Another stain on humanity

Another scar we can’t heal

Another warning, another warning

(Remember Russia, Fisher Z, From: Word Salad, United Artists Records, 1979)

Filip Coussée, Ghent University

Could this mess have been avoided?

In short, yes, we could have prevented this war. Interpreting that simple answer is a very complex story though. Let us start our story with the last ‘world fire’ we witnessed. In the aftermath of the second world war, a social pact was signed by many European nations. Many social and educational measures aimed at building social peace and a more just society already existed. Those measures were reframed in a coherent policy based on social dialogue, and the welfare state was born. This was done with the conviction that a new war could be prevented by establishing social security and ensuring that the gap between the rich and the poor does not grow too large. Built on two inherently contradictory pillars, capitalism and democracy, the welfare state tries to reconcile two opposing values, freedom and equality. It is a quite delicate, perennial process to come to a balanced relation, for creating more freedom implies less equality and vice versa. The only way out of this paradox is through a third value: solidarity. Building up a welfare state is thus not only a question of social policy, but also a matter of dialogue and education.

At the same time, the two dominant world powers sought different balances to organise their societies. The United States of America (USA) kept unbridled freedom as their guiding principle, while the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) still prioritised equality. Both nations sought allies to control the situation and to prevent the other from gaining more power. In 1949, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) was formed in Washington. The North Atlantic Treaty is a military treaty that regulates the mutual defence and cooperation of the armies of capitalist countries, mainly as a counterforce to the communist countries. The core of the treaty is found in Article 5, which states that an attack on one of the states in Europe or USA will be interpreted as an attack on all. Next to the United States and Canada. the treaty was signed by Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Norway and Portugal. The communist countries in turn formed the Warsaw Pact in 1955. The cold war had begun. We were off for decades of a (nuclear) arms race between the USA and the USSR.

In the cold war period, western capitalist democracies became prosperous and welfare was relatively well redistributed. The European Union was firmly established as an economic union. The Council of Europe fostered important values, such as democracy and human rights, and also paid attention to the crucial role of education and youth work in that field.

And then the wall fell. Fukuyama (1989, p.4) claimed the end of history: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. There’s only one way left to experience democracy, so why debate and discuss any longer? It was not the end of history, as Fukuyama (1989) claimed, but the beginning of the quest for new global power balances.

After the end of the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved in 1991. The Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary joined NATO eight years later, as did Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria (2004), Croatia and Albania (2009), Montenegro (2017) and finally North Macedonia (2020). Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine and Georgia have been candidates for NATO membership for some time. Russian leaders described this expansion as a violation of the informal assurances that NATO would not expand eastwards.

The Maidan revolution in 2014 was the start of the war between Ukraine and Russia. The pro-European viewpoints of the new government were a thorn in the side of the Russian leaders. With the annexation of Crimea that same year, the Russians aimed to regain access to Sebastopol and power over the Black Sea fleet. The Russian aggression tempted former military-neutral nations Sweden and Finland to consider NATO membership, while Ukraine continued to express its desire to become a NATO member. On 24 February 2022, Vladimir Putin announced a ‘special military operation’ to ‘demilitarise and denazify’ Ukraine. Cruise missiles exploded in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities and Russian ground troops invaded Ukraine from Russia, Belarus, the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk and the Republic of Crimea. The invasion was condemned internationally. Various countries provide humanitarian, military and financial aid to Ukraine.

There is no doubt that we cannot sympathise with the Russian aggression and crimes against humanity in Ukraine, but this brief reconstruction of global tensions in the past teaches us that Putin’s aggression has historical context. It also shows that our leaders may have missed some historical opportunities to make peace not war. We missed several warnings that (perhaps) could have prevented this stain on humanity. Moreover, as a democracy we failed to create solid public support for human rights, solidarity and peace.

Where has our sociological imagination gone?

In Europe and America

there’s a growing feeling of hysteria

conditioned to respond to all the threats

in the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets.

Mister Krushchev said, “We will bury you.”

I don’t subscribe to this point of view.

It’d be such an ignorant thing to do

if the Russians love their children too.

(Russians from ‘The dream of the Blue Turtles’, Sting, A&M records, 1985)

As Gordon Sumner argued, with the support of Russian composer Sergej Prokofjev, there was an increasing feeling of hysteria in western capitalist countries, rather than a growing mutual understanding. Despite moments of de-escalation, power relations remained stuck in an atmosphere of distrust. The fall of the Berlin wall could have been a sign for further de-escalation; instead, it seemed to be interpreted by the American leaders as an opportunity to place a definitive stranglehold on the opponent in an attempt to firmly establish their own global hegemony. They were undoubtedly driven by the image of an evil enemy, but also by the knowledge that our capitalist market economies could further grow exponentially.

