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.
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. At the meeting, 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. In India, we heard of the BKU – the Bharatiya Kisan Union – a farmers’ movement proclaiming anti-Muslim Hindutva ideology, yet being a core member of the global peasants’ movement, La Via Campesina.
The need for a new narrative to counter authoritarian populism, one that is popular, inclusive and progressive was a common call across the event.
Religion and moral solidarities
Religion was a common theme; one not often discussed in gatherings on agrarian issues. Religious belief and emotional, affective, moral dimensions may be a blind-spot of the left, some argued. The appeals of moral certainty offered by evangelical Christian movements in the US, Hindutva organisers in India, Buddhist leaders in Myanmar and Islamic nationalists in Indonesia, for example, are important in mobilising forms of religiously-inflected authoritarian populism.
The counter to this cannot be ignoring religion and moral orders, but an imperative to engage. Of course all world religions have progressive traditions; how to mobilise in relation to religious institutions becomes crucial. Talk radio shows in the US, we heard, provide a powerful space, but the millions of listeners are almost completely captured by the narratives of authoritarian, religious populism. New forms of organising, linking people in new ways, and getting out of isolating, introspective ghettos, while taking religion seriously, seems crucial. New forms of organising, linking people in new ways, and getting out of isolating, introspective ghettos, while taking religion seriously, seems crucial.
Mobilisations: dangers and opportunities
Mobilisation under new political configurations and increasingly closed democratic spaces, is challenging in many places.
A violent, repressive state can make organising extremely dangerous, especially when supported by politically or religiously inspired militia, youth cadres or wider movements, whether the Sangh Parivar in India or radical Buddhist movements in Myanmar. In The Hague, we recognised the loss of life of land and environment defenders around the world, the imprisonment and expulsion of academics in Turkey and beyond and, most recently, the assassination of Marielle Franco, an activist and elected councillor from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
With such repressive closing down, how can emancipatory alternatives emerge? There were in fact many, many inspiring examples presented, from small-scale farming and marketing initiatives creating territorial renewal to approaches to popular education in peasant and pastoralist schools. From Brazil, we heard of the Landless Workers’ Movement’s on-going commitment to popular education, including a strategy of a ‘long march through the institutions’, including schools, universities and more.
In repressive settings, the challenge of opening up institutions – whether the police, the legal system, the media or science – is a continuous struggle, requiring sustained engagement.
New alliances and ways of organising
The challenge of mobilisation and the creation of alternatives is one that clearly must transgress the focus on ‘the rural’ to link the countryside and urban areas, workers and peasants, producers and consumers, so cutting across class, gender, age, ethnicity and religion. Many contributions at the meeting highlighted the importance of wider connections.
While the focus of the ERPI remains rural and agrarian – as we still feel that this dimension is missed out in many wider discussions – many contributions at the meeting highlighted the importance of wider connections.
There was much talk too of the importance of cross-class mobilisation and the importance of intersectional analysis and organising. The links to a wider human rights discourse was frequently emphasised; not least by Sofia Monsalve in the final plenary session, when she argued that our concerns with emancipatory politics are central to human rights struggles worldwide.
But the challenges of generating and sustaining alternatives are very real. The need for ‘big organising’, and being bolder, more imaginative and less constrained by internal differences was a common theme – maybe even taking an idea or two from the ruthless organising capacities of the authoritarian, populist right.
In turn, Hilary Wainwright argued for going beyond narrow ‘resolution’ to a more open, less controlling form of leadership and organising that can connect people and ideas beyond old divides.
These five themes offer only a small glimpse of the rich discussions over an intensive two days. The follow-up to the ERPI event in The Hague will involve both further analysis and action. The many papers that were produced will be honed and refined thanks to the debates authors had; opportunities for connection and solidarity have been struck around on-going campaigns and struggles, with concrete plans for visits and exchanges.
The elaboration of emancipatory alternatives and mobilisation around these will continue, but with new ideas and opportunities for mutual support and exchange. While the ERPI is a small, limited initiative, many seeds have been sown for a wider, informal flourishing of actions, and the connections made for on-going conversations that can generate a new hopeful narrative for emancipatory rural politics globally.