It’s been a busy, often enjoyable, if frustrating few weeks. Given the latest crisis of capitalism [weren't these irritating occurrences supposedly a thing of the past?] the neo-liberals have been in headlong retreat. Their sycophants within the political class and its bureaucracy, symbolised by Gordon Brown, tongue glued to his cheek, have embraced the new would-be Olympic sport, Ideological Gymnastics. Daring somersault after another allows him without a hint of embarrassment to chastise the rich and greedy and to introduce regulation into the market. Times are evidently a-changing.
If this is the case, what price the fate of ‘new managerialism’, the servant of neo-liberalism, which has burrowed its way deep into all spheres of our lives, including youth and community work and the voluntary sector? Given its suffocating grip on practice and the sense, promulgated by our bosses, that there is no alternative, is there now a chance to turn back the tide? This question haunted all three of the events we’ve attended this November.
On November 7 in London we hosted jointly with the National Coalition for Independent Action [NCIA] a meeting, ‘We Won’t Roll Over’, which brought together a diversity of people from across the voluntary sector – Social Action for Health, Community Action, Advice Centres, Black Parents and Teachers Associations and the People in Common group – as well as a youth work contingent. In the morning Bernard Davies, almost now the guardian of the post-Albemarle liberal and radical tradition, explored as a case study the suffocating impact of neo-liberalism upon Youth Work. Following Bernard’s exposure of the way in which neo-managerialism seeks to standardise and regulate the unpredictable, Andy Benson from the NCIA pursued how this self-same ideology threatened independent action and the capacity of communities to get what they need for themselves. I’ll return to the content of the animated discussion in the summary of this contribution. However it’s important to stress that the final session of the day focused on practical collective activity, ‘what can we do now to start making a difference’ – more news to follow on how this is working out.
A few days later in Wigan I submitted the relationship between Neo-Liberalism and Youth Work to further scrutiny at a Critically Chatting meeting, which drew support from Derbyshire, Manchester, Liverpool and London! Thence I ran two workshops under the title ‘Neo-Liberalism Implodes: Time for Youth Work to Fight Back’ at the energetic and stimulating Federation of Detached Youth Work Conference. I’ll do a separate post on this event, especially as the Federation’s new web site, stuffed full of videos, photos and comment, offers a direct glimpse of what was going on.
Throughout these various encounters between workers and volunteers in the youth, community and voluntary sectors a number of questions and concerns consistently emerged:
- overwhelmingly the anecdotal evidence emphasises the apparent stranglehold of new managerialism on practice, the suffocation of critical debate and the acceptance, albeit reluctantly, by many workers of an agenda of social control;
- for those hardy souls still battling, it is difficult struggling against a culture of conformity and even fear, but there are splendid examples of cussed creativity;
- and, on the optimistic side of Gramsci’s famous couplet, there are promising signs. The political and economic crisis itself throws up turmoil; rumbles of discontent and resistance are rolling around education and welfare as a whole; oppositional groups are on the rise.
It’s all muddy and messy, but just as much as ever we need to remain critical and collective. As a small example it was heartening to see detached workers taking away the NCIA’s flyer to give to the community groups on their patch. The struggle certainly does continue.