iassw logoSocial Dialogue #17

Goetz Ottmann Senior Lecturer, Social Work ACAP Sydney, Australia

Nationalist Populism and Social Work


Not so long ago, political commentators confidently declared that Western economic and political liberalism had triumphed and that viable systemic alternatives had been exhausted. The victory of Western consumerism was interpreted as "an endpoint in mankind's ideological evolution" signalling an "end of history" (Fukujama, 1989). It was just a matter of time until Western liberal democracy would affirm itself as the "final form of human government" (Fukujama, 1989)

The two major ideological challenges to liberal democracy -- communism and fascism -- no longer harboured popular appeal -- communism because its lack of viability and fascism because of its lack of success (Fukujama, 1989). Fast forward two decades and the faith that some placed in the political force of liberal ideology seems to have been utterly misplaced. The 'Arab Spring', while at least initially giving rise to a range of democratic processes, ushered in a clash between communal, liberal, and populist religious factions that, aided by opposing geopolitical forces, annihilated tens of thousands of civilians and returned to rubble artefacts of ancient and modern civilisations. Citizens in Eastern Europe and Russia have seen a hollowing out of democratic processes and institutions and the rise of nostalgic forces that mourn the loss of a competing teleology featuring a strong state that protects citizens from the avarice of the free market. Even in Western Europe and North America, the bastions of liberal and social democracy, an increasing number of citizens no longer regard it as essential to live in a country governed democratically (Foa & Mounk, 2016).

The rise of conservative nationalist populism in countries such as the United States, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, England, Italy, and Scandinavia is increasingly perceived as a threat to the very liberal democratic fabric that only two decades ago seemed to be on the verge of becoming what Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan termed 'the only game in town' (Linz & Stepan, 1996).

What happened?

A growing number of observers agree that we are witnessing a deconsolidation of liberal democracy (Foa & Mounk, 2016). That is, a growing number of citizens no longer believe that liberal democracy is the best way to govern a country and are increasingly tempted to embrace authoritarian alternatives. Indeed, some observers fear that this deconsolidation could endanger even wealthy and stable democracies that were, until recently, regarded as 'safe' (Foa & Mounk, 2016). Explanations as to why liberal democracies are deconsolidating focus on its inability to ensure material stability or continuity of culture and tradition.

The former line of argument holds that economic and political liberalism have been too successful. That is, neo-liberalism aggressively undermined the tripartite agreement that mitigated the conflict between labour and capital and formed the basis of social democracies. Deregulation and austerity measures, the economic remedies of a post-Keynesian 'welfare' state now prescribed by parties on both sides of the political spectrum, render the lives of ordinary citizens increasingly precarious, unstable, and competitive. As a result, citizens find themselves less and less represented by established political parties. With a diminishing stake in liberal democracy, citizens find themselves more and more prepared to forgo human rights as well as democratic, and pluralist ideals in favour of ideological alternatives that promise easy solutions (Lanzone & Woods, 2015; McSwiney & Cottle, 2017).

Other commentators highlight the perceived threat to culture and tradition pointing at the rise of xenophobia in ethnically relatively homogenous communities faced by the arrival of immigrants and refugees groups dislodged by globalisation. As some have pointed out, this culturally defensive populism can take ultra- nationalist forms that radically re-shape 'civil' society turning it into a 'surveillance' society that monitors population groups that are earmarked to be 'different' for breaches of cultural norms (Fazzi, 2015). With people's 'way of life' under threat, ethnic and social minorities become the target for scrupulous politicians who channel anger and frustration at the status quo (Altman, 2017) and who build their political platforms around the destruction of the inclusive welfare state turning universal entitlements into privileges of increasingly restrictive citizenship (Standing, 2011). Another relatively novel line of exploration focuses on the impact of new forms of communications and particularly social media (Das, 2017; Dittrich, 2017; Speed & Mannion, 2017).

