Unmasking Authoritarianism

With the likes of Putin, Trump, Xi Jinping and Modi controlling some of the world’s most powerful nations, authoritarianism is fast being normalised. The rise of these figures has been paralleled by a disturbing growth in nationalist, racist and xenophobic forces, disaffection towards traditional democratic institutions and a steady increase in repression of social movements and civil society.  The promises of Fukuyama, Friedman and others that capitalism and liberal, open societies were inextricably bound together lie today in tatters.

There is a tendency, however, in much of the mainstream critiques of authoritarianism to obscure how the ground for authoritarian politics was laid long before people like Trump or Brexit appeared to burst the liberal bubble. Social democratic parties which position themselves today as the bulwarks against authoritarian politics seem to forget their role in paving the way for many of the authoritarian policies and structures now at the service of the strongmen. 

These include the enthusiastic embrace of the war on terror, the militarisation of borders and systematic denial of refugee rights, massive growth in state and corporate surveillance, militarisation of policing, mass incarceration and ever more clampdowns on activists and protesters – all of which have been incrementally but steadily expanded since the heady days of ‘third way’ politics and post cold-war liberal triumphalism. None of this is happening without a hint of irony for many in the Global South, for whom the authoritarian politics entrenched by colonial rule never really ended. What is remarkable is how lineage of many of today’s repressive apparatuses can be traced directly the administration of the colonies and the repression of movements for self-determination.

The long history of political authoritarian practices by supposedly liberal democratic regimes is matched by an unquestioning embrace of economic authoritarian policies under the rubric of neoliberal globalisation. The belief that markets and corporate capital should be the ultimate arbiters for economic policy has meant that attempts to build democratic alternatives to neoliberal austerity and financial dictats have often been treated as subversive experiments that must be crushed. Economic and political authoritarianism also intersect with and reinforce one another. The dispossession caused by neoliberal globalisation has produced a cycle of violence and repression that perpetuates the sense of social instability in which autocrats and authoritarians can claim to provide legitimate security solutions.

In other words we have been sleepwalking into an authoritarian world for some time.

Indeed it has so affected and changed our political culture that we no longer see its effects and our blind to those who are targeted, especially as their effects are very much skewed by race and class. The cycle of violence created by the war on terror has engendered an obsession with risk that whitewashes state crime, reifies state power and sustains a burgeoning defence and security industry which offers up ever more sophisticated tools of repression and annihilation. All of this is underpinned by a mantra of increased security no matter the consequences.

The fundamental challenge then is not just to challenge the illiberal antics of Trump and others, but rather to look at the roots of their rise, unmask this normalisation of authoritarianism and provide alternatives.

Progressive forces have a patchy record on this. Not only has the left often been missing in action when communities have been targeted, it has also failed to provide an alternative narrative and policies to politics of authoritarianism. And once in power, revolutionary movements supported by the left have all to often resorted to these politics when their programmes have failed to deliver. While there has been progress in challenging neoliberalism, at least in terms of public narratives, there has been far less of a challenge to the security-state. Meanwhile, the remaining defences against authoritarian power that proved valuable in the 20th century – particularly public and political support for human rights law and liberal democratic values – appear to be rapidly diminishing.

In 2017 TNI decided to pull together a working group to look at these issues – to both deepen our analysis of today’s authoritarian trends and identify ways to challenge them and develop emancipatory alternatives. In June 2017, we held a workshop bringing together key scholar activists that mapped out some of the themes. In March 2018, TNI helped coordinate a conference with ICAS on rural authoritarianism. TNI also issued an open call for papers – of which four papers were selected and will be published during April 2018. If you would like to propose a paper, analysis, artistic proposal or or other contribution to this working group, please email nick AT tni.org