Why no change? Sustainable development, extractivism and the environment in Bolivia

Reblogged from the Open University

Today’s blog comes from Dr Jessica Hope, Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow at the University of Bristol and Chair of the Developing Areas Research Group (DARG) of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Her research spans human geography, development studies and political ecology and addresses questions of socio-environmental change in response to climate change. Her current project, funded by an RGS Environment & Sustainability Grant, investigates reiterations of sustainable development in Bolivia, as promoted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At the upcoming Development Studies Association (#DSA2019) conference, Jessica will present on the early-career plenary panel. You can follow her on Twitter.

As an early career academic, it’s been a challenge to research sustainable development and the SDGs. The SDGs may be a new set of development goals but the concept of sustainable development is old….and already much critiqued. In my recent research on the early take-up and implementation of the SDGs in Bolivia, I have tried to use this as a starting point for my work. In terms of theory, this has meant asking what can help us think about sustainable development differently? And in terms of my empirical focus, this has meant questioning how the mainstreaming of the SDGs, as a global (and globalizing) response to climate change, effect more radical environmental agendas – those that have emerged since the mainstreaming of sustainable development in the 1980s (and sometimes in critique of the concept). Somewhat conversely, these efforts to think differently have actually helped me to better understand why things are staying the same and how, in Bolivia, powerful, extractivist development logics are being maintained and reworked.

Bolivia is an insightful case through which to investigate reiterations of sustainable development. With the election of President Evo Morales in 2005, himself an indigenous social movement leader, Bolivia was looked to as one of the most radical countries in Latin America’s move left. New development and environmental ideas and policies were enacted by the state, which have mostly promoted indigenous knowledges, rights and anti-colonial agendas. Particularly relevant to the environmental remit of the SDGs are those that re-conceptualised development as Vivir Bien/‘Good Living’ (replacing targets for economic growth with targets for social and environmental well-being), granted legal rights to nature and pledged significantly enhanced territorial rights to indigenous and campesino groups. Yet, since 2009, intensifying commitments to extractivism have come to dominate Bolivian politics and debates, as well override progressive agendas. In 2015, the Morales administration set out commitments for Bolivia to be the ‘energy heart of Latin America’ – expanding hydrocarbon infrastructure and exports to include fracking, hydropower megaprojects and solar farms. It is in the context of this contested politics that the SDGs are being implemented.

In terms of thinking differently, I have found assemblage theory useful to researching and analyzing the SDGs in Bolivia. Assemblage theory foregrounds the ways realities come into being through particular (and changing) relationships and connections between, for example, objects, places, institutions, discourses and policies. Drawing on how Deleuze and Guatarri’s theories of assemblage (agencement) have been used in social science, primarily by Tania Murray Li, I have used assemblage thinking to analyse how powerful common-senses are being made, maintained and reworked. In Bolivia, adopting this approach has firstly foregrounded how the take-up of the SDGs emerges in relation to existing development agendas, actors and networks. The SDGs are primarily being operationalized by the state, by international NGOs and by their national partners. Secondly, the goals were brought into existing initiatives, rather than causing a wholesale reappraisal of development work. Thirdly, I found that, crucially, the SDGs assemblage is disciplined – with NGOs, for example, being clear that their work could not address disputes between the state and civil society. This meant the contentious politics of extractivism is excluded from sustainable development projects and discourse.  A fourth finding about is that through its emergence, disciplining and holding together, progressive discourses are being “deployed to new ends”. The central government has aligned its commitments to the SDGs with their interpretations of Vivir Bien, which fall within the parameters of an extractive-led development model. So rather than providing support to those contesting extractive-led development, the SDGs are helping to consolidate its hegemony. This interpretation and deployment of Vivir Bien is contradictory to how Vivir Bien has been conceptualized and advocated by activists and scholars. In their critical reading, Vivir Bien/ Buen Vivir provides an alternative to sustainable development, as it decentres growth and instead moves toward a more holistic measure of wellbeing (including how communities live with and treat nature). In summary, assemblage thinking reveals that the SDGs are acting as a form of anti-politics – rendering neutral and technical the contested environment/development politics of Bolivia.

