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.


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

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[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.


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.


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[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.