Right-wing Populism and Social Work: Contrasting Ambivalences About Modernity
Right-wing populism has become a major feature of the politics of many Western countries, and poses particular challenges for social work. This paper explores the contradictory relationships of both social work and right-wing populism to Enlightenment Modernity. Each embraces some elements of modernity but retreats from others. This analysis suggests that apparent commonalities—rejection of globalisation, empowerment rhetoric and opposition to neo-liberalism—are more apparent than real. On this basis, the paper argues that attempts by social work either to dialogue with or to accommodate the right-wing populist agenda are both futile and dangerous. Rather, it is important for social work not only to take a strong stand against neo-liberalism, but to also to articulate significant alternatives to the right-wing populist dystopia, and engage in principled activism, based on the values of social justice and human rights, and to work towards the realisation of such alternatives at community level.
KeywordsRight-wing populism Social work Modernity Neo-liberalism Human rights Dialogue
Right-wing populism has become a prominent feature of politics in many western countries. Because of its systemic origins, it is likely to be a continuing part of the context of many social workers, and this trend will almost certainly increase as the world approaches multiple crises—economic, ecological, social and political—and as what appeared to be certainties melt away. Right-wing populism is a natural and probably inevitable consequence of the world that white Western Modernity has created. To pretend that it will be ‘business as usual’ in the future is to be naïve, deluded and dangerous. In such a world, social work can be part of the movements that hold out some hope for an alternative way forward, but it can seem like a flickering candle in the face of the storm. Yet, to quote the proverb that launched Amnesty International in 1961, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
In any discussion of right-wing populism and social work, there is a danger of generalisation. Both have complex and multi-faceted origins and characteristics. There is no need, in this journal with a social work readership, to discuss further the complexity of ‘social work’, but it is important briefly to consider the complexity of right-wing populism.
In their analysis of right-wing populism in the USA, Berlet and Lyons (2016) describe the phenomenon as ‘producerist’ politics. Producerists are those who are engaged in material work, usually manual, which they value above the work of anyone else. They see themselves as being squeezed from above by increasing numbers within the ‘elites’, which include bankers, government bureaucrats, secular humanists, socialists, liberals, globalists and corrupt politicians. They also see themselves squeezed from below by ‘lazy sinful parasites’, including welfare recipients, immigrants, feminists, people of colour, social justice activists and community organisers. It should be noted that social workers, as educated professionals and social justice advocates, have some identification with both the elites and the ‘parasites’, and so will be doubly resented by the producerists. Within right-wing populism, there are different identities and different scapegoats, for example fundamentalist Christianity is important for some populist groups, but not for all. And explicit overt racism is far from universal among the followers of right-wing populism, though it seems evident that implicit or covert racism is far more widespread. In Berlet and Lyons’ analysis, producerists, in seeking a way out from being ‘squeezed’ both from above and from below, are dragged in one (moderate) direction by conventional conservative politics, such as the US Republican Party, and in another (extreme) direction by various ultra-right groups. All this means that it is hard to generalise about right-wing populism, as it displays different features, and is also somewhat different in varying national and cultural contexts. What applies in US right-wing populism will be somewhat different from its manifestation in Europe, and indeed the French, German, Hungarian and Italian versions all vary from each other (Wodak 2015). Similarly, right-wing populism in Asia and Africa will take different forms again.
Goodhart (2017), a United Kingdom writer, describes the phenomenon in rather different terms. He contrasts two classes of people, the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘nowheres’. For the former, the local context, local identity and a feeling of belonging are important, and there is thus a tendency to isolationism and exclusivity in the face of globalisation. The ‘nowheres’, however, are less attached to place, and embrace globalisation, high levels of mobility, and cosmopolitan identity. It is the ‘somewheres’, who feel the loss of local identity, that are driving right-wing populism. While this is a simplistic binary, bypassing the complexity of right-wing populist movements (Wodak 2015), it has two important implications for social work. The first is that, unlike the much fuller analysis by Berlet and Lyons, it emphasises the importance of globalisation, and sees right-wing populism as primarily a reaction against it. The other is that it further problematises a social work response; social work has opposed the excesses of globalisation, and in that sense has some commonality with right-wing populism, though social work has also pursued an internationalist cosmopolitan agenda, with its emphasis on human rights (Ife 2012; Reichert 2007), which is the antithesis of right-wing populist rhetoric. This contradictory relationship between social work and right-wing populism will be taken up later in this paper.
