• Podsoc #57


In conversation with John Wallace

[Transcript for this podcast found in tab below]

Neoliberalism is a big topic but do we ever think about it, what it is and its relevance to all of us. Should we be paying more attention?
Like many John has lived a number of professional lives and perhaps his early introduction to the problems and issues faced by poor people in western Queensland fuelled his move to social work and a consequent polyglot mix of social work activity across government and non-government organizations. For the past dozen years or so John has been a lecturer in social work with the Institute of Koorie Education at Deakin University. His social work and policy interests have centred on the perhaps contemporarily less popular areas of poverty and structural change. His interest in neoliberalism as a topic arrives by a rather circuitous route but it has certainly become a topic that has intrigued him the more he has explored its nuances.

Recommended citation – APA6th

Fronek, P. (Host). (2013, August 31). Neoliberalism: In conversation with John Wallace [Episode 57]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/neoliberalism/.

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Transcription Podsocs 57: Neoliberalism in Conversation with John Wallace

Thank you to Lisa Toner for this Transcript

[musical intro to 00:10]

Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia. I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.

On Podsocs this morning we are going to be talking to John Wallace but before we do, I will just remind you about the conference announcements. We have got the ANZSWWER Symposium in Perth that’s coming up the beginning of October and early bird is closing soon so please get in your registrations particularly if you live in Perth. And then we’ve got the conference coming up in Kerala, India and all the details are on the website.

Tricia: So welcome to Podsocs John.

John: Thanks very much Tricia.

Tricia: Now this is a fascinating topic particularly given the elections coming up in Australia. So, maybe start and tell us a bit about yourself.

John:I am a Lecturer in social work teaching at the Institute of Koorie Education teaching in
both the Bachelor of Social Work degree and Master of Social Work Degree. I’ve been there for a dozen years or so. I am currently completing a PhD with Professor Bob Pease who is my supervisor and I am wresting with the topic of neoliberalism and its impact in terms of social work in Australia

Tricia: So, you are actually researching and finding out what people think about neoliberalism?

John: Yes, we are really trying to determine the nature of its impact on social work. While there is a body of literature, that literature has tended to focus on perhaps the organisations bureaucratic impacts of neoliberalism. This research is really trying to uncover perhaps the more ideological and instrumental ways that neoliberalism has impacted on social work as in terms of social work education and social work practice. We’re trying to see how its impacted within social work just not on social work.

Tricia: So, what is neoliberalism?

John: That is a very vexing question and it depends greatly, I suppose, on how you approach it. The kind of common vernacular is to suggest that it's really a kind of market fundamentalism, the idea that the market is the most important function in society and that individuals are key instruments within that notion of society and within the notion of the market. However, there are multiple interpretations of that and in terms of one the basic questions I suppose is whether neoliberalism actually exists, and I suppose from a conservative perspective it suggests that neoliberalism is just a figment of the left's imagination. Some of the literature suggests that neoliberalism is a concoction of absolutely everything that people disagree with and it gets lumped into the same bundle.

Tricia: Is that smoke and mirrors though?

John: Well I think it is in some ways because in a sense Stuart Hall suggests although it’s difficult to define it specifically, there are certainly some commonalities we might see if the terms of the way it structures. A number of things; one it structures things politically, the way structures things bureaucratically and the way it's now looking to restructure the civil space in society, and I suppose one way of kind of getting a handle on it is historically it’s often depicted as the roll back of the welfare state. That’s the kind of depiction of it, but it’s actually has another version, or a later version.

The first version is the roll back of the welfare state and the ideas of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the kind of winding back welfare opportunities for people and welfare services.

But the second is what Walter Lorenz describes as the role out of neoliberalism which is the development of new sets of social institutions and new ways of people responding. We might see that in a practical sense in the way in which individuals are to be responsible for their own lives, that the state's role is to provide less in terms of supporting individuals and more in terms of supporting capitalism and the ideas of the market. So, there is some different interpretations I suppose.

Tricia: And when thinking about the welfare state, I mean we learn this in first year social work, that when people think of welfare, they think of benefits but that is only a very small portion of it. Everybody is a recipient of the welfare state.

John: Certainly, the Australian welfare state is a particularly peculiar beast. I think Frank Castle calls it a working man’s welfare state so in a sense its always been constructed around the notions of employment and the transition to employment as its kind of underpinning centrality. But it is a much broader phenomena and I think if we just took the notions of what the states provide as a sub form of support or incentives we would see it more broadly across the whole of the community, everything from Ford and Holden receiving hundreds of millions of dollars to tax free benefits to major corporations. In a sense, you know, we call those incentives, but in terms of welfare expenditure we call that an expense.

