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+3 votes
Is it possible to be an anarchist social worker? If so, how would one go about it?  I am referring to social work of all kinds, whether that be child welfare, medical, etc.
Do you mean "anarchist social worker" as in a social worker who sees their job as a way of practicing their anarchism? Or do you mean is it possible for an anarchist to also be a social worker?
Let's go with both of those questions because I feel that both of them are relevant to my dilemma.  I am in the social work field. I work for non-profit, non-sectarian organization.  The specific department I work in is contracted out by the  Department of Child Safety, and I provide services in the home for families who have an open DCS case and at risk of losing their children. My specific job involves me doing home visits and working with the family on goals and helping them develop skills and protective factors so that their kids are safe and so DCS can get out of their lives. I've been in this field for two years and love what I do.  However I have recently started developing an interest, and even a deep conviction, that anarchism is "right." I see how my job could be just a cog in the capitalist system. However, I'm curious if there is a way to practice social work in a way that defends the clients from the system and liberates them.

Also, a random Google search on social work and anarchism brought me to some interesting articles and such regarding something termed "Radical Social Work" or "Critical Social Work"and I was wondering if these have any relevance at all, and if so, if it's possible to incorporate them into my current job.
anarchists can be pretty much anything, although some jobs are certainly harder than others (there's an argument that if it's harder to make sense of the job from an anarchist perspective, that's *better* because it means there are no illusions, but that's for another day...)

some other threads where this kind of question has been raised...
Dot, thanks for the links. I'll check them out.  I am curious what you mean by "if it's harder to make sense of the job from an anarchist perspective, that's *better* because it means there are no illusions, but that's for another day...)" Care to explain?
anarchist prison guards (ew) can be under no illusions that what they're doing has anything to do with anarchy.
anarchist social workers (et al) can get confused.

(even this is simplistic. prison guards can be helpful to inmates and subversive too... etc)
I understand how anarchist social workers could get confused.  They (mostly) have good intentions, but are often unaware of how their good intentions actually can increase oppression, hierarchyn, etc.  Any insight into how social workers could use their jobs as a means by which anarchy takes place? I hope I don't sound as if I'm trying to find a way around having a job that bolsters capitalism.  I'm simply curious as to possibilities where social work can be done for the good of the client.  For instance, using it to defend clients from the system, and helping them fight what made the problems in the first place (which is usually the system itself). In other words, a social work and client relationship where they are allies, and the client is not a passive recipient, but is instead strengthened by the relationship and empowered to fight against the system.  My goal at my job is never to take children away.  It is to provide tools and to defend their parents from a system that is often unjust so that they can at least create the illusion that they meet the standard that capitalism requires of them to have safe children. Obviously my goal is to also make sure those children are safe, and so providing parents with tools to improve their families life and stability is also important to me.  I do not wish to be an authority over the families I work with, but rather a resource.
I upvoted both dot and RS666's answers, but wanted to address some thoughts here as well (I have a LOT of thoughts on this subject)

I used to work with homeless kids in a job that could've been broadly considered "social work" though I am not a social worker and I never went to school for it. I was always trying to balance my feelings of affinity and solidarity with my clients (we called them "guests", but client is more honest about the power dynamic) and the needs of running a program of the sort I did. I don't do that job anymore, and while I think if I had a balance sheet, the harm done by me in the role I had doesn't outweigh the benefit of me holding that position for a time, I feel very uncomfortable trying to say that it was anything but antithetical to being an anarchist.

I think that becomes even harder in the context of children and family services sorts of positions. I think certainly anarchists might hold those jobs, and being an anarchist might even make you a better ally to your clients (if those two relationships are even reconcilable), but I think that your job and your politics will most likely always be colliding in conflict with each other.

Ultimately, the role of social workers and others in social services is to ensure a safety net for society. Industrial capitalism has destroyed many of the traditional bonds and relations that used to help meet people's needs, social work is the capitalist patch to the hole. That patch needs to be there to maintain the smooth functioning of society. Ultimately, we are greasing wheels and lubricating the pistons of a machine much larger than our good intentions.
Social workers help clients in many ways. I think it's a job an anarchist could be proud of.

Now, people who work for child protective services (CPS) are generally not actual social workers. They are a cog in one of many wheels of an oppressive state and do much more harm than good.

