Muting the SWAN: a radical alternative to Trotskyist social work

Critique of the Social Work Action Network, a group aiming to bring social workers and other interested parties together to campaign against austerity, by an angry social worker. SWAN's activism happens in the classroom or on the streets, but not in the workplace itself.

Submitted by Apsych on April 11, 2017

Who are SWAN?

The Social Work Action Network are a campaigning group which aims to bring social workers and other interested parties together to campaign against austerity. ‘Radical’ social work has been around as an idea since the '70s[1]. These days, in the UK at least, SWAN have a monopoly on the term. The 2011 book Radical Social Work Today, the textbook Critical and Radical Social Work, an Introduction, and the book series Critical and Radical Debates in Social Work are all edited by and feature contributions in heaps from members of SWAN’s twenty-person national steering committee. SWAN have links to prestigious university social work departments and, anecdotally at least, the senior managers of at least a handful of NHS trusts and other big statutory employers.

What’s wrong with SWAN?

SWAN’s influence on social work seems to be chiefly top down. They hold a position of influence in the profession, while operating from within a relatively small circle of social work writers and theorists, with very little presence among the frontline social work workforce. The problems with ‘radical academia’ have been discussed at some length[2]. Fundamentally, though, it would be a mistake to assume that social work lecturers and academics have common political interests with social workers themselves. Actual social workers trying to build genuinely radical social work should be wary of an organisation which claims to speak for social work while existing outside of the industry, in a position of relative privilege.

When they’re not cornering the textbook market, SWAN protest. Their activism happens in the classroom or on the streets, but not in the workplace itself. This is a strategic mistake. Social workers’ power lies in the fact that the work we do is indispensable. At work, we have the levers of the whole social care system in our hands. This gives us power that we lack when protesting or lobbying. Social care policies are made in government but are made reality in the offices where we work; a concerted effort by organised social workers to boycott, sabotage, and strike against cuts and privatisation could disrupt the whole apparatus. By ignoring the workplace and only challenging austerity by protest and debate, SWAN are relinquishing real, grassroots power in exchange for symbolic opposition and impotent theory. There’s nothing radical about an organisation which marches against austerity in public but has no capacity to support social workers to defy the cuts, in the place where it actually matters.

SWAN's connections to the Socialist Workers Party are also indefensible. SWAN’s links to the SWP are informal but nevertheless very real; several members of SWAN’s controlling body, the national steering committee, are connected to the SWP, leading to justified speculation as to how far SWAN takes its marching orders from the SWP. For anyone who doesn’t know, The SWP became a pariah among the left and radical communities in the UK after party leaders were accused of the rape and sexual assault of young activists[3], which the party bureaucracy then covered up. Everyone should be appalled by an organisation which enables rapists, but if anyone should stand up against gendered violence and institutional abuse, it’s social workers. Doing so is our job. SWAN’s obeisance to the SWP is collusive, discredits the reputation of the profession, and will ultimately distance SWAN from other, braver organisations who are prepared to stand up to the SWP cult.

SWAN and class

SWAN’s constitution states that, “While recognizing that social work is one of the mechanisms through which the State controls the behaviours of poor families, we believe nevertheless that social work is a valuable activity which can help people address the problems and difficulties in their lives.“ I can relate to this ambivalence, but without actually trying to resist the coercive State influence within social work, statements like this represent little more than Liberal guilt. The idea is to fight authoritarianism, not to ‘recognise’ it.

SWAN’s problem here is that, in framing social workers as agents of the status quo, they draw a line between social workers and the working class. Some anarchists share SWAN’s view of social workers as softcore law enforcement, although typically with less sympathy; The Class War party have railed against social workers in their publications, lumping us in with cops, lawyers and middle managers as being irredeemably ‘middle class’; privileged pawns of the coercive State (teachers get a similarly raw deal). For Class War, as with SWAN's analysis, the fact that social work is a middle-class industry and the fact that it is a repressive force are linked; social workers are bourgeois themselves, so they prop up the bourgeois State. By marking out social workers as being a distinct social class from the ‘poor families’ we work with, SWAN’s analysis is not dissimilar to Class War’s.

