Neoliberalism as an art of governance: reflections on techniques for securing life through direct social work practice

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Neoliberalism is a diffuse and contested term; however, as an art of government, drawing on Foucault’s theorising, it posits personal responsibility as the basis of an ethical society. Neoliberalism mostly governs individuals through their freedom, where the concept of freedom presupposes a rational self that is motivated to improve and secure their life now and in the future. For those who are unable or unwilling to participate in securing a decent lifestyle within the norms of society, systematic modifications including social welfare policies that are punitive and freedom-depriving are used to attempt to modify individuals’ behaviour. Direct social work practice with individuals also relies on individual autonomy as one of its central technologies guiding individuals towards choices that will improve their lives. Social work practitioners are seen to be part of an enabling network that assists individuals who are considered self-excluded due to their irresponsible choices to work on themselves to form an ‘entrepreneurial self’. Social workers engage in the neoliberal art of governance through the ‘conduct of conduct’ of self and others in their direct practice with people. If individuals are understood as constituted through networks of power relations, then direct social work using a pastoral relationship can be a node of power where understanding of whom they are ‘made to be’ can enable engaging in individual and collective resistance to some of the perversions of neoliberal governance. Through pastoral care, resistance as both ‘conduct of conduct’ and ‘counter conduct’ is possible and necessary.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)201-211
Number of pages11
JournalEuropean Journal of Social Work
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 4 Mar 2019


  • Foucault
  • Neoliberalism
  • pastoral care
  • security
  • subjectivity

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