Agrarian Populism

Farmers’ protests are being embraced by the far right. The precedents are chilling.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 19th January 2024

When environmental activists calling for less pollution sit in the streets, across Europe they are now abused and attacked, arrested and handed extreme and draconian sentences. When farmers contesting pollution rules block entire city centres and major roads, set light to haybales, filling the highways with smoke, and spray manure on government buildings, the authorities sit and wait for them to go home. Few, if any, are prosecuted, and those who are receive small penalties. The promise of equality before the law has seldom looked emptier.

The hard right and far right demonise people who challenge the status quo, and valorise those who seek to restore it. Governments and police forces across the rich world have proved all too responsive to their demands.

I understand the sense of threat felt by farmers, as environmental rules are belatedly enforced. In some cases, attempts across Europe to make farming greener, reducing its release of nitrogen, cutting diesel subsidies, limiting water abstraction and banning some pesticides, have been clumsily introduced and badly implemented. I understand that life is tough for many farmers, as it is now for workers in almost every sector. Like all of us, they have a right to protest. And other people, as in all cases, have a right to scrutinise their protests.

There are good reasons to do so. Farmers’ movements in several European nations are being influenced or exploited by political forces in ways that have chilling historical precedents. Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, Rassemblement National in France, the Sweden Democrats, Fidesz in Hungary, the Brothers of Italy, the Dutch far right and similar groups across the continent are cynically using farmers’ plight and protests as a means of building support. Farmers, some of these groups claim, embody the soul of the nation, but they are being uprooted by “globalist” forces, seeking to “replace” them with immigrants. The far right’s resurgence in Europe is fuelled to a large extent by what used to be called “agrarian populism”.

There are similar trends in the US. The Oath Keepers, and the Three Percenters, two of the militias that led the attack on the US Capitol building in January 2021, consolidated around an agrarian revolt against state and federal authorities. After the rancher Cliven Bundy was ordered to remove the cattle he had illegally herded on to public lands in Nevada, harming the brittle desert ecosystem, these militias arrived to defend him. In an armed confrontation on the freeway, they forced federal agents to back down. Then they stalked, harassed and threatened to kidnap officials: several had to flee the region and hide in safe houses. Though they committed crimes that in other circumstances would have been treated as terrorism, few were prosecuted or even arrested. Their impunity in Nevada is likely to have encouraged their attack on the Capitol.

As they did a century ago, these political movements exploit genuine crises: the accumulation of wealth by the few and impoverishment of the many, the erosion of workers’ rights and the stagnation of wages, public austerity and the multiple failures of public provision, the restriction of political choice as major parties cluster round neoliberalism, the destruction of small businesses – including small farms – by large ones, the environmental disasters now hammering many communities. They then use these crises as weapons against the very people seeking to address them: leftwing and environmental parties and protest movements.

Among their tactics are lurid conspiracy fictions. While, a century ago, similar political voices raged against “aliens” and “cosmopolitans” (Jews and other supposed “outsiders”), today these movements rage against “immigrants” and “globalists”. While demonising two plutocrats (Bill Gates and George Soros), today’s groupings align openly or tacitly with others, such as Elon Musk, Charles Koch and Donald Trump. A selective approach to financial power (demonising “Jewish bankers” while receiving funds from supportive plutocrats) was also a feature of 20th-century fascism.

It all looks horribly familiar. As the historian Robert Paxton points out, “It was in the countryside that both Mussolini and Hitler won their first mass following, and it was angry farmers who provided their first mass constituency.” Not all agrarian populism was right wing. In Russia, the US, France, Spain and Italy, there were socialist and anarchist strands. But while some progressive forms remain, the dominant varieties gravitate once more to the far right. And other agrarian strains, promoting conspiracy fictions, begin to sound like it.

In a podcast in 2021 with the anti-vaxxer and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy Jr, with whom she has long campaigned, the celebrated agrarian advocate Vandana Shiva claimed that first Gates “locked us all in for one year”; now he is “taking all this to the next step”, to “create starvation and hunger through lockdown, so that there is no food”. At one point, she says Gates will “make the right to good food a crime”, and at another says he has a plan to “empty out” people’s minds “by mining data and patenting it and turning everyone into zombies”. There are solid reasons to criticise Gates – we don’t need to make stuff up. Of global financial institutions such as the World Bank, she says, “That’s how the Shylocks of the world work: get you into debt and then want the pound of flesh.”

The grimmest themes in European history are being shamelessly disinterred at or around the farmers’ protests. At the tractor blockade in Berlin this week, some people displayed the flag of the Landvolkbewegung, a 1920s antisemitic agrarian movement. It troubles me that so much has fallen down the memory hole: the disgusting race politics of Rudolf Steiner, who developed biodynamic farming; Germany’s Lebensreform movement, which claimed that Jews were “injecting putrefying agents into the nation’s blood and soil” (ours is not the first age in which bucolic and anti-vaccine sentiments have merged); the Artaman League, which sought to restore an imagined agrarian past, on which the Nazis built their blood and soil politics; and nostalgic British farming movements led by fascist sympathisers such as Rolf Gardiner and Jorian Jenks.

It’s also troubling to see how few people in the 2020s are prepared to confront the far right’s new agrarian populism. Those who should contest these politics cringe and cringe again: there seems to be a moral forcefield surrounding farmers’ protests, defending them from criticism. As the left seeks to avoid a clash with supposedly “authentic” and “rooted” movements, the far right exploits this timidity. George Santayana’s famous maxim haunts our days. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.