iassw logoSocial Dialogue #17
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Peter Westoby The University of Queensland, Australia

A Community Development response to 'Sham' right-wing populism

To be clear about my position, alluding to Ian Hyslop's recent blog on social work, there's no 'essence' of community development, no community development 'as a thing'. There are diverse theories and practices that co-exist in tension with one another, producing specific types of practice in different contexts. Community development can be oriented in conservative, pluralist and radical directions (Gilchrist, 2004). I will argue for a radical orientation.

In some ways I have approached this blog post intrigued by Martin Buber's thought about history's claim on each person and each new generation (Friedman, 1991). What might history, right now, in this moment of right-wing populism, require of community development?

The problem of 'sham' right wing populism

Right-wing nativist populism (most recently seen in Trump's election, Brexit in the UK and the revival of Pauline Hanson in Australia), which I refer to here as 'sham populism', rejects liberal democracy (Altman, 2017) with its ideals of protecting minority rights, avoiding 'majority' rule. Sham populism stands for:

An animating force fuelled by anger directed at elites who have betrayed the people and against threatening out-groups;

Many people in the community development world share the concerns of contemporary sham populisms -- we mistrust elites and institutions of liberal democracy (media, political parties, even the state, as many aspects of the state are captured by corporations), and many of us have been angry and anxious about the future.

Yet, I hope that we do not share the same narrow response and are able to hold a more nuanced understanding of 'the state' and 'the media', avoiding totalising narratives and recognizing the pluralistic dimensions -- that there are many diverse players within the state and media, partly allies in our work, not simply enemies.

Community development has also been enriched by the notion of 'the popular' as in Paulo Freire's radicalising of adult education. 'Popular', particularly the Latino version of the word, equates to 'the people's education' -- education 'for the people, by the people, with the people'. Freire's popular education is dialogical, committed to 'love, and humility', which is nothing like the anger and deception that is central to contemporary right-wing sham populism.

Community development theory and practice can offer an alternative vision of popular education and development, inclusive of structural analysis, making sense of complexity, and offering concrete hope in the form of action (not just rage). Possibly, the problem is that as community development theorists and practitioners we've offered little. Co-opted by a social planning and social service approach to community development, or conservative or reformist traditions at best, we have not been at the table with those who feel disenfranchised and are easily manipulated.

To be at the table -- a radical community development agenda

First, clarity about the important site of 'community' as a place of struggle. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida argues that 'community' is a significant site of struggle -- there are people who want sharper boundaries, excluding 'the other', and those for hospitality. So, one of the elements of radical community development, is that workers get into the local trenches and get involved in the struggle for hospitality, and against those who advocate exclusions.

Second, there is a crucial role for community-based education and learning. When I was 19 years old I went to the Philippines and lived in a shanty town. I reflected on the question, 'Can there be a just revolution?' (an assignment for university then) and during my inquiry I learned of the 20 years' work of the Catholic/Base Christian Community movement, which invested in mass community- based popular education work, preparing the people for the revolution against Marcos. That was when I saw the power of non-formal, community-based education (Westoby & Shevellar, 2012).

Later, as a lover of cooperatives, I studied the Mondragon federation in the Basque country, Spain. The Mondragon co-operative movement has been an inspiration to co-operators around the world, with 85,000 member-workers in 120 cooperatives currently (Ranis, 2016). The unseen work is the time invested by Catholic Priest Father Arizmendi. He started community work in the region in 1941, yet only established the first co-operative in 1956. The in-between years were spent initiating community ventures, crucially facilitating more than two thousand study circles. It was in the context of such study circles that the Basques learnt how to [re]create themselves as associational people. Radical community development workers need to do popular education -- creating space and places for people to learn.

Third, building a counter-veiling organisational force. Popular education is not just about learning, it's about collective organising. Organising is crucial as a means of building a counter-veiling force in the 'paradigmatic politics of community'.

I recently read the story of Nowra, just south of Sydney, in the Griffith Review (Adcock, 2017). Many people who'd lost their homes moved into the town showgrounds where they could camp for free and access toilets, showers, even power. Eventually locals organised to have them removed. In the Griffith Review account, there was a vocal council meeting where angry 'anti-homeless' people forced the Mayor to act on their behalf. There was no organised counter-veiling force. No-one had done this work. All the local 'service providers-community development workers' had been co-opted into service-delivery work. Radical community development needs to shift from service delivery to building organised counter veiling forces to fight for minority interests.

Such organising also needs to be linked to trans-local work. In Queensland, we call this meta-level work -- forming networks, federations, and coalitions to ensure local issues are also articulated into policy-oriented trans-local activity. Increasingly this work also needs to enter the local-global nexus. One recent example of this is the formation of the New Economy Network Australia (NENA), where at last local experiments in social-solidarity economy are being connected, and we are organising nationally and internationally.

In conclusion

Community is still a profound site of struggle. It is where much embodied violence and exclusion occurs. We need to be clear that populist right-wing sham nativism is destructive, but that populism isn't all bad. Popular education initiatives have the potential to revive the radical education tradition in community development.

We also need to build an organising program as a counter-veiling force against those who love hate, and are willing to use violence, who opt for simple lies, and who don't want to engage complexity.


Adcock, B. (2017). 'Rush to judgement: Stigmatising the homeless in Nowra', Perils of Populism, Griffith Review, p.59 ff.
Altman, D. (2017). 'Discontents: Identity, politics, institutions', Perils of Populism, Griffith Review. Freidman, M. (1991). Encounter on the narrow road, Paragon House.
Gilchrist, A. (2004). The well-connected community -- A networking approach to community development, Bristol, UK: Policy Press. Ranis, P. (2016). Cooperatives confront capitalism, ZED Books. p.148
Tiffen, R. (2017). 'The restoration impulse' in Perils of Populism, Griffith Review (p.13/14)
Westoby & Shevellar (2012). Learning & mobilising for community development -- A radical tradition of community-based education and training. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Press. (p.2-3).

This article was first published by the RSW Collective (2017, 21 September) reimaginingsocialwork.nz