Inaugural Conference: The Crisis of Civilization and the Authoritarian Turn

Article by Aurel Eschmann

From the perspective of the Global South, the current global rise of authoritarianism is hardly a momentous break but a much more continuous process. However, what is new is that authoritarianism seems to have left the Southern bubble encroaching on the Global North. But why do new forms of authoritarianism emerge so suddenly and simultaneously all around the world? With its unparalleled global hegemony, neoliberal capitalism is naturally one of the first culprits when trying to explain this global authoritarian turn. However, how and why these new authoritarianisms emerge from neoliberal capitalism is fiercely contested. This is the subject of this conference panel.

First however, there is a need for clarification on what we are talking about when we refer to authoritarianism. As Börries Nehe outlines in this panel, in most contexts, authoritarianism is discussed as a kind of regime type analysis.  In #CAPS22 on the other hand, we focus on authoritarianism as social phenomenon. Authoritarianism therefore is marked by certain subjectivities and political dispositions, but also a set of specific practices embedded in societal infrastructure. Such a perspective complicates the notion of authoritarianism considerably. Liberal democracies, for example, often include many authoritarian practices. Leaving behind the state as the exclusive locus of authoritarianism, we are inescapably led to affect, culture, and relations of production and of power as key dimensions for our understanding. In fact, it is a sensitivity to the amalgam of violence created through the systems of class rule, racism, and patriarchy that separates criticalengagement with authoritarianism from more uncritical practices.

But how does this social phenomenon of authoritarianism relate to neoliberalism? One line of argument is that the reason neoliberalism turns authoritarian is because it is in a crisis of hegemony, as described by Gramsci in his famous quote: 

If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer ‘leading’ but only ‘dominant,’ exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying but the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

But if the new authoritarianisms are “morbid symptoms” what is the “new” that “cannot be born”? Also, the new authoritarianisms are at least partially mass phenomena that are not only produced via top-down authoritarian statism. This raises the question of why the authoritarian response to the crisis of neoliberalism seems to have so much more appeal than alternatives in the sense of critical theory.

However, others on this panel argue that neither is neoliberalism in crisis, nor did it turn authoritarian. Instead, the current developments are a crystallization of authoritarian tendencies inherent in neoliberalism right from the onset. Yet, other panellists argue that it is not a crisis of neoliberalism or capitalism that gives rise to the new authoritarianisms; it is a crisis of civilization.

(Please note that this article does not follow the order of speakers)

Based on the Brazilian situation, Hugo Fanton argues that capitalism everywhere is in crisis. This crisis leads to a period of a lasting interregnum in the sense of Wolfgang Streeck. A series of problems stagger and hamper capitalist accumulation: the ecological crisis, declining growth, growing inequality, the suspension of liberal democracy, and the inability to exert any control over the political economy—even by the ruling classes themselves. This leads to constantly erupting unintended and unforeseen consequences, symptoms of capitalism’s multimorbidity.

The collapse of integration on the macro level deprives individuals of institutional support and responsibility for providing a minimum of stability, and security is shifted to the individual level. The degradation of labour, deterioration of class society, and the huge dependency on consumption for the reproduction of capitalism create an ongoing collapse of society and capitalism but an inability to change it. Despite the unravelling of society, a significant number of people maintain the self-government required by the reproduction of the neoliberal order. However, in the crisis their consumptive expectations can at most be met partially and periodically. This creates an ungovernable situation, the basic state of the continuous interregnum: a prolonged period of social entropy, de-institutionalization, and loss of control even by the bourgeoisie. 

In Brazil, this state leads to the rise of autocracy with fascist tendencies. Autocrats like Jair Bolsonaro promise to return to a governable state and to stabilize conflict in the interest of capital. While they have a clear class base, their drive towards personalization of power brings its own dynamic. The fascist tendencies are materialized in a constant state of mobilization via an increasing detachment from reality, upheld by fascist propaganda mechanisms and scapegoating. Yet, the authoritarian transformation faces increasing resistance. After an initial phase of apathy, counter-movements began to form. Notably, central to the antifascist moments were often self-organized distributions of essential goods such as medicine and food, filling gaps created by authoritarianism and neoliberalism.

Zeynep Gambetti counters this narrative of neoliberalism in crisis by arguing that the current events are merely a crystallization of the authoritarian tendencies always inherent in neoliberalism. Central to the authoritarian transformation is the blurring of lines between politics, economics, war, and civil society.

For Gambetti, this merger of the economic, the political, the cultural, and the individual is captured better by speaking of a new fascism, rather than of authoritarianism. While authoritarianism is defined by the end of the rule of law and the predominance of the executive, fascism is the ability to move masses to actively engage in violent practices of elimination of alternative forms of life. Fascism is a governmental affect that turns resentment into a compulsive desire for power. While authoritarianism is located in institutions, fascism is defined by the constant mobilization, the very structurelessness. 

