3 January 2018

Power, Politics and Social Work: The Need to Reinvent Social Work Worldwide – Contributions from Latin American Thought


Below is the English translated keynote address delivered by Silvana Martínez, [1] IFSW Regional President of the Latin American and Carribean Region at the last Joint World Conference for Social Work, Education and Social Development held in Seoul 2016.

Silvana Martinez

Power, Politics and Social Work: The Need to Reinvent Social Work Worldwide – Contributions from Latin American Thought

I will start my presentation by referring to the theme of our Conference SWSD 2016 held in Seoul, South Korea, Promoting the dignity and worth of people. As this theme can be interpreted in many ways, I will present a reflection on this topic from the richness and depth of Latin American thought. I will do this from my unique perspective as a woman, a salaried worker, an intellectual activist, a social militant and President of the Latin American and Caribbean Region of IFSW.

Why this initial clarification? Because I do not believe in the neutrality of discourse and interpretation, since knowledge production and professional practice are always located and crossed by sex/gender, ethnic/cultural, historical, linguistic and political relations. All of us occupy a space and a time where we are constituted as social subjects. This rooting and construction as social subjects gives us a very unique imprint, a particular way of being, living, feeling and inhabiting our world, which always expresses a difference for each of us.

However, this difference has also been interpreted and built up in many ways. In this article I will make reference to the way that power constructs this. And if we talk about power, we must talk about politics. So my presentation will turn around assumptions of power, politics and social work.

But, what relations do we find between these three categories of thought? Why do we have to talk about these relationships? Is it important for social work that we speak about power and politics? What relations do we find between power and politics between social work and the theme of this Conference?

These are some of the questions that I will try to address in this article and I will do it with a deep conviction that we need to reinvent social work around the world. We need to start thinking about a new agenda for social work. We need to dare to collectively build our own thinking, that is distinctive to social work and is not an appendage to the agenda of other international organisations.

The construction of social order

Social workers have history. We cannot deny or ignore our own history. We should recognize  and appreciate it because we are historical subjects, we have memory. This memory also allows us to observe that, for multiple reasons, we were not always able to question the status quo, the established order, with all the consequences that this entails, since what is not questioned cannot be transformed. This is obviously a paradox, because the aspiration of social work is precisely to transform reality, to change the social order.

Now, what are we talking about when we say social order? Why do we use the term social order? What do we mean about the concept of social order? There are so many interpretations because we can understand it in multiple ways. Coinciding with Waldo Ansaldi, an Argentine thinker, the social order is for me a historic, collective, political and controversial construction. It involves a complex web of processes in which the relations of power, exploitation and domination are constitutive of these processes. That is why the construction of order always involves the building of an institutional matrix which regulates the mode of exercising that power (Ansaldi,  and Giordano, 2012: 683).

If social order is an historical construction, then it is not something natural or attributable to some divinity. It is a human construction and therefore changeable. So, is the position “it was always this way” or “nothing can change”, acceptable for social work? I believe that it is not as within all social practices, despite inertia, there is always the possibility of change as they are human constructions and therefore can be modified. If we deny this, we deny the possibility of social change and we also deny possibilities of social work as a profession that aims for social change.

Therefore, to address the question of social order and the possibility of social change, we should refer first to power and to the way that power is exercised. This implies that we should refer to large-scale or macro factors of power that shape and sustain the order that today oppresses us and drowns us as human beings, societies, countries and peoples. Here I am referring to capitalism, patriarchy and the coloniality of power.

But before we move forward, we should ask ourselves about power itself: what is that power? It seems an obvious or redundant question because we all have some experience of power exercise in our daily lives. However, in this there are also many interpretations and it is necessary that there is some explanation of this.

At one time power was understood as something which anyone could take on and appropriate. It was said for example “to take power”, or “to be empowered”. However, today we know from philosophy, science or by our own life experience that power is not a thing but a social relationship. It is always located and registered in historical conditions. It is fragile, ephemeral, and changeable, and circulates among social subjects, organizations and institutions.

Precisely for this fragility, the powerful countries that govern the world increasingly invent sophisticated devices to oppress the rest of the world. They justify this oppression with discourses and unacceptable political practices of various kinds. In an extreme form it is often only where the state engages in genocide that this becomes unmasked and clear. This oppression especially stems from the governmental agencies of powerful countries as well as from powerful international organisations. Also it comes from transnational corporations, large media organisations, national bourgeoisies and oligarchies whose interests are aligned with those in authority.