This embryonic body of work posits that rhizomic, non-hierarchical forms of knowledge (Guattari, 1972) attached to social media can be manipulated so that they, charged with post truth facts, affix themselves to hierarchical machineries of 'knowledge' production whose structures are often barely visible to social media consumers. Further, social network members linked by social media cluster more readily around anti-establishment issues and can be more easily identified, accessed, and mobilised by political entrepreneurs (Dittrich, 2017). In the absence of editorial policies and a lack of fact checking, social media content tends to be more readily aligned with networks associated with populist causes than with centrist ideologies (Hendrickson & Galston, 2017; Page & Dittmer, 2016).

Nationalist Populism and Social Work

The nexus between nationalist populism and social work has been poorly explored. Indeed, few researchers have systematically researched the phenomenon. This is surprising given the fact that the growing popularity of nationalist populism rhetoric clearly signals that this brand of populism is a force that is intent on sweeping away the universality of human rights. It re-defines how the crumbs that are available under the neo-liberal welfare state are to be distributed. This proposition shakes the very foundations of social work. To illustrate the point, Luca Fazzi's research (2015) focusing on the rise of nationalist populism in northern Italy is worth summarising. According to Fazzi, the political success of nationalist populist Northern League led to a 're- targeting' of welfare where access to social services by ethnic or social minorities is becoming increasingly restricted (Fazzi, 2015). As a result, essential services such as housing, income support, and early childhood services are delivered on an 'our people first' basis.

Luca Fazzi's account also describes the rise of overtly racist institutions and vigilante groups that are created to denounce infringements against cultural norms and to protect neighbourhoods against crime committed by 'illegal immigrants' (Fazzi, 2015). As the populist message highlighting the threat of an "invasion of immigrants" is increasingly absorbed by the local population, social workers find it more and more difficult to activate informal support for migrants (Fazzi, 2015). The departure from humanitarian principles and universal social rights to a system of welfare based on the political ideology and clientelism impacts directly on the professional practice of social workers employed by administrations in these areas (Fazzi, 2015). Fazzi outlines four distinct responses by social workers to these changes: supporters of the new administration, the passively dissatisfied, the pragmatists, and the activists. Fazzi highlights that less educated and less experienced social workers employed by small municipalities tend to be among the supporters and passively dissatisfied. Pragmatists and activists, on the other hand, tend to have specialist training had more experience, are skilled in creating alliances, and have larger networks. Social work activists could be mainly found in medium-sized or large municipalities (Fazzi, 2015). Fazzi warns that if not countered populism, in combination with neo-liberal austerity has an astonishing capacity to reshape social work culture (Fazzi, 2015).

Black lives matter image

What is to be done?

This raises the question how nationalist populism can be countered. For progressive political observers, the answer rests with a radical reworking of democracy that harks back to John Dewey's political experimentalism that sees political procedures and institutions as being permanently constructed as they are justified only as long as they fulfil their purpose (Dewey, 1927). The rise of populist nationalism seems to indicate that it is time to, in Dewey's sense, re-shape political institutions and re-define citizenship to make them more representative.

It may well be that mechanisms that allow for more direct access to the political system, such as DemocracyOS, a grassroots approach based on an App allowing its users to deliberate and vote on political issues, and its associated Net Party in Buenos Aires will form part of a re-invented State. It is also possible that political parties will have to be reformed to allow for grassroots participation that extends beyond canvassing and donations. While changes at the systemic level will be crucial to counter the rise of nationalist populism, social workers need to think about strategies at the mezzo and micro level of professional practice.

Fazzi's account (2015) highlights the role of social workers as moral and political agents making the point that social work education should include solid grounding in professional ethics as well as preparation in dealing with populist doctrines which would include pedagogical emphasis on community development and activism. Clearly, grounding social work practice in human rights (Gray & Webb, 2013) and anti-oppressive theory (Dominelli, 2002) and directing it towards activism (Noble, 2007) is crucial for novice social workers who find themselves within a context that challenges the core values of an inclusive society. Beyond a pedagogical approach, however, those working in the heartland of nationalist populism will find it useful to be supported by a network of like-minded, experienced social workers. The rise of national populism signals that now is the time to forge such networks and create linkages with civil society.


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