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Running head: KNOWING WHERE YOU STAND This is an authors accepted manuscript of an article published in the Journal of Comparative

Social Welfare, 28(1), February 2012, pp. 1-15 (copyright Taylor & Francis), available online at

Knowing Where You Stand: Neoliberal and Other Foundations for Social Work

Ray Woodcock, MSW, JD, MBA Indiana University School of Social Work

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHIES FOR SOCIAL WORK Knowing Where You Stand: Neoliberal and Other Foundations for Social Work

Abstract The neoliberal philosophy that presently dominates social work in America is often accepted by social workers without question; and when it does come into focus, it is commonly treated as the only perspective that could make sense or be ethical. But in fact every philosophy, including neoliberalism, sometimes calls for tough judgments and requires unpleasant commitments. Many social workers may find that an eclectic and dispassionate but informed approach works best in practice. This article provides thumbnail sketches and cross-comparisons among some of the most commonly mentioned political philosophies, so as to help social workers interpret dialogues, understand clients views, and identify potentially divergent threads in their own political orientations.

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHIES FOR SOCIAL WORK Maybe social work required its practitioners to facilitate Nazi exterminations. Maybe it

called for putting Asian-Americans into concentration camps. Maybe it meant providing mental health services to middle-class white people, in the 1920s, while other families went hungry. Or maybe thats not what social work actually required. But if not, how did social workers become implicated in such events? It may be convenient to hope that those were historical anomalies, and that we know better now. It is probably safer, though, to treat ideology as an ongoing fact of life. One can expect that there will be other social workers, in the future, who find themselves similarly inclined or constrained to participate in abusive behaviors and even human rights violations against vulnerable populations and who, moreover, will persist in doing so without having (or wanting) an outsiders perspective upon their actions. Political and economic philosophies go by many labels. It can be difficult to understand them, not only because of the varieties of labels and the numbers of issues they address, but also because labels are not necessarily used consistently. People who are supposedly liberal can be acting like conservatives, and vice versa; those who speak loudest about their country, or their rights, are often caught behaving in ways that directly contradict their own professed principles. That sort of thing can become frustrating and discouraging. At a certain point, it can be easier, and can seem more practical, to just tune it out and stick with whats familiar to proceed on the assumption that a conservative or a liberal or a communist is just wrong and should be ignored or, perhaps, silenced. This article provides an introduction to some frequently cited political philosophies, with a focus on characteristics of particular interest to social work. A basic orientation to these philosophies, and to how they relate to one another, may yield some unexpected conclusions about ones own stance. In a pinch, social workers may find such an understanding invaluable.

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHIES FOR SOCIAL WORK The article proceeds on the assumptions that smart, honest, and kind people can disagree, for reasons that seem persuasive when one comes to understand their perspective, and that the best approach to this sort of discussion is to remain dispassionate to the extent possible. A Survey of Some Established Political Philosophies Not everyone agrees even on the rough distinctions among political philosophies. The terms and meanings used here have broad support, but may seem mistaken from some perspectives. Some such disagreements are impossible to resolve. People must choose among the things they wish to emphasize, and in doing so will inevitably find some distinctions more important than others. The reader who becomes interested in such matters is encouraged to develop his/her own ability to characterize relevant political phenomena for his/her needs. In particular, and consistent with much of the literature of political philosophy, this article diverges from the popular treatment of liberal and conservative. In the media, liberal is often used as a catch-all for non-radical views on what is commonly called the left

side of the political spectrum, and conservative likewise on the right. Without getting ahead of the story, what the popular press considers liberal might be better called socialist or leftlibertarian, and much of so-called conservativism is actually liberal (sic) or right-libertarian. Note, also, that there are alternative, multidimensional understandings of political diversity (e.g., Slomp, 2000, pp. 18-30; Mitchell, 2007, p. 18). This article uses left and right terminology for convenience; it does not mean to endorse unidimensionality. Starting with a general summary on the right, then, one does encounter the familiar concept of conservatism. Many conservatives (like people of any other orientation) hold a mix of views, and are not able and willing to apply those views consistently to all situations. This sort of behavior can be characterized as desirable (e.g., practical) or undesirable (e.g.,