The problem with this analysis is that the distinction doesn’t exist. In describing a profession of privileged individuals whose interests are closer to those of the State's than the workers', SWAN are only really describing themselves. Frontline social workers often live on the edge of hardship; like nurses, teachers and other public sector workers, social work salaries have stagnated in recent years as the cost of living has rapidly caught up and overtaken. Average salaries in many of the traditional industries typically seen as ‘working class’, including mining[4] , steelworking[5] and transport and logistics[6] often exceed the pay of supposedly ‘middle class’ social workers and other health workers by a considerable amount. Social work itself is a gruelling, thankless job, frequently dangerous[7], with shocking stress levels[8] and breakneck staff turnover. In an era of cuts and privatisation, pay and terms in local authorities and the NHS are frequently subject to change and review, and healthcare workers’ jobs are increasingly insecure[9]. My own team of thirty has seen four jobs cut this year; of the people that I trained with two years ago, roughly half have now left the profession. SWAN’s line in the sand, between social workers and the ‘poor families’ we work with, has no basis in reality. Social workers shouldn’t let a stereotypical view of who is and isn’t working class blind us to the material fact that we, too, are the victims of capitalist exploitation; that we are coerced, more than we coerce, by the state and capital. By identifying social work with the forces of state repression, rather than with the lives of the people we work with, SWAN prove how out of touch their cohort of social work lecturers is with the real lives of underpaid and exploited frontline social workers.

There is no denying that working class children and families are over-represented on the caseloads of many social workers, especially in child protection services and other areas of social work where statutory powers shape the job role and where collusion with the police is the norm of the job. But ruling class collaboration isn’t fundamental to social work; while government social care policies are progressively coercive, the rank and file social work workforce share common material and political interests with service users and with the wider working class. We need the services that give us jobs, just as our service users need services for care and support. We need to negotiate Capitalism for our food and shelter, just like everyone else does. SWAN separate themselves from the working class, and so can offer only guilty paternalism dressed up as radicalism. Genuinely emancipatory social work needs to recognise its own plight, and fight for itself as well as for others.

What might real radical social work look like?

The false divide between social workers and service users needs to be broken down, and the natural class animosity between workers and our managers and policy makers needs to be rekindled. Genuinely radical social work practice needs to be combative, whilst as far as possible integrating ourselves with the daily lives and struggles of our clients and the class as a whole. Doing this isn’t easy. I’ve outlined some possible strategies below.

Community autonomy. In some ways, social work lends itself more easily to radicalism than other health work does, because it has the potential to be much more democratic. You can’t easily teach patients to perform complex medical procedures on themselves, but you can certainly teach communities to feed, clothe and house each other, to counsel each other, and to protect each other. Radical social work should be educational. By teaching social work knowledge we can replicate ourselves, and democratise social work, to build communities which are not only resilient but autonomous, and independent from the increasingly fickle state for support.

Common ownership. Social workers handle public resources; sometimes (in the case of adult care workers commissioning social care, for example) we directly oversee the flow of money from the State to the client. Don’t forget that common ownership isn’t the same as State ownership; when you allocate budgets to clients, you are only giving them back their own money. Don’t ‘gatekeep’ resources.

This has implications for how we work. Social work managers are hell bent on stemming the flow of local authority money into the hands of service users, usually by tightly controlling the allocation of budgets and the thresholds for who can and can’t access services. This managerial control will manifest itself in a whole host of organisational policies and procedures. My own local authority, for example, has recently introduced a policy called the ‘options directorate’, which stipulates that patients in hospital should be discharged out of area rather than staying in hospital until a suitable local bed can be found. Another common example of managerial theft of resources is through the care commissioning process and social work funding panels, where social workers will apply for funds for service users’ care packages and managers will either authorise or decline them based on the current managerial zeitgeist. This is the kind of bullshit which we can, and should, be fighting against. To ensure clients have as much access to their own money as possible we need to be clever and think about some creative ways to sabotage these kinds of policies. When the law is on our side, we need to use it; this could mean learning to write water-tight panel applications, and being prepared to escalate, to support service users to complain, and to contact outside agencies like the Local Government Ombudsmen, regulators, and even the Press, to pressurise managers into doing what clients want them to. Be sneaky, learn the law and its loopholes, and don’t give up just because your boss stops talking to you.

