Sharpening the class-based approach to emancipatory rural politics: A note on Henry Bernstein’s “Unpacking ‘authoritarian populism’ and rural politics: Some comments on ERPI”
In a recent paper titled “Unpacking ‘authoritarian populism’ and rural politics: Some comments on ERPI,” published online in the Journal of Peasant Studies, Henry Bernstein, a renowned scholar of agrarian political economy, has analyzed the works recently published under the auspices of the “Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative” (ERPI). Bernstein’s paper succinctly identifies their strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, I strongly recommend it to those interested in the theoretical analysis of the far-right’s global rise and the political battle against it. I hope others will also use the opportunity provided by Bernstein to participate in the discussion and furnish the ERPI with “a more consistent, sharper and fuller class-based approach” (Bernstein 2020, 1).
I have made two contributions to the ERPI project, including a co-authored research paper on Turkey published in the Journal of Peasant Studies (Gürel, Küçük, Taş 2019) and a brief commentary published on the Open Democracy website (Gürel 2018). Along with other ERPI papers, Bernstein also comments on the co-authored paper. He favorably comments on some of our key arguments. For example, Bernstein (2020, 5) writes:
"Several ERPI papers recognise a tension between ‘economistic’ and ‘culturalist’ approaches – and their adequacy – in inquiring whether rural populations are especially prone to the seductions of ‘authoritarian populist’ ideologies, movements and ostensibly charismatic leaders. Gürel, Küçük, and Tas (2019) who consider ‘the rural roots of the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey’ with reference to farming on the Black Sea coast, explicitly state their intention to examine economic factors that explain the success of the AKP contra ‘culturalist’ approaches that can be as common on the left as the right, of course […] However, thorough investigation of material conditions of existence, and social relations, remains a sine qua non from the necessary abstractions of the capitalist mode production to any specific or concrete class analysis […] For the latter ‘cultural politics’ is no less real in class terms, which should not evaporate in discourses of ‘identity politics.’"
This was exactly the message that we aimed to convey. Although the study of culture should be an indispensable preoccupation of Marxist theory, purely culturalist accounts detached from—or loosely attached to—class analysis fail to explain the political dispositions of different social classes, including the current support of the farm workers and small farmers to far-right politics, which the ERPI project deals with.
Bernstein (2020, 11) also praises our analysis of the “social neoliberalism” of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) in Turkey:
"A final point here concerns what has been called ‘social neoliberalism’ in an essay on Turkey by Dorlach, who defines it as ‘a development model…combining relatively orthodox neoliberal economic policies and retrenchment of the protective welfare state (e.g. labour market institutions) with a significant expansion…of the productive welfare state (e.g. public health care)’, and suggests its relevance to some other middle income countries (2015, 519) although, more generally, it is of limited range and impact on the lives of classes of labour. This is taken up in the ERPI Turkish case study by Gürel, Küçük, and Tas 2019, to refer to agricultural support policies, as well as ‘unmediated/individual incorporation’ (quoting Dorlach), in the expansion of consumer credit and some social assistance.”
Bernstein (2020, 15) cites our paper to stress the political challenges associated with the class contradictions between small farmers and farm workers:
"Questions of labour and farm labour regimes provide, if anything, an even more sure guide to agrarian class relations given how widely petty commodity (as well as capitalist) production in agriculture depends on wage labour, as Gürel, Küçük, and Tas (2019) indicate."
Finally, Bernstein (2020, 11) considers our paper as one of the ERPI works that “rightly point to the failures of the left in its analyses, programmes and practices, thereby contributing to those political spaces which authoritarian populism (and ‘counterrevolution’) have been able to occupy.”
Apart from these supportive comments, there are also critical remarks in Bernstein’s piece regarding our paper. On the position of the agricultural proletariat in the struggle against the far-right in Turkey, Bernstein writes:
"Gürel, Küçük, and Tas (2019) suggest two principal axes of ‘class struggle’ in the hazelnut and tea farming areas they studied on Turkey’s Black Sea coast: between farmers and capital over producer prices, and between farmers and Kurdish migrant farm workers. These are hardly equivalent forms of ‘class struggle’. Indeed, the first – between more or less specialised petty commodity producers and the agribusiness capitals that integrate them into produce (and also ‘factor’) markets – is often an important motif of various agrarian populisms historically and comprehensively so today. The second is vastly different – one manifestation of the capital-labour relations at the core of capitalism. Here too, that seasonal migrant farm workers are ethnically distinct, as so often, makes its own contribution to ‘authoritarian populist’ ideology, in this case that of the AKP. Gürel et al point this out (2019, 469) but it is strange then that they conclude with observations about ‘the rural masses’ who seem to comprise only the farmers (2019, 475): what about the workers then (‘former Kurdish peasants displaced in the early 1990s’)? This is indeed a very far stretch for any populist ‘emancipatory rural politics’."
