Barbara Grut

Barbara Grut

Profile

My first undergraduate degree was in languages (interpreting and translating) and it has served me well; I have been working as a freelance conference interpreter since 1991, and have enjoyed (almost) every minute of it. Interpreting is a job that requires intense concentration, you learn something new every day, you work with incredibly bright and knowledgeable people, you travel a fair amount – it may sometimes feel like you are living out of a suitcase, and there are days when you wish you could rewind and redact, but I still wouldn’t change it for the world.

Paradoxically, being self-employed is also a blessing because there are many days in the year when you are not working; you may not be earning a regular salary, but you are free to devote your time to other things. For me, this has to a very large extent meant academic pursuits: an honours degree in psychology in my thirties, a Masters in Iberian and Latin American Cultural Studies in my early forties, and another Masters in Social and Political Theory as I approached my fifties.

It has required a certain amount of self-discipline, but I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to delve deeper into so many fascinating subjects. Interpreters need to grasp meaning quickly, to make snap decisions about what the speaker is trying to communicate; academics need to do almost the opposite, by questioning every assumption, every statement of “fact”. It has been a very healthy antidote for me (and a learning curve).

I have now embarked on what I consider to be the culmination of my academic aspirations: a doctoral thesis. I still have to pinch myself sometimes, and I have a very long way to go yet (I am studying part-time), but I hope to make it through to completion, and certainly to enjoy the challenge, every step of the way.

Research interests

My research is interdisciplinary in nature, combining political theory with Iberian and Latin American studies. I am very fortunate to have co-supervision from the School of Politics and International Studies and the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies (a perfect fit, given my postgraduate background).

I will be building on my previous research into left populism and charismatic leadership. For my MSc in Social and Political Theory, I explored the role that Pablo Iglesias’ charismatic leadership had played in what might be called Spain’s “populist moment” in 2015, when a mass popular mobilisation (15M) led to the formation of a new political force (Podemos) which gained rapid success in the electoral polls and ultimately disrupted the two-party political system (PSOE/PP) that had governed Spain since the country’s transition to democracy in 1975. Podemos are now in government, and Pablo Iglesias is deputy Prime Minister of Spain.

This time, I will be addressing left populism and charismatic leadership in Mexico. Like Pablo Iglesias, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is viewed by many as a charismatic leader (often by those who are wary of his politics). In 2014, AMLO formally established his own political party, Morena (National Regeneration Movement), and it too has gone on to upset the political landscape in Mexico, winning a landslide victory in the 2018 general election. AMLO is now the President of Mexico.

What I am interested in is the labelling of AMLO as a “left populist charismatic leader”, and in particular, what it is that constitutes his alleged “charisma”? Charisma is a fraught concept. Max Weber described the charismatic leader as “someone who is inwardly ‘called’ to the task of leading men” and his followers as willing to “submit to him, not because of custom or statute, but because they believe in him”. His concept of a “divine gift” has been challenged by more contemporary scholars, who prefer to view charisma as a style of leadership rather than a “gift of grace”. My thesis, however, will argue that for the charismatic bond to be sustained, followers need to have “faith” in their populist leader, even in today’s secularised societies. I will be drawing on the “missionary politics” concept developed by political scientist José Pedro Zúquete, which I believe to be particularly well suited to a Mexican context and to the figure of AMLO.

To put Zúquete’s theory to the test, I will be conducting a careful analysis of speeches delivered by AMLO at various public appearances during his six-year presidential mandate (2018-2024), applying the discourse theory of political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. I hope to uncover the signs that are given prominence in AMLO’s discourse, as opposed to those that are excluded; hegemonic struggles over meaning; the existing dominant discourses that are reproduced and the ones that are challenged. My research will seek to establish whether AMLO’s discourse may be interpreted as a form of “missionary politics” – a political religion centred around a charismatic leader and sustained by a narrative of good and evil, a moral community and a conspiratorial enemy, crisis and salvation.

Qualifications

  • MSc Social and Political Theory - University of London (Birkbeck), 2018
  • MA Iberian and Latin American Cultural Studies - University of London (Birkbeck), 2011
  • BSc (Hons) Psychology - The Open University, 2006
  • BA (Hons) Languages (Interpreting and Translating) - Heriot-Watt University, 1989