European leaders, quite uncritically, seemed to agree with that strategy, and so did the people. It happens with much more nuance than it did in Russia (where they simply reprint school books with updated and alternative facts on history), but public support for the dominant perspective on social problems is gained through many channels. One who dares to critically question the social system we established today is reminded of the ‘fact’ that there is no alternative. Even political debates, which pre-eminently should tackle the subject of another world, do not go beyond the bounds of ‘reality’. A popular strategy to cope with the all too critical ideas is what Herbert Marcuse (1969) called repressive tolerance, referring to the technique of giving dissonant voices a certain forum in society, polishing up the all too sharp edges. In doing so, deviant ideas on the organisation of society are assimilated into the dominant discourse and dissonant voices are politically recuperated within ‘realistic’ views on the desired social order. The initial revolutionary ideas are welcomed as ideas for cultural renewal. Implications that would go in the direction of social conflict are averted. Ideas that cannot be recuperated find no response. If needed, they are obstinately persecuted and violently repressed.

This is where youth work comes into the picture. What we call the ‘youth movement’ in Flanders started as a student movement that heavily questioned the dominant social order at the time. Quite soon, the movement was reframed (under the flag of Scouting) to a pedagogical method, diverting the critical enthusiasm of young people from the social political field to the field of leisure and education. In doing so, social questions are transformed into pedagogical questions and youth work is no longer a practice of community development, but rather a practice of citizenship training, restricting sociological imagination within the bounds of ‘reality’. The youth question is disconnected from the social question. So, we should be very conscious on that point: youth work has a role to play in our societies, but it is not in itself an emancipatory nor a democratic practice. Not in the East, not in the West.

Reinventing the social

It is appalling to observe how this horrific act of Russian aggression is driven by a deeply cultivated image of an evil capitalist enemy. Each conflict or possible threat is interpreted as part of a conspiracy against the Russian people. There is evidence that the CIA deliberately destabilized regimes that were not in line with neoliberal philosophy (Chomsky, 1992). It is clear, however, that there is not much room in Russia for a more nuanced perspective on global relationships. How else could it be possible that this terrible war seems to find a lot of public support in Russia? At the same time, one could make parallel reflections on the fact that people in the West do not question whether NATO expansion and the accompanying enemy image may be part of the problem.

These observations reflect a lack of critical thinking, both in the East as in the West. The capability to critically and reasonably reflect is developed by education, but not just through ‘training’ or ‘schooling’. What we lack – and the English language does not even have adequate vocabulary for it – is known in German as Bildung (Giesecke, 1972): education that contributes to the development of children into critical, mature people who are able to relate their own interests to those of other people, who are focused on connection rather than self-gratification. This educational gap cannot be fully addressed by the schooling system. Schools under neoliberal, capitalist regimes are increasingly forced into a straitjacket of performance and international rankings and a focus on employability and technical skills rather than on Bildung. Moreover, good schooling – especially in the USA and the UK – is only affordable to the rich and promising young people. In authoritarian regimes such as Russia, schools often are reduced to state factories where critical reflection is not part of the programme. Schoolbooks rewrite history in order to serve the official doctrine.

A vivid democracy needs critical education. Therefore, education should not be left totally to the market (the private sector), nor to the state (the public system). In the private sphere, freedom rules, but there is no solid democratic framework on human rights, equality, tolerance and diversity. The public system fosters an over-tightened, dogmatic framework, leaving little room for freedom of thought. That is why a true democracy is in need of a social sphere in between the private and the public (Donzelot, 1984). This is a social and pedagogical field through which people are educated to be loyal citizens, smoothly integrating into the maintaining system, but at the same time enabled to shape and reshape the system into which they are supposed to integrate. Youth work is an essential part of that social sphere, a sphere that has been deeply marginalised, instrumentalised or even damaged, in the neoliberal West as in the authoritarian East.