The mode of power exercised by the more dominant countries in the world was historically based on a colonial matrix of power. In this regard, the Peruvian thinker Aníbal Quijano defines power as a social relationship constituted by the permanent co-presence of domination, exploitation and conflict. It is the result and expression of the struggle for control of the basic areas of human existence: nature, work, sex, collective/public authority and subjectivity/intersubjectivity, but also for the resources and available products. These areas of human existence make up a historical and specific structural complex and they configure a historical pattern of power.

To Quijano, the current pattern of global power consists in the articulation between capitalism as a universal pattern of control of nature and work; the patriarchate as a hegemonic control pattern on women around gender and sex; euro-centrism as a hegemonic form of control on subjectivity/intersubjectivity and the production of knowledge, and coloniality of power as a foundation of a universal pattern of classification and social domination around race and ethnicity (Quijano, 2000).

These four devices of power configure the current world order and involve a variety of negative factors, including: the appropriation of economic profit; concentration of wealth in the hands of a few; plundering of resources; destruction of the environment; child exploitation; the arms sales business; drugs trafficking; slavery; coups against democracies; repression of social protest; assassination of popular leaders; destabilization of democratic governments; suppression of basic rights; exploitation of workers; extreme poverty; famine; genocide; gender-based violence; racism and xenophobia, among others.

This situation affects millions of human beings and risks the survival of our planet Earth. However, this hegemonic, anthropocentric, monocultural, colonial and patriarchal pattern of unlimited growth and destruction on our planet is in terminal crisis.

Its dynamic of destruction and the marketization of all basic areas of human existence rapidly undermines the conditions that make it possible. It is self-destructive, such as Venezuelan sociologist Edgardo Lander, a Harvard University graduate, notes: “…today, the issue is not whether capitalism can survive this terminal crisis. If we cannot stop this machinery of systematic destruction in a short time, what is at stake is humanity’s survival in the face of the final collapse of capitalism” (Lander, 2012:80).

As we observe daily, the possibilities of sustaining life on our planet face the profound alterations suffered by climate change, loss of biological diversity and fertile soils, deforestation and water pollution, among others. Although these changes threaten the entire planet, their impacts are unequal, since poorer countries and regions do not have the resources and technological capacity necessary to neutralize or reduce the devastating consequences of these changes. For many populations, even migration is not an alternative, as already the anti-migratory policies applied by many governments severely limit this option.

However millions of human beings are forced to migrate to other countries as a result of armed conflicts and political crises in their own countries, and thousands of them die before reaching their destination, as is occurring in the Mediterranean Sea. Those with luck will arrive at their destination, often finding very hard living conditions: without work, house or family, and, according to Giorgio Agamben, feeling disposable and undesirable. It seems that human solidarity is seriously threatened by this type of power construction which is almost a global apartheid.

The International Forum on Globalization warns us that the current inequality in wealth distribution is unprecedented in the history of humanity. The growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a global financial oligarchy is obscene. The financial group Credit Suisse has begun to publish statistics on the wealth distribution around the world. According to this publication, the poorest half of the global adult population has only 1% of global wealth, while the richest 10% has 84% and the richest 1% has 44 % of global wealth (Credit Suisse Research Institute, 2011).

These deep inequalities affect not only the human beings that suffer from inequality, but they weaken, restrict and threaten the heart of democracy itself. This wealth concentration, and the political power that necessarily supports it, is the most dramatic expression of the limitations on democracy in the world in which we live. In many countries, unfortunately, and beyond the political regimes that govern all of us, public institutions respond more to interests of local and global economic and financial oligarchies than the interests of their citizens.

Edgardo Lander notes: “All alternatives to the current civilization crisis and to the effects of destruction of the conditions that make life possible, should be incorporated as core dimensions in the fight against this obscene inequality. Otherwise, it is doomed to fail. Only radical redistribution, accompanied by an extraordinarily massive transfer of resources and access to common goods, will reduce the unsustainable human pressure on ecological systems that maintain life, and will permit the majority of the population access to worthy conditions of life” (Lander, 2012: 88).

Here I think it is very important to highlight that this tendency towards the growth of global financial oligarchy is not possible without the virtual unconditional support of economic academies, such as is found in the major universities of the world. Their practices and teachings constitute an important source of the scientific basis that legitimizes this trend, not only validated and supported by the academies themselves, but also by many other actors.

