In and Against the Neoliberal State: The need for autonomous community work in a post-Social ‘Partnership’ world

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

It explores the role of community work as a way of organising in an increasingly neoliberal Irish state and highlights how only autonomous work can challenge the hegemonic interests of the white male elites.

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.

Partnership with the State means administering the State’s agenda, which is the agenda of white male elites

Partnership with the State means administering the State’s agenda, which is the agenda of white male elites

The State is our creation

The State, as a republic, should be the creation of all people who inhabit it (and not just those permitted citizenship in a society with racist border controls). It should conduct its business for the public interest and pursues its policies in the public gaze under public control in a participatory manner. As the embodiment of all inhabitants acting collectively, the State should take measures to eliminate poverty, inequality and injustice for those inhabitants.

However in reality powerful hegemonic forces ensure that the State favours the interests of the indigenous white male elites who took over from British and Anglo-Irish white male elites in the last century. Almost a century of ‘Holy Catholic Hypocritical Patriarchal Ireland’ (Sweetman, 2009) made this clear, and in the current crisis it has been evinced again and again by such policy choices as the augmenting of fiscal support for companies and executives while social welfare provisions and community sector organisations are decimated (Harvey, 2012).

Today, despite the hardship it is causing, the State continues its ‘love affair’ with neoliberalism (Lloyd, 2010:57) which places impoverished “residual” communities, women and minorities in completion with each other rather than questioning elite patriarchal interests and reclaiming the State for all (Ledwith, 2006:14; Bowden, 2006:24). Community work stands in opposition to the maintenance of elite interests to the detriment of oppressed, marginalised and subaltern groups. In this way, the purpose of community work is redistributive social change for social and environmental justice. In order to achieve this purpose community work emphases collective action, empowerment, social justice, equality and anti-discrimination and participation.

This article is predicated by the assertions outlined above: the State is our creation; it has been made to act in the interest of powerful elites to the detriment of the marginalised; and community work is an oppositional force for social change which represents the interests of those marginalised. Based on these assertions I will explore the current challenges to community work, assessing the purpose, methods and outcomes of the work as they are articulated by the sector- and as they are conceived by government and funders. I suggest that community development in Ireland has indeed lost its way by being ‘aligned’ with local partnership companies and made to implement government policy on behalf of the very elites it sought to challenge.

However I will show that there remains enormous potential for autonomous community work, working in a broad alliance with other non co-opted civil society actors, to build resilient communities and address poverty, inequality and unsustainability. Here I will assume community resilience to be ‘the ability to respond constructively to the unknown-to the shocks that come upon us in society […] from anywhere’ (Wilding, 2011). I take Wilding’s sense of community resilience further and suggest that rather than remaining within narrow communitarian lines, critical community resilience can provide for prefigurative politics and a space to effect conscientisation from which the oppression of elite hegemony can be challenged.

Current Challenges: In and a part of the State?

Community work often describes itself as ‘in and against the State’ (Chanan, 2009). As a result of partnership and alignment it seems we are now more in and a part of the machinery of the State. Since the dawn of the partnership era, the community sector has levelled significant criticism at Social Partnership, ‘the reality [of which is] often one of confrontation or cooption. In the latter case many groups more or less accept the terms or dictates of the agency in order to obtain whatever support is available’ (CWC, 1989). The pitfalls of partnership have been well documented in the national context (Llyod and Llyod-Huges, 2009:36-40; Chanan, 2009: 52-63), at local level (Loughrey, 2002; Punch 2009) and outside of Ireland in the UK (Pitchford, 2008).

These authors have shown that communities have found local and national authorities to be unresponsive to their needs; consultation to be tokenistic and ignorant of minority voices; and engagement experiences to be disempowering and at worst dehumanising. This is all despite, or more likely because of, the increasing use of technocratic policy interventions administered en masse without tailoring to the needs of those receiving them, let alone allowing communities to shape such interventions for themselves. The reality is that the values of community work, espoused in Towards Standards (CWC, 2008), is at odds with the commutarian neoliberalism of the State.

In the 1990s the State had to make some concessions to alternative voices and temper the residualising effects of its neoliberal policies. Now though, capitalising on the crisis itself, neoliberalism can be freely imbedded in the social policy of the State as the Government uses the ‘shock’ (Klien, 2007) of the economic collapse to generate a debilitating discourse of debt which precludes any critical opposition to the policy choices the State is making by framing these choices as necessary steps to foster recovery. In this context, the government has generated a paradigm so powerful that it can dictate to community organisations that once had leverage because the government relied on them to provide a necessary service. As a result, community work’s sustainability in its current form has been brought into serious question.

