfare organizations. Both critical theory and critical social work represent currents of thought and practice which seek to free society from exploitative, harmful and unjust conditions. These conditions are seen to inhere in the capitalist system and ultimately, moving beyond this must be the goal of those who are truly ‘critical’. This system has continued to evolve, and critical thinkers must confront the accelerated marketization of welfare services under political regimes wedded to neoliberal ideologies and penetrated by corporate interests. As they do so, they can draw on critical theory as a sound intellectual and analytical base. Just as critical social workers can draw on critical theory, I hope in turn that those of us who work in the realm of theory, can support and value colleagues who represent the application of revolutionary praxis most directly — as professional commitment to the welfare of others.


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