hypocritical). This article does not attempt to parse the logic, ethicality, or psychology of such situational inconsistencies, in conservativism or elsewhere. In other words, conservative and other labels, as used here, are intended for purposes of rough generalization, and do not purport to capture the full measure of any complex human being in his/her life circumstances. Conservatism, in political philosophy, tends to refer to a preference for tradition and/or authority (e.g., OHear, 2005). In conservative thinking, the individual is not prioritized over societys enduring institutions (e.g., family, church). Key conservative philosophers (e.g., Burke, 1790; Hegel, 1821/1991) emphasize self-reliance and fulfilling ones duty to society, in contrast to demanding something from society. Conservative subordination of the individual became extreme in, for example, Italys fascism of the 1920s-1940s (e.g., Gentile, 1929/2002). Cranston (2006) summarizes part of Gentiles perspective: Whereas liberalism, socialism, democracy, and the other progressive movements of the nineteenth century had asserted the rights of man, the selfish claims of the individual, fascism sought, instead, to uphold the moral integrity and higher collective purposes of the nation. And whereas liberalism saw the state simply as an institution created to protect mens rights, fascism looked on the state as an organic entity that embodied in itself all the noblest spiritual reality of the people as a whole. Facism can be construed as pathology, though that may not be the most parsimonious explanation (see Mudde, 2008). In contrast to the fascist embrace of the state, conservatives tend to favor limited government, with checks and balances that prevent central authorities from acquiring too much power. Much of the contemporary form of American conservatism developed in the 1950s (e.g., Kirk, 1953/2001; Buckley, 1951/1986; see Mudde, 2010, p. 589).


At the extreme opposite from fascism, in terms of attitudes toward the individual and the state, lies anarchism (e.g., Woodcock, 2006). Both reject democracy, but for different reasons. Fascists do not want voting individuals to steer the state, whereas anarchists feel that voting facilitates majority dominance. Anarchism has been confused with anarchy (i.e., chaos). It has also been equated with terrorism. Some anarchists do take a violent revolutionary stance toward the state, but anarchism is more commonly pacifist (Weart, 1998). In most forms (from e.g., Proudhon, 1840/1876; Bakunin, 1873/1990; Tolstoy, 1894/1984; Kropotkin, 1902/1989; Sorel, 1908/1999), anarchism emphasizes cooperative mutual aid, reminiscent of Marxs (1875) famous dictum, From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs (p. 27).1 To turn to another political philosophy, anarchism tends to be a form of libertarianism. Libertarianism (e.g., Vallentyne, 2010; Sterba, 2005) opposes many if not most governmental activities (e.g., Nozick, 1974), including laws that restrict individual freedom (e.g., regulating sexual practices or drug use; compelling military service or the payment of taxes). Thus, libertarians combine stereotypically leftist or countercultural social attitudes with traditional rightist political opposition to intrusive government. Libertarianisms core concept is selfownership: the individual (not the government or anyone else) owns him/herself; s/he engages in (or avoids) action based largely upon his/her free choice. As with conservatives, support for the needy is therefore provided via voluntary charity, not via the perceived evil of compulsory taxation that finances the further perceived evil of governmental intervention. In economics,

Blancs (1840/1911) translator offers the formulation, [E]ach worker should receive according to his needs and contribute according to his abilities (p. 7). Anonymous (2008) quotes Blanc as saying, Let each produce according to his aptitudes . . . let each consume according to his need. It does not appear that either such phrasing, or anything resembling it, appears in Blancs text. To the contrary, as the translator notes (p. 51), Blanc eventually dropped even the proposal that each worker receive equal wages, never mind taking only what he needed. It thus remains unclear whether Blanc himself originated the sentiment.

