Banker bashing is spiralling to an Everest of righteous indignation – hardly surprising, given the latest revelations about the lying and hypocrisy at the heart of the Barclays operation, ‘trust us in these uncertain times’. The dung is being splattered here, there and everywhere. Now the emergence of our Campaign was related intimately to the 2007/2008 banking debacle. We saw it has an expression of the irrational nature of capitalism and the deceitful notion of the ‘free’ market. We hoped that the post-Lehmann crisis would open up a debate within youth work about the pernicious influence upon policy and practice of the neo-liberal agenda, the imposition of controlled conformity upon the uncertain character of informal relationships with young people. To a limited extent this has happened and to our credit we have played a part in it happening.
Yet there is still a dominant tradition within the ‘youth work sector’, which ignores the political and economic circumstances of the day; which claiming to be worldly and pragmatic prides itself on getting on with the job as instructed and as necessary.
Forgive the obvious example the National Youth Agency and UK Youth support the Barclays ‘Money Skills’ project, declaring it to be a pioneering initiative as opposed to an opportunist public relations exercise. On the NYA web site Jack Lopresti, a Tory MP, is given a platform to praise Barclays, waxing that “it is fantastic to see these young people taking control of their money, and building the skills they need to ensure a secure financial future”. Shame though they’ve not got jobs. There is something incongruous about a bank likely to be under investigation for ‘a conspiracy to defraud’ running a programme aimed at influencing young unemployed people’s ability to organise their meagre budgets. There is something incongruous about colluding with an institution, which across the last five years of increasing austerity and dwindling youth provision has continued unashamedly to pay its arrogant Chief Executive, Bob Diamond, millions of pounds in bonuses. Is there indeed a powerful case for NYA and UK Youth making a principled withdrawal from the Barclays sponsorship, whilst looking to continue the work through the voluntary participation of people at a local level? In Barclay’s words, “the programme tackles topics such as opening a bank account, budgeting, saving and spending, and gives practical guidance on what to do when something goes wrong”- hardly advanced physics. My mum, who is 92 and has managed meticulously the family’s finances since the austerity of the1930’s will happily help.
Then there was the infamously eager launch by NCVYS of its ‘Not In My Name’ campaign last August, within which it encouraged young people to divide against one another rather than engage in critical dialogue; within which it sided with the populist condemnation of ‘undeserving’ youth. In this context what is the NCVYS response to the media’s comparison between the treatment meted out to last year’s rioters, captured in the sentence of six months for stealing a couple bottles of water, and what might happen to those responsible for the conspiratorial japes and tricks, which have contributed directly to the hardship facing so many young people in society today. What price should the reprobates in the City pay for their profoundly anti-social behaviour? Perhaps the Commission into Youth Engagement NCVYS is undertaking with Respublica will, as it claims, ‘redefine the debate’. We await its critique with great interest.
At the centre of the neo-liberal outlook underpinning the litany of financial scandals is the view that everything has its price, anything can be sold and all can be manipulated. This process of ‘commodification’ has been felt keenly within the world of education. Within youth work this is symbolised by the ‘commodification’ of youth participation, sometimes referred to as ‘youth-proofing’. For example, in the Young Advisors model young people undergo training to become qualified ‘agents of social action’, who at a Silver and Gold level charge for their services as they advise local authorities, housing associations and the like. Indeed, in this scenario, activism itself becomes a commodity. At the very least a debate needs to take place about the implications of this individualist emphasis on the creation of an elite layer of ‘Young Experts’, who substitute for the genuine, direct involvement of citizens, young and old, in the decisions that affect their lives. Becoming an involved, critical citizen cannot be the subject of financial reward.
This ‘head in the clouds’ attitude, whereby the explicit political programme of those in power is denied, is given succour with the recent appearance of the National Citizen’s Service Evaluation. Remarkably this piece of social research says not a single word about the underlying social context. It’s as if the youth workers, students, interns, volunteers and young people involved live on another planet free from crisis, austerity and unemployment. Without a hint of prudent criticism the NYA can only speak in enraptured tone about NCS and most recently advance its use in intensive student placements.
Therefore it’s likely that perhaps a majority within our work will ignore the waterfall of real and feigned anger across the political spectrum about the deep-rooted corruption within the banking system, within the City and within the Market. Yet is such a mass myopia sustainable? Commentators from the Guardian to the Daily Mail to Rolling Stone observe that the noose is widening to draw in even the Bank of England itself. Whilst Tony Curzon Price in Open Democracy advises us to think of the City as run on the lines of a public school.
So no great surprise that the senior prefect, caught in flagrante, should now be self-righteously proclaiming that he had permission from the top to do his dirty work: “you’ve been nodding and winking as a matter of course all these years … you know neither I nor any other prefect strictly follows the rules … so how can you blame me for my behaviour, especially since the 2008 incident was lying to save the system rather than lying to line my pocket … which, by the way, was being done unbeknownst to me by the junior boys … whom I did have charge of … but you know, you’ve been there … young bucks will be bucks ….”
Whatever your political ‘take’ on what is happening in the ‘youth work sector’, this week’s latest banking scandal underlines that our work with young people, its very essence, is conditioned, if not determined by the economic and political machinations of what C. Wright Mills defined as the ‘Power Elite’. We need to remind ourselves that as a group of workers we lay claim to being socially and politically aware. It’s time to stand up and be counted in the argument. We look forward to exploring what this all means for our relationships to young people, to each other and to the powerful at the proposed open conference focused on the future of youth work.