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Conservativism and social work don’t mix, but not for the reason you think

Third sector social worker Jack Nicholls argues that conservativism and its inherent defence of the mainstream makes it particularly inadequate as a philosophical context for social work.


Conservativism and social work don’t mix, but not for the reason you think

Criticism of conservatism is hardly ground-breaking in social work, but those criticisms are frequently made on the basis that conservatism is capitalist and individualist, and therefore either ignorant of or actively indifferent to concepts like the ‘common good’. In this piece, I propose to turn that argument directly on its head.

Let me clarify what I mean by conservatism. Conservatism generally comprises a belief in tradition, order, social cohesion, the rule of law, the prioritisation of certain cultural norms including (particular conceptions of) family and community, and a suspicion of radical ideas (i.e. ideas that threaten the status quo). In the modern era, conservatism is frequently associated with free market economics and an ideological commitment to a small, low-tax state with a minimal social safety net. Because of this association, opponents of conservatism frequently describe it as being concerned with looking out for oneself, accumulating material resources, and the preservation of existing financial privilege. It is seen as the code of the individualists, countering the collectivists of the left. However, I would argue conservatism is deeply but oppressively collectivist, and only incorporates individualism where it suits the powerful to responsibilise the powerless.

There is a strong and honourable tradition of socialist-based social work philosophies. While I recognise the large-heartedness and critical value of those perspectives, I have never been part of them. For shorthand, I would label myself a liberal libertarian. I believe that the individual person, their rights and their sovereignty over themselves, are near sacred; indeed I came into social work partly because I opposed the way that large powerful institutions, including but by no means limited to the state, held unjustifiable power over people’s lives. This libertarian philosophy is a strong feature of contemporary emancipatory social work practice, whether involving challenging restrictions on the rights and freedoms of adults with care and support needs or working to minimise the potential for drastic state intervention with children and families.

Somewhat in common with libertarianism, conservatism tells you that you are a free, responsible citizen. However it diverges from liberty-based stances in how it judges your mistakes, your vulnerabilities, your need for state/social support and your deviation from the social norm. If you are a) struggling and in need of the state’s support and b) living – or seen to be living - in a way that deviates from social norms, then you are held punitively and pejoratively responsible for the place that your life has reached. Note the importance of fulfilling both these criteria. If you do not conform to the norm but do not require help and support, because for example you are comfortably off or have sufficiently supportive family, then that is fine; you can be as unusual or as nonconformist as you like because you are not asking the state or society for help. Conversely if you definitely need the help but the conservative state regards your need as genuine and legitimate, that is fine too. You are one of the deserving. The undeserving? Well, that's other people. Worse people.

For all its claims of supporting individual endeavour and self-determination, it is through this mechanism that conservatism actually blends the established hierarchy and the collectivist concern. If you are far enough up the hierarchy, then you are indeed free, or at least reasonably free, to determine your own way. You need give only lip service to the constraints of social norms. At the lower end of the hierarchy however, you are required to fit in with the collective while demanding as little from the collective as possible. This is crucial in differentiating conservative collectivism from socialist collectivism. Your rights are conditional on and superseded by the duties you owe both to the mass and to those in the upper echelons of society.

Those of us who come from the anti-conservative but non-socialist traditions of radical liberty ground ourselves in human, legal, civil and property rights, and the balance of ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. I recognise the root of the critiques of conservatism that my left-wing friends make on the basis that it leaves people in need fending for themselves. In the liberty analysis however, conservatism is not the vaunted defender of personal freedom in exchange for self-reliance, but the apologist for an incoherent blend of personal responsibility without liberty, and communal obligation without dividend. For us, conservatism actively imposes the greatest obligations on those who are the most vulnerable and furthest down the hierarchy. It is collectivist in the owing, and individualist in the blaming. That is not abandonment of those in greatest need – that would be bad enough – it is the ethic of the workhouse.