In all kinds of different states around the world, new fascisms are on the rise. Neoliberalism is central to this development as it creates a growing indistinction between dominant and dominated, worker and capitalist, financial and military war, state and oligarch. The grand narrative of ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) heralded the merger of civil society, state and economy, by aligning all elements in a shared direction. Neoliberalism is much more than austerity. It is a government rationality geared towards the extraction of surplus value via a transvaluation of values. Finance capital acts as new meta-colonizer both in the South and in the North, as seen in the Greece crisis or in Thatcher’s reaction to the miners’ strike. Corporations and oligarchs are beyond the control of the state; the monopolized ownership of metadata, the most valuable political resource, is the epitome of this situation. 

The new fascisms are a specific way of repoliticizing in an age of neoliberal depoliticization. But neoliberalism was fascist from the onset, imposed on the world by bloody and bloodless wars. In Turkey, the neoliberal transformation that came with the 1980 coup brought the absolute dominance of the executive and the abolition of the rule of law, as well as the financializaton of private life, massive privatization, and draconian labour reforms. This led to the rise of new ‘vigilante subjectivities’, driven by a bottom-up survivalist discourse, eager to turn themselves into human capital, devoid of bonds of solidarity or community embedding, and ready to violently punish anyone who might be seen as competition. At the same time, the AKP channelled public funds into conservative foundations that created dependencies and helped to replace lost social ties with nationalism and religion.

The Turkish case is exemplary for why fascism and neoliberalism are really two parts of the same formation. The fascist transgression of all limits breeds on the neoliberal transvaluation of all values. The new fascisms are not repetitions of the fascism of the 20th century, they are crystallizations of neoliberalism, contain new forms of power, and are real fascisms from below. However, as with the fascisms of the 20th century, they do not have a fixed, rational project It is exactly the state of constant crisis, mobilization, and confusion that defines fascism. And it makes fascism dangerously flexible. It is the serpent that uses any ideology.

Alex Demirović argues, however, that what we face is in fact much more than merely a crisis or a function of neoliberal capitalism. As the recent debates on Capitalocene and Anthropocene have shown, there is a fundamental crisis at the core of our civilization. The bourgeois society, the producing classes, want to stay ignorant of this fundamental crisis. Therefore, a key task for the Left is to bring rationality and knowledge to society. By attempting to suppress the conscience of its real systemic causes, the right wing after the financial crisis has fought for the ignorance of such knowledge. The current authoritarian uprisings and the ongoing integration of far-right positions into bourgeois society should be seen in similar fashion. They must be understood as a counter-reaction to the multiple movements that challenge the state of wilful ignorance, reaching from #MeToo and Black Lives Matter to the various environmentalist movements. These progressive movements try to alter the world for the better and to reveal the class interests constitutive to the status quo, threatening the ignorant bliss of bourgeois society. Authoritarian uprisings are the reaction. This is not sudden or new; rather it is part of a continuous struggle between forces of the Left, liberalism, and the Right. Bourgeois societies change the way of dealing with ignorance. At the same time, the ruling classes are very much caught in a “ruling class brain tumour” as Mike Davis put it, unable to come up with any meaningful strategy or solution. Correspondingly, the Left must adjust its strategy to bring knowledge and rationality into these formations.

I think that all the speakers, despite their differences, agree on two features of the new authoritarianisms: that these new authoritarianisms are not merely a top-down project by state elites or certain class interests but that they are true mass phenomena. At the same time, the conscious content, their ideology seems to be exchangeable, flexible, even random. This suggests that these authoritarianisms offer to the masses something more visceral, something more in the realm of the unconscious. Building on Alex Demirović, I find the thesis that they are a reaction to a fundamental crisis of civilization, the knowledge of which is too unbearable and hence needs to be repressed, quite compelling. The pandemic as well as the climate crisis make it increasingly obvious that the confrontations of anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian struggles are not only about redistribution of power but are more so struggles about the destruction or reproduction of life itself. The authoritarian response to this crisis is facilitated by neoliberalism. The neoliberal reduction of the political toolbox, the severing of social ties, and the shifting of responsibilities onto individuals make this crisis of civilization even more difficult to face. At the same time, authoritarianism is a sociopsychological response to this crisis that does not break with the pillars of neoliberal subjectivity—the impossibility of structural change and the consequential maximization of the individual gain. This recalls the work of Erich Fromm, whose entire life’s work was an attempt to understand the rise of fascism as a sociopsychological escape from the psychological challenges that the capitalist transformation exerted upon certain classes.

However, the role of the Left should not be to ‘bring rationality’. The feminist and post-colonial critiques of the concept of rationality cannot be ignored. Instead, we need to accept that all of us—ourselves included—are affective and emotional beings; that we possess an unconscious and are fundamentally irrational. Only then can we understand the sociopsychological dynamics that keep us from facing and solving our crisis of civilization and how to address them in a non-authoritarian way, leading us out of the “ruling class brain tumour”. The anti-authoritarian and anti-neoliberal knowledge needs to be grounded in alternative modes of relating to each other and alternative (bodily) experiences, rather than in the artificial separation of body and mind that is constitutive of the concept of rationality.