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The Authoritarian Challenge

Updated: May 5, 2019

Is it too simplistic to say that citizens of democracies across the globe are having to make fundamental choices between liberal & pluralistic paths on the one hand and illiberal & authoritarian ones on the other hand?

While democracies certainly face innumerous internal struggles, it seems to me that the resurgence of authoritarianism is a fundamental challenge to democracy itself. This is why April's reading recommendations are dedicated to the epic struggle between illiberal authoritarianism and liberal, pluralistic democracies, featuring battles such as:

  • The will of strongmen who are delusional enough to think they speak on behalf the people vs. the rule of law that is supposed to balance a broad-range of competing interests

  • Brute, chauvinistic hard-power-based international competition ("me first!") vs. rule-based global cooperation.

  • The kind of nasty tribalism that chases wet dreams of ethnic and religious homogeneity vs. colourful cultural and social pluralism.

The recommended readings delve into universal features of autocratic governance & illiberal tactics and shed light on specific developments in Venezuela, China, India, Turkey, Ukraine, Poland, and Hungary. It goes without saying that prominent cases of democracies that have been flirting with the illiberal side (say what US, Israel, Brazil, Italy, Philippines etc.) are missing.

Sharpen your mental blades and enjoy.

1. The Illiberal Toolkit

The Brookings Institution has produced a very insightful report on the tools illiberal leaders such as Putin, Erdogan, and Orban have deployed to dismantle the democratic institutions of their countries: If you manage to 1) castrate the judiciary, 2) demonise the opposition, the media, the NGOs, minorities as enemies of supposedly monolithic popular will, 3) trump up charges against dissenters, and 4) undermine economic competition, you're on a good way to becoming a successful autocrat.


2. The Global Resurgence of Authoritarianism

Robert Kagan has examined authoritarian ideologies as well as the weaknesses of the "liberal system", and is laying out what's at stake:

"Authoritarianism ... has returned armed with new and hitherto unimaginable tools of social control and disruption that are shoring up authoritarian rule at home, spreading it abroad and reaching into the very heart of liberal societies to undermine them from within...... [The liberal conception of human nature] has always been an incomplete description of human nature. Humans do not yearn only for freedom. They also seek security — not only physical security against attack but also the security that comes from family, tribe, race and culture... The enormous progress of the past seven-plus decades was not some natural evolution of humanity; it was the product of liberalism’s unprecedented power and influence in the international system. Until the second half of the 20th century, humanity was moving in the other direction. We err in thinking that the horrors perpetrated against Ukrainians and Chinese during the 1930s, and against Jews during the 1940s, were bizarre aberrations. Had World War II produced a different set of victors, as it might have, such behavior would have persisted as a regular feature of existence. It certainly has persisted outside the liberal world in the postwar era — in Cambodia and Rwanda, in Sudan and the Balkans, in Syria and Myanmar...

We seem to have lost sight of a simple and very practical reality: that whatever we may think about the persistent problems of our lives, about the appropriate balance between rights and traditions, between prosperity and equality, between faith and reason, only liberalism ensures our right to hold and express those thoughts and to battle over them in the public arena. Liberalism is all that keeps us, and has ever kept us, from being burned at the stake for what we believe."


3. The Delusions of White Supremacy

The recent massacre of Muslims in Christchurch and the continued murderous attacks on Jews in the US have illustrated the willingness of white supremacist to shed blood in the name of their ideology. Ishaan Taroor examines the ahistoric absurdity of the basic assumptions of White Supremacy: "[White supremacist] tap into a much larger world of white-nationalist ferment in the West, one that takes as its starting premise a belief in a mythic history of inviolable, homogeneous nations. It is political rhetoric that is in vogue among the European far right and pushed, to a certain degree, by illiberal leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and President Trump, who both cast themselves as nationalist heroes keeping out the invading hordes... And while these white supremacists cling to their idea of the past, medievalists and historians are at pains to stress that no such past ever existed and.. how ahistoric it is to reduce such older conflicts to the binary prism constructed by today’s Western nationalists. The scheme of a clash of civilizations, [historian Almond] argued, does little to describe the “almost hopelessly complex web of shifting power-relations, feudal alliances, ethnic sympathies and historical grudges” that shaped much of European history."

(c) KAL, The Economist

4. The Bloody Legacy of Chavismo

While the escalation of the power struggle between Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido are hoisting Venezuela back onto the world's headlines, the country has been suffering for a long time - from the dismantling of democratic institutions, from the suffocation of the press, from economic collapse, from rampant crime, and from mind-boggling political mismanagement. Back in 2016, Moises Naim and Francisco Toro wrote a detailed account of what economic crisis and political autocracy mean both to everyday life and to the country in general: "The real culprit is chavismo, the ruling philosophy named for Chavez and carried forward by Maduro, and its truly breathtaking propensity for mismanagement (the government plowed state money arbitrarily into foolish investments); institutional destruction (as Chavez and then Maduro became more authoritarian and crippled the country’s democratic institutions); nonsense policy-making (like price and currency controls); and plain thievery (as corruption has proliferated among unaccountable officials and their friends and families)... There are many theories about the deeper forces that have destroyed Venezuela’s economy, torn apart its society and devastated its institutions, but their result is ultimately a human tragedy representing one of the most severe humanitarian crises facing the Western hemisphere."


