Tag Archives Authoritarian Populism

Rural support for authoritarian populism is strong – but another way is possible by Ian Scoones

While the rise of authoritarian populism continues, its rural dimension has been missed in most commentary. Whether it is because of land grabs, voracious extractivism, infrastructural neglect or lack of services, people’s disillusionment with the status quo, across often disconnected rural areas and small towns, is tangible across settings. It is the rural dimension of the rise of authoritarian populism that has been the focus of the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI), which aims at reinventing politics of new sustainable rural economies, based on solidarity and collectivity. 

The rise of authoritarian populism continues. Now the UK has a fully signed-up version in its new right-wing government, with allies in Trump, Modi, Bolsarano, Orban and others. It is a dangerous, but perhaps inevitable, trend. The soul-searching on the Left after the UK election rather belatedly diagnosed the problem. It has been long in the making – the result of sustained neglect of services, infrastructure and livelihoods as globalised neoliberalism created winners (in London mostly) and losers elsewhere, including large swathes of (semi-)rural England.

It is the rural dimension of the rise of authoritarian populism – strangely missed in most commentary – that has been the focus of the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI), initiated in 2017 in the aftermath of the election of Trump and the Brexit referendum. Our framing paper in the Journal of Peasant Studies, now downloaded nearly 23,000 times, was written that year, and remains (rather scarily) relevant. Its call for an alternative emancipatory politics and – following Chantal Mouffe – a version of a ‘left populism’, remains relevant.

Since our major meeting at ISS in the Hague in early 2018, the ERPI network has been busy discussing, organising and reflecting – not only diagnosing the problems, but also exploring solutions.

From problems to alternatives

In collaboration with openDemocracy, we produced a series of videos and short articles on ‘Authoritarian Populism and the Rural World’. Following a small grants competition, a series of great articles have been published as part of a special JPS Forum, now including contributions on Belarus, Bolivia, Cambodia, Ecuador, Hungary, Mozambique Russia, Spain, Turkey and the US (and more to come, including on ‘populism from above and below’ in Brazil).

The Journal of Agrarian Change has published an important review piece by Jun Borras emerging from these debates and Fernwood/Practical Action have produced Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right by Walden Bello, part of the ‘small books for big ideas’ series.

In the Hague, a number of regional working groups were established, and they have been pushing the debate further. For example, ERPI Europe has been engaged in a number of events, and is producing an important special issue for Sociologia Ruralis, while ERPI North America has been publishing a great series of papers in a special issue of the Journal of Rural Studies. ERPI Africa has been engaging in field-based exchange visits and writing up experiences, ERPI Latin America is collecting together a set of papers – covering Guatemala, Haiti, Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Bolivia – for a proposed special issue, and EPRI South Asia met in Sri Lanka to exchange experiences from across the region.

Finally, the ERPI group focusing on implications for human rights, linked to core ERPI partner the Transnational Institute (TNI), has also produced an excellent piece – A View from the Countryside.

Common threads: rural populism and alternatives to authoritarian politics

Some key themes have emerged from the debates that the ERPI has engaged in with people around the world.

Wherever you look, the rural dimension is key – not just in electoral calculus but in understanding underlying drivers. Whether it is because of land grabs, voracious extractivism, infrastructural neglect or lack of services, people’s disillusionment with the status quo, across often disconnected rural areas and small towns, is tangible across settings.

This leads to the fragmenting of communities and loss of security and identity. Lack of jobs and livelihoods is blamed on outsiders, often immigrant populations working in agricultural industries in such marginalised areas. Declining rural and small town livelihoods is often, in turn, linked to drug abuse and physical and mental ill-health, and increasing despair.

Across cases, the disenchantment and disenfranchisement felt in such areas is firmly the result of state neglect over decades, thanks to neoliberal policies that have resulted in austerity, extraction and exploitation.

The cosmopolitan, mostly urban, educated ‘left’ elite have failed to engage with these real concerns and traumas, while organised labour has defended remaining formal jobs to the exclusion of others who are unemployed or surviving on the margins.

Populist right-wing parties, despite dissonance in values and messages, have appealed to many, with promises of jobs, investment and renewal, combined with a nationalist anti-migrant rhetoric that resonates those who feel under threat.

Yet amongst the gloom, more positively, there are alternatives being created that offer the opportunity of a new politics in such rural and semi-urban areas. These are rooted in communities, linked to rural skills, trades and cultures, and encourage collectivity and solidarity, often around forms of ‘commoning’. Movements, such as around food sovereignty, help mobilise around and extend such alternatives.