The rise of right-wing populism represents a serious challenge for social work. In looking for the possible causes, or contributing factors, of right-wing populism, it is clear that these are not confined to any particular context, as the phenomenon extends beyond national and cultural boundaries throughout at least the Western world, and also in Asia. The causes are clearly systemic: they are to be found in global institutional structures and dominant discourses, rather than in specific political contexts. However, it is also true that right-wing populism will take particular forms in particular contexts, and will be partly shaped by local historical trajectories, dominant personalities and political processes; for example, the various European versions of right-wing populism (Wodak 2015) vary from the US version (Giroux 2017).
But we must not be misled by these regional variations into seeing right-wing populism as a series of local problems. In seeking to respond to right-wing populism, it is necessary to consider broader structural and discursive issues, not just local circumstances. This paper will explore the contrasting relationships of right-wing populism and social work to Enlightenment Modernity. In each case, the relationship is complex. Both right-wing populism and social work represent reactions to the challenges of Modernity, both rejecting and embracing Modernity, but each chooses different elements to reject, and different elements to embrace. This analysis can inform ways forward for social work, facing a more hostile ideological environment.
Modernity and Right-wing Populism
Right-wing populism can be seen as a form of fundamentalism, and, like other fundamentalisms (see Sim 2004), is both a retreat from and a retreat into Modernity. Retreating from the threats of Modernity, it harks back to pre-Enlightenment times, with its strong acceptance of conservative religion—especially, in the West, fundamentalist Christianity—and its denial of intellectual inquiry and the secular rationality of science (as evident in its mistrust of evolution, of climate change, and of expertise in general). This anti-intellectualism is a denial of the Enlightenment and its valuing of intellectual rationality (Hind 2007, Edelstein 2010), and so is hard for many social workers, socialised so completely into the Enlightenment world view, to understand or accept. This is in part a retreat from the need to think: if ready answers are provided, by religion, by a charismatic leader, or by a carefully marketed set of pre-packaged ideas, we can accept them as given and are absolved from the need to apply any critical analysis, and, in addition, the very tools to apply that critical analysis are themselves rejected. This is instinctively appealing for many people who are suffering from the impacts of hyper-modernity, especially at a time when more dogmatic and extreme views have become the norm, and when nuance, compromise and genuine dialogue are somewhat out of fashion in public discourse. Right-wing populism is a reaction to Modernity in that it represents a retreat into an earlier apparently more comfortable world, a fantasy past that is romanticised, but that in reality was only made possible by the oppressions of class, race, colonialism, gender, sexual identity and physical and intellectual ability. This idealised past, of course, is far removed from the reality of the time, especially for those who were on the wrong side of those structures of oppression, but the idea is strong, and its very pervasiveness serves to reinforce racism, whiteness, classism, patriarchy, colonialism, homophobia and ableness without even naming them.
On the other hand, right-wing populism is also a retreat into Modernity, in the face of an increasingly post-Modern world. Modernity is characterised by the search for uniformity and predictability, and has consistently tried to develop a world of sameness and certainty, with single ‘right answers’, and with no surprises, rather than a world of chaos, diversity and unpredictability; indeed, these are seen as problems, needing to be stamped out (Stove 2003; Nicholson 1999). This has been the goal of unifying discourses, of managerialism, of increasing control and of authoritarianism. It has been the aim of a good deal of research and intellectual inquiry, seeking universal laws, predictability, ‘best practice’ and the ideal world of utopian thinking. It has also been behind the colonial imperatives of Modernity (Chowdhry & Nair 2004), seeking the imposition of a single ‘best’ way to do things, and by implication a ‘best’ culture, a ‘best’ race, a ‘best’ language, a ‘best’ democracy and so on, constructed in the paradigm of the dominant (colonising) culture. It is little wonder that this aspect of Modernity has such appeal for fundamentalists, attracting racists and right-wing populists. Right-wing populism, although often fuelled with the rhetoric of rugged individualism, is in reality quite conformist and mistrustful of dissent within its own ranks. In this way, it is also comfortable with conformist Modernity.