Finally, and in answer to my second question, I have used assemblage thinking to identify a counter-assemblage that is emerging and consolidating in relation to the exclusions outlined above. This means identifying the organisations, discourses, politics, landscapes and histories that are coming together in exclusion from mainstream development agendas in Bolivia and in opposition to extractivism. What I find exciting is that assemblage thinking enables the inclusion of material components too – trees, riverways, habitats, wildlife, canoes, speedboats and roads. Following the work of urban geographers, for example Ash Amin, this opens-up interesting lines of enquiry into the sociality and liveliness of particular territories, as place, and how they are generative of reworked and progressive environment/development politics. In this new work, I am researching the generative liveliness of the hybrid spaces that partly emerge from policies for conservation, territory, collectivity and extractivism. Despite calls for academics to make a pragmatic step to get behind the SDGs, the Bolivian case has made me question this step and, instead, I plan to examine the stifled, excluded, contentious and more transformative politics of the counter-assemblage.

Photo credit: Jessica Hope

BLOG | DOING POLITICAL ECOLOGY AMIDST DISASTER

Reblogged from BIOSEC

Welcome to Otay Mountain, an alternative field guide

Having recently returned to the UK following several months of fieldwork in USA and Mexico, Jared Margulies writes this blog about his zine ‘Welcome to Otay Mountain, an alternative field guide’.

During the course of fieldwork earlier this year, I spent a month in California investigating an emerging illegal trade in the succulent species Dudleya farinosa—an unusual, and as of yet, poorly understood phenomena. In pursuit of understanding the perspectives of conservationists, law enforcement agencies, and botanists in California about this trade, I found myself increasingly distracted by news reports about the humanitarian emergency happening nearby along the US-Mexico border. I watched and listened to news about the unfolding ‘border crisis’, and how a humanitarian and human rights crisis, the result of the Trump Administration’s increasingly hostile (and largely, illegal) policies towards migrant refugees, was being dubiously recast as a matter of geopolitical security and an existential threat to US citizenry and the US economy.

Otay Mountain – Jared Margulies

Amidst this (still ongoing) disaster, I found it difficult to remain focused on my research about the politics of plant conservation and illegal plant trade. It didn’t take long, however, for the themes of US geopolitical security and biodiversity conservation to converge in my fieldwork. I learned from scientists in the San Diego Natural History Museum’s Botany Department about how botanists would be acting as expert testimonies in the State of California’s lawsuit against the Trump Administration’s declaration of a State of Emergency at the border, which was declared while I was in San Diego in February. While San Diego County’s borderlands with Mexico have long been fenced, walled, and surveilled, gaps remain. The Trump Administration proposed to close these gaps with his declaration of a State of Emergency after his previous efforts in Congress to obtain border wall funding failed. One such site where a new border wall would be erected is the Otay Mountain Wilderness, a formally designated US Wilderness Area just north of the border with Mexico.

Otay Mountain is one of the few areas of the borderlands in San Diego County that doesn’t feature a physical barrier, in part because its steep and rugged topography serves as a natural deterrence for those attempting to move across these borderlands. But Otay is also (currently) protected from border wall construction by a variety of other unlikely actors: rare and endemic plants, which, protected under both California State and Federal endangered species laws, have previously been cited in environmental impact assessments to stop border wall construction because these rare species would be irreparably impacted by border wall construction. But endangered plants may not be enough to stop the wall. A previous attempt to protect Otay Mountain from new border wall construction on the grounds it would significantly impact a diversity of rare and endangered plants was rejected by the Supreme Court in December.