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHIES FOR SOCIAL WORK right-libertarians reject governmental monopolies (e.g., road maintenance, police service) that

prevent people from engaging in such activities themselves; meanwhile, left-libertarians focus on societal resources, contending that they are owned in common by everyone, and that those who exploit them should compensate everyone else. Locke (1689/2007) is a founding figure for classical liberalism, which shares the libertarian emphasis on individual liberties (e.g., Waldron, 2005; Gaus & Courtland, 2010). Classical liberalism parted ways with libertarianism when early liberals (especially Rousseau, 1762/2008, and Kant, 1797/1996) accepted restrictions on individual liberty for social purposes. Liberal individualism, in various forms, has dominated western thought in recent centuries (see Kagitibasi, 1997, pp. 3-4). One liberal concept is that of the state of nature, in which (at least heuristically) people are imagined to have lived simply and equally, forming natural bonds among themselves and voluntarily entering into an implicit social contract giving everyone certain rights and duties. Classical laissez-faire liberalism sees the market, private property, and the rule of law as preeminent among the few social institutions that would have evolved naturally. Classical liberals (e.g., Hayek, 1960, p. 400) consider the market an energetic, enterprising medium that broke the stagnation and oppression of the old conservative order, yielding profits for the individual and benefits for society (Roemer, 2010, p. 11). While classical liberalism is typically associated with free-market capitalism, its emphasis upon individual freedom also includes protections against governmental power for the sake of the individual, not for protection of conservative social institutions such as voting rights, the free exchange of ideas, and tolerance of diversity among people. Classical liberalism is thus very different from Marxist/Leninist communism as instituted in the former Soviet Union (see Fitzpatrick, 1998, p. 204; Roberts, 2004, p. 350). Earlier writers

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHIES FOR SOCIAL WORK (e.g., Plato, c. 380 BC / 2003; More, 1516/2003; Rousseau, 1762/2008) had presented some communistic concepts, but Marx (e.g., 1867) offered a remarkable new attack on capitalism. Echoing Proudhons (1840/1876, p. 33) Property is robbery, Marx charged not only that the profit-seeking encouraged by classical liberalism constituted systematic theft from workers, but also that the internal contradictions of capitalism would inevitably lead to revolution and that the revolution would be successful, as workers eagerly shed their chains. But instead, Marxists

of the early 20th century seeing workers kill each other during World War I in defense of their respective homelands capitalist economies concluded that capitalism was not nearly as fragile as Marx had imagined. The Soviet Union arose on the Leninist belief that history [shows] no other way of breaking the class will of the enemy except the systematic and energetic use of violence (Trotsky, 1920/1961, p. 55, quoted in Fitzpatrick, p. 210). In suitably grand and violent style, in the 1930s Stalins Soviet Union implemented disastrous restructuring schemes in agriculture and industry and conducted sweeping political purges, starving and murdering tens of millions of the countrys own citizens, and imprisoning tens of millions more. Despite impressive achievements, including stopping the Nazi war machine in World War II, soviet communism produced many significant failures in both humanity and economics. By the time of the Soviet Unions collapse in 1991, Leninist Marxism had been widely discredited. Like conservatism and Marxism, classical (i.e., non-revolutionary) socialism (e.g., Cole, 2006; ONeill, 2005) rejects liberal economic individualism. Yet diverging sharply from conservatism, this form of socialism shares, with Marxism, the goal of achieving enormous social changes, notably putting the means of production (e.g., farms, factories) into the hands of citizens or of a representative government and/or of distributing the proceeds from production (e.g., food, merchandise, money) equitably to everyone within a society (Berman, 2009;


Fitzpatrick, 1998, p. 209). The goal of such transformation is to replace liberalisms wage labor, social classes, selfishness, inequality, and competition with social organization (which libertarianism rejects, McLaverty, 2005) oriented toward equality, cooperation, and mutual support. Statements of socialist principles, such as the Erfurt Program of 1891 (Laidler, 1968, pp. 235-236), anticipate present-day social work concerns: With the extension of world commerce and of production for the world market, the condition of the workmen of every single land always grows more dependent on the condition of the workmen in other lands. . . . [We struggle] not only against exploitation and oppression of the wage-workers, but against every [form] of exploitation and oppression, whether directed against class, party, sex, or race. In various countries, this struggle has sometimes involved dramatic measures, such as outright nationalization or seizure of property. In the 20th century, however, socialism gradually became more tolerant of liberal capitalism and more inclined toward evolutionary changes, including social reforms along with some governmental control of businesses and/or of the market and redistributive taxation of the rich. Socialism is often believed to have corrosive effects upon individuals and society and to be inefficient, compared to the market, in ending poverty and meeting peoples needs (OConnor & Robinson, 2008, p. 40). Given the association of socialism with communism, and the long Cold War decades of antagonism toward communist states, Americans have tended to be deeply suspicious of socialism and receptive to its sometime characterization as a doctrine held by a motley collection of malcontents espousing random liberal causes.