Modernity and Social Work
Social work is in many ways a child of Modernity, despite the interest in Postmodernism by a minority of social work scholars in recent decades (see Pease & Fook 1999). Historically, social work was born out of Modernity (Howe 1994), and is part of Modernity’s project. Like other professions, it arose as part of a technocratic, expert response to problems and issues. It has privileged expertise, scientific rationality, evidence and professional competence in the way it has addressed human suffering and social problems (Ife 2012). The institutional structure of the profession, with accreditation, practice standards, codes of ethics, supervision, scholarly journals, professional conferences and the appeal to universalist meta-narratives of social justice and human rights, represents classic modernity. This has caused problems for social work, in that it has replicated the problems of modernity: the disempowerment of the recipients of social work services in the name of professional expertise, the blindness to diversity, the colonialist practice that has resulted from the imposition of a single implicit world view, the inherent racism and patriarchy that inhabits the structures of modernity and so on. There have been movements within social work that have sought to overcome these problems, often with considerable success (e.g. Allan & Briskman 2009), but it is still clear that the heritage of Western Modernity, with both its strengths and its blind-spots, is strong in much of social work, especially as practised in nations of the Global North.
There is also, however, some ambivalence in social work towards its heritage of Enlightenment Modernity. The development of ideas of so-called ‘critical social work’ (Allan & Briskman 2009) and ‘anti-oppressive practice’ (Dominelli & Campling 2002), including anti-racist social work, post-colonial social work, feminist social work and socialist/Marxist social work, have inevitably included critiques of Modernity. More recently, Green social work (Dominelli 2012, Gray et al. 2012) has sought to develop social work practices that are genuinely sustainable and that inevitably challenge the growth fetish of Modernity. Social workers in community development have always worked with communities of diversity, chaos and contradiction rather than of certainty and uniformity (Ife 2016). And all social workers know that chaos, confusion and uncertainty are the norm both for the people with whom they work, and also for the organisations where social workers are employed. The reality of social work is a long way from the ordered certainty of Modernity, and many social workers understand that seeking to impose the one-size-fits-all solutions of Modernity through managerialism and technocratic evidence-based ‘intervention’, does not fit well with the reality of people’s lives.
So, while social work institutionally has largely located itself within the tradition of Enlightenment Modernity, the reality of practice, for many social workers, is rather different. Thus social work, like right-wing populism, also has something of an ambivalent relationship to Modernity, though that ambivalence works itself out in rather different ways. The social work reaction against modernity is not so much a moving back as a moving forward, accepting the reality and even the desirability of postmodern messiness and paradox, though with a recognition of the need to work within the structures of Modernity if social workers are to be effective in providing services to people within the existing order.
Commonalities, and a Possible Dialogue?
There are three areas where social work and right-wing populism share some commonalities. The first is that they both assert the importance of grass-roots empowerment, and the experience and wisdom of ‘ordinary’ people at the local level. But the two versions of empowerment are different. The right-wing version gives people a sense of ‘karaoke’ empowerment (Kunnen 2005) through persuasion and through a rhetoric that makes people feel that they ‘belong’ and are important in spite of the reality of their relative powerlessness. By contrast, social work claims to provide a more genuine and experienced form of empowerment, not just telling people they are powerful, but by establishing structures and processes so that this empowerment can be achieved at the level of lived experience. There is often a tension between this and the ‘professional’ approach to social work, but this is a tension social workers have always worked with, and they have consistently maintained that ‘empowerment’ is an essential part of social work practice.
The second area of commonality is that social work and right-wing populism are united in their opposition to neo-liberalism. Each has understood the bankruptcy of the neo-liberal world, and is seeking a better alternative. But while they may share a dislike of neo-liberalism, their contrasting value bases, and contrasting constructions of ‘the elites’, result in very different visions for an alternative future. The problem for social work is that right-wing populism has been successful in presenting itself in public as the only possible alternative to neo-liberalism, and has attracted followers accordingly.
The third area where right-wing populism and social work have much in common is their ambivalence about globalisation, as mentioned earlier. Both resort to the universalising narratives of modernity and seek to generalise their views of social justice (in the case of social work) and libertarianism (in the case of right-wing populism). But both are also mistrustful of globalisation. For social work, globalisation has resulted in widespread inequality and injustice, and the exacerbation of inequality. For right-wing populism, globalisation represents the institutionalised power of ‘elites’ denying the legitimate values and goals of ordinary people. These different mistrusts of globalisation result in very different outcomes. For social workers, it has meant an attempt to re-invigorate an internationalism that is based on the values of humanity rather than the values of profit, while for right-wing populism it has meant the unleashing of forms of exclusive localism, xenophobia and division.
