The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the category “Social”

The role of capitalism in mental illness

Those who know me know will know how passionately I will agree with this article from Red Pepper: we are in an ‘epidemic’ of mental illness and the cause is the caustic society in which we live.  The greed and isolationism caused by the capitalist system serves an infinitesimally small number of people at the top of the tree who benefit financially from the ever increasing flow of goods and money around the world.

But as we have known for quite some time now, the acquisition of yet more goods has not brought the rest of us happiness that lasts longer than the addictive rush of a new purchase, or the advert telling us we need to buy some other new thing which will miraculously turn our lives into utopia.

Having travelled extensively in developing countries where this obsession with possessions has not yet achieved the grip it has in the so-called developed world, I have seen that this type of ‘poverty’ has not yet destroyed their families and communities.  They are relatively poor in that they don’t have the latest wide-screen TV or iPhone; their lives are not perfect, but they still have homes and shelter and warmth, they still have food, and they still have their relationships with their friends and families.  (Note I am not talking about communities and countries where poverty is causing real physical hardship and starvation.)

This transition began in the 18th Century with the Industrial Revolution, of which Britain was one of the forerunners, but the real shift came at the beginning of the 20th Century, with the work of Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, from which developed the modern advertising industry.  It’s a long watch (nearly 4 hours) but the documentary, The Century of the Self is enlightening.

But the question for all of us is how we can use this research, this knowledge, to overcome our own mental health frailties and support others who are also struggling.  We cannot turn the clock back.  We cannot undo what has been done.  We won’t get rid of the over-production and over-consumption of goods that is destroying our planet as well as our mental health, not to mention the lives of the oppressed workers in slave labour factory conditions.  At least not quickly, easily or without a lot of pain.

But we can start to understand the impact of our consumption led, consumerist world, challenge our own lives and work to help others to understand.


Why your brain hates other people

It’s been a long time since I posted anything – been a bit too occupied with running election campaigns!  Although I try to keep my political activities separate from social work, there is so much that overlap.

Living in an area where racism is rife this one particular subject has been close to the forefront of my mind.  What a treat then to find this rather long article by entitled Why Your Brain Hates Other People, by Robert Sapolsky, on the the root causes of so many different areas of prejudice, whether we call it racism or not, whether we talk of hate crimes or bullying or something else.

Fundamentally, whether we like it or not, our brains are hard-wired to “stick to our own kind”, whether that’s race, religion, politics, or class.  It’s in the amygdala. We won’t, in our lifetimes, overcome our biology, but understanding is the first step in lessening the negative impact in our own lives.

[The article references the Implicit Association Test – a brilliant way of testing your own prejudices.  Much of what Sapolsky talks about here can also be found in the work of the Human Givens Institute.  Both easily found with Google.]

I had a conversation with a political friend the other day.  I was reminiscing about being in Africa and noticing that people kept staring at me.  And then I realised I hadn’t seen another white face in three days.  I was passing through their land, albeit slowly.  I loved Africa and I hated it.  I was travelling on a shoestring, yet by virtue of my race, my colour, I was seen as rich.  And I was rich.  I had food in my belly.  I was travelling in a car.  But I knew that sooner or later I would have to face up to the fact that my travels were being increasingly funded by debt, and I would soon have to return to work to clear those debts.  Could I explain that?  No.  I was rich. I had access to debt I could hope to work to pay off.  My European passport (soon to be lost to Brexit, don’t get me started) gave me a freedom of movement not afforded to others. White privilege.

But as I reflect on Sapolsky’s article I wonder how else ‘they’ saw ‘me’?

Poor white kids fail to get the most out of school

There has been enough anecdotal evidence that children from certain ethnic minorities do better in our education system than poor white kids (and good for them too).  Now we have the evidence.  And it might be worse than we thought.

The Centre Forum opportunity think tank has published it’s first annual report, “Education in England Annual Report 2016” showing that poor white kids who start school above average and with good achievements still leave 11+ years later with below average attainments.  By comparison, pupils with English as an Additional Language (EAL) make significant progress during their school years.  Three groups do worse than white poor kids – they are White Irish travellers, White Roma and mixed-heritage Caribbean children.  Four groups do better: Black Caribbean, White Irish, Chinese and Indian children.  Two other features also leap out of the report: there is a north/south divide with pupils in the north generally achieving lower standards and pupils in coastal areas are also similarly disadvantaged.