Such initiatives often tackle the big issues of today: helping to build a new economy which is sustainable and addresses the threats of climate chaos. Very often they make use of modern tech to encourage connectivity, sharing and building solidarities. Yet, they remain on the periphery of state plans and political debate.

Where next?

Unless progressive politics focuses on such alternatives, and helps articulate and scale them up, the prospect of defeating the rise of authoritarian populism in the rural hinterlands looks slim. This requires new forms of decentred organising, focusing on real issues and people, and building from communities upwards and outwards. It requires different solutions for different places; not grand socialist planning or welfarist deals struck from above.

The UK’s election result was a trauma waiting to happen. It is a pattern that has been repeated elsewhere – and I fear will be in the future. As the ERPI discussions emphasise, the response should not be despair or blame games, but a reinventing of politics of a new sustainable rural economies, based on solidarity and collectivity. Following Ivan Illich, this means creating new practical, political ‘tools for conviviality’ that can confront authoritarian populism by building alternatives. And in this, the rural hinterlands and small towns are key.

This post first appeared on https://steps-centre.org/blog/rural-support-for-authoritarian-populism-is-strong-but-another-way-is-possible/.

About the author:
Ian_Scoones2016.jpgIan Scoones is a Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex and co-director of the ESRC STEPS Centre. He is one of the initiators of the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative and is a member of the editorial collective of the Journal of Peasant Studies.


Confronting authoritarian populism: building collaborations for emancipatory rural resistance by Sergio Coronado

Authoritarian populism is increasingly resisted across the world. Such contestations and expressions of resistance against oppressive authoritarian regimes are being understood as emancipatory rural politics. The Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI) through a conference hosted by ISS on 17 and 18 March 2018 sought to explore the dynamics of authoritarian populism and pathways of resistance.


The ERPI Conference: A meeting place for activists

The phrase ‘a new political momentum is underway’1 was embodied on 17 and 18 March 2018 when more than 250 scholars, activists, practitioners, and policymakers representing more than 60 countries gathered at the International Institute of Social Studies to discuss the rise and effects of authoritarian populism at the ERPI’s ‘Authoritarian Populism and the Rural World’ conference.

Authoritarian populism is a contested and highly debated concept. In a recent blog by Ian Scoones, it is described as follows: ‘In Gramscian terms, authoritarian populisms can emerge when the “balance of forces” changes, creating a new “political-ideological conjuncture”. Drawing on populist discontents, a transformist, authoritarian movement, often with a strong, figurehead leader, is launched, mobilising around “moral panics” and “authoritarian closure”, and being given, in Hall’s words, “the gloss of populist consent”.’

On the surface, it seems that academics, practitioners, and the media use this concept to broadly describe political circumstances within different countries. One of the primary expectations of the conference was to capture the attention of a wider community of scholars and activists to promote a collective reflection about the ongoing political momentum surrounding this topic, and mainly to figure out whether the proposed definition of authoritarian populism is useful to understand what is happening.

At least three academic debates captured the attention of the participants of the conference. First, some conference participants critiqued the use of the notion of authoritarian populism to describe the uprising of conservative politicians after the crisis induced by the undelivered promises of neoliberal governments. Trump, Duterte and other populists are seizing political power in their countries partly because of the failure of neoliberal regimes to successfully transform poverty and to deliver the fulfilment of social and economic rights for the vast majority of poor classes.

Second, the debates focused on the use of this concept to generalise uneven and even contradictory situations, particularly concerning matching, yet different kinds of political regimes regardless of their political orientation. Notably, in the Latin American context, there could be an apparent coexistence of left-wing and right-wing populist regimes with different goals and political dynamics that prevent them from being comparable in these specific terms.

Third, the debates reflected on the accuracy of the concept to understand the current political phenomenon. For instance, some argued that the conceptualisation of authoritarian populism by Stuart Hall is more nuanced and specific than that by the authors of the ERPI framing paper, but they argue that Hall’s definition does not necessarily inform the complex dynamics of the current rural world.


The result of the conference was an endowment of the debate around this concept. Authoritarian populism has been challenged by scholars, activists, and scholar-activists participating in the conference. Different critiques of this mode of governance have enriched understandings of the concept in multiple, innovative and exciting ways. During the conference’s first working groups session, participants discussed the realities of authoritarian populism via the cases and contexts described in the 70+ conference working papers.