Otay Mountain – Jared Margulies

As I learned more about Otay Mountain, its unique ecology, and the way that the politics of plant conservation and the humanitarian crisis at the border were colliding in this contested geographic space, the more I saw concerning integrations of security narratives playing out in the borderlands invoking value-laden terms like invasive and native, endemic and exotic, alien and refugee. The politics embedded within and co-producing these terms are nothing new to geographers or political ecology. Yet at the same time, I also saw unexpected and even creative spaces of resistance to unjust social policies through leveraging the political positions of rare plants, ones who similarly find legal protection through many of these same terms political ecology often (rightly) unsettles and critiques. With some of these ideas, contradictions, and concerns in mind, I decided to visit Otay Mountain. I hoped to gain a more grounded perspective on how those resisting the construction of an ever-more securitized (and violent) border were finding unlikely allyship with botanists concerned about preserving the ecological integrity of Otay Mountain as an exceptionally biodiverse landscape with a large number of endangered plant species. Several of these species only grow on Otay Mountain or directly across the border in Mexico. At the same time, I felt uneasy about the emergence of this moment of ‘emergency’ in which rare plants protected by endangered species legislation seemed to find greater rights to protection under US law than people seeking refuge in the United States from violence at home, violence attributed by many scholars and journalists to US geopolitical strategy and statecraft.

The ‘results’ of this exploration are detailed in a zine I produced following my visit to Otay Mountain called, “Welcome to Otay Mountain: an Alternative Field Guide.” It will be featured as part of the upcoming exhibit entitled, No Walls, No Bans, No Borders in Baltimore, USA, “a benefit photography and art exhibit featuring the work of Baltimore-based activists connecting ideas of the violence of capitalism, colonialism, and the racist/fascist state both locally here in Baltimore and globally.” The exhibit is curated by Rebel Lens Bmore – a photo and video-based activist group documenting social movements in Baltimore. The exhibit opens on May 9th and runs through June 2nd at the Peale Center in Baltimore.

Unlike a peer-review academic output, “Welcome to Otay Mountain” does not attempt to answer a particular question or offer any clear analysis. Instead, I think of it as a prompting, a means by which to pay attention to unsettled yet politically powerful ideas about biodiversity, security, and violence. I created this zine because I think there is growing agreement that the work of doing political ecology, and writing political ecology, is strengthened when our work extends beyond formal academic writing whose accessibility and style rarely speak to those impacted by, or actively working to upend, the systems of oppression we tend to study and engage with as researchers. This is not a novel insight by any measure, but as I look to creating and editing more “Alternative Field Guides”, I wish to share but one example of how creative practices might energize, and at least in very small way, financially support, those doing the difficult work of direct action in the face of social and environmental injustices.

If you are interested in purchasing a print copy of this limited edition zine please contact Jared directly—all profits from these sales will be directly donated to No More Deaths, a charitable organization whose mission is “to end death and suffering in the Mexico–US borderlands through civil initiative: people of conscience working openly and in community to uphold fundamental human rights.” The zine will also be for sale at the Peale Center throughout the duration of the exhibit No Walls, No Bans, No Borders. This work includes providing direct aid to people crossing the desert borderlands in the form of water, supplies, and emergency medical treatment.

DEEP SEA MINING AT THE THRESHOLD: THE POLITICS OF THE SEABED?

John Childs

This article originally appeared on Discover Society

Plenty of virtual ink has been spilled predicting the advent of commercial deep-sea mining (DSM). Successful extraction of zinc, gold and copper has already taken place in Japan in late 2017. Several other countries who have identified deep-sea mineral deposits in their territorial waters are considering whether or not to adopt the new industry into their future economic strategies. Yet, despite the widespread interest in the activity, to date there has only been one commercial contract for deep-sea mineral extraction awarded globally. Moreover, this project – a copper and gold mine named Solwara 1 in the Bismarck Sea of Papua New Guinea – has struggled to overcome the funding requirements needed to become commercially viable. Its contractor, Nautilus Minerals – a Canadian mining firm – has struggled to convince investors of its ability to manage both the economic and ecological uncertainty fostered by deep-sea mining’s untested nature.

At the same time, the International Seabed Authority, the key regulator for minerals found on the seabed in the area beyond national jurisdiction, has issued 29 exploration contracts to both private and state-run companies from all over the world. Deep-sea mining thus stands at a threshold: waiting in the waters yet confronted with an array of questions. However, for all the pointed arguments expressed by those on both sides of a debate, which has focused on evaluations of environmental and economic sustainability, analyses that have sought to understand deep-sea mining’s very specific politics have been rarely heard. Put another way, it is necessary to think about deep-sea mining as a contentious political problem, in which the politics of knowledge and justice are never far from the surface and in which a variety of actors – both human and more-than-human – will shape the future prospects for the controversial industry.

