The global authoritarian turn

Themed article

The contemporary moment is defined by an ‘authoritarian turn’. While the countries that have so far succumbed to it could not be more different - the US, Turkey, India, Bolivia, Philippines, Hungary to name just a few from a depressingly long list - it is clear that we are witnessing a global phenomenon.

This is not to argue that authoritarianism has emerged, continues to unfold, and will eventually be overcome in exactly the same manner in all of these countries.Various meaningful contextual differences can be observed in the rise of authoritarianism, developing versus developed, left-wing versus right-wing, and length and depth of experience with electoral politics being only a few examples.

Nevertheless, there are some strong commonalities that cut across most of them: the emergence of a (putatively) charismatic strongman (they are indeed all men!), the rise (again!) of nationalist rhetoric that vilifies women and minorities and portrays supposed outsiders as enemies, aggressive incorporation of majority religious symbols and practices into state policies, deliberate attempts to undermine basic facts and scientific precepts, and deepening deployment of neoliberal economic policies that feign to help the poor and the marginalized while creating new opportunities for the elite to accumulate more wealth and do so with even less scrutiny.

As with most dramatic political dynamics, social scientists have largely been caught off guard by these developments and work has only recently begun to make sense of what gave rise to the authoritarian turn and how we can hope to defeat it. Two fundamental observations need to frame any discussion of this seemingly surprising development. First, we cannot speak of history marching inexorably forward toward a more progressive and democratic (let alone more affluent) world. To the extent that such a trend might evince itself, one that intensified since post-World War II, it is necessary to ask exactly what type of structural forces enabled the creation of the (neo)liberal electoral democratic model that continued to spread across the globe over several waves of democratization.

The second observation, then, is that the halcyon days of the 1990s that unfolded in the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which prompted Francis Fukuyama to declare the end of history, cannot be taken as the norm. In other words, the emergence and maintenance of (neo)liberal democracies do not follow a transhistorical law - they are products of a very specific constellation of political, economic and, let us not forget any longer, ecological dynamics. Seen with the benefit of these two observations then, we can no longer see the ‘authoritarian turn’ as especially surprising, nor can we view the erosion of civic, political and economic rights around the world as a momentary aberration, one from which we will easily and almost mechanically snap back from in the next round of elections.

A teddy bear advocates for democracyPhoto: Jrwooley6

What can and should be done to move away from authoritarianism? To answer this, it is necessary to ask how the previous model was constructed. Again, two observations: first, the alternative has not been between (neo)liberal capitalist democracies and totalitarian states purporting to be socialist. Between those and throughout space and time, human communities have developed various forms of (local) governance and accountability systems. Therefore, moving away from authoritarianism need not, and indeed should not, take those two 20th century models as the only options, and activists need to cast their nets wider and deeper.

Second, to the extent that (neo)liberal democracies have become universalized, this is not because of their conformity to human nature. The rational, utility-maximizing individual whose political subjectivity can only be understood during two transactions - at the ballot box and the cash register - makes for a dystopian view of humanity and the power of its political imagination. This fictitious view of humanity has been forcefully imposed across the world, through military or economic warfare, so aggressively that it has come to suffocate meaningful existing or incipient alternatives. Therefore, just as the range of possible political economic systems cannot be reduced to a binary choice, the political nature of the coming societal shape should not only be imagined through the eyes of autonomous individuals. movements [must] redouble their efforts to push back against the prevailing ideology...

To the extent that the previous configuration of political dynamics bent towards a (limited) form of democracy, this was because there were strong and well-organized political forces countervailing against the power of capital. It is a truism that without coordinated political struggle, many of the now defining features of this system, such as universal suffrage, would not have been instituted. It follows then that authoritarianism - and its handmaidens corruption, socio-economic inequality, lack of transparency to name a few - are able to rise because the collective societal forces that pushed back against them have been weakening during the past few decades.

The erosion of the power and effectiveness of progressive social forces is not accidental. Sober introspection would surely reveal that they have not always been genuinely progressive or inclusive, either in the scope of their struggle or their composition. Feminist and ecological concerns, for example, have been ‘admitted’ into the vocabulary of many movements only after long and difficult internal battles. Yet even more important than the very real shortcomings of progressive movements has been the constant and co-ordinated attack on their legitimacy and capability, especially since neoliberalism began to exercise significant power since the 1980s.

NOW Protest SeattlePhoto: damienconway30

What is necessary, then, is for progressive movements to redouble their efforts to push back against the prevailing ideology and do so in a way that celebrates differences while amalgamating the power of diverse communities into a sum greater than its constituent parts. As the accompanying articles suggest, there are seeds of such movements in diverse contexts, be it environmental activism in Turkey or agrarian resistance in India. As their experience so far also shows, the struggle against authoritarianism will need to be fierce, sustained and animated by radical imagination.

Professor Murat Arsel

Murat Arsel
Professor of Political Economy of
Sustainable Development at ISS

Image top: Taken on and around Taksim Square,
Istanbul, in the first week of protests (June 2013)
Credit: dschenck


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