Tag Archives: Agrarian Studies

Confronting authoritarian populism: challenges for agrarian studies

Woman reaper, 1928 (K. Malevich, Russian Museum, St Petersburg)

Last week 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.

This is a theme that is at the core of the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI), 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 at ISS, the Hague 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 was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland




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Yale Agrarian Studies

I am just back from a trip to Yale University where a paper on the Zimbabwe work was discussed as part of the Agrarian Studies Colloquium organised by Jim Scott http://www.yale.edu/agrarianstudies/real/colloq2.html – see paper under Dec 2nd session). It’s a fantastic format where the ‘speaker’ is not allowed to say anything until an hour in, and the audience discusses the pre-circulated paper following a commentary from a grad student. There was a great discussion over several hours, which I thought I would give a flavour of here.

The commentator was Sarah Osterhoudt, who is PhD student in the famous joint program between Anthropology and Forestry and Environmental Studies. In opening up the discussion, she highlighted a number of themes, including the need to get a better sense of how material and social-cultural landscapes intersected in the new resettlements; the importance of exploring the implications of the demographic shifts following resettlement; a need to understand how the ‘new farmers’ were constructing identities and communities, as a new cultural group in a new Zimbabwean politics; and with this the need to explore what new visions of the future of farming, environment, landscape and economy were being constructed.

Later discussions focused on the multiple definitions of ‘success’ deployed in the policy debate – at local vs national level, according to external vs local ‘folk’ criteria, between A1 smallholders and A2 medium scale commercial farms and so on. Which criterion makes sense depends on your standpoint, although it was pointed out that even if not just ‘subsistence’, reliance solely on smallholder production, with relatively low yield levels, limited capitalisation/mechanisation, and variable market reach may not be sufficient in the long term. I agree with this, but it is important to avoid evaluating the new farmers and their production by inappropriate standards. While it is possible to produce 10t/ha of maize under Zimbabwean conditions, this requires substantial investment, and economic returns are much less impressive than the yield potential. Getting 2-3t/ha, even 1t/ha, on extensive dryland production with limited inputs and low costs, offers significant returns, and livelihoods for many. Similarly, crop switches, say away from maize to sorghum/millet, is not always a step backwards. It may actually result in better livelihood security, great labour intensity and resilience in the face of drought and climate change. And mixing farming with off-farm income earning, including migration to towns, is again not a sign of failure, but one of diversification in the face of highly variable and uncertain income earning opportunities – a strategy used by ‘farmers’ the world over, including most white farmers who used the land before.

Another theme of discussion was the challenge of managing farming, and other enterprises, in the time of hyperinflation (from c 2005-early 2009), and how bartering, exchange and the role of livestock, grain and labour as forms of currency. The contrasting abilities of A1 farmers, able to rely on local exchange systems, and A2 farmers, reliant on formal markets, credit and so on, was emphasised. I argued that the failure of A2 farmers to get moving in the period from 2000 was in large part due to this necessary articulation with the formal economy, and especially the lack of credit. Post 2009, things have changed, and we discussed at some length the growth of the tobacco, cotton and now sugar sectors in land reform areas, including on the A2 farms. Credit, however, remains a challenge, and an area where some thoughtful policy work is urgently required. Jim McCann from the Pardee Center at Boston University was concerned about Zimbabwe’s reliance on the US dollar as the currency, meaning that much macro-economic policy was outside the national government’s hands. Parallels with the euro-zone were made, yet unlike struggling European economies, Zimbabwe’s GDP is growing rapidly, admittedly from a very low base. The hike in commodity prices, particularly of minerals, is resulting in a new flow of resources into the country. Some of these are being captured, diverted and stolen for sure, but nevertheless these flows mean more funds are now circulating, generating opportunities for investment, business, credit, taxation and in general demand for products and services. Clearly, there is need for some rigorous study of the new macro-economic patterns in Zimbabwe, a subject way beyond my area of expertise.

Another key theme picked up by a number of participants focused on the role of the state in the post-land reform settings. Were new settlers escaping from the formerly dominant gaze of the state bureaucracy and creating their own futures independently, or were they dependent on state support, through political, ideological and material influences? And how did this tension play out with different groups – A1 and A2, men and women, younger and older? This was the focus for a fascinating discussion about the complex and often ambivalent nature of state power and authority in rural Zimbabwe. At one time the state – or at least the political-military elite of ZANU-PF – has enormous influence, and exerts control often through violent means; yet at the same time the state’s ability to control everything is weak, and local processes of innovation and resistance continue, sometimes in negotiation with the state (say around land use planning, boundary disputes and so on) but sometimes wholly independently (say around much service provision, technical advice etc.). Struggles over authority, and who captures the benefits of land reform, are on-going, and wrapped in very local histories, which, as I explained, are different from farm to farm.

Political scientists, including Ato Kwame Onoma, at the session raised the important question about how land reform plays out at the broader national political level. Clearly, land reform has been claimed as an achievement of ZANU-PF, and is central to its electoral positioning in rural areas. The old nationalist rhetoric is often deployed, and visible allegiance to ZANU-PF is often required by new farmers. Yet, at the same time, many new settlers are highly sceptical of ZANU-PF’s posturing. They will play along of course, but are not at all convinced. The failure of the opposition parties (the two MDC formations) to develop a new narrative around land was discussed at some length. I argued, for example, that the emergent ‘class’ of farmers (across A1 and A2 sites) who are doing well in the resettlements and ‘accumulating from below’, engaging in new forms of commodity production and emerging as a ‘middle farmer’ group in the rural areas, are a natural constituency for the MDC. A narrative based on an emergent rural middle class, committed to growth and economic regeneration, would surely go down well. However, the opposition, given its history and networks, has failed to engage with agrarian issues, and remains often confused and contradictory on its positions on land reform, failing to mobilise more than generalised discontent with the status quo in the rural areas. The default, as several contributors in the seminar said, is that ZANU-PF can continue to hold the rural areas to ransom, especially when security of tenure is weak, exerting compliance and begrudging support.

Comparisons with other land reforms were made during the debate. Jim Scott commented that the most successful tend to be ones that start with land invasions, where groups of people with social and economic ties occupy the land, and are subsequently formalised and codified, with property rights given to new land holders by the state. This case, he argued, appears to fit this pattern, with the A1 farms originating in land invasions, and exhibiting a more coherent sense of ‘community’ identity, being the most successful, since these small scale farmers were able to organise, plan and invest on their own terms. However, as others pointed out, it is the A2 farms (and the larger A1 farms) that will be key to the longer term success of Zimbabwe’s land reform, as it is these farms which will produce tradeable surpluses on the scale required for an agrarian economy to move forward.

This presents the big dilemma for agrarian politics in Zimbabwe, an issue that we kept coming back to in the discussion. Will it be the small to medium scale farmers who are able to make their mark, economically and politically? Or will it be those elites who have grabbed large-scale farms who will make the case that the only way to be a ‘successful’ farmer in the longer term is to do this through large-scale, highly capitalised farms, as (some) white farmers did before? Will it be the ‘new whites’ (the black, well-connected political elite, in alliance with white capital and expertise) or the emergent petty commodity production class who will win out? While the new elite with access to large scale farms is not a massive group, they are influential and have (and continue to do so) grabbed farms in the higher potential areas. What happens into the future is of course a matter of speculation, but such political analysis of the changed rural setting is vital if a clearer analysis of options – and associated political strategy – is to unfold.

In sum, it was a fascinating, informed, and stimulating session (and this is only a fraction of it…). And, because in the US, a little more detached, comparative, and analytical than

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