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Brij Mohan
Dean Emeritus, School of Social Work, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA. USA

Social work’s future has a past

Algorithms of change need not be harbingers of a heartless future. Social Work, as a profession, is at the crossroads of ambiguous social transformation. The new Dickensian age posits the rise of the Economic Man and inequality on the same spectrum. Our pious goal of accomplishing social justice and equality masquerades as a guilt complex in a hopelessly divided, helplessly globalized, and painfully polarized world. This may not be so difficult to comprehend if examined through aesthetico-pragmatic view.

Rise and Fall of a Therapeutic Society

This article is premised on the dynamics of forces that brought the post-war despair to repair the wounds of violent human conflicts. The Enlightenment of course raised a scientific awareness in the United States to help people— individuals, families, groups and communities to mitigate human suffering with a professional approach. Social Work is a modern profession—unlike Law and Medicine—that American conscience brought to the fore. As a consequence, Case Work, Group Work, Community Organization, Social Action and Research emerged as our primary, basic tools of intervention. This is our original methodology which lead to processes that continue to develop these modes of help at different systems levels in the United States and other nations. Critically examined, Social Work’s real mission and purpose—both nationally and internationally—is embedded more in institutional-individual narcissism than in global wellbeing.

The Enlightenment, paradoxically, led to the emergence of, what I call, a Therapeutic Society. When a social system breaks down and basic social institutions fail, we speak of unmitigated catastrophe beyond human control. All our problems are self-inflicted disasters. Cataclysmic Climate Change is one such field that brings home this point. Terror, guns, and territorial ideologies breed Violence and Poverty, the two mother-evils that bedevil humanity. Our society is still mired in the myths that perpetuate ignorance, populism, and misery. Let us examine these critical issues of our time and see how relevant and effective Social Work is in today’s reality.

A therapeutic culture offers instant relief. Mental health professionals benefit from its expedience. However, it seldom resolves roots causes. Every mass murder and mayhem tend to appear as an act of an insane mind. Mental illness, however, accounts for only 4 percent of serious crimes. People grow out of childhood misfortune but hardly anyone becomes a Charles Manson. The point is: Social Work is used by mental health industry to make profit at Social Work’s expense. This is a Faustian bargain that our profession has become a party to.

Amazon forests are burning. Floods, landslides, and wildfires have become nightmares. When Icebergs melt and deserts in Rajasthan (India) get flooded, we reach policy conclusions to no effect. The current leadership in the US calls Climate Change a hoax. People in India wash Ganesha and Shiva Linga with truckload of milk—to invoke rain-god Indra’s mercy— while children in the world’s most populous democracy die of malnutrition. These dehumanizing conditions in Africa, South America, and other so called developing countries are interrelated. The question is: What can Social Work do to unravel, let alone mitigate, these monstrous issues?

Likewise, the specter of guns, terror and anxieties: “Guns don’t kill people; people do”. This crescendo of the new- right perverts the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution safeguarding people’s right to raise arm against aggressors. It has adversely affected health and mental health policies in the US. It leaves no room for social workers to play any meaningful role. If guns make us feel secure, the US must be the safest place on this planet. Alas, this fact is never realized in public and policy making processes. Domestic and international terror has become so commonplace that any local and world news is incomplete without a bad news. Fake news further confounds this naked truth.

“Economic possibilities of our time,” Jeffrey Sacks claimed, would bring the end of poverty” (2005). The rise of the Economic Man who has no concern for the underprivileged, unemployed, indigent, homeless, poor and sick is a child of this rigged economy. Paul Collier’s recent book (2018) reveals a staggering reality:

“Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do voters. The frustration born of this gulf between what has happened and what is feasible has provided the pulse of energy for two species of politician that were waiting in the wings: populists and ideologues. The last time capitalism derailed in the 1930s, the same thing happened [again] ... The end of the Cold War in 1989 appeared to usher in a credible prospect that all such disasters were behind us: we had arrived at ‘the end of history,’ a permanent utopia. Instead, we are facing the all-too-credible prospect of our own dystopia.” (Collier, 2018:5-6)

Jared Diamond’s thesis Upheaval, (2019) offering “turning points for nations in crisis” is indicative of the fact how eminent scholars of our time have been seduced by a failed messiah, aka, therapeutic culture. National crisis and individual traumas are not analogous. To equate both is to live in self-prophetic denial.

Rise of the Economic Man

“[E]conomics developed an account of human behavior as far from Utilitarian morality as it is possible to get. Economic man is utterly selfish and infinitely greedy, caring about nobody but himself. He became the bedrock of the theory of human behavior.” (Collier, 2018: 10)

The Great Depression as vividly portrayed in The Grapes of Wrath brought a silent revolution in American psyche. As human suffering and the wounds of war added to the magnitude of social problems, programs emphasizing social security and public assistance emerged to rebuild the broken system of residual safety net. Institutionalization of public welfare measures brought the Welfare State to offer relative sustainability and endurance. The New Deal and War Against Poverty macro-cosmilized social policy. The Reagan-Thatcher counter-revolution resuscitated the Economic man at the expense of the welfare society that the “moral state” had assumed to be as its priority. The backlash against social welfare policies and programs continues abated. Welfare has become a dirty word that no presidential candidate dares to speak about. Notwithstanding Bernie Sanders’ socialist headlines!

We teach human behavior and social policy as two of the main foundational required course requirements. I usually taught both during my last 50 years of tenure at different schools of social work, mainly Louisiana State University. Students, largely mistaught by a dualist faculty orientation, see social policy as a Macro intervention that “practitioners don’t require” (an oft cited reason for disliking social policy). The micro-macro duality has been responsible for lack of holistic understanding of human behavior that we claim to teach. Social Work instructors, by and large, talk about the Bible of practice based on DSM5. The opus of my whole work has been unification of social work toward the reinvention and transformation of social work (Mohan, 1999).