As we agree with Bernstein that these two are not “equivalent forms” of class conflict, our paper did not make any such claim. It is also worth reminding that our paper focuses on the seeming paradox that the AKP has sustained significant electoral support in the countryside of Ordu and Rize since 2002, even though the villagers in these regions, especially in Ordu, waged some of the most massive farmer protests against the AKP government, and despite the claims coming from both left-wing and right-wing commentators that these villagers have been impoverished under the AKP rule. We did not deal with the political disposition of the Kurdish migrant workers because they do not vote in Ordu and Rize elections since they are not permanent residents of these regions. Moreover, because small farmers and others engaging with small-scale farming as a side activity to earn extra income—our paper states that there are workers, small business owners, and pensioners who earn part of their income from small-scale farming and hire migrant workers on a seasonal basis (Gürel, Küçük, Taş 2019, 468, 472)—comprise a considerable portion of the AKP voters from the Black Sea countryside, we believed it was appropriate to call them “rural masses”. More importantly, our paper stresses the significance of the seasonal farm workers for a potentially successful class-based counter-hegemonic project in Turkey:
"Given the fact that former Kurdish peasants who were displaced in the early 1990s currently comprise the great majority of seasonal farm workers and a sizable minority of the urban workers in Turkey, they are critical actors for any class-based […] alternative. However, neither the Kurdish movement nor the socialist movement has achieved any significant progress in organizing seasonal farm workers. Although the recent narrowing down of political space for open dissent is certainly an important factor, pinning this failure on state repression alone would be an unconvincing explanation, as the situation was not significantly better before the AKP rule. Overall, there is no shortcut to overcome the current political impasse without the existence of a broad anti-capitalist coalition requiring strict organization and close monitoring of day-to-day class-based politics." (Gürel, Küçük, Taş 2019, 475)
Finally, Bernstein writes that:
"Less robust is the (faint) echo of this in the conclusion of Gürel, Küçük, and Tas (2019, 474) that ‘the rural masses’ in their study areas have ‘used both protests and the ballot box as mechanisms of negotiation with the government’. The term ‘rural masses’ notwithstanding (above) what they point to is a form of politics common among petty commodity producers and small capitalist farmers, widespread in Europe, for example, and also in India’s ‘new farmers’ movements’."
I agree with this statement. Our paper details the Black Sea villagers’ mechanisms of negotiation with the AKP government to show that they are not passive recipients of the AKP’s neoliberal policies because of their religious conservative culture. Although the “kulak” element in India’s “new farmers’ movements” is arguably much stronger and better organized than the farmer movements in Turkey’s Black Sea coast, I still agree with Bernstein that the these two are similar in the sense that they have partly shaped and at times even subverted the neoliberal agricultural policies on the ground. They have done this while supporting the far-right movements. Hence, while investigating the farmer protests, we obviously did not aim to present the Black Sea farmers as sole—or ideal—counter-hegemonic actors in rural Turkey. On the other hand, as our paper indicates, the socialist left had considerable power in this region in the 1960s and 1970s, and although it has been marginalized since the 1980s, some socialist groups are currently being organized among the small farmers of this region (Gürel, Küçük, Taş 2019, 467-469). Therefore, no sensible socialist politics can leave them to the far-right’s hegemony.
To sum up and reiterate the conclusions of my contributions to the ERPI project and earlier writings (Gürel 2014, 379-381), when dealing with the countryside, the socialist left in Turkey has to follow a strictly class-based counter-hegemonic politics, prioritizing the organization of the agricultural proletariat while utilizing all the opportunities of organizing among the small farmers and rapidly proletarianizing villagers.
Bernstein, H. (2020). “Unpacking ‘Authoritarian Populism’ and Rural Politics: Some Comments on ERPI.” The Journal of Peasant Studies, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2020.1786063
Bozkurt-Güngen, S. 2018. “Labour and Authoritarian Neoliberalism Under the AKP Governments in Turkey.” South European Society and Politics 23 (2): 219–238.
Gürel, B. 2014. “Türkiye’de Kırda Sınıf Mücadelelerinin Tarihsel Gelişimi.” In Marksizm ve Sınıflar: Dünyada ve Türkiye’de Sınıflar ve Mücadeleleri, edited by S. Savran, E. A. Tonak, and K. Tanyılmaz, 303–385. İstanbul: Yordam Kitap.
Gürel, B. 2018. “The Third Great Depression and the Rise of the Far-Right: Experiences from Turkey.” April 25.
Gürel, B. 2020. “Historical Roots, Current Manifestations, and Future Prospects of Fascism in India.” Revolutionary Marxism 2020: 103-147.
Gürel, B., B. Küçük, and S. Taş. 2019. “The Rural Roots of the Rise of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey.” Journal of Peasant Studies 46 (3-4): 457–479.
 We quoted Sümercan Bozkurt-Güngen (2018, 220), not Dorlach, when discussing the lower classes’ “unmediated/individual incorporation into AKP’s political project as consumers, credit users and social assistance recipients.”
 I broached the issue of the “new farmers’ movements” in a detailed analysis of the rise of fascism in India (Gürel 2020).