Both social work and right-wing populism, while having some concerns about globalisation, have sought to establish their own global networks and to embrace alternative globalisations. For social work, the idea of International Social Work has been important, and social workers do like to communicate across national and cultural boundaries. Two important international social work bodies, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), have sought to promote an internationalism and an internationalist agenda for social workers. Right-wing populism has also made attempts to establish a more globalised presence: international visits by right-wing populist gurus, international conferences, seeking to adopt the successful policies of right-wing populism groups in other countries (e.g. the Australian ‘Shooters and Fishers’ party seeking to replicate US gun deregulation) and so on. These represent seriously alarming attempts to establish a global right-wing populist agenda, however contradictory this may seem.
These three areas of ‘commonality’ are therefore actually more apparent than real. They represent very different forms of empowerment, very different oppositions to neo-liberalism, and very different forms of anti-globalisation. There is no doubt that right-wing populism represents a negation of many of the values on which social work is based, and is a serious challenge to those seeking to practise social work and to establish a future based on principles of social justice and human rights. Apparent similarities, in terms of a disillusionment with the world of Western Modernity, rejection of neo-liberalism, opposition to globalisation, and a wish to re-value the local, weaken and disappear with more thorough analysis. This casts serious doubt on any possibility of dialogue, as there are so few substantive common views with which to start. Dialogue is of course intrinsically appealing to social workers, who prefer dialogue as a way to move forward, who value a plurality of ideas, and who promote dialogical change as a key component of practice. However, in addressing right-wing populism, this is a problematic path for social work.
Dialogue and Reasoned Argument
Rational dialogue with right-wing populism is effectively a contradiction. Reasoned argument and nuanced analysis are not generally welcome in the right-wing populist movement, given its tendency to anti-intellectualism, its appeal to ‘common sense’ and the assertion of apparently self-evident truth and simplistic solutions. The idea that reasoned and reasonable argument is all that is needed to change people’s minds and assure progress has always been something of a myth, but it is one of the strongest pillars of Enlightenment thinking. The projects of the university, of scientific research, and of parliamentary democracy all have at their core the belief in the power of rationality, reason and dispassionate argument. Social work has often accepted this as a given: social work is taught in universities, it has its journals, its research agendas, its evidence-based approach to practice, its conferences and so on. And many community development principles, employed by social workers, are based on assumptions around consciousness raising, maximising participation, building consensus and democratic decision-making, all of which assume rational reasoned argument, debate and dialogue. However, the rise of right-wing populism has starkly challenged these assumptions. This is a fundamentalist movement that is impervious to reasoned argument and rational debate, and yet it attracts increasing numbers of followers. Despite the demonstrable inconsistencies, contradictions and inadequacies of Donald Trump, which any logical thinker can demolish with ease, his followers still believe in him and his policies. The same applies in other contexts: if people applied logic and rationality, Brexit would never have happened, the far right in France and Germany would be unrepresented in parliament, the USA would have significant gun control, Fox News and the Murdoch Press would have no audience, the proposed Adani coal mine in Australia would be unthinkable, and there would have been serious and substantive efforts throughout the world to reduce carbon emissions for at least the last 20 years. Rationality does not rule; it never really has, of course, but social workers have often tried to convince themselves that it does, and have acted accordingly. It is not just rationality that motivates and persuades people: it is also such things as emotion, love, fear, threat, hope, rejection, reassurance, recognition, excitement and feelings of belonging to a movement and espousing a cause. Successful social change leaders, such as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, while they use reasoned argument, also reinforce it with appeals to emotions, passions and feelings of identity and belonging. This suggests a more promising way forward in addressing the challenges of right-wing populism.
While reasoned rational argument may not always be persuasive, we are worse off without it. With the decline of reasoned argument goes the decline of complexity, ambiguity and nuance. Most of the issues social workers need to deal with, whether at the level of the individual, the family, the community or the society, are complex. They require analysis, and do not lend themselves to simplistic, obvious answers. This is well known to social workers who are used to working with complexity. Yet right-wing populism is an ideology of simplicity: the answers are simple and obvious, and are repeated with terrifying certainty. This simplicity has obvious appeal, especially as there is a strong anti-intellectual streak in right-wing populism; anyone trying to make things complicated is mistrusted, as part of the rhetoric of ‘anti-elitism’. The identification of analysis and thought with ‘the elite’ is a particularly insidious characteristic of right-wing populism. This makes any attempt to challenge the simplistic answers of right-wing populism, which are presented as self-evident truths, extremely difficult.
