The current conjuncture: rural roots and consequences

Much of the current debate over populist nationalism centres on the global North and on urban, industrial contexts. But fundamental transformations of capitalism and politics are just as relevant in rural spaces and in the global South. If we don’t understand the role played by rural transformations and their implications, we will misunderstand the current moment. We must ask therefore what has been the role played by rural change, across the world, in the emergence of the current conjuncture? How have transformations, occurring over centuries, been shaped by particular kinds of nation state, and the intersections of class politics, economic systems and styles of citizenship?

Through the processes of financialisaton at the heart of contemporary neoliberal capitalism, rural spaces are being commodified and appropriated through increasingly aggressive forms of enclosure. Whether through land, energy, minerals, green or water ‘grabs’, resources are being captured in the hopes that future resource scarcities will generate super-profits for those who control their access and use. The result is massive exclusions and dispossessions. Equally, state-led programmes, often supported by international ‘aid’ flows, are reconfiguring rural spaces, encouraging particular trajectories of development in support of food security, agribusiness and economic transformation.

Conventional models of economic growth fail to provide for the majority, but instead offer thinly-veiled opportunities for accumulation by the 1 percent. Inequality, social mobility, and prospects for the future for the majority are worsening. At the same time, the construction of a global economy based on the unsustainable use of natural resources has hit rural areas particularly hard. Almost half of the world’s population makes a living from the land, and yet this resource base is being depleted.

For rural areas, the flow of people and finance to the cities, and the generation of ‘left-behind’ populations who are poor, elderly and disenfranchised is well documented, for example in China. Unlike in the recent past, industrial economies do not provide the opportunities for wage employment they once did in some countries. This has resulted in the ‘fracturing’ of classes of labour, resort to diversified livelihood survival options. Downward mobility and deepening poverty and inequality in rural areas is the result, as the agrarian and industrial transformation takes new forms, dominated by low-employment and mechanised business models. This presents especial challenges for women, as well as the younger generation. The consequences for rural livelihoods, identity, self-esteem and recognition are profound, with deep implications for the practice of politics in rural spaces.

How have rural transformations contributed to the deepening of a regressive national politics? Why is it that rural populations across the globe are so often at the centre of new populist movements, often associated with authoritarian, exclusionary politics? What facets of rural change are creating a mobile underclass, disenfranchised and marginalised? How are patterns of migration – an exodus of young people from rural areas and an in-migration of both short-term agricultural workers or herders and urban elites – affecting rural and urban politics, across generations and classes? What forms of agrarian revival offer hope and opportunity? What experiments in rural solidarity economies are emerging that offer rural employment and new livelihoods? How are new alliances being built between progressive urban and rural movements, through what connections, within and outside mainstream political formations?  These are the urgent questions that need asking, across settings. 

The current conjuncture can only be understood in context. Rural political dynamics vary immensely across locations. The form and consequences of authoritarian populism are very different across the world. But comparative insights across and within countries and regions can illuminate the variegated dynamics at play.  Accurate and nuanced data on changes in rural livelihoods, patterns of work and employment, migration and class formation in the countryside are often difficult to acquire and contested, yet are vital for effective diagnosis. Research on the historical build up to the current conjuncture, as well as the contemporary moment itself – across and between sites – will allow us to understand what is happening and why, and how it can be resisted.


Resisting, organising and mobilising for an emancipatory rural politics

The current conjuncture requires a broad front for a sufficiently deep and radical contestation, otherwise ameliorative measures will be superficial and serve only to worsen the crisis in the long run. Rural and urban movements across the world are showing inspiring examples and significant resistance. The power of transnational coordination and organizing was beautifully illustrated by the historic Women’s March on January 21, 2017. How can such resistance be sustained? How can the different movements and groups be connected and linked to rural concerns? How can a truly global insurgent resistance movement be generated, connecting different classes and sites around both immediate and longer-term issues? How can an ‘emancipatory politics’ emerge in a form that is not just bottom-up, but also horizontal and peer-to-peer in character, connecting across class, gender, racial, generational, and ideological divides?

What then do we mean by emancipatory politics? We can draw on many inspirations and traditions, from Marx to Polanyi to Bookchin. We find in particular that Nancy Fraser’s longstanding argument compelling: that a new politics must combine redistribution (and so concerns with class, social difference and inequality), recognition (and so identity and identification) and representation (and so democracy, community, belonging and citizenship). This argument clearly resonates strongly with contemporary debates. As she argues, a ‘triple movement’ is required that goes beyond the Polanyian twentieth-century argument for re-embedding the market in social relations and the creation of state protections, to engaging other struggles around race, feminism, environment and more, as ways of offering new routes for and forms of mobilisation in the face of systematic marginalisation of those left behind by globalised capitalism. This also must go substantially beyond the ‘progressive neoliberalisms’ promoted by those arguing for ‘third ways’, ‘entrepreneurial states’, ‘inclusive growth’ and so on. A more rooted, mutualist, embedded form of organisation of life and economy is required, one that is simultaneously local and transnational. Any resistance must reclaim ‘the public sphere’ and draw on new forms of communalism and solidarity. This must transcend localist political projects and alternatives, reinventing ‘the political’, as Chantal Mouffe argues, in ways that are necessarily agonistic, unruly and dissenting. Such politics must challenge incumbent power through a politics that is not limited by cosmopolitan idealism or naïve appeals to participation and deliberative democracy.