Deep-sea mining has proved to be a divisive topic. For its apologists, it heralds a sustainable answer to dwindling supplies of high-quality, terrestrial deposits of conventional deposits such as copper. The deep-sea deposits being earmarked for future extraction are said to be of higher quality and concentrated into a reduced footprint. The proposed Solwara 1 copper deposit in Papua New Guinea is just 0.1km², a fraction of the 7.5km² dedicated to the world’s biggest copper mine, Bingham Canyon in Utah, USA. Other champions of the nascent industry point to its potential to furnish the green energy infrastructures of the future with the rare earth elements required for their expansion. Electric vehicles, wind turbines and photovoltaics are all cited by the industry as placing a demand on society for materials that can only be met by an expansion of the mining frontier into the ocean.

On the other hand, DSM has attracted plenty of criticism from those who point to the uncertainty surrounding the ecological consequences to the ecosystems of the deep ocean. Although scientific studies of deep-sea oceanography remain limited, most stress the need for care, advocating a precautionary principle that states ‘where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, activities should not proceed’ (UN WCN 1982). Such concerns have been raised by a number of international NGOs ranging from Friends of the Earth to the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, who additionally highlight the lack of consent from local communities and are calling for further research on the social and ecological impacts of DSM.

Those making the case for deep-sea mining, point to the notion that it has ‘no human impact’. This continues a longstanding tradition in Western thought that the deep sea has a negligible relation to the rest of the social world. Yet this is disingenuous, as the case of Solwara 1 makes clear. Certainly, for communities closest to the proposed deep-sea mine site in Papua New Guinea, the fears of spiritual, ecological and economic disruption are very real indeed. Although the targeted metals lie some 1600m beneath the surface of the ocean, research conducted over the last three years showed that proximate populations were most concerned about the potential impact upon spirits – so-called masalai – that reside in and protect the deep-ocean and its resources. For these people, the deep-sea is not a world separated from humanity. As a prominent leader representing the 20,000 inhabitants of the Duke of York Islands, a small archipelago situated around 30km from the proposed mine site, makes clear:

‘The sea is not another world. It is part of graun [earth]. You see people, fish, masalai [spirits], volcanoes, what you call land, the sea – it is all connected. We understand that we are at one with the sea. But we are also are at one with the spirits. If you disturb this world, you are in trouble…this is why this seabed mining company will be in trouble – it does not understand how us people connect to something deeper’

For many communities near the Solwara 1 site, the spiritual world is foundational to their identity. As has been noted elsewhere in the context of terrestrial mining in Melanesia, for these people the arrival of deep-sea mining ‘means not just social and economic disruption; it rends the very fabric of the world and a vivid, direct, sacred link with the land is irrecoverably lost’ (Macgregor 2017). Perspectives such as these and those highlighted in a short film produced as part of the project—Into the Abyss: the politics of deep sea mining in Papua New Guineaserve to force a reconsideration of the ways in which the deep-sea’s ‘hidden’ nature comes to matter politically.

It is only in recent years that the ocean has been taken seriously as an object of social scientific enquiry (e.g. Steinberg 2001; Deloughrey 2017). Despite a glut of work emanating from marine science, the ‘social’ ocean has largely ‘remained outside of history’ (Hannigan 2016: 3). Moreover, this oversight becomes even more acute as depth is introduced to the analysis. Simply put, thinking about the ways that the ocean’s depth and the physical characteristics of the seabed might matter politically have been almost totally absent (Squire 2017). Yet matter they do.

