Profession: Social worker Ruthless Criticism

Translated from Die Jobs der Elite: Eine marxistische Berufsberatung (München: GegenStandpunkt-Verlag, 1987)

Social worker

Being helpful and charitable, giving advice, minding other people’s business – and being able to make a living doing it, not exactly a lavish one, but at least the same as an elementary school teacher: that’s a nice job for dedicated, good people. For good people, anyway, who will have their reasons for not wanting to become a priest or a freelance psychologist, but who are not satisfied with a mere bureaucratic position either.

In the end, they usually end up with one of these. After all, their profession is located in the world of offices and authorities. As social workers, however, they are clearly not administrative stooges or behind the scenes ladies, but rather personification of a quasi-, semi- or wholly governmental offer of help to the nation’s “socially disdvantaged” problem cases.

This offer has the peculiarity that its beneficiaries, the clients of organized social work, haven’t even requested it. There is no shortage of emergency situations in “our prosperous society.” However, those afflicted haven’t petitioned the authorities for official assistance. They usually have a rather one dimensional concept of the cause of their situation – the accuracy of which can hardly be disputed: not enough dough! The “homeless” and professional vagrants suffer from this evil just as much as parents who provide their children neither a stable home nor spending money, but merely “neglect,” or husbands who have nothing to offer their wives but pesky demands and have to put up with the corresponding snubs – and vice versa. Of course, even “social cases” are educated enough these days to think not only about money, but also to take out their situation in life on the closest person within reach – the runaway wife or the unwanted children or the obnoxious dad and alcoholic husband. But even this doesn’t lead to the desire for college-educated caregivers.

Their job is owed to a welfare state definition of certain unpleasant living conditions as the condition of a need for help; and this state definition has its own logic, precisely that of the welfare state. The misery of the long-term unemployed and old women with minimal pensions, the more or less raucaus and even violent dissatisfaction of young people with bad jobs or no jobs, the hopeless situation of ex-convicts, habitual boozing and ruined family lives, and many other things that a decent society cannot tolerate in its members, are summed up under a definition that, taken theoretically, would be more than questionable as an explanation of the respective “way of life”: an inability to cope with one’s own existence and its “problems” without help from others is said to be present in each case.

In this approach and method of treatment, life in a class society – including all the problems that peaceful everyday life holds, as well as all the destruction it leaves in people’s minds and senses – is seen as a test of character that on average people pass, namely by making themselves useful rather than disruptive. This sets the standard for whatever – everything from going hungry to freezing in the wrong place – becomes negatively eye-catching and in what way: as a failure of the individual. They amount to a burden on society “because” they cannot cope properly on their own: this lie defines people as welfare cases. They give the social worker his mission.

First and foremost, this consists in a moral push on the cases that are assigned for processing. The slogan is: “Win trust!” and this already reveals something about the contradictory nature of “helping” recipients who haven’t asked for help, and usually without the receipient even seeing himself as a failure in the sense of his official definition, as someone to whom a minor state agent, of all people, would lend a sympathetic hand and interfere in his private life. It’s not simply a handout that is to be repaid with a mumbled or feigned “Thank you!” Wherever the social worker shows up, the welfare case being visited is confronted with the demand that he let himself be judged and submit his total hitherto practiced morality of life to this outsider’s judgment; after all, it is not only his actual living conditions that stamp him as a welfare case, but his habits of dealing with them – out of which he is to be “helped” by state decision. Even a neglected grandma recognizes in her carergiver’s visit, as much as she enjoys the pity she receives, the open or underlying rebuke of her – not at all unfounded – view that a proper appearance is worth much less to her than the secret pleasures she indulges in instead. So the social worker has to first get to the point where his clients even allow themselves to be bothered by him and let themselves fall for the hypocrisy that they have just been waiting for his visit and good advice.

In this tough business of gaining trust, it doesn't help the social worker that the authority of the welfare state is looming behind him somewhere and threatening; on the contrary. It is all too easy for the client to understand – or see through? – the moralism that confronts him in a state offer as a harbinger of exactly the social or legal forces which he has never has helpful interactions with – otherwise he would not have become a welfare case in the first place – and meets him with mistrust and rejection. On the other hand, the social worker is, after all, not a policeman and not even very directly an authorizing agent for social assistance of any material type, to whom the client must submit whether he wants to or not. He is a non-violent representative of ordinary customs and successful behavior; and as such he cannot be indifferent to the suspicions of his clientele. He has to dispel them, precisely because the reservations he encounters are both unfair, because social workers are not sheriffs, and very right, because in fact the state actually deploys social workers as front-line fighters for its broad-minded moralism that one proves one’s worth in normal ways, after it has taken care of miserable living conditions and established the definition of the afflcited people as rather helpless creatures.

The job description of a social worker therefore includes all the tricks and techniques of ingratiation, from top to bottom. Because the social worker shows up as an agent of the state, he has to deny his official assignment and credibly pretend that he has just dropped by on his own initiative. Because he opens his mouth as a moralizer, he has to demonstrate amoralism and pretend that he himself has easily overcome the darkest recesses of the human-all-too-human and is much more unbiased in his approach to them than his client. Because he is supposed to impose moral instructions on people, he has to convince them of the lie that he has actually only come to listen and demonstrate unlimited “human understanding.” In short: because his mission to help is a moral imposition, he has to successfully deny it – he has to do everything in his power to take his clients’ point of view, precisely because he himself is anything but a welfare case and wants to correct their point of view “for their own good.”

The whole thing is – how could it be otherwise? – an awkward event from start to finish; not just when it gets too stupid for the social worker himself because he leaves a few particularly hardened welfare cases cold, but even more so when he “gets through” with a leather jacket and wisecracks and gains a reputation for “palling around” or when a few pathetic sheep gratefully heap their calculating trust on him.