It may sound a bit naive, but a true democracy needs to engage in lively social debate. This debate cannot neglect the existing balances of power in a society. This urges for maximum transparency as it concerns the underpinning values of our social order. A democratic society needs a permanent and honest debate on the question of which realities are in whose interests and the grounds on which some ideas or ideals are confirmed as ‘realistic’ and others not. To a certain degree, these values and grounds are firmly established. A genuine democracy is supposed to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

As Fukuyama claimed, our western, liberal democracies may be the final form of human government; still, a democracy will always be a process under construction, so to describe it as the ‘final form’ seems to be an oxymoron. Thinkers such as Fukuyama or Anthony Giddens (1994) took us beyond left and right, beyond ideology, politics, pedagogy and even – as infamously declared by Thatcher – beyond society. No big ideas, no all-embracing ideologies. So what is democracy about then? What about the gross violations of human rights in our Western democracies? What about one in three children in the UK living in poverty? Liberal democracy takes its toll? Why can’t the final form of human government solve poverty? Is it because poverty has positive functions in a market society (Gans, 1970)? Would poor people agree with the statement that our Western societies present the final form of human government? Of course, they would not, but global capitalism enjoys near total dominance (Zizek, 2009). It is difficult to imagine another world. The continuous quest for a legitimate, albeit always provisional, consensus on the organisation of society is referred to as the dustbin of history (Lorenz, 2005). It seems that the invisible hand of the market has become the final form of human government, despite the global financial crisis, despite the global corona crisis, despite the war on Ukraine. By disempowering the social sphere of society, our democracies are actively eroded. Only predatory capitalism or authoritarianism remain, both unworthy of a welfare state. There are alternatives, but they will not come out from the blue. Throughout history, youth work has played its role in rethinking the dominant social order, but quite often also in confirming the same order.

Youth work and the welfare state

A welfare state stands for commodified capitalism, balancing freedom and equality. The invisible hand of the market should be made visible so that it becomes subject to social corrections. Youth workers should very well be aware that educators cannot be objective and neutral towards maintaining social order. “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral” (Freire, 1985, p. 122).

In what we started to call the Blankenberge sessions (Coussée et al., 2010; Verschelden et al., 2013), we took lessons from the history of youth work. Through a series of seven history seminars (the first two were organised in the small coastal Belgian city of Blankenberge, the fourth one found its place in Tallin, see Taru 2014), we witnessed youth work occurring as part of an increasingly important social and pedagogical field, reconciling private aspirations with public expectations. The huge diversity of young people and the substantial differences in perspectives on how to match individual autonomy with social integration make it impossible to create an unambiguous and uniform youth work practice. This is both the strength and the weakness of youth work. At the time, we defined two concurring archetypes of youth work:

  • Youth work as a transit zone between the private and the public

In this approach, youth work is increasingly constructed as part of the social and pedagogical infrastructure, providing a transit zone between the private lifeworld and the public system. It is demanded of youth workers to enable young people to acquire the necessary skills to become independent of the state and smoothly integrate into the dominant social order. Young people’s aspirations are bound within the framework of public expectation. As Rosenthal (1986: 104) articulated Baden-Powell’s objective with his archetypical youth work method: ‘If the public schools were made to produce gentlemen prepared to lead, the Scouts were intended to produce young men ready to follow.’ Youth work does not start where young people are, but where the social order demands them to be.

The main objective is to support specifically vulnerable young people in undergoing ‘normal’ development and becoming ‘gainfully employed individuals, not reliant on public funds or services’ (Roth & Brooks-Gunn, 2003: 96). Such a perspective reframes youth work from a basic social and pedagogical provision to a ‘residual’ and temporary service with a clear purpose: people may be dependent on labour market conditions, but they are not allowed to rely on public support. While people in situations labelled as ‘socially excluded’ may be less than happy, this does not mean that their individual inclusion into the mainstream – if attainable – is a satisfactory solution. As Pitts (2001) pointed out, routine, alienation, exploitation and discrimination are inherently part of the bottom of the mainstream. Therefore, if youth work takes its principles and history seriously, it is not in the first place an instrument for social integration, as the paradoxical consequence of strategies that concentrate on implying individual solutions to social exclusion involve a ‘pistachio effect’, in which social workers are tempted to leave the harder nuts to crack, at best, until later, or, at worst, to simply disregard them (Tiffany, 2007). The increasing ‘colonisation’ of youth work is sailing under the colours of empowerment and emancipation, but in the end, it contributes to the further disempowerment of those people who are already marginalised (Coussée et al., 2008).

  • Youth work as a forum for questioning the ratio between the public and the private

The transitional youth work practice should be radically embedded in a social forum function. In this approach – rooted in youth movements all over the world – youth work enables young people to cope with life questions, not to merely comply to life rules. Youth work supports people in questioning the dominant social order and likewise expectations. Youth work practices enable young people to develop lifestyles and cultural spaces, oppositional or otherwise, that have personal meaning for them (Pitts, 2001). In this approach, youth work stands for ‘cultural action’ (Freire, 1997): questioning, demythologising, historicising and changing dehumanising processes by unveiling the social, political and cultural project underpinning the institutionalised society. It is impossible to go beyond the pistachio effect if youth work is confined by a straightforward logic in which undesirable individual behaviour is not just seen in correlation to social problems, but rather as a cause to their effect (Colley & Hodkinson, 2001). Therefore, it is of utmost importance that youth work remains an autonomous discipline, taking a broader perspective on social problems and reminding us that those macro-mechanisms inevitably also play a part in micro-relationships, which implies that solidarity and respect for human dignity is not an abstract value but the heart of our everyday practices and policies.

