Category Archives: Sociology

Sadness and Solidarity – The strike as utopia

The past three weeks have been amongst the most impressive of my life. The current University and College Union (UCU) strike about pensions is not the first political or social campaign I have been involved in, but it is certainly the biggest. Members of the University and College Union in 65 UK universities are striking for 14 days across 4 weeks, the longest strike action the British higher education system has ever seen.

What I was least prepared for before the strike was the intensity of emotion it would trigger in me. Throughout the last three weeks I have felt a range of expected and unexpected feelings and I would like to take the two most intense ones to reflect on the strike and what is to come after.


In a rather ill-advised move Universities UK tweeted their support for #unimentalhealth day on 1. March. The tweet reads “We all have a part to play in creating a positive mental health community at university. Join the movement this #UniMentalHealthDay It did not go down well. While I had an extremely enjoyable time looking at the often scornful but hilarious response s to this tweet they belie a darker reality. There is a lot of talk about the “mental health epidemic “ in higher education, with significantly higher numbers of mental health disorders recorded amongst both academics and students.

Of course good mental health care provisions are important. When someone has reached a crisis point they need support in order to get back on their feet. Staff and student welfare resources need to be expanded and made accessible for anyone who needs them; they save lives. But there is also something terribly symbolic and cynical about this focus on mental health. What we are really talking about when we are talking about a mental health epidemic amongst academics is the fact that neoliberal universities  causes immense personal suffering to their staff and students.

The strike has enabled us to have some long overdue conversations on the nature of this suffering and the way it has affected us personally. Throughout an excellent Teach-Out on the topic  and so many different conversations I have had over the last three weeks, often with complete strangers, the intensity of suffering and injury caused through the way we work has become abundantly clear to me. Through the focus on mental health we often allow ourselves to think of this suffering as form of individual defect which needs treatment. But really, when we are talking about rising numbers of depression and anxiety in academics we are talking about people who feel so overwhelmed with their workloads they can no longer cope. We are talking about people dissolving into tears over their emails, about people not being able to get out of bed on their days off, people’s hearts racing in fear at the thought of another meeting, about people whose bodies finally give in, making them physically unable to keep going. Maybe the most heart-breaking part about of this is the intense guilt that many of us feel when we finally reach breaking point. We know that by not pulling our weight, it is our colleagues who will have to shoulder our bit of the work too.

The strike gives all of us an opportunity to really talk about how badly we have been hurt. Maybe the most moving moments for me were those in which people spoke about how the constant stress affected their capacity to feel compassion for others. One of the most painful realisations about the neoliberal university  is that it not only turns us into victims, it also turns us into perpetrators. Often we pass on the disrespect and pain we experience on to others, most unforgivably our students. We bitch about them, complain about their demanding attitudes and poor work ethic and their disinterestedness, while all the while we are contributing to a system which encourages exactly these attributes. I used to joke about marking exams, that with each copy of a particular exam I marked I cut off a bit of my soul. This may be a very dramatic way of putting it, but it is not an inaccurate one. Complicity in an unjust system damages us. The fact that each of these injuries we sustain is tiny in itself (we are, after all, still on average incredibly privileged compared to so many others) makes it hard to really admit the emotional toll it has on us. We feel we are dying a death by a thousand cuts. Continue reading

David Cameron and the politics of superfluousness

Last week, voters in the UK chose to re-elect the Conservatives to rule Britain another five years. Because of this decision tens of thousands of people will needlessly suffer. Some will die. It is really that simple. Britain’s current austerity politics have been linked to widespread social harm, and we have been promised that there will be much more austerity to come.
The Tories’ election manifesto includes the promise of more measures aimed at saving £12 billion in welfare. These 12 billion will come out of the money we have put aside to protect the weakest among us. Those least able to defend themselves are going to be hit hardest.

In the rhetoric of post crises politics, these cuts are necessary to lift Britain out of recession. They are a sacrifice we all must bring, because “In a world of fierce competitiveness – a world where no-one is owed a living – we need to have a welfare system that the country can properly afford.” The idea that welfare cuts and austerity are suitable measures to strengthen an economy is on shaky empirical grounds, to say the least. The idea that austerity is the only way to save money is nonsense. The 12 billion in saving are offset by tax cuts to the wealthy. In this election the Conservatives have promised to put the threshold at which tax payers would have to pay the top tax rate up to £50.000 a year. Voters last week decided that it is more important for people who are reasonably wealthy to be a little more wealthy than that the needs of those who have very little are met. In short, the British electorate have decided they want to be ruled by party whose actions are fundamentally and obviously immoral. How did that happen? Continue reading

The Problem With Charity

Having leveled my palace, don’t erect a hovel and complacently admire your own charity in giving me that for a home. – Emily Bronte

How I stifled a revolution

The first time I heard someone say that social work played a distinct role in maintaining social inequality on oppressive political systems I got really angry. I felt personally insulted by the suggestion that social work could be seen as a form of control – as part of the force that keeps those who suffer worst from social injustice in check. “Why don’t you go piss someone off who deserves it?” I thought. “We’re only trying to help.”

That night I had a shift in the homeless shelter I worked. I worked with homeless men with drug abuse issues. People who are often considered the ‘underbelly of society’. As I settled down in my office one of the residents came in. He was obviously upset and angry about a visit to the local Job Centre that day. He had had an appointment with his caseworker and felt he had been treated disrespectfully. ”She treated me like scum.” He said. “If she talks to me like that again I will take her fucking computer screen and bash it in her face”. I talked to him for a while. I told him I understood how he felt. That I knew how unfair it was. But that this was just the way it was. And that he would just have to suck up to her and smile and nod, or he would be even worse off. He seemed calmer after we talked and went to bed after assuring me that he was not going to physically attack anyone. As I watched him walk away it dawned on me that I had just successfully stifled someone’s plan to resist being a victim of oppression.

This experience is not untypical. By sticking band aids onto the gaping wounds of social injustice we alleviate some of the most obvious symptoms of a systemic violence in our society. We become part of the problem while trying to be part of the solution. This conflict is made all the more difficult by the fact that we can’t just choose not to do what we do. I can’t pretend I believe I should have not tried to dissuade that young man from acting out his frustration by physically harming someone who was just as stuck in the system as he was. I can’t claim that I think homeless shelters shouldn’t exist because people who are at the bottom of the social ladder should be made to feel even worse than they already do so that they will start fighting back. But this episode does keeps bothering me.

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Judging beggars is not helping them

In today’s edition of the Guardian there is an article by Dave Hill in the Comment is Free section titled Don’t give money to beggars – help them instead.

In this article Hill argues that you shouldn’t give money to people begging on the street because it harms them more than it helps them as they will probably spend it on drugs and alcohol. As far as Hill is concerned this is such an obvious argument that everyone agrees. He writes “Outreach workers know it.[That money given to beggars will mostly be used for drugs] The police know it. They are the ones who have to deal with the consequences, handling the harder cases, directing them to rehab, hoping not to have to fish a corpse out of a hostel’s bath.”

As I am a former outreach worker Hill apparently thinks he can speak for me. He isn’t completely wrong, of course, when he writes that money people get from others may be spent on drugs and alcohol. He is, however, wrong about almost everything else and I’d like to take this opportunity to respond.

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