Service users’ self-organisation. To their credit, SWAN have been effective in building links with user led campaigning groups. To be effective, though, political solidarity between social workers and service users needs to move beyond marches and become a real, concrete force within the lives of service users and the working lives of frontline social workers. We should be building solidarity through our work, not just in the political spheres around and outside our working lives. Doing this could involve talking about politics to service users as part of our therapeutic work with them, talking about our own experiences of using services, our own problems with landlords and bosses, and in doing so validating both ours’ and our clients’ legitimate anger at our shared political experience. We should try and use peer-run resources rather than statutory resources as far as possible, as our first choice not as an add-on to our care plans.

Suggest joining or forming autonomous organisations to service users who haven’t considered it yet. Get to know as much as you can about these organisations, both current and historic, so when clients feel self organising is impossible you can give them hope. Encourage clients to meet other people in the same situation. Consider facilitating groups where you can see multiple service users at the same time, and they can meet and support each other. If you live in an area which already has prominent self-organised service user groups then get to know them, find out what they do and how they see the world, meet up with the people involved. Let them direct your work, and be accountable to them as far as possible. If there is a lack of autonomous service user organisations in your area, then encourage service users to start them. Research and write leaflets on the benefits of peer support and self-organised service user groups. Try and use your skills and resources, the use of your office space and facilities, to lend solidarity and practical support to these groups, especially in their infancy when they may need help to get off the ground. This will allow clients to build their collective strength and put them in a better position to defend their own interests.

Service user self-organisation is important both for therapeutic and political advancements. Sue Holland’s Social Action Therapy case study is a good example of how a worker can facilitate this in practice, to encourage the development both of mutual support networks and of militant political organisations, both of which are invaluable.

Workers’ self-organisation Social workers will make themselves unpopular with their bosses if they do all of this. We will need to be able to protect themselves at work from repercussions, bullying, threats and intimidation which we might attract. To do this, we will need to build fighting organisations within our own workplaces, so we can use our collective power as workers to protect ourselves from vengeful managers, and to begin fighting for own political and economic advancement. Start by building close relationships with colleagues, and fostering workplace cultures where workers support each other collectively against management harassment and bullying. As I’ve argued above, social workers share common interests with service users, so we need to fight to defend ourselves as well as defend our clients. Social workers should organise in the workplace to fight for better pay and conditions, for lower caseloads and less unsupported risk-taking, and to resist privatisation and the insecurity that comes with it. A union of social workers with radical politics will also be a powerful tool for fighting for wider political change. If we don’t like a particular cost-saving measure or repressive piece of legislation, we can simply refuse to implement it, and if we are well organised we can refuse on a huge scale, using our collective power to move beyond individual disobedience, to strike, sabotage and boycott to bring down iniquitous social care legislation or coercive government policy. As stated above, it is at work, not on the streets or at the ballot box, where we have the most power. If we organise at work, we can begin to use it.

These aren’t off-the -shelf models of radical social work which we can simply memorise and implement. Building the structures and cultures necessary to do this will take time, and may be a process of trial and error. These measures are far from perfect; relying on communities rather than the State to provide care could lead to an uneven distribution of services, as some communities hold more resources than others. ‘Care in the community’ has long been a by-word for care by the family, and over-emphasises the roles of traditional, patriarchal institutions in which women may be lumped with the burden of providing care unpaid. Transferring resources from the State into the pockets of service users may seem like something of a pyrrhic victory so much of the provision of care is now carried out by private companies. That said, theory is built up from the bottom. The ideas above might be enough to get us started.

As well as a criticism of SWAN and their Trotskyist ilk, I wanted to outlines a blue print for a new kind of genuinely radical social work which we can start building ourselves, now, without having to wait for a change of policy or another new radical social work textbook. Useful theory grows symbiotically with real struggle and action. We don’t need leadership from theorists.

Taken from


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