Tricia: And that very much changes how people view or could view the welfare state.

John: Certainly, I think that neoliberalism constructs the idea that welfare states are inefficient, that they are self-serving, that they are dependency creating, rather than being incentive opportunity addressing needs. They reconstruct the notions that we have about what those sets of provisions might be. But we don’t reconstruct the notions about flood relief, we don’t reconstruct the notions about paying to major companies in terms of them continuing to stay in Australia or tax benefits or incentives to major corporations. We don’t seem to see those as problematic or dependency creating.

Tricia: Or paternal parenting leave?

John: Yes. That’s a, I think that’s an interesting question because when we look at the notions of neoliberalism and social work, we are inevitably drawn to looking at positioning within the welfare state and what a new set of social relationships might be. And that’s one of the things that is really prominent in the literature about the role of neoliberalism in the reconstruction of the notion of the social both in terms of what we expect in a sense as citizens but also the role it would play, the state would play in what our future sets of circumstances might be in civil society.

Tricia: Is the influence of neoliberalism getting greater?

John: That’s a very interesting question, I think certainly it’s changing and I think it's difficult to define is some ways. It seems from the literature it suggests it’s an ideological project and that while it might be relatively universal in some ways worldwide, it is highly dependent of the political, social and cultural context in which it sits in terms of, so the version that exists in China where neoliberalism exists is quite different to the one in Australia to Singapore etc. They are variable in terms of how they are constructed, and they are variable in terms of how they might respond.

There are two kinds of, well a number of different arguments about the positioning of neoliberalism. For example, Damien Cahill and others have argued that the global financial crisis (GFC) marks the kind of high point of neoliberalism. Kevin Rudd has written about the demise of neoliberalism post GFC its dead as a philosophy. Whereas others argue in actual fact the GFC is indicative of the nature of neoliberalism. In a sense it's not about the free market it’s about a particular constructed version of the market in which the services/the state are used to create opportunities for capitalism, so it’s suggested that the GFC is nothing more than that kind of overshoot of capitalism.

Yes, there are varying interpretations about neoliberalism whether in actual fact its risen or continued to rise or falling away. I mean in terms of its history, its history goes back, the general kind of consensus I suppose goes back to the 1930s, to a period in history in which we had significant debate before or at the time of World War 2, between a range of different ideologies, the ideologies of fascism, the ideologies of communism, and the third in that sense was the birth of neoliberal ideology, the Mont Pelerin Society formulated that kind of idea. At the end of that, their idea didn’t get up and the idea of social democracy is the one that’s dominated post war. But that idea is laid in some degree of acquiescence until the period of the 1970s in which it has been taken up by predominately American think tanks, political organisations, the international monetary fund, the world bank and those sorts of organisations, they have become instruments with regard to it. So, difficult question to answer to see if it reached its nemesis or not. There is certainly conjecture about its sustainability as an idea.

Tricia: So, in an environment of the global financial crisis (GFC), budgetary restrictions everywhere, what’s the impact on social workers at a broader level and that individual level?

John: Well, I am probably not in the best position to answer the question, but I think in a sense the end result of the global financial crisis is market failure. In a sense the idea simply is that the market has failed and the consequence of market failure is that governments, particular the US government, have bailed out large corporations but the end result appears to be that those in the position of least resource are the ones that have suffered the greatest with regards to the consequences of the GFC which placed those people directly in the path of social workers, in a sense these are people that have suffered the greatest degrees of difficulty and harm and hardship as a consequence of that. Which I think is a pretty common outcome of any crisis, those with the least opportunities and resources, and the least resilient people in society are the ones that cop it in the neck. And I think that is probably the set of circumstances, certainly notions of inequality in Australia continue to rise. So, the things like the GFC are indicative not only collective problems of inequality, so that you have countries like Greece and Spain etc etc in severe economic downturn with significant sets of economic problems but also within countries so it creates higher degrees of inequality as a consequence.

Tricia: I am just thinking there are so many thoughts going through my head about job security, about everyone is really at risk, as well as the lower echelon, or the lower income earners and that inequality is probably an inevitable consequence of the individualistic capitalist market approach to welfare.

