At the February national conference we agreed with reservations a working statement, What We Stand For There were legitimate criticisms of its content, particularly as the statement itself was a compromise between the initial Open Letter, a document prepared by the North-East region and a range of comments from committed individuals such as Doug Nicholls and Bernard Davies.. Within the time-scale of the conference there was little space to deliberate further. Thus it was recommended that we encourage criticism in the period leading up to our next national event.

A prominent critic on the day was Graeme Tiffany, a leading light of the Federation for Detached Youth Work, who questioned the statement’s antagonistic attitude to the State. We are indebted to him for putting forward the following thoughts.

I have just returned from Stockholm, having accepted an invitation to speak at the Swedish street-based youth workers’ annual conference. My experience there brought home to me the point I tried to make at the recent In Defence of Youth Work national conference. Let me try to put this in words.

The Letter says: “Today it accepts the State’s terms. It sides with the State’s agenda [my emphasis added].” Now, forgive my philosophical inclinations, but what is ‘it’? The answer is given: ‘Youth Work’. But we all know that this is not a ‘thing’. It is people, the people ‘involved’ in youth work. Naturally there are many, including ‘the bosses’, so often the subject of hate. But there is no denying it is many of us too. And, as I said at conference, even if you work in the voluntary sector you are (it can be reasonably argued) part of a growing ‘shadow state’ – such is the incorporative power of a culture of contracting and commissioning.

The exceptions are identified also. The Federation for Detached Youth Work doesn’t take a red cent off anyone. Oh, the joy of setting our own agenda. Truly a product of civil society, just like The Social Work Action Network, and The National Coalition for Independent Action in fact. And those green shoots of Adult Education alluded to.

The nub of the argument is this. Take it on the chin, ‘Youth Work’ means us also. And unless we see ourselves as powerless we must accept, as Giles Deleuze taught us, that we have presided over our own power ‘to be affected’. In practice, this is precisely what it says on the tin: we have been trying to make ‘the best of a bad job.’

So back to Sweden. The vast, vast, majority of workers there are glowing in admiration for the state and the support it offers, and the respect they are given, for their work. They, like us, are the state. Simplistically then, we have to conclude, there are good states and bad states. And accept this is a matter of opinion (an opinion we will be able to bring to sharp a edge to in a month or so).

The choice then is clear: do we want a state, or not? Its ridiculous to moan about the state only when its bad. And therein the second choice: campaign for a world without the state, in the honourable and at least honest position of anarchism, or get stuck in and work for a better one.

A few days later Graeme sent the following caveat.

On reflection, and on the basis of those virtues inculcated in me by my philosophy teachers [can you teach philosophy?], allow me an opportunity for some ‘self-correction’; changing one’s mind, in common parlance. Perhaps the Fed., and other claimed facets of civil society are not so clearly defined. Perhaps there is an inevitable blurring of boundaries between the state and civil society. I say this because it struck me, in a dream (The Romantic poets, Blake, Wordsworth and Byron, in particular, would be proud) that a number of the Fed’s executive committee members are given time off, from their work for the state, to participate in our activities. Furthermore, countless delegates to our annual conference are sponsored by the state to attend. Is this a case of a benevolent, supportive state – that identifies some credibility in our organisation; perhaps even sees it as complementary of its own aims and aspirations? Or perhaps, in line with my earlier posting, we are simply left with the sense that the state is people, some looking one way, and others another? It makes me think of a pleasurable encounter I once had with the great Edward de Bono. ‘Think beyond the binary’, he said. ‘Take good and evil; they’re not polar opposites. I prefer to see them more in a kind of circularity, with good constantly chasing evil round that circle’, he continued. Are we left, then, with a simple Ying and Yang; there are both good and bad activities within the realm of the state, always in tension – as if a pendulum with some folk trying to slow its passage down in one section of its arc, and others in another? Such, it seems, is the nature of politics. The last word to Barack Obama, for now at least: “There’s always going to be some conflict in democracy. Democracy is messy. And a lot of that is healthy.

How we understand the character of the State remains a key question for all of us? Have your say on the Forum. And thanks again to Graeme for opening up this vital issue.


  1. Youth work, youth workers and the state

    In principle I agree with Graeme basic positions:
    1. That ‘youth work’ is not a ‘thing’, but people – in particular, we who practise it and advocate for and support this practice.
    2. That ‘the state’ is not a monolithic ‘thing’ but a complex amalgam of often competing and conflicting human interests and institutions within which, as defined by ‘youth work’, there is at least the possibility of both ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

    I don’t want to nick pick, but it does seem important to start by noting that, in stating these positions, Graeme may be working with a version of the IDYW statement which, in small but significant ways, is outdated. The one now on the website does not say ‘Today it (youth work) accepts the State’s terms. It sides with the State’s agenda’; but ‘It (youth work) can too easily accept the State’s terms, to side with the State’s agenda’. This indicates a rather less black-and-white and a more ambiguous position than the one against which Graeme is arguing. The revised version also goes on to note that ‘profound changes are taking place’, thereby acknowledging that it is not offering an analysis for all times but one for the current historical context.

