Social Policy, ideology and the crisis: Who’s vision of society is the State creating?

This is the first of two articles which began life as essays for a community work course.

This article explores the influence of ideology in the social policy decisions of the State. It highlights how, since the 1960s, the State has pursued a capitalist programme based on foreign direct investment while it has ofloaded its responsibilities onto increasingly socially controlled communities.

Community work, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a distinct form of organising for social change, more information on which can be found here, and here.

Who’s interests are protected by the social policies of the State?

The Converging Crises

Today in Ireland and globally we are faced with multiple and converging economic and ecological crises that match the most severe post-war conditions of 1940s Europe (IMF, 2009:28) and present unprecedented challenges in the form of peak fossil fuels and climate change (Kuecker et al, 2010).

In seeking to explore the influence of ideologies in the development of social policy I will note the national and international social policy responses to these multiple crises. I will explore the policy decisions of the Irish State in response to the market crisis and contextualise these by drawing some comparasons with the United Kingdom. In doing so I seek to show the overarching trend in social policy responses to the crises serve to further imbed systems of global neoliberal capitalism to the detriment of social and environmental justice.

Social policy measures are an ‘intervention in reality’ –a la Freire (1993:62), if not quite in his spirit- which at some level attempt to shape the world according to the ideals of those who implement them; social policy therefore necessarily reflects the ideologies of those who create it- whether consciously or not.

I will therefore approach this discussion by noting that the central question for any community worker committed to equality and social justice is “who’s ideology is implemented in social policy?”- in other words, “which vision of society is the State working towards?” Developing an analysis of this influence of ideologies supports the development of an effective praxis (Friere, 1993; Ledwith, 2005) which enables the voices of the most marginalised to be heard in the development of social policy.

Ultimately, it will position social justice advocates to challenge the hegemonic discourses evinced to explain the crisis. Gamble (2009, 141-3) notes that this is essential: ‘one of the main aspects [of dealing with the crisis] is the battle over how [it] is to be understood, because that determines what can be done, what should be done and who has the legitimacy to do it’.

The Hegemony of Capitalism  

‘Ideas by themselves rarely change the direction of public policy: for them to have any lasting and real effect they must conspire with circumstances’ (Lavalette and Pratt, 2006:11). Today we are beginning to see the effects of policy decisions taken when the circumstances of a crisis meet neo-liberal ideas which would have been impossible to implement without such a crisis.  The Irish state has followed historical trends towards market liberalisation since its acceptance of Marshall Aid forced it to dismantle its protectionist policies in the 1950s (O Hearn, 1997: 92). From this point the State built a system that pursued industrialisation through the attraction of ‘ready made capital’ in the form of multi-national companies based on TK Whitaker’s 1958 Programme for Economic Development.

However these historical ideological trends towards neoliberalism have traditionally been censured by the need to maintain welfare capitalism to temper the residualising effects of the free market economy (Boden, 2006; George and Wilding, 1986: 17). In effect this has meant reluctantly collectivist responses such as the creation of the welfare state in Britain or the development of the community development projects in Ireland to counter the worst of the 1980s recession.

All the same throughout the Celtic Tiger period attempts to shape social policy discourse which challenged the “Whitaker Paradigm” were ignored. Mjoset’s (1992) NESC report noted the frailty of building our economy on MNCs. In the globalised world economy, created by the Bretton Woods agreement, companies shift capital from where wealth creating activities occur to where tax rates are lowest, with ‘long term negative implications for low-tax juristictions’ as a race to the bottom occurs (McNair et al, 2009: 78, 80; Crowley, 1997: 41).

Now though, circumstances “conspire” in order to negate the necessity to temper the free market as the Government uses the economic collapse to generate a debilitating discourse of debt which precludes any critical opposition to the social policy choices the State is making by framing these choices as necessary steps to foster recovery.

Allman (2011) analyses the roots of the crises in the failure of neoliberal capitalism itself, and in an evincement of Marx (2003:8) the crises are being overcome by the ‘conquest of new markets and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones.’

One social policy response of the Government has been to begin to privatise property and services previously held in the national interest (Tasc, 2012). Privatisation does not particularly benefit the state; ‘the republic went down this road before with the sale of Eircom and the state continues to bear the costs of that ill-advised divestiture’ (Irish Times, 2012[1]). Florio (2004) has studied the welfare impact of UK government privatisations in the 1990s and noted that the net beneficiaries were the wealthiest fifth of the population.

In effect this means that public assets are removed from their position in serving the common good and made to serve owning class elites. Similarly, the Conservative-led coalition have championed the ‘Big Society’, the creator of which notes his belief that ‘capitalism is the greatest tool of wealth creation, social advance[ment] and economic development ever known’ (Norman, 2011).

As a community worker I strongly critique this position, noting the uneven distribution of fiscal, social and economic benefits accrued by this ‘tool’. These inherent inequalities are masked by the Big Society. In this way the party has placed well established Tatcherite anti-collectivist policies in a new frame, allowing them to justify policies which will essentially adversely affect the majority of the population by appealing to the “natural” sources of welfare- the family, voluntary and market services (George and Wilding, 1985:40).

The Irish Government has pursued similar approaches in seeking to have the community and voluntary sector take direct responsibility for service provision. Today the ‘Active Citizen’ (Taskforce on Active Citizenship, 2007) who has a range of responsibilities to provide self-help solutions in the community, represents the appropriation of civil society space by New Right discourses (Ledwith, 2005; Mayo, 1999: 3). In this way the state can neglect responsibility for the protection and promotion of the common good.

Potentially radical community work, which might question this obfuscation of responsibility, has been subsumed into Local Development Companies and tasked primarily with labour market activation (Government of Ireland, 2011). In this vein, NESC (2005) has stated its belief that government’s role is to act as a ‘regulator […] harnessing the characteristic contributions of non-profit organisations’ while reassessing its own role in direct service provision.