John: Well I think it is certainly, look you know, what are the arguments to suggest neoliberalism also rises as the consequence in the sense of the large social movement, the labour movement and the reconstruction of work in the 20th and 21st century has reconstructed those notions about the relationships. Work as part time, work as casual, work as global, work as constantly changed and is evolving and presents no one with particular kinds of notions about security. I think one of the contemporary definitions of security was the idea of having three jobs. That was a close as you got, to have three part time jobs gave you a sense of security as opposed to people of having longer term full employment, guaranteed job.

Tricia: A job for life.

John: Quite a different kind of notion, I think. The expectation now is that people don’t have the idea that there job is secure from any dimension be it long term, be it in terms of nature of the work, be it that their industry will survive, or the nature of the industry will change. That I think presents itself for social work to in terms of where does it sit, how does it sit and what does it look like in terms of the 21st century?

Tricia: So where does managerialism fit into the perspectives of neoliberalism?

John: Well the argument is to suggest that neoliberalism has in a sense two kind of bureaucratic functions. Those two bureaucratic functions have been marketisation and privatisation. So, the construction of quasi markets within all sorts of things. So, that’s occurred in a number of different kind of ways. What I think is the reconstruction of organisations, it’s the competitive tendering notions, it’s the idea of creating illusionary markets of individual consumers who buy sets of services from consumers. So, we are seeing elements of that, they proliferate, and you know not necessarily always things that should be encouraged. In a sense, they construct the notion of the individual as a consumer so that the marketisation process encourages people to be consumers in all things they do. I mean the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), disability care formulates on that framework. The idea that your individual consumers, you have a pot of money, you can buy and do those sorts of things. So, that’s one of the major sets of focus to create those sorts of things.

And of course, the other process is privatisation which in a sense had reconstructed much of, some of the funds in the public realm and shifted those to the private realm either private not for profit organisations which are historically the larger welfare organisations I suppose, and the private for-profit organisations. That varies in terms of the particular set of contexts, the nation state and how its constructed. We have seen in Australia employment services have been heavily privatised, aged care has been relatively heavily privatised and those sorts of things. But some other sectors have remained less influenced by that kind of process. So, they are the two bureaucratic arms that have generally been used to create this notion of a market economy even within welfare.

Tricia: So, are social workers just going with this? You talked a little bit about social work resistance in one of your papers. I mean are we resisting? Are we absorbing this?

John: Look I think the literature indicates that people have resisted in different sorts of ways in terms of what they do. I mean Ian Ferguson talks about the notions of broader social movements and connections of social workers with broader social movements and the sense of resistance there. The connection to large movements that opposed the world bank and all of those sorts of things, the connection between social work and those sorts of things. Others have looked at, Donna Baines looked at, work around response and resistance within the workplace, the way in which social workers respond to interpret, manoeuvre around the sets of requirements that exist. I mean in some of the literature around neoliberalism presents as a kind of continuing hegemonic project, so in a sense has to form and reform in response to the sets of kind of challenges that it faces in the social context. So that it says that in a sense social work in some ways might interact with that in terms of how it reconstructs itself.

It occurs in different ways. It certainly is a philosophy that is fairly diverse, it seems to be occurring in lots of different places, but it certainly doesn’t appear to be the same thing in every particular locale. It has a kind or internal, it’s a relatively promiscuous process in a sense it inculcates ideas and manoeuvres around them and does those sorts of things. Which I think in some way, I think social workers may want to observe, that in actual fact they interact with this and manoeuvre around it or modify it in terms of what they do in everyday practice. So, I think that’s my area of interest I suppose to try and have a look at how that impact works in terms of social work. How do we internalise it how do we respond to it, how do we deal with it? Rather than the more mechanical aspects of marketisation and privatisation.

Tricia: Are there risks in that reshaping? Or reconstruction?

John: Risks to whom did you mean?

Tricia: To social work, to the profession, to clients perhaps? Or how we come out at the other end?

John: Yes, look I think it's difficult in a sense of the broad kind of notion of civil society alters and changes that presents significant changes for those who that’s the realm where they are most prominently represented. So, for people where advocacy in the public realm occurs, where their notions of citizenship are more tenuous that presents them with fairly significant challenges and issues. For social work I think it presents issues in terms of their ability to advocate and to have the story heard of individuals because that is a significantly different story to the idea of individual consumers in the market. So, they’re quite competing sets of agendas. So, there are challenges there I think and difficulties there in terms of how that would be attacked and presented, and I mean one of the ways I think it's done is to open public discussion. For example, what we are doing now is one way in which that might occur or individuals to speak out on specific kinds of topics. Connecting with broader sets of social movements or collective groups or those sorts of things.

Tricia: Do you think social workers really understand the connection between neoliberal perspectives? Not only on what we do but how it will affect our futures really?

