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08 author

Goetz Ottmann,
Federation University, Victoria Australia

08 author

Iris Silva Brito,
ACAP Melbourne Australia

Post-Humanism, Ethics, and International Social Work

This is a short excerpt taken from a longer article focusing on the relevance of critical post-humanism for social work. The longer version of this article can be found in: Ottmann, G, Silva Brio, I (forthcoming) Social Work in Extremis - Human Rights, Necropolitics and Post-Human Ethics. In Hoelscher, D., Hugman, R., McAuliffe, D. (eds.) Social Work Theory and Ethics. Ideas in Practice. Springer.

International Social Work (ISW) has become the focus of an intense critique that probes the degree to which (a) the Western liberal worldview that permeates its core assumptions and values is compatible with the values of communities in the Global South and, more radically still, (b) whether the concept of a 'human' at the core of universal human rights and her way of knowing ought to form the basis of ISW (see, for example, Bell, 2011; Healy, 2007; Hölscher et al., 2020; Sewpaul & Henrickson, 2019; Tascon, 2020). The critique highlights how Western modernity not only exploits the Global South economically, it also justifies this exploitation by assigning people of the Global South a lower stage of human development thus entrapping them in an ontological web (and its political implications) whose rules are made by and that exculpate the Global North. It posits that the Global North consciously or semi-consciously imposes multilayered and complex relations of power onto the Global South colonising its way of knowing, culture, life worlds, and life itself.

Epistemological strands of this critique have been taken on board by numerous social work academics alerting us that the imposition of universal standards in ISW education is unlikely to empower the people it is supposed to serve if it replicates an epistemological hierarchy that places a Western-centric body of knowledge at the top of a developmental hierarchy (Bormann, 2021; Gray & Webb, 2008). Indeed, commentators have argued that ISW exponents run the risk of perpetuating “cultural and intellectual imperialism” and “discouraging development or valuing of Indigenous models by promoting dominant western social imaginaries and practices” (Hokenstad [2014:172-173] in Bormann 2021:49).

This raises the question whether and how international social workers of the Global North can be taught to feel, think, and act beyond their cultural and experiential horizon. And while critical whiteness, privilege, racism, and epistemic violence are increasingly being discussed in social work programs of the Global North in an attempt to sensitise social work students to potential asymmetries of power in social work and to change their perspectives on the people they will be working with (Heilmann & Rosskopf, 2021), a number of authors have highlighted gaps in the translation of decolonising scholarship into practice (Hölscher et al., 2020; Melter, 2018; Schmelz, 2021).

ISW has also become the focus of a critique from within. For some social workers, the framework contained within the Global Statement of Ethical Principles (disseminated with slightly different content both by the International Federation of Social Workers [IFSW] and the International Association of Social Workers [IASSW]), with its ethical grounding in universal human rights, social justice, and democracy (see, for example, Staub-Bernasconi, 2014) can ring hollow in conflict zones they find themselves in. Indeed, some have questioned the philosophical and ethical premises that underpin the deployment of international social workers querying whether an ethics grounded in Western values should be imposed on the Global South (Hugman, 2008). Others have extended this critique to the role and purpose of ISW (see, for example, Hölscher et al., 2020; Mupedziswa & Sinkamba, 2014). Such criticism from within has amplified questions whether ISW is suffering from an ethnocentric ‘blind spot’ and whether a de-colonial or post-human deconstruction of human rights could assist social workers to make better sense of people and the processes that shape their life worlds (Hölscher et al., 2020).

Human rights were a fairly radical and ambitious proposition that has challenged the core values of communities in the Global North and South since their inception. They are still controversial today precisely for the fact that they enabled persons or groups ostracised or regarded as inferior or worthless by other more powerful groups to claim full humanity. It should not come as a surprise that human rights are not particularly popular among conservative elites. Human rights form the bedrock of the claims of many minorities and disadvantaged majorities for recognition and equal opportunity.

Progressive Western humanism with all its faults, has been used by Indigenous communities to mount a defence against the murderous encroachment of the latifundium and consolidating agrobusiness. Human rights enable activists to showcase the inhumane treatment Indigenous people are subjected to. And while communal values may diverge from the Western liberal ethics packaged in the charters of the United Nations (UN), universal human rights are nevertheless strategically deployed to voice grievances and demands at a national and international level. Furthermore, observers have pointed out that human rights are being creatively adapted and re-elaborated to fit local contexts in much the same way as the Global Statement of Ethical Principles asks us to (see, for example, Ife, 2001; Tascon, 2016). More importantly still, in conflict zones where the rule of law is suspended, universal human rights supported by a massive humanitarian infrastructure are often the only hope to find some relief and protection from lawless brutality. Clearly, that hope is all too often disappointed highlighting an increasing gap between normative human rights claims and their ability to impact on social realities experienced in crisis situations (see, for example, Eberlei 2018). Still, the concept of human rights allows communities to bring to light this gap and to transform it into an entitlement.

Within the operational context of international social work, universal human rights are not something that ought to be dispensed with lightly. With all their shortcomings, human rights promote a powerful social imaginary that permeates most aspects of ISW (Hugman, 2008). In crisis situtations, human rights provide an aspirational goal, benchmark, source of empowerment, organisational vision, and a practice framework (Staub-Bernasconi, 2014). In conjunction with the wider fabric of international conventions, they form an important legal and political reference point. Humanitarian ideals have spawned a sizeable network of organisations that collaborate across geographical, religious and political divides. These networks still manage to attract considerable resources that are often used to strengthen local civil society. More importantly still, human rights inspire hope.