But why?

Paul Mason, writing in the Guardian, makes some very relevant observations as he tries to make sense of the causes of this trend.  Referring back to the messages of the 1969 film Kes, about a working class boy learning to love and train a Kestrel, and the purpose that gave to his life, Paul Mason describes the annihilation of the ‘life story’ of the working classes in British society that started with Thatcherism and continues today.  Mason writes:

“It was not always the case that ethnic-minority children did better than white English ones, but the reason why some of them do now is pretty obvious: their problem – racism – is defined; their language skills tend to be well-developed; their culture is one of aspiration; they have social and religious institutions that promote cohesion.

By contrast, the problem of poor white kids cannot be properly defined: not in the language of freemarket capitalism, at least. It has nothing to do with being “overtaken” – still less with any reverse discrimination against them.

It is simply that a specific part of their culture has been destroyed. A culture based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid. It all had to go, and the means of destroying it was the long-term unemployment millions of people had to suffer in the 1980s.

Thatcherite culture celebrated the chancers and the semi-crooks: people who had been shunned in the solidaristic working-class towns became the economic heroes of the new model – the security-firm operators, the contract-cleaning slave drivers; the outright hoodlums operating in plain sight as the cops concentrated on breaking strikes.”

As I look back over my memories of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and since, I recognise the changes Mason is describing.

But what is the answer?  If you agree with Mason then it’s not entirely in the education system.  The education system has been tinkered with in so many ways over the years, and the debate between selection and non-selection continues in some parts of the country.  Academisation (or privatisation) has been declared as the way forward, even though many academies continue to ‘fail’.  University education for all has been heralded as the answer, even though clearly that cannot be achievable.  The raising of school leaving ages to the point of legal adulthood is considered by some to merely infantalise our young people and delay emotional and experiential adulthood. Our children have been ‘tested’ beyond endurance over recent years, resulting in league tables and a different kind of segregation.  Our education system has had so much attention lavished on it, yet still the ‘problems’ are not going away.

Mason concludes his piece with these words:

“To put right the injustice revealed by the CentreForum report requires us to put aside racist fantasies about “preferential treatment” for ethnic minorities; if their kids are preferentially treated, it is by their parents and their communities – who arm them with narratives and skills for overcoming economic disadvantage.

If these metrics are right, the present school system is failing to boost social mobility among white working-class kids. But educational reforms alone will barely scratch the surface. We have to find a form of economics that – without nostalgia or racism – allows the working population to define, once again, its own values, its own aspirations, its own story.”

We can’t go back, and for plenty of reasons we wouldn’t want to.  We have to find a way forward that enables ALL our children to have a decent education and access to opportunities.  As Mason says, it’s not about league tables, as useful as they are as measures.  Having taken the time to travel in other cultures I can step back and see what our society has lost, and it’s not education.  Identity and narrative, through culture, work, family and community are what gives children the framework on which to build their lives.  It’s what social workers do for individuals they work with.  It’s what society now needs to do for itself.

Conservative welfare “reforms” – the sound of one hand clapping

Politics – should social workers be involved in politics? Well, when your government is making policies that make your job even more necessary than ever before, then I think the answer has to be yes. Once again Kitty states the obvious:

“The Conservatives are systematically dismantling the UK’s social security system, not because there is an empirically justifiable reason or economic need to do so, but because the government has purely ideological, anticollectivist prescriptions.”

And the situation is just getting worse. “

Politics and Insights

1022654909“Labour MPs sat perplexed … By cutting housing benefit for the poor, the Government was helping the poor. By causing people to leave their homes, the Government was helping people put a roof over their heads. By appealing the ruling that it discriminated against the vulnerable, the Government was supporting the vulnerable.

Yes, this was a tricky one.” – From an unusually insightful article in the Telegraph about the incoherence of Conservative welfare rhetoric:  How bedroom tax protects the vulnerable.

