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Radical Social Work Today
Book Review by Gordon Jelley, July August 2011
Michael Lavalette (ed)
The prolonged crisis in the care of the vulnerable in Britain continues apace. The sadistic abuse of people with learning difficulties by carers at Winterbourne View private care home and the greed of the owners of the Southern Cross chain have had an impact well beyond those directly affected or involved in the social care sector.
At the heart of these scandals lies privatisation. Care services previously provided largely according to need by the NHS and councils are now in the hands of corporations and bankers. The hurdles placed in front of workers struggling to offer humane services are huge: impossible workloads, bureaucracy, dysfunctional computer systems and bullying managers.
Against this backdrop comes a really useful and accessible collection of essays, edited by Michael Lavalette. The authors look at both the recent history of radical ideas in social work and the prospects for renewed struggle against the cuts and for improved service provision. The jumping-off point for the collection was the 35th anniversary of the publication of Bailey and Brake's Radical Social Work. While the original work is treated with deserved reverence its successor does not suffer nearly so much from its academic approach.
This book's strengths lie in the wide variety of left perspectives it contains and its success in linking theory with a sustained commitment to activism. I particularly enjoyed Jeremy Weinstein's critique of the rank and file social work magazine Case Con. The contemporary relevance of its sharp and humorous front covers is testimony to the enduring difficulties of radical practice under capitalism, but also reminds us of the need to organise currents of criticism and resistance to the dominant ideas of our time.
In further chapters there are sympathetic critiques of the rise and fall of anti-oppressive practice as the 1970s gave way to the 80s and 90s and the contribution that the black, women's movement and service-user perspectives have brought to social care work.
Iain Ferguson's chapter, Why Class (Still) Matters, offers a succinct explanation of class as a determinant of life chances, as a way of explaining the experience of those who use and work in social care services and, crucially as an agent of social and political change.
The collection is an important contribution towards reasserting a revolutionary current in challenging inequality and oppression and aiming to destroy their source. It's required reading for Social Work Action Network supporters and especially for those educating and mentoring a new generation of radical practitioners.
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