Tony Taylor on Politics Reclaimed, Ethics Reframed : Part 2


At the IDYW seminar on November 5 Tony Taylor opened the proceedings with a contribution entitled ‘The Flight to Ethics : A Retreat from Politics’.

Lest I be misunderstood before I even begin I have no quarrel with the importance of grappling with ethical dilemmas. It seems to me they haunt practitioners at every turn, especially so perhaps in the current climate of hostility and austerity. However I do not believe these dilemmas can ever be separated from politics. Politics and Ethics are inextricably interrelated.

Before going further I must identify what I mean by ethics and politics. As for the former I can but direct you to Sarah Banks’ opening chapter in ‘Ethical Issues in Youth Work’ [1], where she uses as an exemplar a particular ethical dilemma faced by a youth worker, wondering what to do about knowing that a young person, with whom she was building trust, had stolen from a shop. What was it best to do? What was it necessary to do? In this sense, by and large, ethics focuses on the individual’s struggle to weigh up and balance competing principles, competing pressures from inside and outside of themselves, in the quest to do the ‘right’ thing.

As for politics I mean the question of who holds power and in whose interests they utilise that power. Somewhat unfashionably I want to insist that there is an overarching mode of power, capitalism expressed though the intent and actions of a ruling and dominant class. Now this does not mean I fail to recognise that the imposition of and resistance to power is played out at all manner of levels within society – in the family, in the school, in the pub, in the local community association, in the workplace and so on. Indeed in the late1970’s I was a tutor on a part-time youth work training course, within which the title of one session, borrowed and amended from the Scriptures, was ‘when two or three are gathered together, politics rears its head’. This understanding of the way in which the power relations of class, gender, race and sexuality revealed themselves at the most intimate of moments owed everything to the social movements of that tumultuous period. It was symbolised by the feminist insistence that ‘the personal is political’. We tried to grasp the interrelatedness of the micro and macro in politics through such clumsy formulations as ‘racially structured patriarchal capitalism’. Our efforts owed nothing to the then burgeoning post-modernist view that ‘power is everywhere’ and ‘comes from everywhere’, which strikingly Howard Sercombe draws upon within the chapter on ‘Power’ in his influential ‘Ethics in Youth Work'[2]. Without doubt Foucault is right, if not alone, to see power as diffuse and discursive, but contrary to his theory power is also decisively possessed and concentrated. In my opinion the last three plus decades of neo-liberalism have confirmed the continued existence of capitalism as a totalising, universalising, global mode of power. [3]


To read more of his argument that workers must be political as well as ethical, see  the complete contribution below.

The Flight to Ethics : A Retreat from Politics [Open Office/Word]

The Flight to Ethics : A Retreat from Politics [pdf]

The next post on this theme will feature the contribution from Sarah Banks, editor of Ethical Issues in Youth Work, now in its second edition.



  1. Tony Taylor

    You are the youth workers future inspirational voice….. I’ve been a youth worker since YTS in the 80,s and only just found you …… Great stuff



    • Jo – your encouraging words warm the cockles, although I’m not sure about being a voice for the future. Age is catching up on me! However, at this moment, whilst taking more of a back seat in IDYW, I’ve started to post stuff on my own blog, Chatting Critically, some of which might be of interest. Thanks again and best wishes.

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