Skip to main content

One of the most important international developments of the last five years has been the rise of what is commonly called ‘populism’ – a new form of mostly right-wing, disruptive and anti-establishment politics that has challenged the authority and the hegemony of the world order that has been in place since the end of the Cold War.   From the politics of Trumpism in the USA and of Brexit in the UK, to the brutal policies of Bolsonaro, Duterte and Modi, these politicians have poured scorn on the upbeat and optimistic narratives of neoliberal developmentalism and the discourses of human rights that have been part of the international furniture for the last thirty years, have brought huge setbacks to progressive and emancipatory movements of the poor and marginalised, and pose a grave risk to the prospects of just and equitable responses to climate change.

This month, we have published three blogs from colleagues outside PLAAS raising the issue of how to develop ‘progressive’ responses to these challenges.  The first is an overview by Ian Scoones of the STEPS Centre, in which he recounts some of the work done by the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative towards understanding the rural roots of modern ‘populism’ and possible alternatives to it.  We are also publishing two pieces by Brian Levy of the Mandela School of Public Governance UCT’s Mandela Institute—one in which he explores what can be learned from the four moral challenges of populist discourse, and another in which he asks whether populism can be opposed by ‘fighting fire with fire’.

As should be clear from reading these interventions, there is no consensus on how to understand the roots of the new forms of right-wing politics that have overtaken the world in the last five years, much less how it should be opposed. Certainly, Scoones and Levy have very different takes—and we have no doubt that other scholars (particularly those in the postcolonial world and the global South) would have very different views again!  In the coming months, we at PLAAS hope to enter much more energetically into this debate, and to take further the discussion of how these forms of chauvinist, anti-liberal and anti-establishment politics should be understood;  how to evaluate the risks and opportunities created by these new political developments; and what their rise might mean for the shape of ‘emancipatory,’  ‘progressive,’  and  pro-poor politics in the future.

So watch this space!