There are some pitfalls here, too. Youth work in this approach is a universal provision, not a targeted one, but as association is at the core of youth work, there is a risk that youth work unites groups of young people from similar backgrounds, while at the same time separating them from other groups. In doing so, youth work runs the risk of confirming dividing lines between the established and the outsiders (Elias and Scotson, 1965). Here, again, we run the risk of empowering the powerful and preserving the forum approach to the promising young people, not aiming for radical social change, but at the most aiming for cultural renewal.

Youth work as a field of transitional fora

Transitional fora cope with the tensions inherent in a welfare state. They are the motor of the necessary solidarity to balance capitalist freedom with democratic equality. They connect to young people’s lifeworlds (meanings and experiences). They reconnect young people to society and to the social debate on the organisation of that society. In current policies, there is a tendency to neglect the inevitability of those social tensions and dilemmas. Neoliberal policy-makers call themselves liberal, but at the same time, some of them are quite authoritarian in their pursuit of more structured, individualised, professionalised and outcome-focused youth work, especially with regard to ‘vulnerable’ young people, because they are at risk of marginalisation or radicalisation. They might need better access to ‘transitory’ resources, but even more so they are in need of a social forum enabling them to redefine their situation as a consequence of an unjust social order, not as a consequence of unwillingness or low aspirations.

Three decennia of neoliberal wind has affected youth work more than we might think in our so-called western liberal democracies. In the 1980s, youth clubs and associations participated in protest marches of young people for employment. Youth organisations organised demonstrations against racism and marches against nuclear weapons. Today, governments increasingly seem to reframe the social and pedagogical mandate of youth work in terms of helping individual young people to eek out a living and not join the ranks of the NEETs. Youth workers play a crucial role in engaging politicians in local practice and engaging young people in local debates on neighbourhood redevelopment, playground renovation, traffic plans, re-employment programmes, war and peace in the world. Lots of young people are not addressed. Their capacities, knowledge and energy remain unused. Groups of young people are seen as problems, not resources, even by youth workers (Williamson and Coussée, 2019). Through youth work, we reconnect young people to the democratic debate. We do not resign ourselves to the treatment of the symptoms of a sick society, but help to develop sustained alternatives. This may lead to tensions with subsidising governments. We should not run away for those tensions. Tensions keep us moving. Youth workers definitely should not succumb to neoliberal policies or try to meet the demand for return on investment. Such a surrender to the neoliberal and managerial ‘value for money’ logic led to huge budget cuts for youth work in the UK, especially in England. Constructively handling these kind of tensions is therefore one of the main fields of expertise of well-trained youth workers. However, it is hugely overlooked in most of youth work trainings that focus on other, equally important fields like creativity and animation techniques, developmental psychology, motivational conversations, etc. No one said youth work is easy. Youth work is probably the most difficult job in the world (Coussée & Williamson, 2011).


Informal learning contributes to the development of mature and balanced young people. Therefore, youth work has a central role to play in the process of democratically living together with each other in all our diversity, and in peace. Youth work has the potential to create free spaces for young people that are characterised by safety, a sense of belonging, bonding and bridging, the art of conversation, challenges, friendship and relationships. In striking contrast to the contemporary school system, youth workers create places where young people can explore themselves and their environment. Youth work contexts should be places where young people find the motivation to learn. This may not be concerned in the first place with measurable skills, but it does play an important role in young people’s holistic development. This additional social and pedagogical value is exactly the reason that educational thinkers, youth leaders and policy-makers, over a century ago, established a youth work framework that gathered all distinguished and differentiated practices focusing on the positive development of young people outside school time. This is an important message to today’s youth policy-makers at all levels: youth work has never been solely about achieving predefined outcomes, nor about fixing predetermined issues (Williamson and Coussée, 2019).

In a true democracy, youth work is not about solving social problems created by adults unwilling or unable to change an unjust system. Youth work is about discussing and defining endemic problems. Youth work is not only about bridging the power gap in the social debate between young people and adults, but also that between the poor and the rich and between young people in all their diversity. Youth work is not about formulating definitive answers, it is about asking the right questions. War is definitely not the answer, but what is the question?

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The cover image was designed by young Estonian artist Luisa Harjak.

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