 Purpose, Methods & Outcomes: ‘Mobilising people to produce at the margins’?

The broad acceptance by community workers of the Local Development Social Inclusion Programme, indicated by the CWC (2011), is very worrying.[1] Workers remained narrowly concerned with sustaining staff and funding (with some ideological grumblings), despite the reality that the Local and Community Development Programme’s (LCDP) high level goals and dictated time allocations no longer resemble community work nor can it act as a vehicle to build resilient communities while addressing poverty or inequality[2]. After attempts at disarming the vocal critics such as the CWC, through funding cuts, the deconstruction of the state’s only community development programme aimed at eliminating poverty and inequality was taken by the sector lying down.

These findings act to support the assertion of Geoghegan & Powell (2005:10) that despite attempts to shape a radical agenda in Towards Standards, community work is rooted in a liberal humanistic framework and practitioners do not seek to explicitly challenge structural inequalities. This suggests a more complex picture than simply being co-opted by the State; this must be deciphered if we are to re-establish a radical vision. Gramsci’s theory of articulation, which emphasises civil society as the space in which hegemony is shaped, highlights the powerful ability of hegemony to ‘determine the question around which the struggle rages’; to subsume challenges to ‘common sense’ into the dominant discourse (Gramsci, 1971) so that the argument is technical and depoliticised. In Ireland, this has occurred to such an extent that the neoliberal hegemony came to flourish without challenge by the very community development structures whose aim it was to promote the interests of the marginalised. This ‘is disconcerting to say the least’, notes Lloyd (2009:45).

Of course Irish community work is not alone in this; the reality is that over the last twenty years, neoliberalism, led on the world stage by actors such as the World Bank, has subsumed once powerful challenges to its hegemony into its common sense discourses (Goldman, 2005; Scandrett et al, forthcoming). Now potentially oppositional organisations ‘emphasise projects, not movements; “mobilise” people to produce at the margins but not to struggle to control […] wealth; focus on technical financial assistance […], not on structural conditions’ (Petras, 1997). Mobilising people to produce at the margins is clearly the purpose of community work for the State, using employment activation methods and supported by much scaled back resources.

Herein lies the danger of the rise of corporatist and technocratic interventions[3] which depoliticise community development replacing community work which is rooted in People’s Organisations (Alinsky, 1971) and seeks to build critically resilient communities as a strategy to address poverty and inequality.

Autonomous Community Work: Strategies to reclaim the State

State led top down community development (often partnering with capital in the form of philanthropy) precludes the fostering of a ‘people’s history’ (Zinn, 1980) and a participatory epistemology leading to an emancipating ontology (Ledwith and Springett, 2005). Such ontology can provide a real challenge to the depoliticised community development discourse, as illustrated by Punch (2009:104) in his account of the praxis developed by local activists in partnerships with academics and community workers in Dublin City Council regeneration projects. In this case, radical community work brought marginalised voices into the discourse on city development and allowed them to shape this discourse for themselves.

The communities struggled through generations of marginalisation which shaped their identity. By recognising this people’s history and using it to support the community to develop its own epistemology, the community work responses were deeply enriched and vastly more effective. It supported the building of critical community resilience moving beyond communitarianism to allow communities to become sites of resistance to the hegemonic order. This way of working fostered an emancipating ontology whereby communities for claimed their own spaces- and from this reclaimed space challenged the authority of the neoliberal local government.

By engaging in such a ‘war of position’[4]  to challenge neoliberalism, the community demonstrated how hegemony can be fought by reclaiming the State because it is ‘not so much a matter of creating movements outside the hegemonic order[5] but rather on its terrain, radicalising the meaning of democracy, appropriating the market, democratising sovereignty and expanding human rights’ (Burawoy, 2000).

For a community worker whose purpose is to build critical community resilience and address poverty and inequality it is essential to engage in a participatory practice which is rooted in the values and practice principles of Towards Standards. In light of this, and returning to the assertions with which I began, community work must recognise that

  • technocratic policy tools are ideological impositions which prohibit the development of marginalised groups’ own analysis of a situation as the first step to their conscientisation;
  • partnership with the State means administering the State’s agenda, which is the agenda of white male elites; and
  • if we are to reclaim the State, we need to begin in the margins and not in ‘partnership’ in the backrooms of the corridors of power.

