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Draft Workshop report. Understanding and confronting authoritarianism. Amsterdam, 8-11 June 2017 TNI. October 2017 War and Pacification Project.

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"But what is authoritarianism and how does it differ from populism? The terms are often bandied about as if they were the same, but they are clearly not. Authoritarianism is typically understood as a form of government or politics that concentrates power in limited hands,minimises political pluralism and represses civil society, often in the name of confronting a supposed ‘enemy’.

Populism is a more contentious term. It is usually understand as a form of politics that appeals to a certain group or imagination, that speaks of representing the ‘people’. This may be mobilised along class lines or an appeal to the majority of people seeking to challenge the concentration of power. However it is more often associated with charismatic and authoritarian leaders using language of the ‘people’ but appealing to an essentialised definition of culture, biology or ancestry. Some left thinkers and activists are happy to embrace the term, seeing its pejorative use by elites as evidence of their fears that these left populist movements are threatening established power. Others argue that we should avoid the term, articulating instead a language of popular power or sovereignty.

It is important though not to forget that populism is not just an issue of the left or right; there has long been a centrist populism, such as that articulated by leaders of national liberation movements who promised economic independence but capitulated to capital, much as the Trudeau’s and Macron’s of today."


The sudden surge of concern about authoritarian politics with the rise of figures like Trump and Modi suggests that this is a new phenomenon. But if we are to understand authoritarianism as concentration of power, repression, and the creation of an enemy ‘other’, then authoritarianism has a very long history indeed. From the time of World War II until recently, the term 'authoritarian' was usually used by Western politicians to refer to unelected leaders in both Eastern Europe and the South, often to contrast it with the liberal democracies in the West.

And it's certainly the case that the experience of most citizens in western states in terms of freedom and autonomy was very different to those living under either communism or under unelected autocrats. However it is important not to ignore the long history of authoritarian tendencies that has gone hand-in-hand with capitalism and liberalism. Indeed, capitalism and liberalism have their origins in enslavement, genocide and dehumanisation that are the extreme forms of authoritarianism. In the capitalist centres, they have always, for example, been tied to the repression of labour. In early years of industrialisation, there was already a demonisation and repression of the poor, the indigent, political movements of workers - anyone who was not part of a docile waged labour force. And later as social struggles won democratic space, capital was always willing to sacrifice democracy to repress labour. Chile under military rule was a classic example, where corporations and neoliberal ideologues quickly put promises of freedom aside when it came to the opportunities Pinochet promised from liberalising capital. For the South, liberalism has more often meant tyranny rather than democracy.After all, modern liberal democracies were built on the slavery and dehumanisation of black bodies and the genocide of indigenous peoples, have thrived and continue to do so on the brutal extraction of resources, and today stand behind a border regime that considers tens of thousands of migrants as essentially ‘disposable’ people. This dehumanisation of people to exercise power is integral to capitalism and imperialism.

Democracy as it emerged in the US, as Domenico Losurdo makes clear, was seen as something reserved exclusively for white men and in particular, slave owners, a so-called herrenvolk. In other words, the birth of liberalism was tied to the birth of racism and systemic dehumanization of humans, that we see in the necropolitics of today. The rise of civil rights movements in the North or independence and decolonial movements in the South posed a serious challenge to this herrenvolk but the post-independence leaders, for example, who emerged in their wake often ended up replicating or at least perpetuating the systems of domination.

Integral to these systems of domination was the politics of pacification that accompanied colonialism. This was a politics of control that sought to combine violence with material assistance in order to win political and economic control of territories. It combined promises of civilisation – or later ‘development’ - on the terms of the colonizer in exchange for submission. Colonial regimes trialled authoritarian systems, such as surveillance and internment camps, and developed the counter-insurgency tactics that deliberately sought to undermine the social fabric of communities, tactics that have been used by the Soviet Union, Britain in Northern Ireland and the US empire, and continue to be used today. In its blurring of any distinction between military and police, war and peace, the politics of pacification constitute a tradition increasingly built on by the authoritarianism of today.

