Confronting right-wing populism

In this guest blog post by Filipe Duarte (School of Social Work, Carleton University, Canada) Filipe introduces his recently published article arguing that the rise of right-wing populism is threatening to undermine social work values and that social workers must respond.

The recent rise of right-wing populism (indicated by events such as the election of Donald Trump in the USA, and the return of fascists to the German Reichstag) represents a serious challenge to the current social order. The broad liberal consensus, established during the post-cold war period, and founded on principles of multiculturalism, universalism, human rights, peace and prosperity is now, everywhere, in jeopardy.

The logic of right-wing populism reproduces assumptions and beliefs that violate the values, principles and commitments of social work. In this new political context social workers and social work organisations are beginning to speak out, to denounce right-wing rhetoric and to uphold social justice, human rights and the dignity of people. Those at the margins are also calling for social work advocacy and activism to act on their behalf.

The most recent special issue of Social Dialogue 17 on Populism and Social Work provides an important account of the issues of populism, discrimination, injustice, bigotry, racism, oppression and violence. It further outlines social work’s vision of the kinds of responses that should take place in support of respect for human rights, freedom and greater social justice. This is supported by social work’s already established political commitment in the form of the “Global Agenda” launched in 2012 by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), and the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW).

As I argue in the article The Challenge of Right-Wing Populism for Social Work (pp. 36-38), “in the 21st century, social workers are the biggest organised social movement in the world concerned with the principles of social justice, human rights and self-determination. Undoubtedly, social workers play a crucial role in inspiring others and can also force issues on the political agenda, turning the impossible into the inevitable. Social work is rooted in community organisation and social activism.”

As Murray Bookchin (1982) has stated “if we do not do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable.”

Image credit: Stephen Melkisethian

3 replies on “Confronting right-wing populism”

Interesting and thought provoking, especially in terms of the articles’ references. Historically, social work has ‘spoken truth to power’s but has also supported some heinous acts committed but misguided powerful elites (Nazism and the eugenics movements). Largely, social work, by its nature, is an agent of the State.

Social work is rooted in the notes of societal groups. In the past, social work has worked with national identifed, with occasional international unity. But, in today’s globalised, interconnected multiverse, those national identies have grown and interacted to become multicultural social work schema.

The rise populist political movements, whether right-wing, left-wing or centreist are the curse of globalised, multicultural outlooks. Trump, Farrage and populist politicians, from across the political spectrum, are driving nationalist agenda, to reach those who have felt disenfranchised by the ‘liberati’, the adoption of corporate globalisation, the rampant progress of the neoliberal economic model, which has raped and pillaged local, regional and national economies.

Just as in 1917 Russia, interwar Italy, Germany and Spain, the political vacuum caused by the exploitation of the populist by unscrupulous ‘political leaders’, the loud and clarion call of populist voices, from across the political divide, will sucker ‘Joe Public’ into believing their deceitful rhetoric. And, just as before, social workers will be among those deceived by tge lies and coercion.

I sincerely hope that, as a movement, social work can protect social workers from the pernicious messages of hate, difference and division, peddled by populist parties. However, in its very nature, social work and social workers are a reflection of their societies. Where the political forces are such, it is inevitable that the culture of social work, social justice and social policy follows the will of the majority, wherever it takes them. A few strong voices will battle the tide but to create change will require a movement.

I hope that the march of populism can be kept in check and social workers and social work, as a movement, can hold strong to international ideals of social justice and human rights. The insidious voices of hate, already gaining strength, in ‘western’ countries are already loud enough to be a significant cause for concern.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines populism as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups”. When Filipe refers to right-wing populism my interpretation is that he is highlighting the political dangers associated with bourgeois social democratic elites who have ignored the the aspirations of ordinary people and refused to protect them from increasing exploitation (in the guise of austerity measures). In this context there is a risk that right-wing movements (and fascists) can position themselves as the answer, and prey on the fears of people (especially the fear of the “other” in the form of refugees, immigrants, Islamic people and so on).

I may be mistaken but I don’t believe that Filipe is calling for a bonfire of all the populisms, or is neglecting the possibility of new, popular leftist project. Arguably, that is precisely what is required at this historical conjuncture.

In addition, Richard’s characterisation of the October revolution (1917 Russia) as the result of “a political vacuum caused by the exploitation of the populist by unscrupulous ‘political leaders’,” is, in my view, a gross misrepresentation of history. For an alternative view see Miéville (2017) and Ali (2017).

Kia ora Filipe, What I find most comforting is that local social work resistance is connecting with other social workers in other countries, from there solidarity is growing exponentially. We are are definately waking up. Stay strong and talk soon.

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