The extreme location of the deposits, several kilometres below the surface of the water in some cases, is far beyond the capacity of human beings to experience it directly. This creates political space for imagined geographies (what people imagine the deep-sea to be) to come into conflict with corporate attempts to communicate science and legitimise their practices. For example, Nautilus Minerals highlights the dynamic and volcanic nature of the seabed close to the proposed mine site in Papua New Guinea. By pointing to the regularity and violence of eruptions in the immediate surrounding area, it is able to simultaneously stress the resilience of nearby associated bacteria and fauna. The argument goes that if these organisms can withstand a volcanic event, then they can comfortably survive any disruption caused by mining. It is an effective means to counter critique from those that are concerned by DSM’s environmental impacts.

Another example of this kind of material politics relates to the geologic speed at which deep-sea mineral deposits are formed. At Solwara 1, ‘black smokers’—underwater chimneys made by minerals that are precipitated from rapidly cooling jets of fluids—can grow several feet in a matter of weeks. This is incredibly dynamic in geologic terms. Compare this to polymetallic nodules – another type of targeted deep-sea mineral deposit – that form at the rate of about one inch every million years, and the ethical implications of seafloor disturbance emerge quite differently.

A final dimension, which demands attention in considering DSM as political, is time (Childs 2018). Many accounts of deep-sea mining frame it as an industry ‘of the future’. This has conceptual purchase, offering the allure of untapped wealth, and positioning the activity as a key part of a ‘blue economy’, the extension of a capitalist spatial fix into earth’s watery volumes. Yet just as the ‘future’ facing aspects of DSM are about the appeals made to global finance with their attendant promises of ‘resource potential’, so too must any ‘waste’ from the extractive process be included in predictions of environmental impact.

Moreover, the ‘time’ of deep-sea mining operates on a range of different registers and speeds, each with their own political implication. This might be about the acquisition and control of monitoring, generating and transmitting data on seabed resources or the time of their geologic formation. Whether it’s about the anticipation of DSM’s potential before extraction even begins or the time, as yet unknowable, when its environmental impacts are realised, time will be crucial to defining its politics.

These aspects addressed above collectively lead us to confront some uncomfortable political questions that have yet to be fully addressed. This is not just the case in Papua New Guinea. More globally, as the ambitions for deep-sea mining expand, how is the extraordinary diversity of different knowledge systems that relate to the ocean going to be reconciled? Is the mining of the deep seabed a price worth paying in order to build the green energy systems of the future? If not, where are we going to get the materials needed?

References
Childs, J. (2018). Extraction in Four Dimensions: Time, Space and the Emerging Geo(-)politics of Deep-Sea MiningGeopolitics, 1-25.
DeLoughrey, E. (2017). Submarine Futures of the Anthropocene. Comparative Literature69(1), 32-44.
Hannigan, J. (2016). The geopolitics of deep oceans. John Wiley & Sons.
MacGregor, N. (2017). ‘Living With The Gods: The Other Side of the Leaf’, Radio 4,
Steinberg, P. E. (2001). The social construction of the ocean (Vol. 78). Cambridge University Press.

John Childs is a Lecturer in International Development and Natural Resources at Lancaster University. He teaches and writes about the political geography of resource extraction, including the politics of deep-sea mining. This blog and the video Into the Abyss: the politics of deep sea mining in Papua New Guinea is based on research was made possible by funding from the UK Economic and Social Research Council as part of a two year ‘Future Research Leaders Grant’ [Ref: ES/N016548/1].

IMAGE CREDIT: Sunrise off the Duke of York Islands John Childs.

IMAGE CREDIT COVER PHOTO: JC142 research cruise, exploring a rich tellurium deposit deep in the Atlantic ocean. Tellurium is a key component of photovoltaic technology used in solar power. Reproduced with permission of the British Geological Survey, National Oceanography Centre ©UKRI 2018.)

The Internet – a case for political ecology?

ENTITLE blog - a collaborative writing project on Political Ecology

By Annika Kettenburg

The digital sphere is more than the playground of techno-optimism, eco-modernism and capitalist expansion. While in the mainstream it is portrayed as immaterial and unpolitical, the internet is the place where personal data becomes a commodity whose production and distribution exploits workers and nature.