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHIES FOR SOCIAL WORK Three Contemporary Variations Starting in the late 19th century, a series of financial crises (e.g., the Panic of 1893, the Great Depression) strained classical liberal faith in the market. Meanwhile, national governments were demonstrating enormous power (in e.g., their ability to wage world wars). Many liberals concluded that governments might be more effective than the market for some social


purposes (e.g., education, elimination of poverty, creation and maintenance of markets) (Ferguson, 2008, p. 25). Rawls (1971) epitomizes this neo (sometimes called welfare state) liberalism. He suggests that the social contract to which people would have agreed, in a state of nature, would protect against socioeconomic inequalities by providing the greatest benefits to people who experience the greatest disadvantages. This restorative orientation appears to rest on a belief that people would want to provide such benefits in case they, themselves, would someday need such assistance. Consistent with a liberal orientation, Rawls is interested almost exclusively in individual rights (and concomitant tax cuts, e.g., Mulvale, 2008, p. 21), as distinct from socialist goals for various classes or for society as a whole. He suggests that basic liberties include freedom of speech, of personal property, and of conscience. He assumes that people tend to be rational and reasonable, and suggests that freedoms of speech and assembly may be restricted when they change from reasonable dialogue to political protest (Paris, 2002, pp. 681, 685-687). In that event, Rawls prioritizes the states interest in controlling the populace, on the theory that the police power is necessary to protect the liberty of others. Going in the opposite direction, neoconservative (neocon) philosophy began with 1960s leftists, predominantly Jewish, who adopted conservative foreign policy views (Peters, 2008; Mudde, 2010, p. 591). Both neo and paleo conservatives (see Mudde, p. 589) oppose internationalism (as in e.g., the United Nations) because it shifts power from individuals and

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHIES FOR SOCIAL WORK elected governments to more remote and less accountable bureaucrats. Neocons differ from


other conservatives in several regards, however: they are interventionist rather than isolationist on matters of foreign policy (e.g., favoring the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003); they have not been consistently concerned with traditionalist domestic social issues (e.g., school prayer, abortion); and they favor a strong central government and the taxation it requires (Berlet & Lyons, 2000, pp. 243-244; Mudde, p. 589). Neocons take that last position because they reject Locke (1689/2007). Specifically, far from sharing Rawlss (1971) faith in the reasonableness of humanity, neocons tend toward Hobbess (1651/1904, pp. 83-84) view that people, left to themselves, will fight for all sorts of trivial reasons, and may even be perplexingly most likely to do so (in e.g., developed societies) where conditions might seem most conducive to a Lockean peace. For Hobbes (p. 130), the state of nature is dangerous, not amicable, and people want a strong government that will remain capable of protecting them. Such strength requires government to remain somewhat exempt from the liberal rule of law. Otherwise, dangerous people would use law to manipulate government to their advantage (Drolet, 2010, p. 542; Freeman, 2005; Fukuyama, 2006, pp. 154-155). In terms of political influence, neoconservatism, prominent during the G. W. Bush administration, has recently been overshadowed by moderate and paleoconservatism (Mudde, p. 593). Communitarianism (e.g., Bell, 2009; Buchanan, 2005) is another significant contemporary sociopolitical perspective (Gewirtz, 2001, p. 53), with roots in ancient and medieval sources including Plato (c. 380 BC / 2003), again, as well as monasticism (e.g., Ingham, 2006, p. 483; see Butcher, 1995). In the 19th century, Brint (2001, pp. 2-4) suggests, the idea of community as a relatively local and personal phenomenon became distinguished from that of the larger society (see Tnnies, 1887/2001, p. 17). Community has been most productively studied, Brint says, not

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHIES FOR SOCIAL WORK as a romanticized and geographically bounded ideal, but rather as a matter of shared interests