    Even allowing for these adjustments, I believe that Graeme’s challenges both on youth work and the state deserve a serious response.

    1. Youth work as ‘us’ and not a thing: Co-incidentally, for a completely different purpose, I have also recently found myself making a very similar point. Prompted by one youth worker’s assertion that ‘… at the end of the day you are offering young people yourselves’, I argue that:
    … (youth work) practice has to be ‘delivered’ through a worker’s personal qualities with, ultimately, its ‘outcomes’ perhaps being determined as much by these as by her or his professional ‘skill’.

    However, in making this argument I have also to remind myself that there are in-built limits to such personal – individual – leverage on the youth work situation. From past conversations with him, I’d be very surprised if Graeme didn’t share my view that the ‘us’ of youth work, even acting collectively, are severely constrained by the wider economic and political structures in which youth work operates.

    All of which brings me therefore to …

    2. The State – in particular at this historical moment: Looked at through a historical lens, views on the state and its role can be seen to have shifted significantly over time, both amongst those with the most power and those with the least. For much of the first half of the nineteenth century both the new industrial entrepreneurs and the emergent working class movement viewed it with suspicion – the one because of the check it would put on what we now call ‘the free market’; the other because, it was assumed, it would just be a tool for ruling class control of ‘the lower orders’.

    When it did become acceptable, even fashionable, to allow the state into the personal and social areas of people’s lives, the motives were mixed, reflecting as a minimum ruling class self-interest, philanthropic concerns and labour movement demands. ‘The good’ and ‘the bad’ as defined by youth workers were thus both likely to have been there from the start.

    To add to these contradictions were (are) ones arising from how the state has been understood and its role developed, with a key moment here being the post-1945 creation of a welfare state. In the name of uniformity and equity, the central state was widely assumed to be the proper repository of the necessary power and decision-making – particularly for providing ‘cradle-to-the-grave’ health and social security. Moreover this power was often embodied in institutions which at best were only very indirectly democratically accountable with notions of a devolved (more local) state – such as had existed for example previously for providing some key utilities – often being overridden or ignored.

    While the economic and political contexts remained (relatively) benign – particularly for example from the late 1950s into the early 1970s – this centralised state power could be seen as being used in (relatively) liberal and social democratic ways. Once that context changed – in the 1970s for example after a major international economic crisis; in the 1980s after the collapse of Britain’s manufacturing base and a huge rise in (youth) unemployment; in the 2000s under the threat of international terrorism – the central state and its less accountable institutions began to act in increasingly authoritarian and indeed anti-democratic ways. For youth workers, these shifts are now only too evident – in, for example, the pressure to keep young people in general under surveillance, to enforce PVE agendas on Muslim young people and their communities and to get the voluntary youth organisations to take on these and other government targets.

    What complicates any discussion of the state further at this historical moment is another ‘profound change’ in its make-up over the last twenty years or so. No longer does the state rely only on its own institutions – actual governmental bodies and quangos. Now deeply meshed in it too are both the not-for-profit voluntary bodies referred to above and private for-profit organisations. The current state, it is thus now clear, is at least as much an instrument of a neo-liberal ‘market’ as it is of the personal and social development of its citizens or even of their ‘welfare’.

    So my response to Graeme is – of course you’re right: youth work is about us, the people who do it; and the state need not be wholly malign and can, at some times and in some contexts, be benign. However, for me the choice is not the one he poses – do we want the state or don’t we? In the context of the ‘profound changes’ referred to by the IDYW statement, the challenge to the ‘us’ who are youth work is to remain alert and resistant to the real possibility of too easily accepting the current state’s often highly authoritarian terms and siding with its often clearly anti-democratic agendas.

    Bernard Davies April 2010

  2. “campaign for a world without the state, in the honourable and at least honest position of anarchism, or get stuck in and work for a better one.” (quote from Graeme, above)

    I guess some of us do a bit of both… I would rather live in a world without a state, but in the meantime I’m trying through my work (and in other areas) to create some bits of life that are interesting and at least a little free. I recognise most supporters of IDYW wouldn’t necessarily agree with me.

    I do not see myself as part of the state. I see the state as my employer when I work for local government, and my paymaster (usually) when I work for the voluntary sector. I see the state as the oppressor of young people and of myself as a worker. Am I being too simplistic? I am interested in this debate but at the moment I like the statement as it is!

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