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The Rise of Global Authoritarianism

Democracy is in crisis around the world, while authoritarianism is on the rise in a growing number of countries. Existing democratic institutions are hollowed out and increasingly unable to respond to the authoritarian wave.

, credit: James Ferguson / Financial Times

We live in the age of monsters. As the organic crisis of the old neoliberal project of globalization continues, nearly everywhere in Europe—but also in the US, Latin America, Asia, and Africa—we are seeing the rise of an authoritarian and radical right wing. However, the monsters are downright diverse: there are “strong men” like Trump, Kurz, Duterte, or even Macron—political impresarios who are giving shape to a new authoritarianism while in government. Common to all of them is a “top-down” anti-establishment discourse, backed up by powerful segments of the capitalist class. These ought to be distinguished from the authoritarian-nationalist regimes in Poland and Hungary, as well as those of a religious-nationalist character, as in Turkey or India. The latter should in turn be distinguished from the radical right, such as the National Front in France, Geerd Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV), or the Alternative for Germany party (AfD)—as well as from the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) or the Lega Nord in Italy, both of which are currently in government. The Italian Five Star Movement is completely different again. Then there are military governments, as in Thailand, or governments backed by the military, notably Bolsonaro’s Brazil. The list of examples could be continued; the authoritarian and radical right is multifarious. The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung has established a global post-doctoral study programme on the subject.[1]

How can the rise of the radical right be understood? The following are a few theses (intended as a starting-point for further research)—developed not exclusively, although mainly, out of analyses of the US and Europe, and hence to be applied to other countries only with caution and further questions.

1. Nothing in common?: The question is not whether or not there is a global authoritarianism. The object is complex, heterogeneous, and highly dynamic, and eludes unitary explanation or even definition. And yet it would be insufficient to proceed on the basis of a juxtaposition of unrelated specific cases. Are the ultra-liberals (Austria), the racists (Italy), the social nationalists (Poland, and in some ways Hungary), the hyper-authoritarians (Turkey), the military taking care of public order (Egypt and Thailand), the military government in democratic guise (Brazil), the government in a state of emergency (Ethiopia with no opposition in the parliament, and possibly France), and the religious-nationalists (India) all different cases, which otherwise have nothing in common? We should rather seek to clarify what is specific to each situation and what unites them, so that cautious generalizations can be made.

2. Why now?: There have of course always been forms of authoritarian rule (cf. Marx’s 18th Brumaire), about which the Left has developed a rich corpus of theory. Thus the question is not whether this kind of authoritarianism exists; it always has. Rather, what are the specific conditions which give it global social importance and historical effectiveness today? How has this phenomenon been able to become so significant precisely now?

3. Crisis: Central to the current moment is the coincidence between an organic crisis of a specific, global mode of social production and reproduction (so-called neoliberal globalization) and the emergence, in the interregnum, of forms of authoritarianism as specific ways of working through this crisis and winning back or securing power. These forms can be differentiated according to the position of each country within the global structures of valorization, according to the developments of capital accumulation and/or the global obstacles to the valorization of capital—the respective position of a national economy (and its crisis) provides clues to specific causes and contexts for determinate forms of authoritarianism in the respective country and/or to a typology of forms of rule.

4. Missed opportunities: An important factor contributing to the rise of the authoritarian and radical right is the limitation of social-democratic projects: a) of a post-neoliberal sort, in other words the redistribution of social wealth in a situation of very limited democratization, but above all with no reconstruction of the bases of production and reproduction (from Venezuela to Brazil), b) of a progressive neoliberal sort, in other words the preservation of (limited) freedoms and progressive gains, without intervention in the meteoric transformation of the economic structure, and without downward redistribution (social democracy, left-liberals, and sometimes Christian democracy in the North). The disappointment over social democracy and/or the post-neoliberal Left, as well as the inefficacy and exhaustion of radical ruptures (the various liberation movements) and failed revolutions (North Africa), has led in many places to a rightward turn by parts of the subalterns, but even more frequently to ademobilization that is asymmetrical in terms of class politics, and to electoral abstention (in those countries where elections are still taking place).