Despite the lack of consensus on the concept, significant commonalities were found: even though the contexts of countries such as Indonesia, Brazil and Turkey differ significantly, authoritarian modes of governance are recognisable in all of these contexts: the shift toward nationalism; the existence of iron-fist leaders concentrating political power; the legitimation of repressive policies by appealing to the presence of external threats; and increasing human rights violations committed against people demanding democracy. Therefore, although these are clearly different situations, the existence of standard features helps illuminate common ground for comparing, understanding and confronting this problematic.

Making alternative rural politics visible

Alternatives to authoritarian populism are also visible in the rural world. One of the most important political forces confronting the rise of conservative populism is agrarian social movements such as La Via Campesina—a paradox, because populists seek social legitimation by appealing to traditions deeply rooted in the countryside. This contradiction vividly illuminates how rapidly the rural world is transforming, not only because of the enlargement of large-scale capitalist agriculture and the dispossession of the rural poor, but also because of the emergence of alternatives to such developments, constructed by rural people and social movements.

In her recent blog on Open Democracy, Ruth Hall describes how in South Africa rural social movements, like the Alliance for Rural Democracy, are contesting the state, market and chiefly power through claims for the protection of communal rights over land. Particularly, such movements focus on the demands for the democratisation of customs that currently enable chiefs to subscribe to prejudicial agreements with private investors, affecting the rights to land of people that depend on its access for their subsistence.

Such contestations and expressions of resistance against oppressive authoritarian regimes are being understood as emancipatory rural politics. This conference explicitly aimed to bring together academics and activists, and discuss ways in which emerging emancipatory politics can be supported. However, a huge challenge remains of providing security to the people on the front lines of such struggles. A shocking amount of violence is exerted against movement leaders, and threats against their lives are increasing globally. Social movements have constructed innovative strategies for self-protection.

A way to promote and support alternatives to the effects of authoritarian populism on people living in the countryside is through facilitating a deeper understanding of the phenomenon and clarifying the nuances between different regions and countries. Resistance towards authoritarian populism has multiple expressions; although social mobilisation is the most prominent, other kinds of political activities are taking place everywhere.


Sin fiesta no hay revolución”

“Sin fiesta no hay revolución”: without a party, there is no revolution. After the conference, the ERPI collective aims to continue growing as an expanded community of activists and scholars, aiming to construct critical understandings of authoritarian populism and to critically engage with emancipatory politics emerging in the rural world. Artists like Boy Dominguez and Rakata Teatro are now part of this process of the enlargement of the ERPI community and show how to diversify ways of expressing resistance.

We hope to take this initiative even further: follow us on Twitter @TheErpi, and Facebook to become involved and stay updated.


1This expression opens the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI) framing paper, published almost one year ago in the Journal of Peasant Studies. The article aims to raise awareness among a global community of academics and activists working in the rural world about the rise of populist politics around the globe and the agrarian origins and the impacts of these politics on rural lives.
Main picture: Populismo by Boy Dominguez, launched at the ERPI conference.

Also see: Confronting authoritarian populism: challenges for agrarian studies by Ian Scoones

IMG_0160 2About the author:

Sergio Coronado is a PhD researcher affiliated with both the Free University Berlin and the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). Currently, he is writing his dissertation on peasant agency and institutional change in Colombia, and co-coordinates the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI) secretariat. Email: sergio.coronado@fu-berlin.de.



Confronting authoritarian populism: challenges for agrarian studies by Ian Scoones

About the author:
Ian_Scoones2016.jpgIan Scoones is a Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex and co-director of the ESRC STEPS Centre. He is one of the initiators of the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative and is a member of the editorial collective of the Journal of Peasant Studies.


A few weeks back I was in Russia at the fascinating fifth BRICS Initiative in Critical Agrarian Studies conference. Throughout the event we heard about the emergence of particular styles of authoritarian populist regimes, including in the BRICS countries, but elsewhere too. Based on my remarks at the final plenary, I want to ask what the challenges are for agrarian studies in confronting authoritarian populism.

ERPI 2m ssssThis is a theme that is at the core of the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI), hosted by ISS and launched in May this year. The open access framing paper is available from the Journal of Peasant Studies, as is a brilliant contribution to the JPS Forum on this theme from Walden Bello.  The ERPI conference in March next year will be held at the ISS, and now also has an open call for contributions (deadline, Nov 15).