There is an additional problem about trying to establish dialogue with right-wing populism. Dialogue requires participants to lay themselves open and vulnerable, to accept that they do not know everything, and to be willing to learn and change. Right-wing populism, however, will not accept those premises. Like all fundamentalists, right-wing populists know for certain that they are right, and will not allow themselves the vulnerability of genuine dialogue. If social workers attempt to dialogue with right-wing populists, they may well place themselves in a position of well-intentioned weakness allowing right-wing populism to control them. The Australian example of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is instructive: when, as a well-known moderate, he became leader of the Liberal (conservative) Party he presumably thought that he could build a consensus within the party, and was prepared to compromise, only to discover that the right wing of his party was totally uncompromising, saw his consensus position as weakness, and took everything he offered while giving up nothing in return. Some more liberally inclined politicians in the USA have found the same thing; their preparedness to compromise for the sake of unity, bi-partisanship, consensus and ‘the national interest’ is ruthlessly exploited by the right wing, and is ultimately seen as weakness.
Social workers need to accept that dialogue with the fundamentalist right wing is simply not possible. One cannot dialogue with right-wing populist politicians, and their followers will reject dialogue and nuance as tools of the hated ‘elites’. Dialogue is not only a form of communication they do not value or understand, it represents a world view and a way of being—an ontology—that they simply cannot embrace or validate. It is a waste of effort even to try to persuade them otherwise.
There is, indeed, the danger that social work principles (such as maximising participation, building social movements, ‘power to the people’) may be co-opted by right-wing populism to promote its right-wing agenda, as they develop their own version of social movements. There are, of course, historical precedents: the Hitler Youth, Mao’s Red Guards, The Khmer Rouge and Apartheid South Africa. Social work processes can be co-opted to serve and legitimise particularly nasty agendas, and this is another danger of ‘dialogue’ and of social work being seen to allow right-wing populism any legitimacy.
Other Social Work Responses
If we reject the response of ‘dialogue’, what are possible directions for social work in relation to the rise of right-wing populism? First, it is essential that social work not allow itself to be co-opted by right-wing populist agendas. A recent Australian example illustrates this danger. Some social workers, through the Australian Association of Social Workers, sought funding to participate in the Government program of ‘deradicalisation’ of Muslim youth. This can readily be justified on the grounds that social workers have the necessary skills, and that it is better that this work be carried out by social workers than by others operating from a different value base. However, this ignores the significant problems with ‘deradicalisation’ programs, which reinforce scapegoating, racism, profiling and the labelling of young Muslim people as ‘problems’ and potential terrorists. These programs have resulted in increasing feelings of vulnerability in the Muslim community. By seeking to participate in this program, social workers would be helping to legitimise such dangerous and discriminating practices, to reinforce Islamaphobia, and to support the policies of a government that has succumbed to the pressures of right-wing populism in order to maintain electoral power. Such complicity by social workers also weakens the potential of the social work profession to take a strong stand against the racist and stigmatising policies of the government. Similar arguments were also made in Australia about the role social workers have played in the immigration detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, where the Australian Government has chosen to house asylum seekers in conditions that have been labelled ‘concentration camps’ and have been strongly condemned by the UN (The Guardian 2016). These detention centres represent flagrant human rights abuse, and yet some social workers have worked in those centres. The work they did, though well-intentioned, had limited value given the context of the camps, and some of those social workers subsequently resigned as a matter of principle, but the effect was that it rendered social workers complicit in serious human rights abuse (Briskman & Doe 2016).
Rather than attempting to engage with right-wing populism, or to work in programs reflecting extreme right ideology, a more fruitful direction for social work is to seek to establish, validate and support strong alternatives, based on the primacy of human rights, social justice and diversity. Many people will simply follow right-wing populism because they can see no alternative to provide meaningful and secure lives for themselves. Social workers can seek to demonstrate and advocate genuine alternatives to the right-wing dystopia. Social work is not alone in this, of course, and can join with various community activists and occupational groups, including other professions, who are standing up to the dominant neo-liberal and right-wing discourse. But in doing so, social work must be careful not to be seduced into joining forces with right-wing populism in its attack on neo-liberalism; this rests on different premises and aims for very different results.
Social work must accept that the values of human rights and social justice—underlying values for their work—are not necessarily shared by others. The world where human rights and social justice were more-or-less universally seen as desirable has now passed, and those ideas simply do not have the power that they once did. They are still held strongly by many people, but they are also ignored or opposed, especially by those on the political right. We cannot assume that others will support those values, because of the dominance of the selfish neo-liberal narrative in recent decades, and the constant erosion of the commons. This means that social workers will need to articulate and argue their value base more strongly and clearly in the public arena.