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Reflections on Authoritarian Populism: Democracy, Technology and Ecological Destruction

ENTITLE blog - a collaborative writing project on Political Ecology

By Alexander Dunlap

Using anarchist critique to unearth the ‘roots’ of authoritarian populism can offer a productive gateway for understanding the origins and continuation of socio-ecological and economic crises.

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Populism as the final outcome of liberalism


by Alvaro Gaertner Aranda

In 1917 Lenin published his book Imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism (Lenin 1999), and immediately after he started a revolution in Russia that no Marxist theorist could have foreseen. This conclusion seemed logical on the light of the events he had witnessed in the previous decades. In 1873, Germany and the United States finally entered the gold standard and immediately after the Long Depression began. The costs that the gold standard imposed to nations in crisis, that had to suffer the ills of unemployment and deflation before going back to the economic equilibrium, were unbearable for societies, and societies logically responded (Block 2001, p. 14). This response consisted of a mixture of industrial and agrarian tariffs on the one side and of social legislation to protect the workers on the other. These policies, which aimed to make trade flows, and therefore nations, less sensitive to price changes and also to protect businessman and workers from the effects of the gold standard, were adopted in all major countries, starting from Germany. There, Bismarck popularised the “all round protectionism” concept (Polanyi and MacIver 1944, p. 210). The introduction of these tariffs provoked the need for the different states of continuously expanding their colonies to ensure markets and raw materials for the national companies, and thus transformed colonialism, a formerly decried idea, into a necessity. (Block 2001, p. 15). This expansion filled the world with imperialist rivalries, that were first confined into some colonial wars but later escalated and provoked the First World War. Thus, Lenin´s conclusion seemed logical given that the tensions created by the Gold Standard had mainly expressed themselves in the form of imperialist rivalries, where countries sought to alleviate the tensions in their societies by externalizing them to other regions of the world (Polanyi and MacIver 1944, p. 211), but this was not the only way in which the strain manifested. The other possible outcome was best exemplified by William Jennings Bryan, the candidate of the Democratic Party in the 1896 election. Following a period of economic struggle in the US after 1893, Bryan won the nomination by defending that “you shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” (quoted in Kazin 2007) and thus advocating the exit of the US of the Gold Standard. In his speech, Bryan showed how the strain in the north American society would be alleviated in the internal politics by defending the interests of the farmers, the workers and the people in general against the interests of the bankers of the East Coast, and if he would have won and implemented this vision we would have seen the end of the dream of a self-regulating market. His speech got him also the support of the People’s Party, a populist party of the US, and showed that populism is the other possible final outcome of liberalism.
To further argument this thesis, that is, that populism is the other possible outcome of liberalism, we will start by reviewing the modern origin of this concept, and to do so, we have to go back again to Marxism and the October Revolution. Orthodox Marxists theory predicted that the revolution would occur in the most developed countries based upon several quotes of Marx. One example of such a quote was the one indicating that the essence of the bourgeoisie class made them push involuntarily for the advance of industry and therefore for the substitution of individualized workers through an organised working class, that ultimately would be their grave-diggers (Marx and Engels 1967, p. 8). Another example would be the one pointing that “no social order ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed” (Marx 2010). This didn’t finally occur, and the revolution was made in one of the least developed European countries, Russia. This contradiction led Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party, to question himself why that did happened, and one of the results of this and other questions was his theory of hegemony. There Gramsci suggested that the bourgeois class was the dominant class not only due to their ability to maintain the grip of society through coercion, but also due to their ability to obtain consent for their actions thanks to the transformation of their ideas in the common sense of society and their ability to co-opt and integrate other classes in a subaltern position (Katz 2010). If a class achieved such a dominant position then it would be hegemonic, and the challenge for the subaltern classes such as the working class would be to create their own working class culture that would allow them to liberate themselves from the dominance of the bourgeois class and to wage the fight for hegemony (Katz 2010). Also, it is important to point out that while developing his theory of hegemony, Gramsci was thinking that the social groups fighting for it were the bourgeois and the working class (Katz 2010), thus following Marxism in that point. That assumption was challenged later by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, a couple of