(e.g., social ties; rituals; perceived similarity with others characteristics, beliefs, or experiences) (e.g., Durkheim, 1915, p. 47; Putnam, 2000). Communitarianism can have a conservative flavor: leading communitarians (i.e., Sandel, 1982/1998; Walzer, 1983; MacIntyre, 1984; Taylor, 1989) often treat religion, tradition, and family as central foci of community. Against neoliberal individualism, Stckl (2007, p. 45) finds Sandels (1982/1998) communitarian critique particularly lucid. Neoliberalism, says Sandel, depends upon concepts of society and social justice, and yet refuses to grant either society or the community a place in discussions of individual rights. As Sandel notes, part of the problem is that liberalism bases its views upon hypothetical individuals contemplating artificial scenarios (e.g., the state of nature) in the abstract, whereas real people are always inextricably embedded in the real world (compare Sartre, 1945/2007, p. 22) and, as such, have both individual- and community-oriented dimensions (see Etzioni, 1996, p. 157; Crowder, 2006). The isolated Rawls-type pure thinker is an idealization and/or concretization (see Whitehead, 1925/1997, pp. 50-51) of rational thought; sociopolitical thought is actually just one of many things that happen in real minds (see Taylor, 1995, p. 66). Communitarianism also rejects philosophies of nationally or internationally centralized loyalty which might be roughly encapsulated as authoritarianism and totalitarianism in political (e.g., fascist, communist) and religious forms (see Linz, 2000, p. 174) because standards of justice vary among communities, and laws handed down from above disregard that (Bell; Bednar, 2005). Communitarianism appears to be achieving growing recognition as a philosophy (or at least as a buzzword, see Zakaria, 1996): both President Obama (see Etzioni, 2008; Payne, 2010, p. 161) and fundamentalist Christianity (see Gedicks, 2009, p. 283) have been characterized as communitarian.

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHIES FOR SOCIAL WORK Some Cross-Philosophical Implications of Neoliberal Social Work In the U.S. (and elsewhere, to varying degrees), neoliberalism provides much of the foundation for social work ethics generally and for the understanding of social justice in


particular (Finn & Jacobson, 2008; Stark, 2010, pp. 14-15; see Garrett, 2010, p. 3; Reamer, 2006, p. 69). This section presents some considerations that warrant softening the hard linkage of social work to that (or any) political philosophy. When a profession becomes equated with an ideology, it runs the risk of adopting ideological prejudices and illogics. As a form of political extremism, the Nazi version of fascism serves as a foil to illustrate this point. It goes without saying that Naziism was horrendous in many ways. But even in response to Naziism, a politicized stance can have undesirable side effects. Politicization can mean rejecting the very possibility of saying anything positive about Nazi Germany. Wisdom calls, rather, for understanding ones opponent. Somehow, the Nazi movement came from nowhere to take over and wreck much of Europe. The movement had political complexity (see Uektter, 2006, pp. 9-10) and intellectual achievements (e.g., Proctor, 1999). It is worth trying to grasp why such a movement developed, how it worked, and what it did right and wrong. Self-inflicted ignorance is not conducive to that. Naziism has been made into a target of safe deprecation. There are not many races, creeds, genders, orientations, or other demographic characteristics that are still available for use as obvious examples of the worst in humanity. Yet the overuse of this historical example has culminated in its trivialization. These days, there is a veritable genre of humorous Hitler material (e.g., YouTube, 2011). But already in 1953, Strauss had noted what he called the reductio ad hitlerum fallacy, which he rebutted with the observation, A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler (p. 43). In similar spirit, Godwins (1995)

