Theotônio dos Santos; a true activist scholar and a great influence for radical social work.

February 28, 2018



I was saddened to hear of the passing of Brazilian sociologist and radical economist Theotônio dos Santos, aged 82. I had met him a few years ago at a Social Work Conference in Vittoria, Brazil where both of us had been invited to contribute as keynote speakers. We discussed, for hours and without a break as it is customary in this part of the world, about the rise of Chavismo, the politics of austerity and the challenges facing the New Left in South America. He was a charismatic and entertaining discussant.


Theotônio was one of the sharpest and most prolific Latin American scholars of his generation. He belonged to the rebellious group of Marxist economists who in the 1960s and 1970s articulated the "Dependency Theory" of global economy ; a fierce critique of the US-funded "modernisation" projects and the mechanics of the economic stimuli devised by the World Bank. At a time when these projects were seen as overly generous or even "godsent", akin to a Marshal Plan or a New Deal for Latin America, Theotônio and his crew painstakingly uncovered the neocolonial nature of a plan that was destined to fail, destroying in its passing whole working class, indigenous and rural communities. Unsurprisingly, his ideas were instantly seen as a threat to national security in his Native Brazil and Theotônio, like many other radical scholars of his time, had to live in exile for several years. 


The place of our meeting (a social work event) was not coincidental. Unlike much of western social work, where reading political economy is seen as a separate and unrelated to social work education and practice activity, Latin American social work, has been very much shaped by a critical understanding of how broader macro-economic forces dictate the ways societies and social services function. In fact, Theotônio's "dependency theory" served as the solid foundation for the development of possibly the most important radical social work movement in the history of the profession, the Latin America "reconceptualisation".


We dedicated an extensive part of our recent book on de-coding, celebrating and drawing lessons from the successes and shortcomings of this movement. I am sure that my co-authors Iain Ferguson and Michael Lavalette would not mind me including a very brief section of our book, referring to "dependency theory", in this post.

In the 1950's major advances in transportation and industrialization in much of the formerly colonized world' had effectively created a new international division of power,
"a massive shift of industries producing for the world market from the first generation of industrial economies which had previously monopolized them to other parts of the world" (Hobsbawm, 1994: 362).

Such shift provided the foundations of what would later be called 'economic globalization'. Despite the tectonic socio-political changes it caused,unlike the case of 19th century Europe, the old 'latifundia' did not disintegrate. Instead, old oligarchies were incorporated into the new system which combined accumulation of land, colonial hierarchies and the process of rapid industrialization. The result was that the poorest communities experienced the 'worst of both worlds': old ruling classes retained feudalistic social relations and repelled demands for agrarian reform while in the newly created cities inequality crushed the hopes of the working classes. Galleano, described this system of multiple oppressions in his iconic book The Open Veins of Latin America which immediately became an indispensable 'primer' among radical social work students and practitioners.

The division of labor among nations is that some specialize in winning and others in losing. Out part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious: it has specialised in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of Indian civilizations. (…) It continues to exist in at the service of others' needs as a source and reserve of oil and iron, of copper and meat of fruit and coffee, the raw materials and foods destined for rich countries which profit more from consuming them than Latin America for producing them. (1998:5)

In 1961, US President John Kennedy introduced his short-lived "Alliance for Progress" a set of ambitious economic reforms and financial stimuli, supposedly aimed at creating growth and accelerating industrialisation in Latin America. Economic domination aside, a major objective of this agenda was to prevent the emergence of revolutionary movements like Fidel Castro's in Cuba which had captured the imagination of the oppressed communities. The developmentalist reforms introduced by the "Alliance for Progress" were destined to fail as apart from the flawed economics that characterized them, they were also deeply neo-colonial in nature. Based on old clichés, developmentalism, identified the poorest communities not as victims of the system but as the main reasons for stagnation. Overpopulation and the demographic 'time bomb' were highlighted as a hindrance to development and inevitably it was the poorest who were presented as the main culprits for all the misfortunes of Latin America. Galleano (1998:8) explains how various US missions have sterilized thousands of women in Amazonia, although this is the least populated habitable zone on our planet.

Unsurprisingly, these neo-colonial experiments, instead of fostering economic growth, contributed towards the growth of militant anti-imperialist movements. The developmentalist approach had underestimated that Latin American societies had long lost faith i reforms and policies "imported" by colonial powers. 'Modernisation' had not brought about the desired social change and the most oppressed communities directed their discontent into organized political action. The historically strong tradition of rebellion in the region gained momentum and eventually gave rise to well organized movements seeking to 'emancipate' Latin American. These movements varied from well organised guerrilla movements (such as the FARC in Colombia) to successful electoral alliances (such as the rise of Salvador Allende to President of Chile in 1970). What really characterised Latin America's 'age of rebellion' was its organic nature which transcended cultural, geographical and often class boundaries. One has to remember that almost simultaneously, peasants pushed (and in the case of Guatemala's "ten years of Spring" achieved) meaningful land reform, indigenous communities joined en masse the communist parties (Hobsbawm, 1994) while popular guerrilla movements were created and often led by members of the white metropolitan intelligentsia (as in the case of the Cuban Revolution and FARC and M19 in Colombia). In many respects, the formidable force of Latin America's popular radicalisation had defied all known scripts and unlike other regions social workers, educators and even priests swiftly swapped loyalties and found themselves in the forefront of these movements.

Like all transformative movements, reconceptualization did not develop in isolation. It was the product of the broader political commotion which gave rise to radical politics across Latin America.

The modernization policies of the 1950's and 1960' required a broad range of well trained personnel. Social Workers, who until then had a peripheral semi-professional role in the rudimentary social services of the region, became the 'chosen' profession assigned with the mission to operationalise on the ground the principles of community development. "Developmentalist" approaches created a critical mass, organized and coherent enough to be described as a profession. For the first time in its history, social work was provided with space, status and resources comprehensive enough to lift the profession from the hitherto anaemic vocation of "Social Assistance". The (re)-birth of the social work profession in the 1960s was largely based on Anglo-American positivism and it swiftly incorporated in its methodology technocratic toolkits promising immediate solutions to the chronic problems associated with the region's "underdevelopment". Social workers were employed in UN/ US co-ordinated community projects, most which emphasised on community development, informal education and family planning. It needs to be noted that in the early years of this professional transformation there was a great degree of optimism about the profession.

Such transformation was also reflected in the rapid expansion of social work education. During this period many social work programmes were organised across the region, benefiting from the generous support of the United Nations. Moreover, provision of social work education moved to universities instead of the private and religious tertiary institutions which had monopolised the training of social workers until that point. The new generation of students and practitioners, educated within the context of technocratic reformism were able to break free from the constraints of conservative philanthropy and engaged with a wider range of courses and themes such as political economy, community development, demographics etc.

Ironically, the call for de-professionalization central to the radical arguments of the reconceptualization movement would have never been developed without the pre-existing process of successful professionalization introduced in the 1950s and early 1960s. The rapid expansion of social work education in the 1950's and 1960's meant that the class base of the profession shifted away from the traditional philanthropy of the middle class. Eventually, more working class students entered the social work profession altering irrevocably the image of social work as a church-based, middle class, gendered vocation.

Please reload

Featured Posts

Popular Social Work In Extremis (new article)

September 21, 2016

Please reload

Recent Posts
Please reload

Please reload

Search By Tags