Despite this, there remains a collective amnesia by many people about the authoritarian heritage of colonialism. France’s 1958 constitution, for example, was passed in the midst of colonisation and repression of Libya and out of the blood-soaked war in Algeria, and continues today to privilege whites and exclude the black and brown, this time in the name of the war against terror or to defend laïcité(secularism). There is a blindness to the ways democracy was built on authoritarian systems of control, or how the vast majority of people in the South have long experienced authoritarianism as the ‘normal’ rather than unusual system of governance. We also must be alert to the way violence and authoritarianism is normalised in our society, in which the daily loss and degradation of millions of lives is unreported or accepted as the “way things are”.

In this sense, the newfound attention to authoritarianism suggests not an increased awareness, but a lack of awareness about the authoritarian nature of capitalism and imperialism. It suggests that the myth that capitalism is all about democracy and increased freedom still holds sway.

Authoritarianism is embedded in systems of domination that are much older than capitalism or imperialism. It is certainly embedded in racism, but also in patriarchy.This does not preclude the rise of female authoritarians, but it is very noticeable that the current crop of well known authoritarian leaders are all men, many of them known for their mysogynistic attitudes and practices. They project an image of being the ‘big man’ in charge, and have surged to the forefront supported disproportionately by movements of men, fuelled by a toxic culture of fear and resentment against women. The Germany party AfD for example have declared a war on gender mainstreaming (a policy that simply assesses the different gender impacts of any public policy). And when authoritarians succeed in winning power, many are enacting policies that undermine womens’ rights and have encouraged a culture of abuse and violence against women.

The state itself replicates systems of domination, that tend towards concentration of power and extension of power. This issue of the dangers of state power are not given sufficient attention, especially by many progressive movements. In seeking to seize power, left movements and parties often fail to examine how we use power and how power changes us – a lesson that many social movements have learnt to their cost in the 'pink tide' that swept Latin America in the last decade. Governments delivered into power by social movements have ended up repressing social movements,using a discourse of ‘development’ and ‘the people’ to dispossess communities of their land, water and environment in order to extract wealth, and have in the process demobilised social movements. Now that the region swings back to the right, social movements no longer have the same strength to effectively resist."


What’s new today


"The long history and deep roots of authoritarianism does not mean there is nothing new about this moment. The number of authoritarian-styled governments, the rise of reactionary right parties, the closing down of democratic space and repression of movements, feels like a shock for good reasons.

There are new dimensions to the authoritarianism that come from the open embrace of racist and xenophobic rhetoric by mainstream politicians, and the fact that today’s authoritarian leaders are increasingly coming to power through elections and not through military-style coups such as the Pinochet’s and Mobutu’s of the past. They also reflect how the West that used to mobilise the discourse of democracy as a key form of legitimacy against the USSR has lost its confidence in its own rhetoric.

Perhaps the most significant change though is the technological context today which has allowed states unprecedented power to monitor, survey and control people and enabled corporations to have access to our inner lives and thinking. Our willingness to hand over our thoughts, our network of relationships (the meta-data)to commercial companies and state surveillance has created a world beyond the imaginings of Orwell. The rhetoric that only people who have something to hide need privacy has been extremely hegemonic, using the concept of shame to legitimise unprecedented surveillance. The result is that we have entered into a society where privacy is ever more threatened and surveillance is ever more pervasive. And we are still to properly digest the consequences.

Many have praised the possibilities technology has provided to social movements in past decades, but it has also of course enabled the Right to mobilise and connect, whether it’s the social media cohorts that cheer on and bully opponents of Modi or Duterte or the European fascists that recently crowdfunded a boat to disrupt migrant rescue boats.

The War on Terror has also made security and authoritarian politics an increasingly transnational enterprise.Whether its surveillance systems, drones, black sites or financing laws, the politics of security is increasingly done transnationally with almost no accountability and often with no legal redress. So someone can be detained at a border in one country, due to the demands of another government, under guidelines drafted somewhere else, with lawyers prohibited from any knowledge of the decisions behind detention. This is a transnational authoritarianism that is qualitatively different from what we have seen before."

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