5. High-Tech Authoritarianism in China

China is probably most advanced in exercising high-tech enabled totalitarian control of its citizens. The Chinese government employs sophisticated methods of social control (the so-called Social Credit System, a system the leaders of the "Ministry of Truth" could only have dreamed of, see here) and uses brutal, AI-enhanced methods to subjugate entire ethnic groups. (If you want to know more about the total surveillance, mass detention, and relentless "re-education" of Muslim Uighurs in the Chinese far-West see here and here). So, what to do when one of the most powerful countries in turning totalitarian visions into reality? Harvard president Lawrence S. Barcow spoke at Beijing University in the end of March and made his voice heard: "If we stand for truth, we must appreciate diversity in every possible dimension. We must invite into our communities those people who challenge our thinking—and listen to them. Most of all, we must embrace the difficult task of being quick to understand and slow to judge." Barcow finished his speech by citing a poem by a famous Uighur poet: "I wish to leave you today with the words of one of China’s great modern poets, Abdurehim Ötkür:

Along life’s road I have always sought truth,

In the search for verity, thought was always my guide.

My heart yearned without end for a chance of expression,

And longed to find words of meaning and grace.

Come, my friends, let our dialogue joyfully begin."


6. The Poison of Hindu Supremacy

In the biggest election, mankind has ever witnessed, almost 900 million Indian citizens are called to vote in India's parliamentary election that started in mid-April and that will last until the end of May. A wide range of topics will determine whether current Prime Minister Narendra Modi will take the throne once more (see a thorough analysis here). What seems certain already, is that nationalist Hindutva rhetoric and policies have flourished under his premiership and that attacks against Muslims, India's 200-mio strong minority, have become more widespread: "Last July, the pattern of killings of Muslims grew so dire—in 2018, there were thirteen fatal cow-related lynchings—that the Indian Supreme Court demanded that the legislature formulate laws against the practice, which it has yet to do. Last month, Human Rights Watch released a hundred-and-four-page report documenting the violence, and the inaction—and abuses—of the government officials charged with investigating the crimes. “Lynching has become a nationalist project,” Mohammad Ali, a prominent Indian journalist who is currently working on a book about the phenomenon, told me. He said few perpetrators are punished, which has created a culture of impunity. Killers are lauded in some quarters as heroes for defending the faith and eradicating Muslims." Read Grizwold's entire reportage here (The New Yorker)


7. Ukraine - A Country Trying to Shake Off Its Authoritarian Past

Two weeks ago, Ukraine elected a new president, the political newcomer and comedian. Volodymir Zelenski. His 50-percentage-point-victory over incumbent Petro Poroshenko signals a deep unhappiness with both the political system and the country's elite 5 years after the Maidan-Revolution. Burdened with decades of authoritarian rule, many Ukrainians still conceive the government and the economy to be riddled with corruption and mafia-style governance. Three years ago, Joshua Yaffa dove deep into post-Maidan Ukrainian politics. His findings still seem relevant:

"Throughout Ukraine’s twenty-five-year history of independence, politics has served the country’s oligarchs, the few dozen men—they are all men—who amassed huge fortunes in the nineteen-nineties by using their connections to take control of large firms trafficking in raw materials and heavy industry.... Ukraine’s oligarchs are enabled by the state: either they leech cash from ostensibly state-run enterprises, shunting costs onto the public budget and taking profits for themselves, or they take advantage of state subsidies to produce materials cheaply and sell them at market prices... Oligarchs funnel much of their profits back into the political system, which they use as an arena to resolve disputes and insure their continued privileges. Everything has to be bought, from the backing of television anchors to the loyalty of municipal-election officials, making the country’s election campaigns among the world’s most expensive." Read Yaffa's entire article here (The New Yorker).


8. Of Conspiracies and Loyalty in Poland and Hungary

Poland and Hungary are often cited as prime examples of illiberal democracies; systems of governance where the majority rules without checks and balances; where loyalty is all; where conspiracy theories poison public discourse; where political opponents are treated as enemies. Anne Applebaum covered Poland's descent into tribalist polarisation and authoritarian politics.: "If you believe, as my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better off if it is ruled by people who deserve to rule—because they loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism, because they are loyal to the party leader, or because they are, echoing the words of Kaczyński himself, a “better sort of Pole”—then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?

... [the] polarizing political movements of 21st-century Europe ... don’t require violence or terror police. They don’t force people to believe that black is white, war is peace, and state farms have achieved 1,000 percent of their planned production. Most of them don’t deploy propaganda that conflicts with everyday reality. And yet all of them depend, if not on a Big Lie, then on what the historian Timothy Snyder once told me should be called the Medium-Size Lie, or perhaps a clutch of Medium-Size Lies. To put it differently, all of them encourage their followers to engage, at least part of the time, with an alternative reality. Sometimes that alternative reality has developed organically; more often, it’s been carefully formulated, with the help of modern marketing techniques, audience segmentation, and social-media campaigns... in Poland, and in Hungary too, we now have examples of what happens when a Medium-Size Lie—a conspiracy theory—is propagated first by a political party as the central plank of its election campaign, and then by a ruling party, with the full force of a modern, centralized state apparatus behind it." Read Applebaum's entire article here (The Atlantic).

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