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President's Portrait - Guilherme Peters

President's Portrait - Guilherme Peters

(Re)thinking contemporary authoritarianism

Theory & ResearchThe ‘(Re)thinking contemporary authoritarianism’ colloquium was held at the Gino Germani Research Institute at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 15-17 November 2022. The event arose from a dialogue between different research groups and projects dedicated to investigating the relationship between authoritarianism, democracy, and neoliberalism. The involved parties were the International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies (IRGAC) from the Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation, the Laboratory of Authoritarianism and Democracy Studies (LEDA) from the National University of San Martín (UNSAM) led by Ezequiel Ipar, the two UBACyT Research Projects at the University of Buenos Aires: “Transformations of ideology in contemporary neoliberalism” led by Gisela Catanzaro and “Ideology and political subjectivations. Neoliberal trends in an overdetermined conjuncture. Argentina 1976-2019” led by Natalia Romé,, and a group formed from a network of researchers based at universities of the Argentine Litoral.

Understanding the crisis

The colloquium consisted of three days of intense discussions prompted by a diagnosis that multiple crises––financial, ecological, political, and pandemic––have reconfigured the ideological coordinates and recreated the conditions for an emergence of discursive expressions and affective regimes that call into question certain democratic consensuses considered immovable in many regions. The various groups involved were motivated from the start by a political and intellectual concern over the global rise of new forms of political and social authoritarianism, new and not so new right-rights, anti-egalitarian ideologies and discourses, anti-democratic subjectivities and practices, and various mechanisms of violence and social discrimination. This concern was always accompanied by a hypothesis that this authoritarian turn is only understandable as a ‘symptom’ of a hegemonic crisis in neoliberal capitalism, a crisis that, due to its multiplicity, demands a critical understanding that goes beyond local, disciplinary, and thematic limits persisting in the social sciences and humanities.

Discussions during the colloquium were thus focused both on a characterization of the actors and protagonists of the ‘authoritarian turn’ and the neoliberal crisis, and on a reflection on the discourses, concepts, and methodological tools used to enquire into these phenomena. The need for the latter aspect––namely for an epistemological and methodological exploration of discourses and research practices––was due to the elusiveness of the authoritarian phenomena as well as the heterogeneity of the research groups that participated in the colloquium. Some groups formed more than a decade ago and their members share similar and homogeneous disciplinary traditions, while other groups, such as IRGAC which formed more recently, have a scholar-activist profile and their members come from different disciplinary fields and regions of the world. This heterogeneity necessitated an effort to translate and relocate previous discussions and ideas, contextualize the cases discussed, and make explicit the theoretical assumptions that set the tone for exchange over the course of the colloquium.

To reflect this double intention (an analysis of authoritarian actors and epistemological deliberations), we split the colloquium into two spaces: one space for workshops discussing the use of certain concepts in research on authoritarianism, and a second space for roundtables dedicated to the presentation of individual and collective works and projects along previously agreed axes. The tension between conceptual reflections and specific studies––local and national––made it possible to deepen transregional perspectives on authoritarianism, which manifest themselves differently and therefore require interdisciplinary and complex theoretical and methodological tools.

Beyond consensus and coercion

In the workshops, we focused on concepts of ideology and violence: they both play a central role in the work of all the participating research groups, and both are instances of the theoretical dichotomy (consensus-coercion, legitimacy-repression) structuring reflections on power in current political debates. The discussion on the concept of violence was led by members of IRGAC and focused on an analysis of national cases characterized by a constant presence of paramilitarism and state repression. The discussion on the concept of ideology was led by the researchers Gisela Catanzaro and Natalia Romé, whose framework of analysis crosses disciplines, including psychoanalysis, political sociology, and social philosophy.

Some of the points that emerged in the session dedicated to violence revolved around different practices of state or para-state violence and their role in capitalist reproduction, as well as different aspects of violence against social groups (annihilating, subjugating, and disciplining). The session on ideology focused on defending the relevance of a category long-abandoned by the social sciences and critical thought––which came at a price of abandoning the connection between a critique of capitalism and the subjective, cultural, and emotional dimensions of social life. The conversation among the participants attempted to rehearse answers to questions on how to think about authoritarianism in its connection with imperatives of capitalist accumulation, forms of subjectivation, and shared cultural meanings from the perspective of the critique of ideologies.