populist theorists who realised, in different ways, that “there are different forms of subordination that might give rise to a variety of antagonisms, and that all these struggles cannot be viewed simply as the expression of capitalist exploitation” (quoted in John B. Judis 2016). Therefore, they though that, given that the political antagonism was not predefined by some objective theory, that is, that the political conflict in the society need not be between two classes objectively defined by their position with respect to the ownership of the means of production, then the political antagonism had to be defined in the political fight. For Laclau, that meant that this political antagonism is defined by a sort of political discourse, populism, that tries to establish a conflict between an underdog group and the elites (John B. Judis 2016). This underdog group bases its challenge against the established power among a set of demands that establish a political frontier between both groups. This challenge may then succeed and create a new hegemony if a plurality of unsatisfied demands in the society coexist with an increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them (John B. Judis 2016). In conclusion,
populism as a political theory tries to describe how the change from the hegemony of a particular group to the hegemony of another group happens.
Populism explains how those changes of hegemonies happen, but it does not explain how the fundamental condition for the populist ruptures appears. Therefore, we will now try to explain the way in which different unsatisfied demands and an inability of the existing institutional system to absorb them coexist in the long run when implementing a market economy. Such a system of self-regulating markets requires markets for all products to be efficient. Also, it needs that all products are commodities, that is, “objects produced for sale on the market” (Polanyi and MacIver 1944). That all means that the production of all commodities should be subject to the law of supply and demand, that will determine the prices of those commodities and therefore the income of their suppliers (Polanyi and MacIver 1944). That may not be a problem when selling nails, a very homogenous product particularly suited to be produced to be sold in a competitive market, but it is a problem when we talk about what Polanyi called “fictitious commodities”. These commodities, such as labour, money and land, are not originally produced to be sold in the market and their inclusion can threaten the substance of society. For example, “labour is simply the activity of human beings” (Block 2001) and our way of surviving, and leaving its organization to the market would mean that the supply of labour may have to adjust to the demand for it at a given price. In situations of unemployment this adjustment would be made through the disappearance of the owners of that labour power from the market, that is, through their death. Also, leaving the organization of land, which is only subdivided nature (Block 2001), to the market may produce externalities such as a declining quality of the soil, insufficient food security or climate change that threaten the substance of society. Finally, leaving the organization of the monetary system to the market alone may impose unbearable costs to societies in several ways. One way in which it occurs is through the deflationary pressures and the periods of unemployment when the currencies are fixed between each other, as happened with the gold standard. The other way in which it happens is through accelerated devaluations that increase the price of imports, inflation and the costs of paying external debt, as it occurs in countries with floating currencies and as it is happening in Turkey and Argentina.
Naturally, if a society feels any of these threats, it will try to protect itself from them. Therefore, when liberals introduce their reforms to organize these three “fictitious commodities” according to the logic of the self-regulating market, there will be an immediate reaction of society seeking to protect itself and therefore a set of demands will be generated. Then society would have two possible options to alleviate the strain. As described at the beginning of this essay, the first one would be externalizing the strain by imposing the costs of these policies on other societies. Practically, for labour that would mean alleviating unemployment by shifting it to the colonies or any
other weak country, either through emigration or through increased exports from the powerful country. An example of the second type of policy can be found now in the trade war the US is waging against its trade partners to reduce its trade deficit and increase employment at home. For nature, that would mean shifting the overexploitation of it from the powerful country to the powerless, for example by decreasing mining at home and increasing it abroad. A current example of this can be found in the Global South, which has to cope with most of the environmental degradation produced by the consumption of the Global North. Finally, in the case of money, displacing the strain would mean shifting the deficit in the current account from the powerful country to the powerless, for example by forcing the weaker country to have a superavit in its budget and to transfer it to the strong country. An actual example of this can be found in Greece. On the other hand, if the affected society is not powerful enough to impose the costs on other societies, then there will be a political fight in the country in order to decide how the costs will be allocated between the different groups of that