Agrarian Politics

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What are the advantages and disadvantages of using ‘populism’ as a means of understanding rural collective action?

Populism (from the Latin populous, meaning ‘the people’) has been used to describe both distinctive political movements and particular tradition of political thought. Movements or parties described as populist have been characterised by their claim to support the common people in the face of ‘corrupt’ economic or political elites. As a political tradition, populism reflects the belief that the instincts and the wishes of the people provide the principle legitimate guide to political action. Populist politicians therefore make a direct appeal to the people and claim to give expression to their deepest hopes and fears, all intermediary institutions being distrusted. Although populism may be linked with any cause or ideology, it is often seen to be implicitly authoritarian, ‘populist’ democracy being the enemy of ‘pluralist’ democracy.
Heywood, A. Politics, second edition, pg354. Palgrave Macmillan.

Rural Collective action came about in reaction to, or resistance to the dominance of powerful large scale forces. The purpose of it is to help the ordinary people in the ordinary places. A very remarkable characteristic of this is its notable variety. As a lot of these interest groups come from different backgrounds, and while they are often treated with similar disrespect, we have to question if they have enough in common to rally together in the interest of the powerless.
Another area where variety appears to thrive is in the forms assumed by organised collective action. Community councils, political parties, and co-operatives are just some of the forms that the rural collective action of interest to us has assumed. While some of this collective action has aspired to be nationally organised, the spatial focus in other instances has fallen on the region, the county or even the ‘local community’. And these groups similarly use the same type of methods to get their messages across, using either confrontation or integrating, or a mix of the two.
Populism allows us to highlight the centrality of ‘power’ both to the collective action of groups that begin by projecting themselves as relatively powerless underdogs in relation to powerful dominating forces in society, and to state interventions taken on their behalf.

We see the first disadvantage to using Populism as a means of understanding rural collective action, when we compare USA’s and Russia’s need for collective action. Its vagueness is an obstacle in determining the best means of action to take on the powerful dominating forces. Its vagueness threatens to undermine whatever analytical usefulness it might conceivably have as an interpretive and comparative category.
Russian agrarian populism was primarily a movement of urban intellectuals. It was, in contrast, the hard-pressed farmers of the south and mid-west who supplied the US agrarian populist movement with its social base (Goodwyn 1978, p. 20).

Also, the centrality of ‘the people’ to both populism and democracy goes a considerable way to account for populism’s vagueness. It is difficult to distinguish between who ‘the people’ are that should be counted. It can be said to be basically the people included from political power, whether through sex, racial, or other minorities. While some versions of populism have been concerned with the interests of minorities, others have identified themselves with the ‘will of the majority’ (Stoker, 2006, p. 140).

A key disadvantage to using Populism is the common perception that it contains a ‘dark side’. A prominent feature of contemporary populism is the negative reputation it has gained for itself in many areas. The word ‘Populist’ is often used as terms of mistreatment in the political field. This example of ‘dark side’ populism is only scraping the surface of its stigma. Another misuse of it is where it is used in terms of how relatively powerless groups form the foundation of society in the industrial advanced countries, in a negative manner.

“…a defining trait of contemporary dark side populism is the way it can train its fire at subordinate as well as dominant groups in society.”
(Underdog Politics: Power and Populism in Rural Ireland, T. Varley and C. Curtin, Chapter 1,pg 7, Populism and Power )

If we take the opposition between ‘power’ and ‘powerlessness’, we will be able to explore the possibility that populism, when approached in a certain way, has the advantage of highlighting the centrality of conceptions of power and powerlessness to the collective action of certain groups who project themselves to be relatively powerless, and to certain state initiatives claiming to improve the position of the powerless groups in society.

The terms ‘power to’ and ‘power over’, help to explore the politics of negotiating perceived oppositions between power and powerlessness theoretically. This use of the ‘power to’ and ‘power over’ distinction has the advantage of emphasising the negotiated nature of power relationships and oppositions. Unfortunately, it doesn’t clarify the way the bases and experience of popular powerlessness may vary between groups nor the range of constituencies or groups that qualify as populist. It also does not shed any light on the range of different ‘power over’ forces that may be at work, nor the variety of forms assumed by populist-type collective action and state interventions. Most of all perhaps the ‘power to’ and ‘power over’ distinction is silent on the issue of how far collective and state actors may be prepared to go in their attempts to negotiate perceived oppositions between power and powerlessness effectively.

Populism from below
The small man strand of populism from below has always been associated with movements of agrarian interests, for example, small farming families. The small business interests who find they are losing out in danger of disappearing in the modern world is another type associated with the ‘small man’.

‘Many populist writers’, Midgley (1995, p. 90) points out:
place emphasis on the community as a locus for people’s activities. They believe that communities form the basis of society and that the enhancement of community life offers the best opportunity for promoting people’s happiness, a sense of belonging and identity.

In my opinion this is very true. During human growth and maturation, people encounter sets of other individuals and experiences. Infants encounter first their immediate family, then extended family, and then local community (such as school and work). They thus develop individual and group identity through associations that connect them to life-long community experiences. However, the modern world is often hostile towards community, especially in communities of disadvantaged rural areas, and these areas are in decline.

Populism from above
“The ‘populism from above’ of relevance to us begins to take shape when state power-holders (whether elected or appointed) profess to take the side of relatively powerless interests in society and to commit state resources to the task of countering instances of perceived popular powerlessness. Three strands of populist-type state intervention – the ‘small man’, the ‘participative’ and the ‘industrialising’ – can be identified as generally relevant to rural conditions”.
(Underdog Politics: Power and Populism in Rural Ireland, T. Varley and C. Curtin, Chapter 1, pg. 27, Populism and Power).
The first strand is very similar to that of from below, seeing those in control of the state and being prepared to intervene on behalf of small man interests on the land. The second strand, (Participative) seeks to address popular crises of representation. Its main areas of concern would be issues of economic and social exclusion. The third and final strand is very different from two, and is a far cry from the small man. It extends far beyond the social groups and local communities or local community based interests to embrace urban, as well as rural.
To explore ideal-typical radical and pragmatic conceptions of effective collective and state action, it is important to look at the constituencies radical and pragmatic collective and state actors seek to represent and their ideas about what might constitute desirable change. This is preliminary to consider the requirements our collective and state actors take to be necessary if they are to make progress in delivering a measure of desirable change to their favoured constituencies. These perceived requirements will be treated as the conditions collective and state actors consider necessary to achieving effective collective and state action.
(Underdog Politics: Power and Populism in Rural Ireland, T. Varley and C. Curtin, Chapter 1, pg. 34, Populism and Power).

If ‘Populism’ is to be of any use to us as we try to interpret and compare certain instances of collective action and state intervention, it is therefore essential that we come to terms with its complexities.


• Heywood, A. Politics, second edition, pg354. Palgrave Macmillan.

• Underdog Politics: Power and Populism in Rural Ireland, T. Varley and C. Curtin, Chapter 1, Populism and Power

• Kitching, G. (1989), Development and underdevelopment in Historical Perspectives, Routledge, London.

• Wiles, P. (1969), A Syndrome, Not a Doctrine, In: I Ionescu and E.Gellner, eds. Populism: Its meaning and National Characteristics, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London. (Reprint)

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