Ordered society in jeopardy

Youth work in particular is a civil society space which has been greatly affected by these developments in social policy. Lavalette and Pratt (2006: 182-3, 200) note how ‘a desire on the part of the state to exert greater control over the behaviour of working-class children and their families [shapes] the state’s regulation of childhood. With the ‘hallowing out of the state’ (Jessop, 1994: 262), youth work organisations have been left to fulfil the state’s social policy objectives for young people, which operates out of a broad concern for controlling the deviant “Hoodied Other” from whom ‘authority itself [appears] to be under attack [meaning that] all of the conventions on which ordered society is based will be in jeopardy’ (Government of Ireland, 1993: 26).

Increasing emphasis on youth work to “get the kids off the streets”, a particularly strong sentiment of the Garda Youth Diversion Projects, highlights how youth work has become ‘part of the State’s ensemble of measures geared towards [controlling] those most marginalised to labour markets’ (Bowden, 2006: 29).

There is, therefore, a clear link between the reluctantly collectivist policies of the state and the need to negate challenges to inherently unequal free-market system from those which the system marginalises. (George and Wilding, 1986: 62) Heald notes that this is a basic principle of Keynesian economics, the archetects of which ‘were not political or social revolutionaries; rather [they were] far sighted members of the old order, they saw how much else widespread misery and unemployment put at risk (Heald, 1983: 4).

Social policy approaches in this vein will never be instrumental in achieving social change for social and environmental justice, at best they will “keep a lid on things” and occasionally fail to do even that- as was the case with the recent UK riots. Community work’s values as established by Towards Standards (CWC, 2008)  highlight the central values of equality, freedom and solidarity as part of a commitment to democracy and radical social welfare (George and Wilding, 1986: 69-70). This has created an ideological schism between community work and the state which has long been a point of conflict..

However with the increasing hegemony of the neoliberal ideology, its proponents no longer need to placate the opposition and can therefore act with relative impunity under the cover of the austerity discourse. Hence we have seen mergers, such as the Combat Poverty Agency being subsumed into what is now the Department of Social Protection, and funding cuts across the sector- notably to the Community Workers’ Co-operative who lost all funding having been an extremely vocal opponant of many of the state’s social policy decisions over the past twenty years.

Through an exploration of the social policy decisions made by the state here and in the UK as we face into another annus horribilis it is clear that ideology underpins social policy and demonstrated that understanding the influences of ideologies is central to understanding the development of social policy. Community and youth work which attempts to work towards equality and social justice will fail to make progress without such an analysis of the hegemonic discourse which has found its expression in social policy.

While it is essential to foster prefigurative politics, where community workers live in congruence with the values they espouse, it is not enough. Analysis will enable community workers to go further and fight the ‘battle’, as Gamble suggests; to challenge the “common sense” of austerity. This is essential because ultimately the state is not some distant entity. It is a creation of its members[2] and social policy and government expenditure should be made to reflect our common interests, rather than the economic and political elite.


Allman, P. (2010), Critical education against global capitalism: Karl Marx and revolutionary critical education. London: Sense Publishers.

Boden, M. (2006), ‘Youth, governance and the city: towards a critical urban sociology of youth crime and disorder prevention’ in Youth Studies Ireland 1 (1), 19- 39.

Crowley, N. (1997), ‘Solidarity based on a mutual struggle for development in Ireland and Mozambique’, in Common cause. Dublin: Printwell.

CWC (2008), Towards standards for quality community work: An all Ireland statement of values principles and work standards. Galway: CWC.

Florio,  M. (2004) The great divestiture: privatisation in the UK. London: MIT Press.

Freire (1993), Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.

Gamble, A. (2009), The spectre and the feast. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

George, V. and Wilding,P. (1986) Ideology and social welfare. London: Routledge.

Government of Ireland (1993), Urban crime and disorder: report of the Interdepartmental Group. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Government of Ireland (2011) Comprehensive review of expendature: Environment, Community and Local Government. Dublin: Stationary Office.

Heald, D. (1983) Public expenditure. London: Robertson.

IMF (2009), Ireland: IMF country report. Washington D.C.: IMF

Irish Times (2012) ‘Incoherent privatisation policy a cause for concern’, available at

Jessop, B. (1994) ‘Post-Fordism and the State’, in A. Amin (ed) Post-Fordism: A reader, 251–279. Oxford: Blackwell

Kuecker et al, (2010) ‘Turning to community in times of crisis’, in Community Development Journal, 46 (2): 245-264.

Ledwith, M. (2006) Community development: A critical approach. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Lavalette M.and Pratt, A. (2006) Social policy theories concepts and issues. London: Sage.

Marx, K. (2003) The communist manifesto. London: The Merlin Press.

Mjoset, L. (1992) The Irish economy in a comparative institutional perspective. Dublin: Stationary Office.

McNair et al, (2009) ‘Tax justice: the impact of global tax policy on developing countries and the role Ireland can play’, in Trocaire Development Review. Maynooth: Trocaire.

NESC (2005) The developmental welfare state. Dublin: Stationary Office.

Norman, J. (2011) The case for real capitalism. London: Free Enterprise Group.

O Hearn, D. (1997) ‘Global restructuring and the Irish political economy’ in Clancey et al (eds.), Irish society: sociological perspectives. Dublin: IPA.

TASC, (2012) The strategic role of state assets: reframing the privatisation debate. Dublin: TASC

Taskforce on Active Citizenship, (2007) Report of the taskforce. Dublin: Stationary Office.

[2] I use ‘members’ rather than ‘citizens’ in acknowledgement that not everyone who contributes to the development of the state has been admitted to citizenship.


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