Monday, 20 August 2018

Social service and citizenship by Clement Attlee

Back in 1920, Clement Attlee wrote "The Social Worker". This is an extract from the book.

In this introduction, he anchors the idea of social work in a broad sense with the idea of civic duty or responsibility:

Social service is not the monopoly of the few, nor is it confined to any one class ; it is not a particular set of activities so much as an attitude of mind to all human actions. It is the demand that their existence as members of society, and as members of a particular part of that society, makes on all men and women. It is essentially the duty of citizenship not only to the city and the State but to the world.

It is also notable for how he finds the English roots of the desire for justice and fairness and a call for change in the rebellion of the Romantic movement, and not in Karl Marx. Attlee sees in this a prophetic vision, which both critiques and calls for something better, but something which is not founded in an Marxists ideology but in the English traditions themselves.

If anyone has the idea that Attlee was a man of little or no intellect, this should certainly dispel that notion.

Social service and citizenship
by Clement Attlee

The term social service that forms part of the title of this series requires some examination. In its simplest meaning it comprises every contribution that each member of a society, individually or working through a group, brings to society in so far as his or her work is not an absolute disservice.

The miner who wins coal from the pit, the farmer who grows food, the railwayman who assists in its transportation, and the business man who facilitates the exchange and distribution of commodities, are all engaged in social service as much as the civil servant, the member of a governing body or the charitable worker ; but in actual every-day speech the term has been narrowed down to denote a fairly distinct sphere of human activity.

If one hears of anyone engaged in social work, a very definite picture is formed in the mind ; one sees the man who gives up his evenings to the work of a boy's club, or the woman engaged in district visiting or assisting at a school clinic or infant welfare centre. The term suggests the secretary of a Charity Organisation committee, the hospital almoner, or the probation officer. Social service presents itself as either an occupation for the leisure of the better-fed classes, or a specialised employment for certain professionals. Particularly it suggests persons of a superior position in society engaged in the endeavour to ameliorate the lot of the poor.

The picture may not be thought very inviting, rather drab, dusty and uninspiring, with a touch of the patronising about it. In the foreground of the picture are a number of people in sad-coloured garments with a parson or two among them sitting round a deal table in an aroma of soap and water or disinfectant, obviously engaged in doing their duty towards their neighbours, who are represented in the background by a shabby and ill-at-ease group of mothers and children, with an infrequent and deplorably humble man.

" Social workers," someone will say rather pityingly, " good people no doubt in their way, but very dull, forever fussing over their lame ducks ; all very well, of course, for people who like that sort of thing, elderly spinsters and men with no settled occupation."

This or something like it is a not uncommon view, but it is, I believe, a profound misconception. The Social Service movement of modern times is not confined to any one class, nor is it the preserve of a particular section of dull and respectable people. It has arisen out of a deep discontent with society as at present constituted, and among its prophets have been the greatest spirits of our time.

It is not a movement concerned alone with the material, with housing and drains, clinics and feeding centres, gas and water, but is the expression of the desire for social justice, for freedom and beauty, and for the better apportionment of all the things that make up a good life. It is the constructive side of the criticism passed by the reformer and the revolutionary on the failure of our industrialised society to provide a fit environment where a good life shall be possible for all.

Poetry has been called a criticism of life, and in the work of the great poets of the nineteenth century we can see the discontent caused by this failure getting stronger and stronger as the fruits of modern industrialism began to ripen. The note is struck in the earliest of the new school that renewed the poetry of imagination after the long sleep of Georgian artificiality. William Blake, visionary and prophet, declared :

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall the sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant land.

In the poetry of Keats may be observed the gradual invasion of misgivings as to the Tightness of the position of the dreamer, striving to create 'beauty, but turning his back on the parallel creation of ugliness, moral and material.

Thus in " Isabella and the Pot of Basil " the summary of the murderous brothers' worldly position is startlingly modern, and is capable of, and clearly intended to bear, a wider application :

With her two brothers this fair lady dwelt,
Enriched from ancestral merchandise,
And for them many a weary hand did swelt
In torched mines and noisy factories
For them alone did seethe
A thousand men in troubles wide and dark,
Half-ignorant, they turned an easy wheel,
That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.

While in " The Fall of Hyperion " the note becomes even clearer.

" Are there not thousands in the world," said I,
" Who love their fellows even to the death,
Who feel the giant agony of the world,
And more, like slaves to poor humanity,
Labour for mortal good ? "

In Shelley an even more militant note is sounded, in such poems as " Men of England, wherefore plough," or " The Masque of Anarchy," or " Queen Mab."

Here we have the spirit of revolt against social injustice, not intruding on the poet's vision, as in Keats, but animating and inspiring all his work.

Later comes a still more striking figure, the greatest of the modern prophets, Ruskin. A man extremely sensitive to beauty, greatly gifted in its portrayal, is torn from his contemplation of the scenery, the architecture and the paintings that he loves by a horror of the ugliness around him, a disgust at the injustice of the social system under which he lives, and feels an imperious need to do all that he can to denounce the evil and sweep it away.

As he says himself, "I feel the force of machinery and the fury of avaricious commerce to be so irresistible that I have seceded from the study, not only of architecture but of art, as I would in a besieged city, to seek the best mode of getting bread and butter for the multitude."

Thus he was led to denounce the current economic theory, and in " Unto this last " shook its ascendancy, while he demonstrated in " The Stones of Venice " and the " Seven Lamps of Architecture" that the root of ugliness was social injustice, and that beauty depended on freedom and justice. But further, in contrast to the mere rebels who only denounced, he definitely attempted to put his ideals into practice.

His co-operative commonwealth failed and cost him a fortune, but it is just this determination to make practical experiment as well as to theorise, to do as well as to think, that is the kernel of social service.

William Morris, again, was drawn from the practice of the many arts in which he delighted, and of which he was master, to the uncongenial duty of street-corner agitation, for which he was little fitted.

Now, in all these cases it will be observed that it is precisely the finest, most sensitive and most daring spirits of their age who feel the call for change. The social worker is in high company, and social service is not the preserve of the parish worker, the charitymonger and the statistician, but is the legacy of the prophets.

Social service is not the monopoly of the few, nor is it confined to any one class ; it is not a particular set of activities so much as an attitude of mind to all human actions. It is the demand that their existence as members of society, and as members of a particular part of that society, makes on all men and women. It is essentially the duty of citizenship not only to the city and the State but to the world.

In the course of this book we shall be obliged to use the term " social worker " in its narrow sense, but it is necessary to emphasise at the outset that although this may be done, the more extended meaning will be kept in view.

The development of the social service idea from the old position of the charitable worker must now be considered, and we will turn to the examination of some of the factors that have altered the outlook of the social worker from the time when his principal object was benevolence down to the modern conception of social justice.

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