Dossier | Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies in the Classroom: The Pedagogy of Collective Learning Across Geographies

In the summer semester of 2022, in the form of an online seminar series, we as IRGAC fellows taught a course titled New Faces of Authoritarianism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Global South. The course was hosted by the Institut für Sozialwissenschaften at Humboldt University as part of the Chair for Comparative Political Science and Political Systems of Eastern Europe. The initiative was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Center for Comparative Research on Democracy (CCRD) at Humboldt University and the Social Work as a Human Rights Profession Master’s Program at Alice Salomon Hochschule. The course was assisted and technically managed by Off-University. Each week, IRGAC fellows discussed their research as they covered the diverse manifestations of authoritarianism and right-wing politics, social movements, and anti-authoritarian currents and strategies in various countries such as Argentina, Brazil, India, Mozambique, South Africa, and Turkey.

Our provider of the online platform and technical assistance for carrying out the classes, Off-University, is an NGO based in Berlin that is founded with the intention of providing a secure online space to connect politically persecuted and at-risk academics with an audience across borders. Similarly to IRGAC, Off-University is an initiative that confronts the contemporary tide of authoritarianism and political pressures on knowledge production. It was established in 2017, as a response to both democratic backsliding in Turkey and the purge of academics which followed, and specifically effected the signatories of the Academics for Peace Petition. In recent years, the platform has been extended to academics and audiences affected by the contemporary global authoritarian turn and political repression in other parts of the world such as the MENA region.

This dossier presents a glimpse of the course participants’ outputs at the end of the classes and includes their reflections and case studies on different aspects of authoritarianism, neoliberal governance, the effects of colonialism, and counter-movements that take place in a variety of settings. Before outlining the significant contribution of each essay, I would like to briefly discuss the concepts of the Global South, authoritarianism, and populism which constitute the main thematic axes of IRGAC and the lecture series, and delineate our approach on them. Then, I will reflect on the pedagogy of collective learning and knowledge production on these subjects, tackling some of the complexities stemming from diverse positionalities across geographies.

Complex Concepts with Potential
The notion of the Global South could be thought of as a successor to the terms designating the underprivileged parts of the world such as the underdeveloped, developing, and peripheral countries, or the Third World. However, it differs from them with regard to some key perspectives. This concept implicates the global-scale systemic power inequalities and the historical contingencies of European colonization and imperialism. It takes into account the multifaceted connections and intertwined power relations between the Global South and the Global North while giving room for recognizing “the Souths in the geographic North and Norths in the geographic South”.

Furthermore, this conceptual lens allows for studying the alternative sources of knowledge, power, and transformative agency embedded in the Souths, as proclaimed by Boaventura de Sousa Santos. The recognition and examination of these Southern sources might further assist the political projects to mobilize and bridge them within a decolonizing perspective. Following this, the notion of Global South opens a window to consider and engage with the multiplicity of grassroots movements and politics taking place in these contexts. Overall the versatile nature of the experiences and historicity ingrained in the Global South render the notion a complex analytical and political tool, albeit with potential.

Authoritarianism, in the sense we deliberated the concept within IRGAC and the lecture series refers to a specific mode of governance that entails statecraft, political movements, and subjectivities. Following the intellectual tradition of thinkers like Antonio Gramsci, Nicos Poulantzas, and Stuart Hall who analyzed the interplay of coercion and consent in ruling practices, we consider authoritarianism as a response to the crisis of governance and capitalist accumulation. The financial crisis of 2008, which was a crisis of neoliberalism, triggered authoritarian responses and right-wing political currents across the world by accentuating the coercive and disciplinary capacities of the state.

A key point of our perspective is avoiding a binary understanding of authoritarianism versus liberal democracy. This dualism serves an ideological purpose by obscuring, on the one hand, the global power relations that sustain authoritarian regimes in the Global South for the interests of the affluent liberal democracies of the North and on the other, the structural and dynamic role of the authoritarian element for the preservation and expansion of the capitalist democratic system. Another critical aspect of our approach is the consideration of the multi-levelled nature of the phenomenon which encompasses state policies, neoliberal governance, and the affective constitution of collective identities and subjectivities. This manifold character complicates the study of authoritarianism, which necessitates focusing on ideologies and the concept of populism.

In connection to this point, the question of why people lend support to authoritarian regimes and ideologies that contradict their interests was one of the critical problems which prevailed in our discussions during the classes, as well as occupying the thoughts of researchers and political activists in various parts of the world. In this regard, Stuart Hall pointed out the role of populism for authoritarian statecraft’s realization of the neoliberal transformation of the state and the dismantling of its social functions. Accordingly, authoritarian populism is a way of governance that generates popular consent through converting mass grievances into polarizing discourses of moral panic and articulating them under an ideology in favour of increasing the disciplinary and punitive functions of the state, criminalizing dissent, and weakening the idea of public good.

Conversely, scholars like Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau raise the idea that populism could be deployed by the left, as well as the right, as a strategy for mobilizing different sections of society into a counter-hegemonic bloc. Laclau and Mouffe advocate for the embracement of the populist moment by the leftist political actors which entails the mobilization of popular social demands, the symbolic construction of ‘the people’ as a category for collective identification, and the radical exclusion of ‘the elites’ as the common enemy, which usually refers to the neoliberal forces. However, this approach has stirred criticism that points out the contradictions of left-wing populism and considers it as an attempt to reverse its right-wing counterpart by reproducing an elitist vision, along with noting the cases where it transforms from a counter-strategy into a tool that yields authoritarianism.