society. The hegemonic group will try to impose the costs on the subaltern classes, and by doing so it will create a set of unsatisfied demands that the existing institutional system will not be able to absorb, thus creating the conditions for a populist rupture. In that moment, there will be a window of opportunity for a populist party that, making use of a populist discourse and possibly counting with a strong unifying leader (John B. Judis 2016), tries to represent all those unsatisfied demands and to replace the old hegemonic group by a new one. When that happens, there will be several possibilities. The first one is that the underdog coalition succeeds, transforms its ideology in the common sense of society and either implements its program by itself or forces the old elites to do it. The second one is that the hegemonic group sees off the challenge to their hegemony, but in that case, the strain in society will stay and therefore the populist rupture will be merely postponed. In any case, populism will have been the final outcome of liberalism.
All of the facts exposed in the previous paragraphs are relevant for the times we are living. After the Second World War, Keynesianism had sent the utopia of the self-regulating market into the exile. Social democratic parties succeeded in making big parts of their programs hegemonic, as can be seen in the example of Great Britain, where, for example, in 13 years of government the Conservatives could not make significant attacks to the Welfare State created by the Labour Party due to its popularity (Bochel 2010). During that time, also called the “Thirty Glorious Years”, unemployment was the result of insufficient aggregate demand, and the solutions for it were active fiscal and monetary policies that would restore it (Palley 2005). But during the seventies, the utopia of the self-regulating market came back from its exile. After the victory of Thatcher and Reagan, unemployment was the result of the lack of flexibility in the labour market, and the solution for it was the effective dismantling of the institutions that were distorting the labour market, such as the trade unions or the minimum wage (Palley 2005). After the air traffic controllers of the US and the coal miners of the UK
were defeated, workers lost a lot of the elements protecting them from the action of the self-regulating market. The result of that loss of power were stagnating incomes for workers (Joseph A. McCartin 2011), and the stagnation of wages led to an increase in inequality and household debt (Wisman 2013). Increasing debt worked then as a substitute for increasing income for a lot of families seeking to maintain their status and their way of life (Wisman 2013). That worked for some time, and during that time economists such as Robert E.Lucas congratulated their profession for having solved the central problem of depression prevention (Lucas Jr 2003). The problem was and is that bubbles always burst, and when the housing bubble finally burst it was clear that the strain caused by stagnating wages had only been deferred but it had not disappeared. This strain came then back augmented thanks to the implementation of the self-regulating market logic in the financial sector, and again society had to decide how to allocate the costs of the economic adjustment between the different groups present in it. The neoliberals were back then the hegemonic group, and they decided that the middle class and the working class would pay the costs of the crisis and banks would be saved. This decision naturally created some unsatisfied demands in society. Additionally, the Eurozone had to face another challenge while dealing with the crisis because of its monetary system. Back in 1992, the countries of the Eurozone had entered a monetary union without including in its design some of the necessary elements to make it work properly in the event of a crisis, such as a banking union or a set of European automatic stabilizers as, for example, a European unemployment insurance program (Stiglitz 2016). Therefore, its functioning during the crisis has resembled the behaviour of a system of fixed currencies such as the gold standard. Ultimately, that has meant that countries that used to have a current account deficit before the crisis have had to go through a process equal to the one the gold standard would have imposed in such a situation, that is, a process of adjustment consisting of deflation and high unemployment that makes them recover their competitiveness and re-establish the equilibrium. That has caused the appearance of an even greater set of unsatisfied demands in those countries that their institutional system has not been able to absorb. All of these facts together explain the situation that we are living in Europe right now, because the implementation of liberal policies has again lead to a populist moment, which will either be solved through a left wing populism that pitches the losers of the crisis against the powerful and that seeks to protect society from the action of the self-regulating market while reinforcing democracy or through a right wing populism that pitches the losers of the crisis against immigrants. The lesson of the thirties with this respect cannot be clearer, as Gramsci said, when “the old world is dying, and the new world is slow to appear, in that chiaroscuro surge monsters” (quoted in Meneses 2013). For us, but also for the members of the current hegemonic group that want to hinder a takeover by right wing populists, that means that this time we should
learn from Polanyi, Mouffe, and Laclau; and use their knowledge to make the new world appear a little faster.