We can confirm this by reviewing the publications of the last three decades of international organizations and governmental agencies of the most powerful countries of the world. We find abundant documents with recommendations of public policies based on ideas, concepts, categories and even theories that have received Nobel awards. These publications have favored the growth of global financial oligarchy and they have also stressed that governments, local communities, families, groups and own subjects take responsibility for solving the problems and situations that they encounter.

Social work, politics and social struggles

In the face of of a bleak, deeply unfair, hurtful, inhuman and highly troubling panorama in this global context that we all know and suffer, I ask you: can we speak in social work about promoting the dignity and worth of people without talking about these issues? I think we cannot. Moreover, I believe that not reading the context and the deeper causes underlying these flagrant problems is naive. Clearly we are complicit in this situation since, as social workers, we have much to say, to propose and to demand of those who make decisions and are directly responsible for their implementation.

If we do not tackle these major issues from social work with a political perspective, we will surely fall into the mistake of blaming the social subjects with whom we interact. Our professional practices will be surely reduced to mere assistance and support, individually and in isolation. If we limit ourselves only to this type of practice, noble that it may be, we are hiding the reality rather than revealing it. We are only acting on the surface of an absolutely cruel and unequal social order. We will not expose the political nature of social inequalities and, therefore, the political nature of social work too. This makes our profession into more of an entertainment, with self-help practices that are  fashionable, but lacking real meaning.

With these professional practices, what we are really doing is to blame the social subjects of the situations in which find themselves – i.e. “blaming the victim” – , as if they could by themselves individually change their own situation. With this I am not denying or ignoring the potential and the capabilities of social subjects; neither I am locating them in a passive place in the process of social transformation. On the contrary, what I am saying is that there are powerful oppressive structures that support and reproduce this order. This means that without generating positive historical conditions that modify these structures, it is very difficult and even impossible for people to escape the situation in which they live and consequently be able to develop freely as human beings, as is their birth right.

But this situation, far from bringing us to discouragement and scepticism, must mobilize us and give us strength to keep fighting in pursuit of a more just, humane and democratic world. We are not alone in this fight. As the Argentinean philosopher Enrique Dussel says, the problem of social order transformation requires a formation of collective actors who engage with system injustices. So this philosopher retrieves the political category of people, such as Gramsci understood it: as a social block of the oppressed, which admits contradictions, but which is central to the struggle for emancipation, in particular when they are constituted as a hegemonic power block.

History teaches us that social achievements have always been products of collective struggles. It is important and vital to support the actions that our people carry out in the face of deepening social inequality that affects not only democracy, peace and human dignity, but life itself. In recent years, mobilizations against this inequity have been growing around the globe, suggesting that another world is possible.

In the last two decades, Latin America has been the most active territory in this struggle. Among the most emblematic actions, the struggles and mobilizations in Argentina against polluting mining, paper mills and neoliberal adjustments stand out. In Brazil, popular actions in defense of democracy were organized. In Peru, resistance against mining corporations was accomplished. In Chile the miners’ struggles for better working conditions, the struggle of the Mapuches for land tenure and of students for public and quality education continues.

Also in the Arab world, political changes unthinkable until not so long ago are also taking place. An example is the mass popular mobilizations during the so-called Arab spring. In Spain, the indignant movement combined actions for occupation of public spaces in the centre of cities with mass demonstrations, especially in Madrid and Barcelona, demanding “real democracy NOW”. This is a broad, consistent and sustained movement that has implied a deep questioning of the Spanish political system and its political parties, even towards leftist parties.

In the United States, the movement which started with Occupy Wall Street has expanded to nearly one thousand urban locations around the country. The main slogan of the movement: “We are the 99%”, recognizes and visibly installs in the consciousness of American citizens, the existence and gravity of the conflict between “rich” and “poor”. In the public agenda of the movement were incorporated very important actions such as the struggle against racism and patriarchy, against inequality and for the right to work and collective bargaining.

The most important achievements of these struggles are, among others, the politicization of young people who do not find any sense in traditional politics in the context of public debate as it stands, in relation to basic and elemental questions of democracy, equality and the real value of persons. They have also opened other avenues of debate and political action, other ways of doing politics in the face of lack of options and alternatives for change with regard to traditional politics.

Considering this scenario of deep social inequalities, resistance and popular mobilization, I submit – once again – the need to reinvent social work around the world. Promoting the dignity and worth of people implies the need to incorporate a political dimension in global debates of social work. This means the inclusion of political dimensions in our meetings and gatherings, in our publications, in the fields of professional training and, of course, in our professional practice.

