Authoritarian populism and neo-extractivism in Bolivia and Ecuador: The unresolved agrarian question and the prospects for food sovereignty as counter-hegemony

17 March 2018
Paper

What will happen when revenues from extractivism begin to dry up, and the short-term consumer boom, the welfare payments, and the class alliances that go with them, start to unravel?

The new economic flows ushered in across the South by the rise of China have permitted some to circumvent the imperial debt trap, notably the ‘pink tide’ states of Latin America. These states, exploiting this window of opportunity, have sought to revisit developmentalism by means of ‘neo-extractivism’. The populist, and increasingly authoritarian, regimes in Bolivia and Ecuador are exemplars of this trend and have swept to power on the back of anti-neoliberal sentiment.

These populist regimes in Bolivia and Ecuador articulate a sub-hegemonic discourse of national developmentalism, whilst forging alliances with counter-hegemonic groups, united by a rhetoric of anti-imperialism, indigenous revival, and livelihood principles such as buen vivir. But this rhetorical ‘master frame’ hides the class divisions and real motivations underlying populism: that of favouring neo-extractivism, via sub-imperial capital, to fund the ‘compensatory state’, supporting small scale commercial farmers through reformism while largely neglecting the counter-hegemonic aims, and reproductive crisis, of the middle/lower peasantry, and lowland indigenous groups, and their calls for food sovereignty as radical social relational change.

Thus far, this counter-hegemonic impulse has been contained by such compensatory welfarism. It is questionable, however, whether this populist compact can endure. The fiscal capacity of the reformist state is dependent upon the inherently unsustainable, and time-limited, revenue windfall that derives from neo-extractivism. Whether through progressive exhaustion of the resource base, or through a collapse in the commodity boom as a result of accumulation crisis in China, or a combination of both, Bolivia and Ecuador’s model of neo-developmentalism is built on shifting sands. When revenues from extractivism begin to dry up, the short-term consumer boom, the welfare payments, and the class alliances that go with them, will start to unravel. At this point, the populist regime and reformist state will encounter the limits of its legitimacy. Will this facilitate a resurgence of counter-hegemonic mobilisation?

The paper speculates that a ‘dual powers’ strategy may be appropriate, whereby counter-hegemony, as food/livelihood sovereignty, may be implanted at ‘local’ level as a form of autonomy, whilst, simultaneously, recognizing the need to engage and transform the state to secure a more generalized autonomy from capitalism.

This paper was presented at the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI) 2018 Conference: "Authoritarian Populism and the Rural World"