The Politics of Demobilization: A Review of Soybeans and Power

By Federico M. Rossi

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Lapegna, Pablo (2016), Soybeans and Power: Genetically Modified Crops, Environmental Politics, and Social Movements in Argentina (New York: Oxford University Press).

Soybeans and Power by Pablo Lapegna takes the case of a rural community in Formosa (a northern province of Argentina that borders on Paraguay) to explore a crucial question for social movement studies: how to explain the demobilization of a social movement. A poor community of peasants experiencing local-level impacts of the global process of adoption of genetically modified crops (GMCs) and agrochemicals reacts differently in two instances. In the first instance, in the face of health and economic consequences associated with GMCs cultivation, it responds by mobilizing. In another instance, it reacts to the same consequences differently—by actively demobilizing. These seemingly contradictory strategies leads the author to propose an answer to the crucial question of why people sometimes choose to mobilize and sometimes to demobilize on the same issues and with similar grievances. According to Lapegna, cooptation and clientelism are insufficient explanations, and in this case there is no repression. Therefore, he proposes viewing demobilization as an agency-based process (p. 14, 16) that requires an ethnographic approach in order to appreciate the multiple layers at play in these sorts of dynamics, without overemphasizing the role of the elites while grasping the actors’ understandings of the dynamics at hand.

Soybeans and Power also makes another important contribution to environmental sociology and peasant studies with its analysis of the social, economic and health consequences of the use of GMCs and agrochemicals on peasants’ lives. This topic is worrying for those of us that live in countries where the cultivation of GMCs are authorized—such as the United States, Argentina and Brazil—and I invite colleagues to explore Lapegna’s nuanced analysis of the debates on GMCs. In this short review, I focus on what this award-winning book offers to social movement studies in its potential to travel to other latitudes.

Dynamics of mobilization. To understand the dynamics of demobilization, we also need to study the dynamics of mobilization. What incited the peasants to mobilize against GMCs in Formosa? According to Lapegna, the answer to this first question is crucial to comprehending what led them to actively demobilize at a later time under similar circumstances. The book shows how these poor peasants mobilized as part of a quest for recognition and in reaction to disrespectful and dismissive treatment to which they had been subjected. In other words, the mobilization was a strategy for addressing two needs that they were experiencing simultaneously: the need to defend their economic dignity and the need to be recognized as legitimate actors in the socio-political arena.

Dynamics of demobilization. The most interesting puzzle arises in the book’s exploration of the dynamics of demobilization. This puzzle is the result of what Lapegna calls “dual pressure”: pressure from within the movement and from allies, in combination with the consequences of the state recognition achieved by the movement in previous struggles. Accordingly, he argues against perspectives proposing cooptation as an explanation (p. 117), showing how the dynamic is much more complex because of the need to recognize that there is an important element of agency on the part of the organized poor peasants. In addition, the book argues that the dual pressure process “mimics clientelism” in the sense of being an element for problem-solving through voice and patronage (p. 118–119), but it is different in one crucial way: the decision of the peasants was to demobilize. In Lapegna’s words: “The corollary of this process is that when acting as brokers, local leaders reciprocate the support given by their national allies by eschewing the organization of collective actions” (p. 118).

The intriguing question is, then: how did the members of this poor people’s movement come to accept the definition of the conflict put forward by the political and economic elites? The dynamics of demobilization analyzed from within the movement offers an interesting answer. Through a detailed analysis of the discourses of the group of peasants studied, Soybeans and Power shows how they made accommodations and adapted to GMCs and its consequences. This happened when the authorities responded to the legitimacy of the peasants’ claims without resolving the underlying causes associated with the use of agrochemicals in food production. The result was that “peasants in Formosa regarded transgenic crops as a menace only when it threatened their daily survival” (p. 150), negotiating and making accommodations to adapt to GMCs and its consequences and gradually coming to disregard the health problems produced in their communities.

Pablo Lapegna’s book offers an unromanticized story of what peasants do, can do, and would like to do regarding GMCs and its contradictory consequences for their economy and health. In addition, it offers a multidimensional analysis of the politics of demobilization, recognizing the agency of the demobilized actor. Movements not always demobilize as a reaction to repression or success: sometimes they are incorporated, and as they negotiate and accommodate for their demands and needs, they decide that—for now—is better not to mobilize.

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Filed under Daily Disruption, Great Books

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