We have been somewhat overwhelmed by the global response to the initiative, and we had a flood of applicants for small grants, with the winners of the 2017 competition announced recently. There is a very vibrant network emerging among scholars and activists around the world, and many were present at the conference in Moscow.

So, what do we mean by authoritarian populism? It takes many forms, but we draw on the arguments of Stuart Hall and others made in the context of Thatcherism in the UK. In Gramscian terms, authoritarian populisms can emerge when the ‘balance of forces’ changes, creating a new ‘political-ideological conjuncture’. Drawing on populist discontents, a transformist, authoritarian movement, often with a strong, figurehead leader, is launched, mobilising around ‘moral panics‘and ‘authoritarian closure’, and being given, in Hall’s words, ‘the gloss of populist consent’. Sound familiar?

In this blog, I want to discuss the implications and challenges for how we think about agrarian issues in the context of authoritarian populism, and want to make four brief points.

First, as Dani Rodrik, the Harvard economist, explains, the form of populism that emerges around the world – broadly characterised as authoritarian or progressive – depends very much on the historical engagements with globalisation, and how populists mobilise, either around ethno-nationalist arguments when global migration flows create discontents or around class divisions when global trade has impacts on livelihoods. I think this is an important argument, but so far in his writings he doesn’t flesh out the detail, and in particular how globalisation processes affect rural spaces in different ways to urban metropoles, with contrasting implications for class, caste, gender or age – and so processes of political mobilisation. I’d argue that agrarian studies needs to engage with these questions, and perhaps bring more of a global political economy angle back in, where the economics are taken seriously.

Second, the emergence of populism, with a strong rural base, needs a careful analysis of the social and cultural dynamics of rural change, asking sympathetically why it is that young people, women, peasant farmers and others are often strongly behind reactionary populist positions. Liberals and leftists may argue that this does not serve their interests and they are somehow mistaken, but we need to look beyond such rationalist arguments, and think harder about the politics of identity, belonging, recognition and community. Rural religion and cultural identities are important, but not conventionally part of agrarian studies. Interest-based analyses (centred on class or whatever category) and conventional political economy may simply be not enough.

Third, at the same time, authoritarian populism provides an impetus to the continuation of extractive exploitation of rural resources – land, water, resource grabbing continues apace. But this time with a nationalist tinge, and with new capital-elite-state alliances forged. These processes, which were a response to the global financial crisis of 2008 and the desperate search for investment opportunities by global capital, now have a new context in many settings. How do new configurations of power, and a populist, nationalist, often anti-globalization narrative, affect the politics of dispossession in rural spaces, and with these the dynamics of accumulation, among local and international elites? I think these wider political shifts mean that our conversations around grabbing and extractivism that occupied many of the presentations at the conference, require an expanded frame that takes populist politics seriously.

Fourth, the ERPI is interested in how alternatives are forged and resistances mobilised to authoritarian populism. Our analyses must probe why these don’t happen, but also how and when they do. We also must think hard about the conventional frames for mobilisation, and ask whether these do the job today, in the face of authoritarian populisms. Take the idea of food sovereignty. For many, the food sovereignty movement has been a site for progressive discussion about agrarian alternatives. But the notion of sovereignty, localism, autonomy and rejection of the role of the state and globalism, has frequently been captured by regressive populist positions. Why do peasant farmers support such political leaders? Because they claim to offer a voice and a commitment to protecting their autonomy from the ill-winds of global trade and state interference. The Natural Farming Movement in India is a case in point. A perfectly good idea about agro-ecological farming gets wrapped up in exclusionary Hindutva nationalism, yet is celebrated as a food sovereignty success. A new politics of the mainstream requires a new politics of the alternative, and agrarian movements need in my view some hard thinking about positioning.

As outlined in our ERPI framing paper, a new moment is emerging: a critical, historical conjuncture, when the tectonic plates of global power relations shift. We cannot pretend this is not happening. In Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, for sure, but also in Turkey, the Philippines, Indonesia, much of Europe and of course the US, political reconfigurations are underway, responding in different ways to a quite fundamental crisis in globalised neoliberal capitalism, with huge ramifications across rural worlds everywhere.

New contexts require new questions, new analytical frames and new forms of mobilisation. And with this moment unfolding rapidly, in alliance with others, the intellectual and political project of agrarian studies must rise to the challenge.

This post first appeared on Zimbabweland It was written at the occasion of the BICAS conference in Moscow last 13-16 October co-organized by ISS, and looks forward to the international conference on “authoritarian Populism and the Rural World” at ISS on 17-18 March 2018.