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHIES FOR SOCIAL WORK Law proposes that, As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison


involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one (i.e., 100%). Teninbaum (2009, pp. 12-13) lists a few of the many settings in which such arguments have been used and overused, often for the purpose of smearing ones opponent. Even in the extreme case of Naziism, political disparagement has several drawbacks for the social work profession. First, it carries a whiff of latter-day self-righteousness. As noted above, social workers themselves actively furthered Nazi causes and pursued opportunities for personal advancement within the Nazi regime (Barney & Dalton, 2006, pp. 55-59; Bergen, 2009, pp. 12, 62, 104, 128; Kunstreich, 2003; see Milgram, 1973, p. 66). It does make sense to advocate against views like those of the Nazis on a macro level. It also makes sense to provide education that may dispel misconceptions held by neo-Nazis, neoliberals, or anyone else. But social workers are not likely to be ethical, to achieve positive results, or to inspire confidence in the profession when they engage in class- or race-based belittling of the sociopolitical views of disadvantaged individuals (e.g., Cleaveland, 2008; see NASW, 2008). The point is not that the views of such individuals are correct. Many such views can be empirically rebutted. The point is, rather, that proselytizing is not a primary obligation for social workers in direct practice. If it is imprudent to adopt a simplistic, dismissive, or otherwise unprofessional or deliberately ignorant attitude even toward the extreme historical travesty of Nazi Germany, it is much more so in the case of less terrible political philosophies. One must expect that, just as there were Nazi (and probably are neo-Nazi) social workers, there will be social workers of every other political persuasion (see Rosenwald & Hyde, 2006). Some of their beliefs or behaviors may conflict with the NASW (2008) Code of Ethics; then again, they may not be NASW members. For that matter, one may not have to hunt too far to find NASW members



whose own beliefs or behaviors likewise contravene that code. In any event, members of other professions are not typically subjected to a political litmus test that would reject those who deviate from one true political creed and if they were, one might question the propriety (indeed, the constitutionality) of laws licensing them. That reference to law invites, moreover, some comparative appreciation for members of the legal profession who have represented unpopular peoples and causes including some that are now part of the American mainstream without first filtering them through a sieve of personal ideology and favoritism. It is not just that ethicality requires toleration of diverse views (Thyer, 2010; Galambos, 2009). A more philosophically gregarious perspective calls for humility with respect to ones own beliefs, whatever they may be. For example, while many neoliberals are loath to admit it, stereotypically conservative people and viewpoints do have some strengths. Consider, for example, the capitalist market of classical liberalism. That market has become a dominant feature of the world economy, having overshadowed the alternative of socialist central planning in such places as the Soviet Union and China, and having also pared back some aspects or tendencies toward neoliberal governmentalism within the U.S. in recent decades. International trade has been associated with reducing poverty, encouraging religious tolerance, and improving life expectancies (e.g., Berger, 2010, p. 195; Jha, 2008; Owen & Wu, 2007). It is within that capitalist market that some social workers are now developing social entrepreneurship as a classical liberal alternative to reliance upon the government (e.g., Germak & Singh, 2010). Some suggest that social problems of potentially psychological origin are likewise better addressed clinically, in reimbursed private social work practice, rather than through less precisely targeted governmental programs (e.g., Reid & Edwards, 2006, p. 468).

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHIES FOR SOCIAL WORK Or consider old-school conservatism, with its emphasis on, among other things, family. This is not exactly an alien orientation for social work (see Woodcock, 2010). It seems likely


that, while social work is officially aligned with neoliberalism, it does incorporate conservative propensities. Some authors (e.g., Cupp & Joshpe, 2008; Schweizer, 2008) contend that conservatives have been shown to be happier, more hardworking, more generous, less envious, less materialistic, and to have more close-knit families (see Koch & Steelman, 2009). It seems clear in any event that neoliberal vilification of conservative people and/or ideas en masse risks being unethical in multiple ways (see Thyer, 2010, p. 261; Hodge, 2002, p. 408). Unethicality in this context may mean jeopardization of clients interests, possibly for no reason other than the social workers mere personal preference. Neoliberalism has its limits on the left as well. For all its enormous failings, soviet communism did provide a better life for many of its most vulnerable people than individualism has done in material terms (Heyns, 2005; e.g., Klumbyte, 2008, p. 34) and also in such terms as friendliness among neighbors (e.g., Heady & Gambold Miller, 2006, p. 38). Likewise, in the case of classical socialism, recent difficulties in the U.S. economy recommend bearing in mind that context can influence the success of any economic arrangement (e.g., Kogut & Zander, 2000), that liberalism remains capable of bringing great pain and destruction to large numbers of people (e.g., Lee, 2005, pp. 1-3, 30-31), and that good governance can make a socialist country (e.g., Sweden; see Bergh & Erlingsson, 2009) a very desirable place to live (e.g., UN, 2010). Socialism continues to shelter minorities and movements seeking protection from the political and economic establishment and, more recently, from environmental destruction (Roemer, 2010, p. 11; Radice, 2010, p. 42). Here, again, there are numerous qualifications on the claim that social work is neoliberal.