Why then does this matter to social work particularly? Even if left-leaning practitioners share these criticisms of conservatism, can they not simply be an extension of their existing criticisms of capitalism? I would argue not. Conservatism has no inherent claim to free market ideas or to individualism; indeed, I have met some social workers who articulate fine criticism of market forces in our profession, yet who openly vote Conservative for social reasons (incidentally, as a liberal libertarian, I will defend to the death their right to do so while simultaneously making the case for why I believe them to be wrong).

Capitalism is in and of itself mathematical. It is no fairer and no more benevolent for being quantitative in nature. It always comes down to the proverbial and amoral bottom line; how much money, how many assets, how much stuff, and what opportunities and influence can it buy you? It is unfair, and not nearly as meritocratic as it is claimed, but it is not in and of itself philosophically conservative.

Conservatism pulled capitalism, or at least a form of it, into its orbit, but the centre of that orbit is not an eternal concern for the acquisition of the material. The nexus of conservatism is the instinct for the defence and maintenance of the mainstream. To different degrees in different countries that has meant deference to royalty and venerable institutions, invocation of religious values, traditional marriage, nuclear families, the nation state, militarism and monoculturalism. None of this facilitates true individualism, indeed it only celebrates the individual to the extent that they succeed in line with these standards. Money helps conformity matter less because if you have money you need less from society. Unless you upset a cultural or institutional applecart, conservatism will be inclined to leave you alone.

My argument is that this defence of the mainstream makes conservatism particularly inadequate as a philosophical context for social work. Many clients of social workers, by choice or circumstance, find themselves outside elements of the social mainstream. It is therefore deeply ironic that this has become all the more so as a result of the decimation of social support services by conservative political forces which further forces people to the margins. It places greater personal responsibility on citizens to manage more and more of their problems themselves, and raises the bar of expectation for receiving state support ever higher. In short, people with needs are told they owe it to both hierarchy and collective not to bother them with their problems until the point that those problems are considered deserving of help.

Social work values do not require that people be, in blunt terms, normal. They do not, thankfully, require that people conform or comply to the norms of their nation, community or state. Indeed with the partial exceptions of adherence to law and a Harm Principle-type stance on risk to and discrimination toward others, it does not require that our clients be by any measure ‘good’ citizens.

Exactly who and what counts as part of the mainstream evolves and varies - conservatives themselves say that. Read any serious conservative scholarly text and it will tell you that conservatism is always evolving, but cautiously. It recognises that what may well be considered an outlier today could be mainstream in five years’ time. The key issue here is not who is and who is not considered to be an outlier, it is the fact that there will always be outliers. There will always be people who are marginalised - literally pushed to the margins - and one of the forces pushing them is the conservative veneration of the mainstream of the moment. I see conservatism as a force for the alienation of those who most need both the embrace of an empathetic society and the meaningful, tangible freedom to live the lives they choose.

Perhaps the most complex and dangerous thing about conservatism - which its defenders would doubtless say is its greatest strength - is that it does not need conservative government. Conservatism as the defence of and default to mainstream expectations and social norms is always there, and can be embraced almost entirely unconsciously. All that is needed is the siren song of so-called common sense, the slow propagation of the idea that rights are earned, not deserved, and the treatment of behaviour outside the prevailing social norm as a moral question. Conservatism in social work practice finds fertile ground in limited time, uncritical supervision and residual, crisis-based services. When you have no time or energy, the notion that people should just be more responsible and therefore conveniently undemanding becomes understandably seductive.

The good news is that individual social workers are in a position to resist conservative thinking. The key lies in radical reflection, and I intend the word ‘radical’ in its proper sense. Make the mental effort – and it is frequently a genuine effort amid daily practice pressures – to unpick a client or family’s situation from first principles, even if you think you’ve seen it before. Assume that whatever referral information you have about them, even when technically accurate, may have been filtered through the lens of a mythical and convenient set of social norms. If in difficult pressured times you can hold fast to the ability (and, crucially, the will) to dissect a situation in its own terms rather than in reference to an unarticulated average, you are in as good a position as any to resist the conservative drift that is always waiting just around the corner. Liberty-based thinking works as a starting point for me, but – appropriately for a good libertarian - I am all for you finding your own way.

Jack Nicholls is a qualified social worker operating in a development role in the third sector. He blogs at The Hop Practitioner

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