Another area where social work needs to rethink its position, at least in Western societies, relates to the role of the state. Social workers have tended to see the state as adopting a generally benign role, in support of social work, and providing necessary resources either directly or indirectly. Social work has generally supported a strong welfare state for the meeting of human need, and has worked to achieve this. But the role of the state is now not so benign. Some critics would argue it never has been, but now the coercive, hegemonic and surveillance aspects of the state are revealed in all their ugliness for all to see, and no longer are disguised by polite rhetoric (Keller 2017). Social work, funded directly or indirectly by the state, is certain to experience further constraints on practice, especially in relation to advocacy and activism. In addition, the coming crises will inevitably result in a crisis for the state, and funding for social work is likely to diminish, at the very time it will be most needed. Right-wing populism, of course, tends to regard the state as evil and wishes to smash it, except for the control and surveillance functions of the police, army and security services. If right-wing populism becomes electorally successful and can form governments social work will face either a significant loss of resources, or strong pressure to conform to a right-wing agenda, or both. Alternative, community-based resources for social work will be an important area for social workers to explore, and in this regard the community development perspective of supporting resources from within communities as a basis for practice becomes of greater significance.
In order to counter the increasingly universalist narratives of right-wing populism, social work does need to embrace some form of universalism or globalisation from below (Brecher & Costello 1994), even if it is heavily nuanced, given the need for all humans, and indeed non-humans, to live together in one world. Parochial exceptionalism and exclusion are simply not acceptable. The challenge is to prevent this universalism from becoming a totalising utopia, resurrecting the colonialism of the past (and indeed the present) legacy of much social work. It is important to articulate this universalist perspective as a clear counter to that of right-wing populism. One important way to do this is to outline a universalism of diversity as a more cosmopolitan framework for social work both locally and internationally.
It is important to recognise that right-wing populism is an ideology that supports, and even promotes, violence. Right-wing populists will often directly advocate violence, while at other times supporting it indirectly. The ready resort to the coercive power of the state, the militarisation of the police, the embracing of intrusive security activities, the sabre-rattling regarding global tensions, the devaluing of civil liberties, the tacit support of citizens’ militia, support for the death penalty, and tacit support for torture and police brutality, especially against people of colour, are all present in right-wing populist rhetoric and action. The violence practised and advocated by right-wing populism groups must be a cause for major concern. Social workers can only counter this with a strong advocacy for, and practice of, non-violence, in its various manifestations (Nepstad 2015).
Social work must also ensure that it moves beyond simply rational, analytical and logical argument in trying to get its message across and articulate an alternative vision to the dystopia of right-wing populism. Social workers need to appeal to the emotions, to address the legitimate fears, and challenge the illegitimate fears, of many of the population, and to use not only argument, but also art, music, film, poetry, dance and drama to articulate the values and processes of collective and diverse humanity. However, this must not involve an embrace of anti-intellectualism; this would simply serve to reinforce the right-wing populist world view. Strong intellectual analysis and argument remain important for social work, but this is not the only way that social work should present itself, or do its work.
A historical perspective is always important, but perhaps never more so than now. Understanding history will help to understand the re-emergence at this time of right-wing populism, and to warn of its serious, indeed catastrophic, dangers. It also opens social work up to other ways of thinking, knowing and doing, and reminds us that nothing is permanent. Right-wing populism, like earlier extremist and populist ideologies in the twentieth century, will eventually decline (hopefully with a whimper rather than a bang), and it is important to be thinking creatively and imaginatively about what might come next. Social work needs to position itself at this historical moment and recognise the possibilities that will undoubtedly open up in the future.
In doing so it is imperative for social workers to take strong, uncompromising political stands against neo-liberalism and right-wing populism. We have reached a time when the choices facing society are stark, and the forces of greed, consumerism, individualism, racism, patriarchy, xenophobia and capitalism in general are threatening not only the values of human rights and social justice, but also the very future of some form of sustainable human ‘civilisation’. Activism, protest, public advocacy and civil disobedience are necessary, and social work needs to be a part of this. Social work also has a continuing commitment to work for change at grass-roots level. To provide people in communities with genuine empowerment alternatives to the right-wing populist appeal must be a major commitment. This will not be easy, given the complexity of community-based empowerment and the attractive simplicity of right-wing populism, but in the long run, there is no alternative.
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