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Rural emancipation in the face of authoritarianism? Reflections on the 2018 Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI) Conference

Alastair Iles, associate professor, Environmental Science, Policy & Management | April 15, 2018

This week, I am very pleased to host two guest voices from the Agroecology Research-Action Collective (ARC).

ARC is a new initiative that aims to bring together scholars with frontline farmer and rural groups to advance agroecology and food sovereignty in North America. Recently, two ARC members travelled to the Netherlands to present their research-in-progress on responses to authoritarian populism in the U.S., at a conference organized by the Journal of Peasant Studies and others. They prepared a report-back on the conference for ARC members, and their thoughts may also be of interest to people working in rural organizing in the U.S. more broadly.

– Alastair Iles

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Antonio Roman-Alcalá, Doctoral Student

International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague; Agroecology Research-Action Collective (ARC)

Rebecca Tarlau, Assistant Professor

Pennsylvania State University; Agroecology Research-Action Collective (ARC)

The two-day ERPI conference took place at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague on March 17-18, bringing together 300 academics, activists, and scholar-activists from around the world. According to program organizers, there were approximately equal numbers of participants affiliated with academic institutions and social movements.

The goal of the conference organizers, six prominent critical agrarian scholars, was to create a new format for exchanging ideas and sharing research. Rather than an endless series of panels (with the inevitable “death by PowerPoint”), we had three plenary panels that each focused on one of the three questions that framed the conference. (1) What are the rural roots and consequences of authoritarian populism, and how does this differ across the world? (2) How are people resisting authoritarian populism? What are the different strategies? How can such resistance be strengthened? (3) What are emancipatory alternatives? How can they be supported?

After each of the plenary panels we split up into small working groups to discuss and reflect more on each question; these small groups also shared a series of papers submitted and circulated prior to the conference. Again, rather than a typical presentation of papers, the presenters in the working groups were asked to just reflect on some main ideas, which would lead into a broader discussion of the question at hand. Although some working groups apparently had more success than others following this format, we all appreciated the concerted effort by organizers to break the traditional conference format. It should be noted that many of the La Vía Campesina (LVC)-affiliated attendees did not participate in these working groups, as they used their time together in The Hague to meet and to advance their own struggles.

 

Reflections on the concept of Authoritarian Populism

For the ERPI conference as a whole, perhaps the ‘biggest’ question was of whether “Authoritarian Populism” is even the most appropriate framing for the current political moment. In bringing together two (academically and politically) loaded terms, it already challenges the great diversity of attendees from around the globe to fit their particular circumstances to a unifying framework – which may not hold the most explanatory power, nor the basis for developing effective responses.

It became obvious to many attendees through these discussions that so many places have been facing difficult administrations of governments for decades if not centuries, and as such the particular challenges many Left movements are facing are not really “new” and don’t necessarily need a new name. In his report back, ECOSUR and LVC affiliate Peter Rosset brought up an important point from his breakout group, that we may as well call it what it is: the rise of the Right. That’s what we’re responding to, that’s where our analysis could start. Nonetheless, the character of these governments, their explicit use of racist, patriarchal, and nationalist rhetoric, did seem to speak to some striking (and scary) similarities between local contexts.

 

Reflections on Resistance and Emancipatory Alternatives

After the initial discussion of the concept of authoritarian populism, the rest of the weekend was dedicated to analyzing how rural organizations, farmers, and other populations in the country are resisting authoritarian populism and developing emancipatory alternatives for their communities. In the plenary panel on resistance, and in many of the working groups, we returned to a fundamental question of many movements: does resistance happen outside of the state, through disruption and contestation, or inside the state, by contesting elections and implementing alternative visions and practices in our public (i.e., state) institutions, or through some combination of the two? The case was made that some large rural movements, such as the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil, have successfully used both strategies, even under authoritarian and repressive governments. The question of violence, especially in the context of places such as Myanmar, and the possibilities of resistance in these locations, was a somber and unresolved theme.

The social movement participants organized their own panel, in which state violence was once again a theme. The panel began with a moment to remember the brutal assassination of the black, feminist, gay city council women, Marielle Franco, in Rio de Janeiro just days before. Raj Patel focused his discussion on the violence that surrounds us, from the bombings in Austin to the constant forms of sexual violence. The social movement participants discussed their vision of emancipation, through the struggle for food sovereignty and agroecology, and how this looks differently globally. One scholar asked how we could help the movements, and the peasant activist from Thailand responded: do not try to help us, be in solidarity and work with us. This response confirmed the importance of ARC’s research principles for working with movements.

