Rural support for authoritarian populism is strong – but another way is possible
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.
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.