What the particular rural character of such politics might be is however rarely explored in generalised expositions. Our initiative aims to elaborate this, comparatively and critically. Emancipatory politics must emerge in context, through longer histories of struggle that condition pathways of transformation. Such politics will look very different in different places, requiring an iteration between broader theorisation and located, empirical enquiry. At this point we cannot answer the question of what an emancipatory politics might look like, and it will almost certainly look very different in different places. What we can do now is pose the questions, engage with wider theorisation, and explore unfolding dynamics in particular places, both to understand the current conjuncture and to elaborate potential alternatives.

Across the world, there are many convergent movements around environment/food/energy and sustainability/justice, building alternatives based on distribution networks and the collaborative commons. Recognition of the importance of local control and ‘sovereignty’ (of land, food, energy) underlies multiple local initiatives; the sharing, solidarity economy is allowing the regeneration of livelihoods; new technologies allow for open source innovation and the support of community-based initiatives; new forms of community organisation are generating alternative ways of delivering energy, food, water and other services; perspectives on de-growth are refashioning the way we think of consumption, economy and society; movements for environmental justice are springing up globally, and reclaiming ‘the commons’ is offering opportunities for new forms of economic and political imagination.

These are not isolated cases, but together add to a substantial new wave of innovation and political energy. Many of these initiatives are emerging in rural spaces, as one dimension of mobilisations against financialised capitalism’s assault on landscapes and livelihoods. However, many such alternatives do not explicitly articulate a bigger emancipatory political vision, and sometimes their discourses and practices can be quite conservative, exclusionary and technocratic. Many remain isolated, unconnected and poorly linked to a wider political analysis of transformational change. A populist localism, framed in terms of ‘community’, for example, will remain isolated, perhaps the preserve of the relatively privileged and organised or potentially captured by narrow, regressive forces, if it does not confront very basic questions of class, race, gender and identity that are at the heart of any emancipatory politics. The radical potential of these local, rooted alternatives may only be realised when they are connected to a wider debate about political transformation, in rural spaces and beyond. This requires seeing the generation of alternatives in a broader, historical, social and political context, where deepening, linking and scaling become essential features.


Alternatives: understanding, supporting, creating, deepening and scaling

Imagining a new politics in and linked to rural areas, as neoliberalism faces repeated crises, is an essential political task. Historically, episodic, focused, place-based resistance – whether around land grabbing, environmental pollution, dam building or particular ‘development’ projects – can lead to wider movement building.  Our urgent tasks are multiple: where such alternatives exist, we examine and support them jointly with those directly involved; where they are absent, we understand why and help to create them through our networks; where alternatives exist, but are too narrow/shallow, we help to deepen and scale them up, informed by our analysis of politics.

This means thinking about forms of mobilisation from above and below, and how they can connect, through both informal, unruly politics as well as more organised forms. There are plenty of experiments with alternatives – around long-term challenges, sectoral interests and society-wide visions – but they will be more profound and long-lasting if they are better understood and connected. Ensuring perspectives from rural concerns and examples of rural innovations, is documented and shared essential, if the current dark politics of exclusion, in the name of ‘the people’ is to be resisted. Exploring new practices of mobilisation, potentially facilitated by new technologies, is an urgent task, while sharing experiences and implications. This requires an open platform for analysis, of discussion and the generation of shared understanding, for all those concerned, which ERPI, in a small, very modest way, aims to provide.

ERPI therefore aims to build on the inspiration we take from existing spaces of resistance and to galvanise new thinking about how alternatives are being created to this variegated, and inevitably context-specific form of exclusionary, populist politics in rural spaces, North and South, and to explore what this means for a new emancipatory politics, in theory and in practice. We want to learn from on-the-ground experiences of alternative practices and mobilisations that are transforming rural economies and creating new forms of democracy in practice. We are keen to learn lessons, across diverse settings, that help us (re)theorise emancipatory politics for a new era, drawing insights from the past, while seeking out concrete examples of new forms of democratic practice that show a way forward. In turn, we want to go beyond particular cases, and their reification, to a wider synthesis that allows us to reimagine rural spaces and democracy, underpinned by an emancipatory politics. 

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