“Ministers keep using the mantra that their proposals are to protect the most vulnerable when, quite obviously, they are the exact opposite. If implemented their measures would, far from protecting the most vulnerable, directly harm them. Whatever they do in the end, Her Majesty’s Government should stop this 1984 Orwellian-type misuse of language.”  – Lord Bach, discussing the Legal Aid Bill. Source: Hansard, Column 1557, 19 May, 2011.


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Refugees (un)welcome here

In response to an article in Take Part:

Here’s how I see it. The problem of refugees from Syria and surrounding areas arriving in large numbers on the shores of Europe exists, and all the NIMBYism in the world won’t make it go away. We have to understand the causes and find the best way to resolve the problem.

If the USA and parts of Europe hadn’t interfered in the Middle East and removed despotic but stable dictatorships, creating a void that could be filled by even more despotic but unstable terrorist groups, then the current problem, particularly with ISIS, would not have arisen in the first place. And all the time we continue to interfere the problems will continue. There are plenty of analyses that point to the rise of ISIS being a direct consequence of the actions of the USA and UK in Iraq long before Russia got involved (there are too many to cross reference in this blog but here is just one that appears quite clear to follow). And the flow of weapons and arms from the West to the Middle East is compounding the situation. For those reasons alone we have a responsibility to hold our governments and the arms dealers at least to account. And they have a duty to help resolve the problems they have caused, which will of course impact on us, the general population in the West.

In the meantime, whether we like it or not, there is a humanitarian crisis going on, on our doorstep. We can’t just bury our heads in the sand and hope it will go away. Not least, because our governments and arms dealers are continuing to exacerbate the situation while operating a smoke and mirrors dialogue trying to tell us otherwise.

The surrounding countries that are willing to take in the refugees (about half of those in the area and most notably NOT Saudi Arabia, one of the few remaining stable but exceptionally despotic countries in the region but whom we choose to call ‘friends’ and to not attack, no doubt for our governments’ own selfish economic reasons) are already saturated, far more than we can imagine if you look at the figures.

Most refugees and asylum seekers actually want to go back to their home countries eventually (and one is quoted here in this article as saying just that), but they can’t yet because they’ve been bombed on both sides into virtual obliteration. And with bombing and destruction still going on there would be no point in trying to rebuild what was once there. There’s little or nothing to go back to in many (not all, I agree) areas. Most want to work, such as the IT expert quoted in the Take Part article (above). Most just want to be with their families. You can see that too in this article and elsewhere. And family is a much wider concept to non-Westernised cultures than we generally understand in our modern world. It’s one we used to experience a couple of centuries ago but our modern individualistic / nuclear family lifestyles eroded it away. Many are actually originally from wealthier, educated, professional backgrounds (they’re the only ones who could afford the traffickers’ fees to get as far as Europe in the first place) with skills to offer and the ability to work and contribute.

Fears that terrorists are using refugees as cover for getting into the West are no doubt valid to some extent, although the evidence suggests that taking this dangerous and laborious route is not actually necessary: they have plenty of means of recruiting local activists through online radicalisation, and others have shown they have more reliable means of travel. One problem that could arise though, is that in reacting in fear and loathing towards the refugees and asylum seekers, they see in us a hatred and fear that makes them vulnerable to the hate preaching of the radicalisers. By our own actions and attitudes we could be turning them against us and into the arms of the terrorists. A second problem we are creating is that in further punishing the refugees and asylum seekers we are compounding all the psychological problems they have experienced through the wars in their homelands. This reduces their abilities to settle anywhere or rebuild their lives, and again makes them vulnerable to fundamentalist recruiters.

We have to step above and beyond our fears, our NIMBYism, and see the bigger picture. Building walls and blowing up bridges won’t stop the refugees coming and it won’t stop the reasons they are coming. We have to be a part of finding solutions that work for both the refugees and for us. To stop the wars and make their homelands safe places they can return to and rebuild. And right now, pitting ourselves against each other – bleeding hearts versus the wall builders – is allowing our governments to get away with continuing doing all the things that helped exacerbate this situation in the first place.

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