iassw logoSocial Dialogue #17

Filipe Duarte School of Social Work, Carleton University, Canada

The Challenge of Right-Wing Populism for Social Work


In recent years, we have seen the rise of right-wing populism across Europe and more recently in the United States following the election of Donald Trump on November 8, 2016. A decade after the 2008 financial crisis, the reality has shown that the economic and financial failure across Western industrialized societies have paved the way to political populism, militarization, surveillance and social control by law enforcement as a consequence of the failure of the current social order.

This article explores the dynamics behind political populism, in particular right-wing populism and its links to bigotry, hate, racism, xenophobia, and islamophobia. It defines the values and commitments of social work and encourages social workers to speak up and denounce all kinds of violations and to uphold the dignity of people, social justice and human rights.

Under right-wing populism, the challenges have been rising to social work. The world is changing and the nature of social work must also change. The system is broken and those at the margins are calling for social work advocacy and activism, of their behalf. The patriarchal neoliberal ideology and its capitalist wave, the politics of austerity, the violation of human rights, gender- based violence against women and towards the LGBTQ community, the recent rise of bigotry, hate, xenophobia and racism fuelled by right-wing political populism across different Western nations, the backlash against refugees and migrants moving across international borders who are fleeing from conflict and persecution or other life-threatening situations, and the violations of Indigenous rights and natural sources pose a tremendous challenge for social work (Duarte, 2017).

21st Century: The Revival of Right-Wing Populism

The post-cold war period based on the principles of multiculturalism, immigration, universalism, human rights, peace and prosperity has come to an end. Since the 9/11 events, the declaration of war on "Islamic" terrorism has given rise to a series of events of ethnic-religious violence. The hostility towards Muslims and the increase of social control measures have imposed a "surveillance society" and sentiments of insecurity and public fear led to the demise of the principles of democracy and human rights (Fazzi, 2015).

Following the cuts in the welfare state and the unprecedented rise of unemployment which occurred since the 2008 financial crisis, but also as a result of the refugee crisis imposed by the Syrian conflict, mainstream society across Western countries, particularly in Europe and the United States, started labelling Muslims, migrants and refugees as dangerous and undeserving.

The populist messages have been fuelled by politicians and conservative right-wing ideology, intended to legitimise the idea of superiority based on a certain ethnic and cultural origin, and characterised by a rhetoric of discrimination, bigotry, hate, racism and xenophobia which violates the principles of human rights and social justice.

Populism can be defined as a political style that pits people against the status quo (Judis, 2016a). The 21st century political populism has its roots in the 19th and 20th centuries. Throughout the history, political populism has always had a surge in the wake of economic recessions. Certainly, it cannot be defined exclusively in terms of right, left or centre. It includes both. Undoubtedly, there are right-wing, left-wing and centrist populist parties. Thus, in general, populism can be defined as a political logic -- a way of thinking about politics. For the American historian Michael Kazin, populism is a kind of language used by politicians to speak with ordinary people, as if these people were a noble assemblage, not bounded narrowly by class. So, in the 21st century, what distinguishes left-wing populists such as Bernie Sanders (United States), Jeremy Corbyn (United Kingdom), Alexis Tsipras (Greece), Jean-Luc MeĢlenchon (France) and Pablo Iglesias (Spain) from right-wing populists such as Donald Trump (United States), Marine Le Pen (France) and Nigel Farage (United Kingdom) among others in Eastern Europe? The left-wing populists champion the people against the elite or establishment that hold or impose a system of oppression. Normally they tend to advocate for people's rights, and raise the critical consciousness of society against the status quo. The right-wing populists champion the people against the elite or establishment by accusing them of favouring a third group such as immigrants (in general), Muslims, Jews, refugees or simply people of African origin or from other ethnic minorities. Right-wing populists also tend to accuse and discriminate other minority groups such as those who represent the LGBTQ people (Judis, 2016a; 2016b).

My aim here is to talk about right-wing populism as it is the one that poses challenges for social work and undermines the values of human rights and social justice. Right-wing populism has been a warning sign of a political and economic crisis. It aims to divide, not unify. It defends and expresses a set of moral values by assuming they serve all people. Therefore, the climate of intolerance across different Western countries has been exacerbated by right-wing political populism, such as the one put forth by Donald Trump in the United Sates or Marine Le Pen in France.

The Social Work Response

The foundational values of human rights and social justice have always been the core ideals and "right principles" of social work. Social workers are committed to promote human rights, social justice and address the root causes of poverty, oppression and inequalities. 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) has reinforced this commitment (IFSW, IASSW & ICSW, 2012).

The global definition of social work (IFSW, 2014) approved by the IFSW General Meeting and by the IASSW General Assembly in July 2014 which occurred in Melbourne, Australia, defines social work as a "practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing" (IFSW, 2014).

Lundy (2011, p. 52) reminds us that "social workers such as Jane Addams, Bertha Reynolds, Sophonisba Breckinridge, and Mary van Kleeck were leaders in the early human rights movements", and in the political and social work activism (Duarte, 2017). In the 21st century, social workers are the biggest organized 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.

Therefore, as social workers are positioned inside complex and refractory social relations, they must variously speak up at political and public arenas against discrimination, bigotry, racism, xenophobia, hate and islamophobia in accordance with human rights principles and their own social work values and commitments (Duarte, 2017).

Fazzi (2015, p. 603) identifies four strategies of active resistance used by social work activists which can be employed at moments of right- wing populism: (1) exploitation of the margins of discretion of the public professionals who have the task of putting decisions taken at a political level into practice and work directly with those groups of people; (2) increase trade union political commitment; (3) build alliances within the third sector and civil society; and (4) establish dialogue with political actors and parties. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in the United States has also recently published a community resource called "Ten Ways to Fight Hate" (SPLC, 2017). Following the strategies proposed in Fazzi's study, this guide can also be used by social workers to uphold human rights and social justice, promote tolerance and inclusion. The 10 principles are: act; join forces; support the victims of those vulnerable; speak up; educate yourself; create an alternative; pressure leaders; stay engaged; teach acceptance and dig deeper.

These strategies and principles can attract a wider support in order to overturn peoples' consciousness and right-wing populism. Social workers, in collaboration with other allies, can be a vital force in advancing human rights and a social justice agenda (Lundy & van Wormer, 2007).


Duarte, F. (2017). Reshaping political ideology in social work: A critical perspective. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 29(2), 34-44. doi:10.11157/ anzswj-vol29iss2id282
Fazzi, L. (2015). Social work, exclusionary populism and xenophobia in Italy. International Social Work, 58(4), 595- 605. doi:10.1177/0020872813503855
IFSW (2014). Global Definition of the Social Work. Retrieved from ifsw.org IFSW, IASSW & ICSW (2012). Global agenda for social workers and social development, commitment to action. Retrieved from cdn.ifsw.org
Judis, J. B. (2016a). The populist explosion: How the great recession transformed American and European politics. New York: Columbia Global Reports. Judis, J. B. (2016b, October 13). Us v Them: the birth of populism The Guardian. Retrieved from theguardian.com Lundy, C. (2011). Social work, social justice & human rights: A structural approach to practice (2nd ed.). North York, ON: University of Toronto Press. Lundy, C. & van Wormer, K. (2007). Social and economic justice, human rights and peace: The challenge for social work in Canada and the USA. International Social Work, 50(6), 727- 739. doi:10.1177/0020872807081899 SPLC (2017). Ten ways to fight hate. Retrieved from splcenter.org