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.
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.