5. Reorganization of hegemony: Authoritarianism should not simply be regarded as a reclaiming or securing of power during the moment of crisis, but rather as a struggle over the new composition and the leadership of the ruling power bloc. Hence, too, the prevalence of anti-establishment discourses directed against the traditional bourgeois elites. This is also why a form of authoritarianism such as the one propelled by European institutions needs to be distinguished from the (ostensibly) anti-elite authoritarianism of the radical right. In the face of crisis-type developments, alterations in class structure, and the crisis of representation, numerous political (party-)systems are in upheaval. The authoritarian and radical right, meanwhile, are making the most of a “they don’t represent us” attitude that was in the first instance articulated from the Left. For investigation: who are the carriers, the social groups, and the class fractions of the new authoritarianism (both in the relevant countries and transnationally)?

6. Who are the bearers?: Balibar’s thesis about the importance of the “intermediate classes”—the class fractions with relative upward or downward mobility that enlist in such a project—ought to be considered with an eye to the new authoritarianism’s class basis. If it is true that the radical right and “racist ideology [are] essentially inter-class”—not only in the sense of relatively upwardly or downwardly mobile class segments, but rather in connection with “an active negation” of class solidarity [2]—then the radical right (or, e.g., the AfD in particular) can also be grasped as constituting an inter-class alliance: between downwardly mobile wage-labourers, segments of skilled labour who have moved into the petite bourgeoisie and are threatened with further decline (and who thus attempt to defend their private homes and level of consumption), upwardly mobile entrepreneurial individualists, middle-class business-owning families placed under pressure by globalization, industries (e.g. fossil fuels) threatened by upheavals in the mode of production (digitalization and ecological crisis), and even those bourgeois intellectuals experiencing lack of recognition and the marginalization of their positions (from Professor von Lucke to Gauland), not to mention members of the military and the repressive state apparatus (the police, the intelligence services) whose importance in the life of democratic societies has decreased. In the case of the downwardly mobile class fractions, we can even speak of a transition from uncertainty to manifest or imminent déclassement. Which were the key upwardly or downwardly mobile intermediate classes in Brazil, in India, or in the Philippines?

What Are the Methods of the Right?

Is there a common ideological core, or is it just a methodology of government? I am only concerned here with the authoritarianism of an authoritarian and radical right—not with left-wing or other forms of authoritarianism, which are structured differently. The concept of fascism (as Walden Bello, for example, has argued) is certainly too broad; fully developed fascist regimes have probably not yet emerged. Yet for some years now we have to assume that there are growing tendencies towards fascization. Elements are:

7. Populism: Strategically taking up and strengthening specific combinations of anti-liberal, anti-Muslim (here in Germany; in other places other religious minorities are targeted), anti-feminist, homophobic, anti-ecological and anti-minority (the “upside-down rainbow”, as it is known in Brazil)—as well as explicitly racist—positions has enabled the authoritarian and radical right, contrary to their class composition, to transform even discontent “from below” into popular approval. In general, this process operates via the disparagement of specific groups—but extends to the denial (at first discursive, then later real) of rights.

8. Against “the Other”: Here it is always a matter of a specific combination of new forms of classismracism, and machismo/patriarchy, against the other—the “lazy poor”, the “dangerous classes”, “refugees and foreigners”, “women’s libbers and transgender madness”, etc. (Duterte forms an exception, with his pro-LGBT position). As if the chauvinistic right wanted once more to confirm how important an (intersectional) understanding of class, race, and gender is.

9. Accumulate, accumulate: Power is used to combat all oppositional and emancipatory tendencies, and always specifically against “collectivism” and “liberalism”, i.e., against collective and individual social rights. Unions and workers’ rights are especially targeted, in order to shift the power relations between capital and labour, as well as communal land rights, the commons, and the public sphere—with the aim of appropriating social resources. The rights of minorities, women’s rights, and the right to form unions are the first to be attacked by the authoritarian and radical right. The attack on unions and workers’ rights, meanwhile, characterizes the authoritarian and radical right across its entire spectrum, cutting across its other differentiations (Poland perhaps the exception). All in all, it is a matter of removing the obstacles to capital accumulation in its harshest form (from “extreme energy” and an intensified economy of expropriation via giant infrastructure projects, through to the classic raising of the rate of exploitation, and the squeezing of all social and natural resources).

10. “Free speech”: This attack is mostly aimed against a supposedly left-wing, liberal “elite”, “decadent ’68ers”, etc. Closely tied to this is the struggle against “political correctness” as relativization of truth. At the same time, fake news and conspiracy theories are also put into play; there is a plurality of truths, and hence the democratic requirement to strive for the truth can be dismissed. Hence the struggle against (the freedom of) the press, the Enlightenment, and the academy (and academic freedom)—but also against an independent justice system, as expressing a codification of propositions claimed to be true. Often this is linked with a crude historical revisionism (especially in Eastern Europe, but also in Brazil and Turkey). The result is—through deliberately staged “breaking of taboos”—an extension of the domain of the sayable.