Authoritarianism and its many faces

In the second part of the colloquium, the discussion during the roundtables was delineated according to six thematic axes: 1) Public space, discourse, and political culture, 2) Crisis of temporality, libidinal economies, and authoritarian politicizations, 3) Eco-crisis, political subjects, and class, 4) Diagnosis of the times: neoliberalism and lives in crisis, 5) From the precariousness of life to the crisis of democracy, and 6) Mutations of neoliberal capitalism and authoritarian developments.

In the first of these axes, ‘Public space, discourse, and political culture’, Julieta Mira (CONICET-IRGAC) offered an analysis of the functioning of police violence in Argentina during the preventive confinement of the COVID crisis; Micaela Cuesta and Lucía Wegelin (UBA-UNSAM) presented the results of studies carried out by the LEDA on the spreading of hate speech against minorities, women, and dispossessed classes in public media in Argentina; and Silvia Hernández and Carolina Ré (UBA) presented a work-in-progress study on discriminatory discourses generated during the period of pandemic-related preventive confinement in Argentina.

In the second axis, ‘Crisis of temporality, libidinal economies, and authoritarian politicizations’, Gisela Catanzaro (UBA) provided a characterization of three archetypal ways of conceiving time and historicity in right-wing narratives based on empirical studies carried out by her research team; Natalia Romé (UBA) reflected on the totalitarian character of the melancholic discourse widespread on the contemporary left; Oriana Seccia (UBA) tackled the question of how and why ‘authoritarian drives and desires’ currently appear from a psychoanalytic perspective, while Daniél Inclán (National Autonomous University of Mexico) raised the need to reformulate an anti-capitalist criticism not bound by state or legislative limits, capable of envisaging new forms of collective life.

Panel three, ‘Ecocrisis, political subjects, and class’, addressed the conditions for articulating different social struggles in the face of the global ecological crisis and as an attempt at thinking about a political subject of transition. In this context, Sabrina Fernandez (University of Brasilia-IRGAC) raised a discussion towards Matt Huber's proposal of a class ecologism in which trade unions in industrialized countries play a leading role in the ecological transition; for Fernandez, this would imply an ecological chauvinism in which the grammars and demands of the social movements of the Global South become sacrificed. Inés Durán (Benemérita Autonomous University of Puebla-IRGAC) highlighted the need to abandon the class paradigm and conceive transitional struggles as struggles for life and survival according to the model of the Zapatista movement.

In the fourth roundtable, ‘Diagnosis of the times: Neoliberalism in crisis’, Hugo Fanton (University of Sao Paolo-IRGAC) reintroduced the social theory of Roberto Schwarz and Francisco de Oliveira to thematize the coexistence of pre-modern practices and forms of exploitation in the current neoliberal moment; Verónica Gago (UNSAM-CONICET) conceptualized war as a distinctive form of exploitation and the role of feminism in the construction of political counterstrategies; Ezequiel Ipar (UNSAM-CONICET) provided a reflection on tensions in authoritarian discourses between the explicit vindication of an anti-democratic identity and its democratic appearance in public discourse.

In axis five, ‘Precarization of life and democratic crisis’, Dolores Marcos (National University of Tucumán) presented her research on the electoral victory of Domingo Bussi in Tucumán (Argentina), a protagonist of the genocide perpetrated by the last Argentine military dictatorship, and connecting it with processes of precarization of living conditions in the region; Gustavo Robles (IRGAC) discussed the concept of authoritarian neoliberalism from political subjectivities of platform workers and related consequences in the construction of forms of solidarity; Agustín Prestifilippo (UBA-CONICET) presented his research on the discourse of justifying social inequalities among precarious workers.

Finally, the final roundtable was dedicated to a discussion of the collective book Ensamblajes neoliberales. Mutaciones del capitalismo contemporáneo (Red Editorial, 2022) in the presence of its authors, Julia Expósito (National University of Rosario-CONICET), Matias Saidel (National University of Entre Ríos-CONICET), and Emilio Lo Valvo (National University of Rosario). During the panel, the authors presented the usefulness of the concept of ‘neoliberal assemblage’, as a tool for thinking of the current capitalist crisis as connecting production and labour with social reproduction and political subjectivities.

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