But, first and foremost, we should ask ourselves: What do we mean by politics? What does politics mean for us today and what does it mean for social work? And here, once again, we also have very different interpretations. Politics is understood in many different ways. For the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, politics is the organizer of all areas of human life. Its origin is in the “between-men”, and therefore, it is a social relation. It is especially concerned with arrangements between people; it is bio-policy, using the category created by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. It is always a social fact, something built by, for and among persons. Therefore, it also is a historical construction, subject to conditions that occur at one time or in one historic moment. From this the real possibilities and the limits of politics emerge. In short: we are born, live and die in conditions that are created by politics.

The American philosopher Iris Young links politics with justice. She says that this is the main theme of political philosophy. She conceives justice not in a distributive sense, as it is commonly understood, but as social justice. In this conception of justice, domination and oppression are more important than distribution, terms that the philosopher uses to conceptualize social injustice. For her, “the concept of justice is coextensive with the concept of politics” (Young, 2000:22).

In this same line of thought, for Hannah Pitkin politics is “the activity through which relatively large and permanent groups of people decide their future, what they will collectively do and how they will together live” (Pitkin, 1981:343). In the same sense, for Roberto Unger, politics refers to “the struggle for resources and agreements that fix the basic terms of our practical and passionate relations” (Unger, 1987:145).

As we see, politics is directly related to who is able to decide the collective way of life that we want, including the production of knowledge, resources and institutional arrangements. Social life is essentially political, whatever the participation of the social subjects that comprise it. For Iris Young “politics covers all aspects of institutional organization, public action, practices, social habits and practices, and cultural meanings insofar as they are potentially subject to collective evaluation and decision-making” (Young, 2000:23).

Therefore, politics is a matter of participation and power to decide the collective affairs of a society. The meaning and value of politics are based on the fact that it is the field where it is decided who engages and acts, for whom, for what purpose and with what resources. This means that politics necessarily affects our lives as social subjects, without differentiating between private and public spaces, between intimate life and public life. As the feminist movement in the 1970s emphasised: “the personal is political”.

In other words we cannot do without politics, because it is constitutive of social life. If someone is going to decide on our lives and our future, then it is evident that we need to participate in these decisions. Therefore, the more politicized a society is, the more political power its members will have, including much more capacity of resistance and political consciousness. The same occurs with social work. We are not outside of social life and thus of politics. Therefore, to reinvent social work around the world explicitly entails recognizing the meaning and value of politics for social work.

The Need to Reinvent Social Work Around the World

Reinventing social work worldwide also means not reproducing dichotomous thinking, that is to stop separating professional practice from the production of knowledge and professional training.

I would like to stop listening to false debates in social work, which insist on separating these areas. These false debates consider, on the one hand, academia and the production of knowledge and, on the other hand, professional practice, as if they were separate and even competing areas. With this dichotomy we are only functional to those who dominate and control us. We are teachers, intellectuals and social workers, but fundamentally we are salaried workers and employees, and therefore as vulnerable as the social subjects with whom we daily interact. We are not superior because we having one or more titles, but we have greater responsibilities. We have to put all our knowledge and professional experience at the service of the people.

The reinvention of social work worldwide also implies having the maturity to criticize our own governments, when these governments only respond to interests of large transnational corporations. These corporations have neither homeland nor nation and take political decisions that harm millions of people, condemning them to life in extreme poverty, to war and conflict,  to flee from their own lands, to take refuge in some strange country, or to drown in the Mediterranean Sea.

Do these people have no dignity, value, or rights? Yes, of course they do. As social workers, we have to watch over and defend these rights and not find ourselves defending, protected by false nationalisms, the governments that generate these situations with their decisions. Peoples’ rights are not negotiated, they are demanded, they are respected, they are exercised. As social workers we have to put ourselves on the opposite sidewalk of those who oppress, violate, and deny these rights.

This stark reality requires us to think as a group, to build a collective agenda, regardless of the differences that we have between us, beyond our singularities. It requires us to build a critical and emancipatory social work. I am convinced that just as the World Social Forum installed the motto “another world is possible”, at the global level also “other social work is possible”. This depends only on us, from our own political will and the degree of historical consciousness that we have. We can continue co-validating this order or we can question it in order to transform it.

I do not pretend that we all think in the same way. On the contrary, I maintain and claim the differences in our respective positions, but not understood as synonyms of inferiority, because this implies inequality and inequality always involves domination. On the contrary, as I said, I support and claim differences not as inferiority but as diversity, as wealth and potentiality of our professional collective.