11. From violent words to violent deeds: The authoritarian and radical right fosters an open hostility towards parliamentarianism and parties, disparages democratic procedure, and contemptuously uses the parliament as a mere stage. The demand goes further, however, targeting a democratic, solidary mode of life within the everyday as well—because the extension of the sayable leads immediately to an extension of the domain of action, from expressions of hatred on social media and in everyday life, through to violent acts (“from below”), and lastly open repression (“from above”).

12. The monsters’ arsenal: Their particular political projects are constituted by invoking specific combinations of the following ideologemes: nationalism, the people (largely in the ethnic rather than the popular sense) and/or the race, the traditional family, religion, traditional forms of identity; but also work, duty, order, and negative freedoms. The new authoritarianism can be read as an effort “to create from above an alliance between groups within the petit bourgeoisie and the working class, without the bourgeoisie having to make any material concessions. It functions as a sort of short-circuit between bourgeois forces and the subalterns”. [3] This is accompanied not by a rejection of democracy, but its reactionary adaptation—what Victor Orban calls “illiberal democracy”—“an electoral strategy that creates divisions and mobilizes along lines defined by racism, nationalism, religion, sexism, or the exploitation of the natural world, that echoes the errors of common sense, and neuroticizes the subject”. [4] This kind of mobilization is linked with a kind of imaginary empowerment of the subalterns. Amid the widespread experience of powerlessness, it operates with the promise of winning back “control” against and “security” from external and internal threats. Once these diverse elements become thus articulated and concatenated, it is incomparably more difficult to dissociate them again.

13. Oh God: The role of political religion has frequently been underestimated: the Evangelicals (USA, Brazil), the Islamic and Hindu fundamentalists (Turkey, India), the Catholic Church (Poland). The return of the repressed should be examined more squarely here, in order to clarify which unsatisfied needs and longings are being mobilized. [5]

14. Discursive Power: The authoritarian and radical right is also managing to effect an overturning of the world of discourse. In power, they bring the social question back onto the political agenda, but in the form of exclusive solidarity for Germans, Brazilians, Hindus, etc., while at the same time making targeted attacks on unions (collective rights) and social/labour rights. Or they construct an upside-down, right-wing rainbow: against purple, pink, green, and multi-coloured—as resistance against “moralizing re-education” by the generation of ‘68, which had achieved actual positions of power in politics, the education system, the media, universities, and NGOs. The aim is to divide the subalterns, provide restricted possibilities of action for some groups of subalterns and their reactionary self-empowerment. [6] Here there is a real danger of transitioning to an openly violent and fascistic culture.

15. Hegemony or dictatorship: Differentiating aspects were already pointed to in theses 3, 6, and 12. A further point would be the following question: is a specific regime aiming at a hegemonic project, which (through populism) also wagers on the consensus of those it rules, or at the brutal dictatorship of a minority over the majority (including transitional and grey areas)? This would go some way to explaining, e.g., whether ultra-liberal economic policies will be implemented or certain social concessions made; or whether modernization will be striven for, so as to make further accumulation possible (in the case of the advanced segments of the capitalist class), or merely a kleptocratic redistribution and appropriation (in the case of the underdeveloped or predatory segments). This would also give clues as to the likely durability of a regime—a successful project of authoritarian hegemony will perhaps be less brutal than a kleptocratic tyranny, but also substantially more long-lasting, and associated with more profound and extensive structural transformations.

16. Rebellious uprisings: The half-life of authoritarian regimes also depends, of course, on the intensity of the resistance to them, and the restructuring of emancipatory projects. In the short-term, it seems unlikely that the authoritarian and radical right will be pushed back. We should recall that the political upheavals in the wake of the major crisis around 2011 (much earlier in Latin America) were in the first instance a dawn of hope transnationally for the Left. Yet each of these attempts met with obstacles posed by stable institutions of capital’s increasingly transnational reign. More astonishing than the defeat of numerous protest movements and new left-wing parties by the new authoritarianism of the rulers is the fact that the dynamics of new mobilizations repeatedly break out in different places. In many countries, strong counter-movements are forming once again, some of them transnational, often significantly radicalized.

