Ongoing conversations: realising an emancipatory rural politics in the face of authoritarian populism

The need for a new narrative to counter authoritarian populism, one that is popular, inclusive and progressive was a common call – also cross-class, intersectional and human rights grounded.

Filipino artist Boy Dominguez presented his work at the ERPI conference, explaining its political messages.

Nearly 300 academics and activists gathered over a weekend recently at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague for an extraordinary, highly animated conversation about ‘authoritarian populism and the rural world’. 80 odd papers prepared and read in advance were discussed in groups and plenary sessions. Not a single powerpoint was used, and horizontal, inclusive discussions were encouraged on the origins and consequences of authoritarian populism in different places, the forms of resistance and mobilisation emerging and the alternatives being practised and proposed. It was intense, stimulating and exhausting, and there’s much to digest. You can get a flavour of the excitement at #ERPI2018. Not a single powerpoint was used, and horizontal, inclusive discussions were encouraged on the origins and consequences of authoritarian populism.

The openDemocracy series of articles on India, Kurdish Rojava, the United States, Brazil, Indonesia, Myanmar, Colombia and South Africa give a taste of some of the issues discussed; although at the event there were contributions from around 50 countries. Comparing and contrasting everywhere from Cambodia to Canada and Brazil to Belarus was challenging: there are important convergences, but also major differences.

What, then, does the rise of such different forms of authoritarian populism mean for rural peoples around the world? Many themes emerged. Some were more conceptual and generic, some were quite specific to particular places. Below are five themes that struck me; necessarily a very personal and selective list.

Authoritarian populisms

The term ‘authoritarian populism’ we used to frame the conference was intensely debated. Was this not just ‘right-wing’ or ‘reactionary’ politics; does this not denigrate and undermine ‘the popular’; was this in any way new? The answers depend on particular contexts of course.

Populism has different resonances in different political cultures; sometimes more positive, sometimes negative. But Stuart Hall’s delineation of authoritarian populism seems to apply in many places today. We see the deployment of a ‘them’ and ‘us’ narrative being used to generate a collective but exclusionary political project.

We see the generation of ‘moral panic’, providing the justification for surveillance and suppression. We see the deployment of ‘political technologies’ that constrain and discipline, whether this is food prohibitions or electronic identity cards.

And we see the rise of authoritarian populism as a response to a ‘crisis’ in the economic base – today, forms of extractivist, financialised neoliberalism – and, in turn, being used as a route to mobilise and reconfigure the state.

Of course all this plays out in different ways in different places and different periods in history, but the basic features, however theorised, are evident. Today, this also has an international axis, with connections being made between political leaders, movements and the electorate, facilitated by the increasingly sophisticated deployment of data mining, targeted messaging and political mobilisation, supported by often very wealthy benefactors.

Dangers of co-option

Authoritarian populism is not the exclusive preserve of ‘the right’, as the ambiguity of populist framings means that there is a wide co-option of ideas and interventions normally the preserve of progressive movements.

In rural settings, we see subsidy policies, social welfare support and local economic development, alongside trade protection, sovereignty and anti-globalisation narratives, being promoted by right-wing, authoritarian regimes. We heard of the struggles in rural Germany where in a single village proto-fascist groups and progressive agroecological farmers are both arguing for local determination and autonomy.

This means there is sometimes a ‘slippery slope’ between progressive and regressive mobilisations, with an easy capture or co-option of movements….

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