 

U.S. Rural Organizing and Some Final Reflections for ARC

The conference was full of energy and excitement, with so many amazing scholars and activists brought together for two days. However, there were some questions about what was to be accomplished through the gathering, and (by the end) what was accomplished. It was particularly difficult to know what we achieved especially around the questions of emancipation. Emancipation for who? By who? How? For what? Getting at specificities across great differences, this is always a challenge. We felt that more could have been done to elaborate the specifics of emancipation – in vision and in action – through the experiences of attendees, in order to see where these overlap and support each other, but also where they may conflict and present organizing challenges to overcome.

Despite these questions, it was very much appreciated that the organizers tried to shape a gathering that subverted the typical academic conference format, with more opportunities to discuss rather than just listen, and no “death by powerpoint”! That was certainly refreshing.

As regards more specifically our work and interests in North America, one of the most exciting moments was our regional gathering on the second day. About 30 of those whose works or backgrounds tie us to the region gathered, and we discussed the challenges, needs, proposals, and specific dynamics of supporting emancipatory alternatives through scholarship. An important fact to mention is that almost all participants in the room were white, illustrating the need to include more academics and activists of color doing work in the U.S. countryside. In addition, it was noted that only one out of the whole group was not involved in scholarship, i.e. there were no purely “movement” participants (and even that one person had written a book, so they were also obviously part of the “intellectual” class!). Granted, many if not all of the participants are or had been involved in actual organizing and struggles beyond their scholarly work. Still, it seemed notable that when it comes to international spaces like this, it is almost as if “movement” was equivalent to being from the Global South, while North America is only known for its role as experts and academics.

This may be another space for ARC to work: to create more opportunities for our North American movement and frontline leadership partners to be visible on the international stage. As we spoke with John Gaventa, talking about how he and the organizations he used to work with would arrange encounters between supposedly “rightwing/conservative” rural literacy organizers from the US South and rural literacy organizers from Sandinista Nicaragua, it bolstered our instinct that political change comes about from direct, personal encounter with the “Other”, and that no shortcuts exist to this kind of reaching across difference that can have profound re-orienting politicizing effects.

Another notable aspect to our regional gathering was the automatic pivot towards an electoral focus and towards questions of voters, percentages, and the different strategies to take, roughly divided into the “understand and convert” Trump voters and the “fuck Trump voters” views, and the “how do we take back the federal government through elections” position that underlines these. However, other participants reminded the group that politics are certainly beyond the election itself, and that successful movements rarely if ever win power by starting with mobilization around elections.

One other point of interest that this same difference (between electoral strategies and the ideas of basic community organizing), plus the encounters with participating scholars whose work is primarily with “conservative” rural people rather than Left-leaning rural and agrarian movements, raises a question of us as ARC. If we are committed already to working with people who we basically agree with politically – that is, if we are admittedly Left, and bring this perspective (with and all the language and assumptions that are baggage with it) – where does this leave those who work with people who aren’t left, and who might actually consider themselves ideologically opposite?

Loka Ashwood, an environmental sociologist based in Alabama, geographer Levi Van Sant in Georgia, and others pointed out the oftentimes “radical” lives some such rural folks live, such as their deep use of canning and ideals of self-sufficiency, care for their lands, etc, yet they may have other harsh values we don’t particularly like. What then? Are we seeking to work with all farmers, all rural people, as a matter of principle, or a matter of strategy – as the point is to win back the countryside from industrial corporate control? Might we be purposefully painting ourselves into a radical Left corner? It may not be the worst thing to do so … but it seems a question worth pondering, before we so publicly announce our “identity” as a group.

In summary, the gathering was full of moments of insight and hope – and worry. In the U.S., the goal of elevating the voices of grassroots organizations in conversations about emancipatory rural politics seems critical. In addition, we must figure out ways to encourage and organize spaces and times for encounters across organizations and lines of difference, which are plenty in our diverse rural North American contexts. In addition, we need to draw on lessons from the ways social movements and peasant organizations are resisting authoritarianism and developing emancipatory alternatives, in and out of our context. In the U.S., we are at the center of authoritarian, racist, patriarchal, and perhaps yes, populist politics. The U.S. also remains a key site for global geopolitical change, our military and cultural power not (yet) compromised by the recent political changes in federal government. Yet, seen globally, our rural movements seem among the most weak and fragmented. We must learn from other global movements, as movements and as scholars, and we must strive to do better. Participation in conferences such as ERPI seems a useful step, but we must also return with the knowledge and experience gained through this participation, go home, and “organize, organize, organize”!

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