Economic and social policy are intertwined to uplift the general human condition. Much of curricular design, despite accreditation standards on the books, however fail to grasp the inherent unity of a behavior- policy paradigm. The cult of practice, reinforced by locally preferred licensing policies, perpetuates exclusionary mediocrity and anti- intellectualism.

Institutional Regression and Curriculum

“We are all migrants”: Humans are a migratory species, yet some would divide us into two kinds: The migrant and the native” (Mohsin, 2019). This new political dynamic is against the evolutionary premise: Sapiens are evolving into a global species.

“Seas rise, crops wither, wars erupt... Humankind seeks shelter in another place”1: This is today’s reality. Our basic social and economic institutions are faltering in the fissures of insecurity, uncertainty, and inhumanity. Our Hateland (Johnson, 2019) has nourished a culture of xenophobia, intolerance, and racism with unabashed arrogance. What President of the United States calls “American Carnage” is really a swamp of institutional regression confounded by the demise of humility, civility, and communitarianism. Affluent ‘gated communities” are not communities; they are islands of prosperity amidst White Trash (Isenberg, 2016), underprivilged non-white Americans, unwanted immigrants and people left behind in the race of unprincipled economy. No social work curriculum captures the soul of this agonizing reality. A dialogical-didactic practice just can’t grow in such toxic environs.

I have proposed a radical shift in the hierarchized system of program and curricular designs that have proliferated following the American models. In Seven Pillars of Social Practice (Mohan, 2018), my emphasis is on three main changes:

Westernization verses Bharatiyakaran (Indianization)

Social work without borders”2 is a construct that goes beyond the purpose of International Social Work. The anti-Enlightenment rant is essentially , to use Nietzscean expression, “ressentiment” that feeds anger and discontent of all alienated people. Pankaj Mishra (2017) has highlighted this aspect as a major source of aggression, violence, and dissatisfaction across time and space. Need for indigenization is a reflection of this sentiment.

ndia emulated modern Social Work as an academic profession in the mid-thirties. By 1960, it had a full continuum of SW-EPR, Lucknow University being its pioneer at the doctoral level3. Subcontinental cultural landscape has radically changed in India: Three state sponsored national conferences lately deliberated the so-called “anti-colonial” Indianization (aka “Bharatiyakaran”) of Western social work which does not conform to Vedic (Hindu) customs, traditions, and values4.

Global populism has brought reactionary nationalism that is unconducive to a civil society, the ultimate goal of a world community (of nations).

Cultural sensibilities and human adaptation lead to understandable indigenization. Indianization is an extension of extreme nationalism which runs against the DNA of Social Work.

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Homosapien is an incomplete creature. It’s hardly “social” when “work” disappears from life. Both constructs relate to Sapiens (Harari, 2014) mired in developmental issues in the dystopian swamp of digital revolution. Automation, sensors, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are not only replacing pilots and drivers; robots will replace brain surgeons. Humans make mistakes; robots don’t. AI is only a step away from cultivation of human emotions. One day, computers might hallucinate; it will be the end of history. This may well be the second most crucial epoch after the invention of “property” in the hoary antiquity5. I fear soft professions like social work, nursing, librarians are doomed, to use Aldous Huxley’s words, by a “self-created need for self-destruction.” Even the future has a past.

Three Takeaways:


Algorithms of change need not be wickedly rational. Humane-compassionate values are essential for survival. A culture that thrives on the spills of Ghost Wars (Coll 2004) is a fertile land for perpetual racism (Johnson, 2019; Coats, 2017). The fading American Dream is an outcome of the rise of postwar middle class, “a historical anomaly” (Picketty, 2014). Social Work’s emergence is an evolution of this cultural landscape which ignores the cruelty of class struggle. Globalization has further obscured this myopia. I reiterate: Social Work should have been a candle, rather than a mirror. A therapeutic society is an unsustainable construct. Epistemologically, Social Work should be the end of itself.

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

1 National Geographic, August 2019, 236, 2 (cover)
2 In 2005, my submission (proposal) on the subject for the 51st Council on Social Work Education ( New York) was rejected by CSWE’s Commission on Global Education. I did however present the idea on a different forum. See, New Global Development:Journal of International and Comparative Social Welfare,XXI, 2005 (Editorial),
3 The author holds Ph.D. (Social Work, 1964), Lucknow University on a prized Research Scholarship by the University Grants Commission (UGC), Government of India. See Social Psychiatry in India (Mohan, 1973)
4 The editor-in-chief of an important social work/development journal asked me if I would comment on the acceptability of this view— and a rejoinder to it for rejection. I gave an objective assessment of this revisionist, regressive historicism. My argument, briefly footnoted, include: 1) The call for “Swadrushti” does not fully reflect India’s humanity, notwithstanding current prevalence of politically pernicious ideology of Hindutva, ie., Hinduization); 2) The Enlightenment marked the dawn of reason that brought scientific revolution; it was neither Western/European nor Eastern. To assert that mythological figures and rituals predated ‘science’ is absurdly ethnocentric; and the so-called Dharmic (religious), emic basis of indigenization/Indianization is a bogus political slogan to de-Islamize Indian polity and culture. Indigenization does not mean Indianization.
5 Y.N. Harai’s view of 3 great revolutions is another view of human evolution (2014); I believe Rousseau’s primitive innocence was destroyed forever by the man who plotted off a piece of land and declared it as his own. From agriculture to nuclear bomb flow from this threshold.