John: I think that is a very difficult and challenging question. I mean, Donna Baines’s work in Canada seemed to indicate that social workers where not particularly focused on the broader political realm, were more focused in the practice of the day to day. So, that presents some challenges. I think that the difficulty is that it’s a much broader question than just social work. We are all in a situation of not having a clear perspective about where this goes and how it changes. I mean, I was reading some material recently that talked about the political landscape and suggesting that in a sense political parties in some ways reflect an old model of civil society. And that a new form of it was lobby groups, influence groups those sorts of things which were having much more impact in terms of the way in which we construct it or debated the issues in civil society rather than the direct political party processes.

Tricia: You could argue that’s happening now.

John: Yes, there are interesting questions going forward but I think it's an interesting kind of debate. I don’t have a particular crystal ball or view about how that might progress.

Tricia: There is a lot of questions isn’t there.

John: Yes, I think it’s a difficult thing to come to because in a sense neoliberalism is not something that is talked about in the day to day public realm. It’s kind of a more remote thing, people have some senses of it and some experiences of it and perhaps individual and collective experiences but it’s those broader ideological approaches are those things that people really count on a day to day basis.

Tricia: And neoliberalism itself is changing, well at least the public face of it. The inherent ideology might be the same but it’s talking about localisation and community and different ways of doing things isn’t it?

John: It certainly is, one of the things of any ideological project is that way that it uses and constructs and re-owns language. So, in a sense what Bob Jessop and Walter Lorenz talked about being this kind of roll out neoliberalism which in a sense uses the kind of culture, language and opportunities in terms of reconstructing itself. So, it reconstructs in a sense community into a different form. What we might have known or understood to be community becomes reconstructed in a different form.

Tricia: And has a different meaning?

John: Has a quite different meaning. So, the language of risk is a reconstruction of what we may have traditionally seen as notion of need. The use and reuse of language becomes an ideological tool in term of its progression. So that’s the one of the kind of lines of argument, that’s the way in which this ideological project grows itself. So that in a sense its kind of basic philosophical idea or basic tenant about notion of the market is also then ideologically infiltrated with this sort of notions about the way in which language is used and reconstructed. So that words that we have been familiar with suddenly start to take on different connotations and meanings. And that is a particular point of interest for social work and social workers because the language we use may have used and consistently used in the past, may well find other people are using and they have a slightly different or majorly different interpretation of what that might mean.

Tricia: And that where we get our communication problems (laughs).

John: Yes, but I think it also then becomes, once in a sense, that language becomes corrupted it’s very difficult to reclaim that language back. So, if we reconstruct the notion of community as something quite different, then it’s very difficult in a sense for what have been past versions of that to really have credence or credibility anymore. They are interesting kind of challenges and changes and you can probably think about lots of words where you think the meaning has been altered or we adapt it, you know in terms of what we might see. Or new words being inserted in place of, so in a sense we might have constructed the term rather than looking at people and their development and growth, we might have used or replaced that with terms like resilience. So, they give quite different interpretations of how we might see then people as citizens in our society.

Tricia: And a good example of that is how we have used language with asylum seekers for example.

John: Yes, that’s a pretty dramatic and powerful example of reconstruction of the notion of what we might see as a legitimate refugee isn’t it. So, in a sense we have reconstructed those, and demonised those people, so in a sense asylum seeker is reconstructed in language terms in the Australian context.

Tricia: Any final words John?

John: I think it’s just an intriguing topic, I mean it’s a complex and difficult thing and I think there are multiple interpretations and I think that’s the really intriguing and interesting thing about it. There isn’t one definition of neoliberalism, there isn’t one particular kind of approach, so that you can have a spatial definition that looks at the nuances and subtilties and you can look at is as process of neoliberalisation, the way that it operates and manoeuvres the space in which it sits. You can look at it as a historical kind of thing, how its arisen over time and how it fits historically into the landscape of things. So, my particular kind of interest is I think is in terms of the idea and notion of culture and the idea that it forms a particular kind of ideological frame at a particular point in time that has occurred through a set of processes. And the counter to that, what’s the counter view, the counter hegemonic view, what’s the way in that it might be attested and responded to. So, it’s an interesting project.

Tricia: It is indeed and something social workers can’t ignore, I think.

John: Yes, it’s an interesting topic.

Tricia: John thank you so much for being with us on Podsocs.

John: My pleasure.

Tricia: Thanks John.

[Musical outro 27:47 to END]

_Interview ENDS: 28.12 _