17. Global action against austerity and authoritarianism: One of the most visible counter-movements to the authoritarian and radical right, against authoritarianism and austerity, is a newly emerging feminist international. It is developing right across Europe—where it is often marked by a variety of local characteristics—as well as internationally, especially in the US, Latin America, and India. It has a high potential for left organization. [7] Thus, for example, more than six million people took part in the women’s strike in Spain in 2018, and this year too in a campaign against the radical right. In Poland as well, in recent years hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to defend women’s reproductive rights. In India, as many as 200 million women struck and demonstrated in the largest strike of all time. We should compose many such new internationals. Sharing experiences, raising visibility, and experiencing solidarity in a practical way—these things are especially important for giving strength to those who have to work and survive politically in the “shrinking spaces” of an authoritarian and increasingly violent everyday life.

18. Address the needs: There are myriad starting-points, but in concrete terms: whether it is the housing question, women’s rights, the ecological crisis, or organizing against the right, these campaigns connect mass mobilization with everyday organizing in a local place and the development of political structures and solidarity networks. This has to be made more visible. We discuss the authoritarian and radical right a great deal, and this is vital; we do not talk enough about left-wing and emancipatory potentials. Let us not disempower ourselves through one-sided perspectives. A history written “from below” can elucidate this problem, and point to possibilities for action. In the end, slogans and confessions of faith are insufficient in the struggle against the right. Practices are needed—ones that catch on.

19. Now!: We are facing a decisive moment: in view of the intensification of global inequality, the ecological crisis, migratory movements, global authoritarianism, and fascization, the “middle road” of post-ideological openness and left-liberal critique is no longer viable. Forces wanting to intervene for the maintenance of liberal bourgeois freedoms and minimal standards of solidarity must take sides against authoritarianism and neoliberalism, and this also means for a more radical perspective: not only against the right, but also against the neoliberal policies that have brought us to this pass. Now is the time to decide, in a period where different possibilities remain open, but are already starting to close.

[Mario Candeias is the director of the Institute for Critical Social Analysis at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. Translated by Sam Langer and Marc Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.]

Bibliography

Balibar, Etienne and Wallerstein, Immanuel, Race, Nation, Class. Ambiguous Identities, London: Verso Books, 1988.

Candeias, Mario, “Gegenmittel gegen autoritären Neoliberalismus und Rechtspopulismus – Perspektiven einer verbindenden linken Partei”, in Rechtspopulismus in Europa. Linke Gegenstrategien, edited by Mario Candeias, Berlin: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Materialien 12, 2015, pp. 55–73, .

Candeias, Mario, Rechtspopulismus, radikale Rechte, Faschisierung. Bestimmungsversuche, Erklärungsmuster und Gegenstrategien, Berlin: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Materialien 24, 2018,

Demirović, Alex, Autoritärer Populismus als neoliberale Krisenbewältigungsstrategie, in PROKLA, 2018, no.190, pp. 27–42.

Garcia, Ana, “Brazil Under Bolsonaro: Social Base, Agenda and Perspectives”, The Bullet, 15 April 2019, .

Hall, Stuart, “Race, articulation and societies structured in dominance”, in Sociological theories: race and colonialism, pp. 305-345.

Hall, Stuart, “Popular-democratic vs authoritarian populism: two ways of taking democracy seriously”, in Marxism and democracy, edited by Alan Hunt, London, p. 157-185.

LuXemburg, September 2014, vol. 2 (“Oh Gott”),

Schaffar, Wolfram, “Wir sollten uns nichts vormachen!» Interview über autoritäre Entwicklungen, die Krise der Demokratie und den Zusammenhang von kritischer Analyse und politischer Veränderung”, maldekstra, 2 July 2019, .

Footnotes:

[1] The great powers China and Russia constitute special cases, which cannot be dealt with here.

[2] E. Balibar and I. Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class. Ambiguous Identities, London: Verso Books, 1988, p. 219.

[3] Alex Demirovic', "Autorita"rer Populismus als neoliberale Krisenbewa"ltigungsstrategie", PROKLA, no. 190, p.34.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cf. LuXemburg, 2014, no. 2, www.zeitschrift-luxemburg.de/oh-gott-luxemburg-22014-zu-politischer-rel….

[6] Cf. Mario Candeias, Rechtspopulismus, radikale Rechte, Faschisierung. Bestimmungsversuche, Erkl,rungsmuster und Gegenstrategien, Berlin: RLS Materialien series, 2018, www.rosalux.de/publikation/id/39174/rechtspopulismus-radikale-rechte-fa….

[7] Cf. Wischnewski and Wolter 2019