The colonial matrix of power built processes of differentiation as synonyms of inferiority: “poor”, “black”, “women”, “Indian”, “homosexual”, among other political and social categories and classifications constructed from this logic of power. As María Lugones argues, it is necessary to retrace the plot and intersectionality between race, class, gender and sexuality and the violence inscribed in this plot (Lugones, 2008).

We can never accept the construction of the other from a place or position of superiority. On the contrary, we must be deeply respectful of others, of the autonomy of the people, of popular knowledge, of diverse social and religious practices. To maintain the opposite transforms us into instruments of social domination and oppression. However, differences can not be obstacles to the construction of collective projects because, beyond all differences, we must be able to build agreements and consensus, where collective interests prevail over individual interests. We can never accept the construction of the other from a place or position of superiority. On the contrary, we will be deeply respectful of others, of the autonomy of people, of popular knowledge, of diverse social and religious practices. To maintain the opposite transforms us into instruments of social domination and oppression. However, differences cannot be obstacles to the construction of collective projects because, beyond all the differences, we must be able to build agreements and consensus, where collective interests prevail over individual interests. Reinventing social work therefore implies building a policy of recognition of diversity, because without it it is not possible to think about social justice and without social justice there is no possibility of promoting the dignity and value of people.

Final considerations

In 2014, the International Federation of Social Workers (FITS), in the framework of the World Assembly that took place in Melbourne, Australia, voted and approved a new global definition of Social Work that states that: “Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing”

As we can see, my reflections directly related not only around the theme of the Global Agenda for 2014-2016, but also around the guiding principles included in the global definition of social work itself.. What I have tried to do is to deepen or perhaps explain in more detail what the topic of the Global Agenda and the new global definition of Social Work imply.. I deeply believe that the principles that we define for social work worldwide, cannot be left as empty or abstract statements, or as rhetoric, because they would be transformed into simple concepts that have no meaning.

My major interest in accepting the invitation for this conference was to contribute effectively toward the construction of a critical and emancipatory social work. This will motivate us for action and is a great collective project in which we all feel included and for which we all fight and are willing to give the best of ourselves.

Of course, I am aware that this proposal that I share with you today, far from giving us peace and security, disturbs, mobilizes, and provokes us. It is a proposal that invites us to detach ourselves from our unique and monocultural thinking. It proposes disobedient and undisciplined practices and offers us a horizon of hope, dignity and plurality of voices that have been silenced and forgotten.

As Walter Benjamin maintained, the dead demand us. Many social workers, throughout the world, have fought and given their lives for social emancipation, with the sole objective of contributing to a more just, democratic and humane world.

Moreover, many at this time are in their jobs risking their lives and dedicating themselves for this cause. So I invite you to reflect deeply on the themes and issues that I have outlined in this Conference. I call you to continue and deepen our collective struggle for this more humane, just and democratic world to which we all aspire.

This fight, as I mentioned earlier, is not only about social workers. We have the legacy of great social and political fighters who have set a course and laid out a path that we must follow without any surrender, without lowering our flags and without abandoning our compatriots. We follow in the wake of inspiring leaders, such as Karl Marx (Germany), Mahatma Gandhi (India), Martin Luther King (United States), José Martí (Cuba), Simón Bolívar (Venezuela), Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Argentina), Mary Wollstonecraft (England), Olimpia De Gouges (France), Emiliano Zapata (Mexico), Nelson Mandela (South Africa), Malala Yousafzai (Pakistan), Rigoberta Menchú Tum (Guatemala), Adolfo Pérez Esquivel (Argentina) and Paulo Freire (Brazil), among many others.

As Mary Wollstonecraft said, what the world needs is not charity but justice and justice will be impossible while the structures of oppression and domination continue and the devices of power that generate and reproduce inequality, exploitation and misery remain intact. We have a great challenge ahead. Of course it is not easy, but I am convinced that this cause is worthwhile and that it is worth continuing to fight because, as Ernesto “Che” Guevara maintained, “The only struggle that is lost is that which is abandoned”.



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[1] PhD in Social Sciences and a Master’s in Social Work from the National University of Entre Ríos, Argentina. She has a degree in Social Work at the National University of Misiones, Argentina. She currently is President of the Latin American and Caribbean Region of IFSW and professor-researcher in the National University of Misiones, Argentina, where she is Professor of the Master in Social Policies.