However, this awkwardness has its good reason: on the one hand, it represents the key point in the social worker’s professional aptitude. The jovial route – be it more rocking or more Hänschen-Rosenthal-like [a witty and popular game show host in Germany in the 1970s – translator] – must become so natural to the professional friend and helper that he no longer even notices his awkwardness, but instead completely blindsides those around him with his confident self-assurance. This noble goal is also served quite appropriately by the college education that the welfare state has set up so that it can now sort job applicants: In addition to practical exercises, the course provides the next generation of good people with academic ideologies that are designed to dull their awareness of the hypocritical nature of their own activities and provide the necessary self-confidence with a clear conscience and the panache of an educated “background.” Education helps make an impression! And therein lies the crux of the social worker’s success. After all, he doesn’t aim to achieve anything more than advertising the goodwill with which it begins; after the corresponding opening push, nothing important follows, or only the same thing over and over again. And the care has been successful as soon as the professional caregiver gets the impression that he has once again been irresistible.

Certainly, social workers have given all kinds of “concrete” advice on a successful lifestyle to men, women or children when they have persuaded the drunken dad, the suicidal mom or the little school failure to listen to them a little. They organize all sorts of things: youth clubs and easy-going disco nights, homework help and “workshops.” The success they have and that they really strive for with such assistance measures, however, pretty much coincides with the fact that they have motivated their clients to participate. This is their proof that they have been able to win the trust of those entrusted to them and that they no longer simply want to “let themselves go.” This certainly changes nothing else; and the good will to improve usually fails before it has really been awakened due to the unchanged circumstances. No one knows this better than social workers themselves, who therefore also embellish every success of this kind with the ideal that it should now be possible to continue indefinitely, and with the regret that this is of course simply not possible. In practical terms, however, the “after all” viewpoint always prevails: after all, they have persuaded their team to take part in activities – not exactly particularly socially useful ones, but well regarded in the society’s moral code – that the social cases would never have done on their own. That this is “something” cannot be denied. At the very least, it is the basis for a superstructure of edifying interpretations that attribute a fundamental psychological and moral benefit to the organized activities, even if no one involved ever knows what to say about it – unless they incorporate it into their personal ideology of life. But that’s what the “fight” is ultimately all about!

The professional caregivers have a simple explanation for the conspicuously meagre results of their humane groundwork which testifies to their indestructible professional pride and turns the real situation on its head: Society simply makes it too difficult for their clients to get back on their feet properly, and the state fails to provide sufficient care, so the most sincere efforts of social work are bound to fail. On the other hand, however, the “cases” always fail to adequately pull themselves together, so the honorable helper has a hard time in this regard too. One can then spend one’s entire professional life satisfied with oneself and one’s humane concerns and blame the rest of the world, including the people in one’s care, for the result being anything but a change in the circumstances of the welfare state. As if this was a “failure”!

The social worker’s client also seems to be satisfied with successes of this kind. In any case, the responsible authorities and donors would have to downright despair and would immediately stop their payments altogether if they were expecting the deployment of their social troops to lead to observable, practical results, possibly a quantifiable reduction in the number of conspicuous problem cases in their class society. Measured by such expectations – which, apart from a few idealists in this profession, nobody seriously harbors – social workers would be even bigger failures than the social cases they look after in compliance with the official approach and treatment methods. In reality, the official assistance mission is more modest – or more luxurious, depending on how one looks at it.

It is first of all an addition – and a very minor one at that – to the legal, police, and welfare state means of pressure and blackmail by which a modern democratic authority makes its class society useful and also keeps a grip on its useless rejects. In matters of social control, it leaves nothing to chance and makes nothing at all dependent on the trust that its authorities acquire from the citizens. The promotion of trust and assistance, which also exists and whose paid agents are the social workers, is – secondly – an addition that strongly confirms the sorting of people, the differentiating of useless and disruptive problem cases from the average normal case of the useful citizen functioning as desired, by presupposing them. The welfare state’s judgement as to which people belong to the “life unworthy of life” is made in the philanthropic form of an offer of help that quite simply assumes that poor functioning is organized in the public interest as individual failure and a highly personal career of destitution and must also be accepted and “coped with” in this way. “Coping” does not mean: stopping; the help offered by social work is not meant to be that radical.

It works rather – thirdly – the other way round. The problem cases are confronted with the uncomfortable demand not to simply settle down in their bleak living conditions, but to prove their unbroken good will and to get back – as much as possible – on their own steady feet. Not even the lie that a decent attitude pays off is fostered very much. How difficult-to-educate children, ex-convicts, drug addicts, drunks, and other cases respond to this moral insistence even has a negative impact on their future lives: without a tireless demonstration of the will to improve, these members of the market economy’s waste are written off once and for all. In this way, social workers confirm in their own way the need for the social sorting that they claim to want to correct.

This institution therefore – fourthly – helps welfare cases see themselves as victims in need of support: “failed, but not abandoned by the welfare state.” A social democracy evidently still feels it owes this self-image to those among its citizens who it practically puts through the wringer in so many different ways that normal civic pride falls by the wayside. It proves that even these figures can still expect a certain amount of recognition; that the state is theirs because it is still willing to pay something for them.

Whether the welfare cases in its care accept this, perhaps even gratefully, is not particularly important; at most, it is for the social worker who has to deliver this public message correctly. But the social worker’s dedication is, one way or another, the democratic civil right of the social waste in his care: their right, even without coercion, to integrate into a society and to subordinate themselves to a state system from which they can expect nothing else.