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHIES FOR SOCIAL WORK Political diversity is ultimately about change. The banner of change has been waved especially by socialists, during these centuries of liberal ascendancy in the West, just as it was waved by liberals in the East in those decades of communism. During the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama made it the URL of his campaign (i.e.,; meanwhile,


opposing vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (2009) retorted, We were change when change wasnt cool (p. 4). Thirty years earlier, the Republican Party had likewise been perceived by some as the party of ideas (Moynihan, 1981/2009), when the Democratic Party was supreme. To the extent that neoliberalism has been Americas dominant ideology in recent decades, social works identification with it has meant that what this profession sought was not continuous change (contra NASW, 2008; CSWE, 2010), but rather extension and consolidation of a neoliberal status quo (Reisch & Andrews, 2001, p. 214). Everyone who is not part of the reigning orthodoxy wants to change it. It seems inevitable that perceptions of the proper solution to a social problem will vary as people of good conscience differ in their opinions, where typically incompatible positive values (e.g., straightforward vs. subtle; generous vs. frugal; swift vs. careful) push toward different courses of action, each having its advantages and limitations. Society as a whole cannot simultaneously change in all of the directions recommended by various viewpoints. Whether localized or otherwise narrowed parts of society can change in divergent directions is another question. In any case, as one learns more about what people are trying to repair or achieve, with their various beliefs, it becomes more difficult to roll ones eyes and dismiss them as fringe. Political diversity brings the same potential for enrichment as any other kind. Oppression of political minorities, and politicization of dialogue with mainstream opponents, are not worthy solutions.

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHIES FOR SOCIAL WORK Implications for Practice Common names for political philosophies are often used in confusing and conflicting ways. No understanding of such terms will satisfy everyone or suffice for all occasions, but an orientation to some basic distinctions among political viewpoints can enhance ones ability to understand political writing and to participate in political discussions. It can be easy to assume that a social worker would naturally gravitate toward a neoliberal viewpoint, that other viewpoints cannot be taken seriously, and even that a social worker is expected to adopt a partisan stance in favor of neoliberalism (e.g., Chu, Tsui, & Yan,


2009; see Rosenwald, 2006). Such assumptions become problematic as one learns about various advantages and drawbacks of neoliberal and other perspectives. Whatever the situation may be with respect to specific political issues, an enduring and potentially unquestioning bias toward one sociopolitical stance seems closeminded by definition. Ethical practice may instead favor open, eclectic, and/or neutral approaches toward political philosophies (several of which may prove useful within a particular situation), so as to increase respect for clients integrity, to continue lifelong learning, and to avoid unnecessary barriers to professional service. Social work is not politics or economics. A sophisticated understanding of such fields can take years of study. While it is advisable to develop some understanding of such matters, the time that practitioners devote to political philosophy is time that they could instead be devoting to development of other knowledge and skills. People who want to practice social work are not likely to spend hours immured in philosophical debates. Instead, they will tend to rely upon what they pick up from other sources, especially social work writers and educators. Paradoxically, then, their lack of interest in political philosophy is precisely why they need to be



exposed to some of the possibilities. If social work training does not make a conscious effort of that nature, it may not happen at all. Notwithstanding its seemingly normal and unremarkable nature within the context of social work practice in the contemporary U.S., neoliberalism is in fact a political philosophy that, every day, does enormous good and evil to people around the world. The same would be true of any other political philosophy that might gain dominance in social work or in society at large. Both irony and logic compel the observation that social work educators in Nazi Germany should not have been providing training in a single doctrine, no matter how obvious or commonsensical it may have seemed to its proponents at the time. It is not a stretch to recommend similar caution toward what seems obvious in America as well.

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