Pedagogy of Discussing Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies
The scholarly and political literatures on the concepts of the Global South, authoritarianism, and populism are not devoid of contestation and they involve diverse perspectives trying to address and work within the complexity of their contents and implications. Besides, these concepts are entangled with the compound geography of global power relations and the variegated versions of political repression taking place in different contexts. Hence, properly discussing these concepts and counter-strategies in the classroom setting is a difficult task. Further complicating this issue, there are particular hardships involved in leading a learning environment on these controversial subjects, with participants hailing from different backgrounds and localities, coming together in the online classroom.

This situation calls for a consideration of the pedagogy of collective learning and knowledge production. In this regard, the feminist conception of ‘dissident friendship’ can serve as a helpful guiding lens. Elora Halim Chowdhury and Liz Philipose describe this relationship as one that is individually and socially transformative, taking place “across political boundaries and structural power that demonstrate the power of affect and emotional bonding to counter divisions”. In light of this, Nicole Nguyen and others experiment with integrating dissident friendships into the epistemic setting of learning and knowledge production. They define “epistemic friendship” as follows:

Epistemic friendships are a learning for social justice with and by others. In our understanding, epistemic friendship is a distinct notion: more political than standard notions of friendship, but also not simply coalitionary or in solidarity. It does not explicitly seek to reach across difference, but rather strives to provide a community of support attuned to, but regardless of, one’s location. An epistemic friendship is based on shared politics, rather than shared identities, and is marked by a desire to push one another toward greater, more effective, more nuanced political work for radical justice.

This approach entails an openness to and collaboration across differences while refusing to ignore diverse positionalities, rather seeking to learn from them through a decolonizing perspective and reflexive practices. Hence, the learning environment can be imagined and practiced as part of counter-strategies. Parallel to this, we attempted to implement a pedagogy during the classes that aimed to enrich our approaches and deepen our inquiries by drawing on the diverse experiences and insights of course participants. We encouraged participants to share observations about their social environments and everyday experiences in relation to the larger political developments and the historicity of power relations shaping their localities. As such, we sought together to grasp the macro-level and subjective dimensions of authoritarianism and neoliberalism across geographies. It was of particular importance to us that every sort of question, even if it contradicts the agreed-upon stances, could be raised during the classes.

The online character of the classroom also deserves specific attention in terms of pedagogical challenges. The absence of physical proximity in our social lives became an ordinary condition that most of us grew accustomed to because of the pandemic. However, the virtual mode of interaction, especially when conversing on complex topics, can still be isolating and wearisome. Despite such predicaments, studies in the field of digital pedagogies propose ways of fostering critical engagements and decolonizing perspectives for the young generation of learners, who are fashionably termed ‘digital natives’, by implementing various digital tools of alternative knowledge production.

Eventually, the IRGAC lecture series became a remarkably instructive and valuable experience for us. The essential benefit, as well as the challenge of this experience, lies in the encounters that it encouraged, among participants from multiple contexts shaped by distinct political histories and with varying approaches and levels of understanding regarding political geography and authoritarianism. For instance, concepts and arguments that do not require explanation in a homogeneous collectivity—either of geographical background, political orientation, or academic specialization—may spark debates that would instigate alternative interpretations when brought to the attention of a diverse audience in a mixed classroom setting. As such, the course experience prompted us to improve our pedagogical methods and practices for discussing political developments and social movements across geographies.

Such pedagogy should be capable of effectively connecting the social, institutional, and individual levels of knowledge, experience, and action, all while addressing issues of social justice. As a result, the lecture series initiative added to the IRGAC’s perspective which seeks to strengthen efforts to bridge scholarly work and activism in a unique praxis that problematizes the numerous power inequalities within academic and political frameworks.

Structure of the Dossier
This collection comprises six essays opening with Jonalyn C. Paz’s contribution that focuses on the lingering effects of colonialism in the discourses about climate change. Paz problematizes the notion of the Anthropocene in particular, which uncritically reproduces the dichotomy of nature versus society and conceals the historical and current responsibility of the countries of the Global North in the climate crisis. The next essay is by Maria Moritz in which Moritz delves into the potential of symbols, narratives, and affects to assist a counter-hegemonic bloc in the face of the contemporary global ecological and social crisis. It is followed by Zhea Katrina Estrada’s account of the recent elections in the Philippines and the fake news campaign, which centred on social media and installed Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, the son of the former dictator, into power by confusing the lines between truth and perception.

Then, we have Luz Sena’s article outlining the strategies of the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil with a specific focus on its solidarity practices during the pandemic, which can provide an inspirational model for social movements in other geographies as well. The following contribution by Kayah Nicholas de Souza examines the land expropriation efforts of a multinational logistics company in a small Brazilian town within the context of the country’s neoliberal transformation and the ensuing forms of governance. The final essay is by Anna Lena Menne, which scrutinizes the Russian and Chinese models of digital authoritarianism as part of their global strategies. Menne locates these practices, through a kaleidoscopic dialectical approach, in the multipolar international order whereby the authoritarian tendencies within capitalism come to the fore.

*This text is part of the Dossier IRGAC LECTURE SERIES – New Faces of Authoritarianism: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Global South

**All footnotes and references can be found in the PDF version