Typical behavior from a CPS agent can include: threatening family in order to enter the home, telling children to talk to them or be detained in foster care, demanding parents answer questions irrelevant to the accusation in question (in my case I was coerced to answer when I had sex for the first time - in front of my children - under threat of foster care.)

I have nothing but respect for those who spend their time helping others. CPS agents don't belong in that category, and in my opinion should be avoided by decent people, anarchist or not.
dorothybaez - As someone who works for a non-profit doing what most people would call "good" work, and has previously worked in some roles similar to how you are defining "social work," I feel the need to at lest poke at this a little.

I agree that there is a difference between state social workers of the CPS variety and those that I have known (and/or been) who work to provide basic needs (food, shelter, access to education/health care, etc). But I question the implication that one is good and one is bad.

I won't rehash my previous comments (or other posts and answers that relate) in depth, but I think that the role of the social worker (as you are defining it more positively) is absolutely one which is recuperative to capitalism and society. It is helping meet basic needs of the downtrodden, but not addressing the causes in any real way. It is palliative.

That doesn't mean that anarchists shouldn't do those jobs. We all need to work*, and work means that we will be greasing the wheels of the machine. We each have to do math about what makes us feel comfortable and what bargains we can make between our desires and the world we live in. My objection is that pretending that social workers are just "helping others" without also being very aware of how our actions are part and parcel with those of cops, CPS, and the general functioning of capitalism is disingenuous, and will likely lead to us becoming nothing more than the anarchist equivalent of missionaries.

*edit - one can choose not to work also, but that is also a sort of calculus to those choices also, so long as the dominant society we are a part of (and not, much as we'd like, apart from) demands work, money, etc.

3 Answers

+3 votes
i would say no (if by social worker you mean someone who is employed by the state or a state-affiliated body).

it is my opinion that "anarchist" is by definition outside of the institutions of this society.
anything we do as part of those institutions is bolstering them.

but i'm a known cranky person.

edit: anything we do that is seen as helping people, when we act as agents of those institutions, is bolstering those institutions.
sigh. writing is hard.
by (53.1k points)
edited by
+3 votes
Now that I'm entering workplace environments, I've been thinking about these kinds of things a lot:

Unless you want to be a forest hermit or you have a group of friends who are willing to create a fairly anti-social anarchist culture, unfortunately we will all be caught up in these structures of this society we live in. I only have one friend who is an anarchist, and otherwise I just read books and try to associate with people in a way that allows me to express myself and that encourages other people to do the same. You could call this my ethics, but you could also call it my strategy for living, or whatever....our language sucks, I arrived at this conclusion yesterday. There are so many fucking words that we've borrowed from business and the military overtime.

To my understanding, social workers are very involved members of the state. They go to peoples houses and take their children away because they don't fit with our society's conception of "morality". However, to my understanding there are some social workers who are basically just counselors, and who help people figure out how they can avoid being put out on the street, and nobody really wants to be on the street except for certain kinds of anarchists and vagabonds. If you can work with people in a way that isn't condescending and respects their individuality, I believe you can be an anarchist and help people in these regard.

One thing I respect anarchists for is that many of them realize the ends aren't separate from the means and that humans are really "impressionable" as we are shaped by the environments we live in, or other words we are really adaptable. We are the social environments we live in, and personal detachment is a really useful skill.
edited by anonymous
+3 votes
some ways that "social work" might be viewed:

1. similar to charity. in this case, there are some very strong arguments against it being an anarchist project. just search for "charity" in the search box at the top right of this page.

2. ensuring that (and helping) people fit into the behavioral box of society. while this might be an effort that some anarchists support (context dependent, of course), there are some important questions it raises (eg, who defines society? who determines when someone needs to "fit in" better? what about folks that don't WANT to fit in? etc)

3. government efforts at 1 & 2. nuff said.

ultimately, like virtually every kind of "work" in the modern world, it has been created as a direct effect of the institutions of control that run this world. it seems unlikely to me that *any* kind of work defined by those institutions can serve truly anarchist objectives (short of physical survival). each of us needs to decide for ourselves just how much contradiction we can stand between the life we want and the life we are coerced into living.

maybe this is more of a comment than an answer?
by (13.4k points)