It is clear therefore that to achieve the sort of social change for social and environmental justice that community work seeks, it is essential that autonomous spaces programme be created which operates independently with and by the communities and populations which have been most oppressed by the State’s neoliberalism. If we are to make any increments towards a more equal and just society community work must re-establish itself as in and against the State. In the face of top-down depoliticisation, an autonomous community work programme fosters a critical community resilience can expose the ideological realities of capitalist exploitation hidden beneath the veneer of logical technical interventions and thus make tangible progress towards poverty reduction and equality- whether in the estate of Southhill, or indeed, the states of the Global South.


Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined communities. London: Verso

Alinsky, S. (1971) Rules for radicals. New York: Vintage Press

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.

Chanan, G. (2009) ‘In and not wholly against the state: widening standards for          community development’, Working for Change, 1 (1) 52-63.

Community Worker’s Co-Operative (1989) Community work in Ireland—trends in the 80s, options for the 90s. Dublin. Combat Poverty Agency.

Community Worker’s Co-Operative (2008) Towards Standards for Quality Community Work. Galway: CWC.

Community Worker’s Co-Operative (2011) Report on the Alignment of the CDPs to the     LCDP. Galway: CWC.

Community Worker’s Co-Operative (2011) Second Report on the Alignment of the CDPs to the LCDP. Galway: CWC.

Geoghegan & Powell (2005) The Politics of Community Development. Dublin. A.A. Farmar.

Goldman, J. (2005) Imperial Nature. New York: Yale University Press.

Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence and   Wishart.

Harvey, B. (2012) Downsizing the Community Sector. Dublin: ICTU.

Klien, N. (2007) The Shock Doctrine. London: Penguin.

Ledwith, M. and Springett J. (2005) Participatory Practice: Community Based Action for Transformative Change. Bristol: Policy Press.

Ledwith, M. (2007) Community Development. Bristol: Policy Press

Lloyd, A. (2010) ‘The will of the state and the resilience of the community sector in a time of crisis: obliteration, compliance or an opportunity for renewal?’, Working for Change 1(2).

Llyod and Llyod-Huges, (2009) ‘Building Platforms for Progression or Chasing Pie in the   Sky? Reflections on Participatory Approaches to Social Change’, Working for Change, 1(1).

Loughrey, (2002) ‘Partnering the state at local level’, Community Development Journal. 37 (1).

Petras, J. (1997) ‘Imperialism and NGOs in Latin America’. Monthly Review, 49 (7).

Pitchford, M. (2008) Making Space for Community Development. Bristol: Policy Press.

Punch, M. (2009) ‘Contested urban environments: perspectives on the place and meaning of community action in central Dublin, Ireland’, Interface 1 (2).

Scandrett, E. Crowther, J. and McGregor, C. (forthcoming) ‘Poverty, protest and popular     education in discourses of climate change’ in Carvalho, A and Peterson, T.R. (eds). Climate change communication and the transformation of politics. London: Cambria.

Sweetman, R. (2009) ‘Sisters abú’, Village, 1 (8).

Wilding, N. (2011). Community Resilience. London: Carnige Trust

Zinn, H. (1980) A People’s History of the United States.


[1] 53% of those who replied to the survey were pursuing the government’s integration model and expressed some level of satisfaction with the LCDP’s ability to meet the needs of poverty, social exclusion and inequality (CWC, 2011).

[2] The goals of the LCDP are to promote awareness, knowledge and uptake of a wide range of statutory, voluntary and community services (10% time allocation); to increase access to formal and informal educational, recreational and cultural development activities and resources (40%); to increase peoples’ work readiness and employment prospects (40%); to promote engagement with policy, practice and decision making processes on matters affecting local communities (10%).

[3] As favoured by Social Partnership and the Centre for Effective Services in Ireland, & the World Bank (Goldman, 2005) & UN internationally- e.g. The UN climate change negotiations are essentially Social Partnership writ large.

[4] I share Ledwith’s (2005: 130) unease at using Gramsci’s quasi-military terminology, not least because it clouds the fact that Gramsci believed that coercive action was less effective than what Freire would later term conscientisation.

[5] Indeed this would constitute a cultural imposition or liberation propaganda in the Freirean sense.


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