Post-colonial scholars have unmasked important deficiencies of a human rights-based ISW and have contributed to the emergence of a more reflexive approach that increasingly informs the vision, mission, and mandate of ISW (Sewpaul & Henrickson, 2019). They have contributed to an emergent profession that is perhaps less dogmatic and more able to valorise local socio-economic and cultural contexts (Bormann, 2021). This new reflective ISW is increasingly able to recognise that the Global North might be, in all sorts of ways, the aggressor – not the good guy as the human rights discourse it promotes would suggest. However, this value pluralistic approach offers little in the way of a viable alternative to an ethico-legal fabric that informs conventions and legislation (see also Ife, 2001).

Furthermore, while a post-humanist approach can help to make analytical sense of certain conflict situations by urging us to reflect on our subject location and to peel back some of the metaphysical assumptions and cultural layers that underpin universal claims of Euro-centric enlightenment, it gives less rise to a positive, nourishing vision. Furthermore, several commentators have argued that post-humanist deconstruction has a tendency toward a negative ontology, which leads to a very dark place indeed (Deranty, 2007; Negri, 2011; Prozorov, 2014; Ziarek, 2008). For example, the only escape from repressive structures Agamben (Agamben, 1998) or Braidotti (Braidotti, 2013, 2016) are able to offer is their suspension, the rendering inoperative of the apparatus of power, to step out of the logics of law and sovereignty (Agamben, 1998 [1995]). In other words, the power to lead out of injustice is vested in nomadic life operating outside the confines of stratified society and the state. Many commentators doubt that this theoretical approach can be fruitfully translated into practice and argue that it results in political paralysis (Deranty, 2007; Deutscher, 2008; Prozorov, 2014; Ziarek, 2008).

In his more recent work, Achille Mbembe argues that we are witnessing the end of democracy as democracies are turned into fortresses fighting a continued war on terror due to the spectacular escalation of destruction driven by market forces and war (Mbembe, 2017 [2016]). Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado is a case in point. It highlights that these forces unleash a raw and deadly brutality associated with the political turmoil that is often the hallmark of ‘failed states’. In Mozambique’s case, the failure of the state to protect its citizens is associated with a great number of factors, key amongst which is a case of corrupt, predatory global capitalism that depleted state resources to a point where it affected all state-run services – particularly those outside the capital.

Mozambique’s fiscal melt-down was the result of a US$2.2 billion secret deal to develop a fishery industry signed by the Mozambiquean government in 2013. Financial improprieties, the alleged misallocation of funds to buy arms, and the alleged payment of massive ‘kick-backs’ of at least $136m to influential individuals (i.e. members of the Guebuza and Nyusi governments and Credit Suisse employees) caused the International Monetary Fund to cancel loans, which contributed to the collapse of Mozambique’s currency (Almeida dos Santos, 2020; Holmey, 2021). Other factors included an alliance between illicit business and Islamic militants, the influence of ISIS stirring a Muslim uprising against the political domination of clans located in the south, the attempt of local ‘big men’ to gain control over the resource-rich north, political wrangling between the two main power-brokers, and the Nyusi government’s attempt to use of Russian and South African mercenaries to fight insurgents (Almeida dos Santos, 2020), not to mention the economic displacement of low-income communities due to global warming.

The result was the emergence of a ‘new war’ of extraordinary brutality. Mbeme’s more recent work argues that they are the product of an inversion of colonial violence where the identification of a common enemy has replaced other social bonds resulting in a relentless and obsessive search for the enemy that is right in our midst (Mbembe, 2017 [2016]). While this interpretation is thought provoking, it tends to gloss over complexities that social workers deployed in these contexts may find better explained in the work of Kalyvas (2006) or Staniland (2014).

he work of critical post-humanists does not provide a ready-made platform for emancipatory collective action that is organised along the lines of a clearly demarked ethics, praxis, and identity (Deutscher, 2008; Ziarek, 2008). There is no easily identifiable agent in their work that could take control of historicity. To be sure, Braidotti offers an escape route from the negative ontology that plagues the work of Agamben but also the more recent work of Mbembe. Her philosophical turn to neo-Spinozan monadic ontology and her embrace of a Deleuzeian ‘ethics of becoming’ grounded in an all-inclusive, relationally normatively neutral community of ‘self-constituting matter’ embarked on a journey of discovery of what it might mean to be ‘the best we can possibly be’ opens new possibilities - and risks (i.e. what do we do if a well-organised illiberal minority hijacks the process to supplant inclusive collective with authoritarian structures?). More perplexing still, because in Braidotti’s work the basic unit is ‘self-constituting matter’, we would first need to make sure we understand what is meant by ‘we’.

ISW education tries to balance universal and local claims of human dignity, worth, and justice. On the one hand its vision and mandate states that every human being has the same inalienable rights. Cultural distinctions can be acknowledged but ultimately will not alter the relevance and authority of these rights (Healy, 2007). On the other – a post-enlightenment critique argues that ethnic, socio-cultural and other distinctions are of crucial importance and that universal norms of morality are only possible if some groups are excluded. However, there is an alternative to this dichotomous reading. It is possible to view the break of critical post-humanists with Western modernity as merely a critical distancing that ultimately affirms the values of progressive humanism. This is the perspective we took in this article. To be sure, this is not an easy, immediate solution to an extremely divisive intellectual conflict that has lasted far too long. Rather it is one of openness and constant negotiation that traverses the kind of intellectual territory outlined in this article.


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