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Guilherme Peters
Three Powers / barbed wire over wall

Guilherme Peters Three Powers / barbed wire over wall

Seeing Authoritarianism from the South

In PerspectiveReflections on Five Years of Work of the International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies

In many parts of the world, we are seeing increasingly authoritarian and violent enforcement of neoliberal exploitation and domination. At the same time, nationalist, racist, anti-feminist, and anti-Enlightenment ideologies and movements are on the rise. Critical researchers are often among the first to suffer repression. In view of this, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Centre for International Dialogue and Cooperation and its Scholarship Department launched the International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies (IRGAC) in 2019. Our aim is to connect critical and activist perspectives on authoritarian transformations worldwide, particularly those coming from countries in the Global South. With this aim in mind, we have awarded fellowships to over 30 postdoctoral researchers so far for periods ranging from half a year to three years. Most of the fellows research and teach at universities in countries in the Global South and complete a research semester at a university in Germany during the course of their funding. By focussing on funding local initiatives in combination with guest residencies, we hope to promote critical left-wing scholarship and activism in the Global South (instead of reinforcing the global brain drain), while also embedding them more deeply in local discourses.(1) We believe that we in Europe can learn a great deal from discussions about authoritarianism and emancipatory counter-strategies in other parts of the world.

Does Global Authoritarianism Exist?

In their work, the more than 20 scholar-activists who are currently part of the IRGAC(2) combine research on local or national developments with questions about the global dimensions of the new authoritarianism. This includes discussing the multiple crises of capitalism as well as questions about authoritarian neoliberalism, colonialism, and research into the global networks of the reactionary right. We do not define “authoritarianism” in opposition to “(neo-)liberal democracy”, as is common in the media and mainstream academia; instead, we examine their continuities and parallels as well as their transformations and differences over time and across borders.

Particularly from the perspective of the Global South, it quickly becomes apparent that previous phases — including periods of “progressive neoliberalism”(3) — were also quite authoritarian in nature, and that, although we are dealing with a worldwide phenomenon (global authoritarianism), on closer inspection it proves to be extremely heterogeneous and fragmented. Can or should these authoritarianisms be conceptualized together at all? And if so, how? What are the links and parallels between the various processes? Does the current phase differ significantly from previous phases of authoritarian capitalist rule?

For us, the concept of authoritarianism is therefore not in conflict with other, sometimes more specific interpretations — be it fascism or Bonapartism, authoritarian populism or authoritarian neoliberalism. Rather, it allows us to conceptually link processes of degrading democracy with the various concrete and necessarily specific manifestations of a global trend towards an increasingly violent regime of capital accumulation. Based on these considerations, we do not understand counter-strategies to mean a restoration of the bourgeois status quo ante. We take the inherent authoritarianism of capitalist society seriously, and therefore believe that consistent anti-authoritarianism must aim to overcome this social form.

Seeing the World from the South

We describe our geographically, epistemically, and politically situated position and the resulting research agenda as “global perspectives from the South.” While this is an appealing metaphor, it also conceals several pitfalls. It is fair to question the places from which statements about “the world” are formulated, and what kind of knowledge they are based on. Historically, that inquiry has primarily happened in power centres and their colonial discourses and institutions (such as universities). One should also question whether even the term “global” has an existence beyond the logic of capitalist expansion and its ideologies. Is there a globality from below?(4) And what tools and concepts do we really have to grasp this sense of the “global”?

For us, the global — a “global perspective” — signifies, first of all, a labour-intensive process of listening, learning, and discussing, not something that one has or “adopts”, but rather something that is collectively constructed step by step. This is particularly relevant as we want to think globally from the South. This South is not a specific geographical space, but rather an epistemological position that understands the South as a metaphor for the systematic suffering that the capitalist and colonial world order produces, while also keeping in mind the colonial violence (of the “North”) inscribed in knowledge and scholarship. For us, thinking and acting “from the South” also includes taking a clear political stance against these conditions and actively working to change them.

At the same time, the South alluded to in the subtitle of the IRGAC also refers to a very specific spatial organization, thus highlighting a contradiction inherent in our work. The funds financing the work of the IRGAC come from Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and are channelled through the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (RLS) for project implementation. The RLS operates according to the Ministry’s guidelines, which means, among other things, that the allocated funds must have an impact on countries on the OECD’s(5) “official development assistance” (ODA) list, which is also where our fellows come from. This ODA list broadly corresponds to the category of the Global South, plus the post-Soviet region.

And that is not the only contradiction: on an even deeper level, we might ask ourselves to what extent knowledge and scholarship can be produced “in the South” and “from the perspective of the South” when many important decisions — from drafting the call for proposals to selecting the fellows to deciding which initiatives receive funding — are ultimately made by a foundation in Germany.

Last but not least, could the academic knowledge regime actually accept knowledge “from the South”, if we understand this to mean truly subaltern, non-hegemonic, other knowledge and scholarship?

Internationalism in Practice

Until we have fundamentally changed these conditions — including the blatant global inequality that forms the material basis for “development aid”, and therefore also for our work — these contradictions cannot be resolved. Our aim is not only to understand and name them, but also to find a practical way of dealing with them that meets our aspiration to minimize their impact on our actions and contribute to overcoming them. This can only happen if we make our work and decision-making processes as decentralized and horizontal as possible. What sounds acceptable in theory can only be realized in practice with many limitations, compromises, and negotiation processes. What criteria should be used to evaluate such research projects if we do not want to reproduce epistemic colonialism in scholarship? How can a selection process be decentralized?(6)

Challenges also arise in the practical application of theory (or theorization). We agree that the international division of labour in knowledge production, according to which the North produces theory and the South provides case studies, must be overcome. But is decentralized theory production possible? In a discussion among IRGAC fellows in Berlin during the drafting of this text, IRGAC member Gustavo Robles had this to say:

"In a certain way IRGAC is successful in decentralizing knowledge production, though not 100 percent. We come here to meet and discuss our work in a very international, cosmopolitan context, but it’s still centralized in Berlin. And so it’s very important to broaden the possibilities of a dialogue in the South, between the South, not mediated through Germany. In this sense, a global perspective is not about the addition of different perspectives, but a dialogue. To encourage the people systematically to catch the perspective of the other. It’s about trying to build up an infrastructure, a platform for that kind of dialogue to happen". 

Ülker Sözen describes our work as “internationalism in practice”, and perhaps this formulation, with its reference to boundaries that must be overcome, is a more honest characterization of our approach than that of a “global perspective”:

"It’s kind of going against the grain. Because there’s established structures, a whole infrastructure centred around Germany. We’re trying to deconstruct this and build something new, to create possibilities for a South-South dialogue. And that takes time! It’s work in progress. But all our interactions and the field of possibilities that opened up gave me the idea that we can do this, that building new connections is possible". 

Is Another Scholarship Possible?

But even if it is occasionally possible to make a dent in the self-centredness of European and North American scholarship, isn’t the real challenge not just to bring new voices into the otherwise smoothly functioning academic world, but also to establish completely different connections and interactions, different dialogues, and a different way of working together? Is the distress experienced by scholars and the social and cultural sciences not caused by their ever-increasing involvement in an absurd spiral of pressure to perform and generate value, the precarization of working conditions, increased competition, and over-exploitation, as well as the fact that they are seldom able to break out of their monologue and contribute to an emancipatory transformation of society? This anguish within the neoliberal university is a shared experience of academics around the globe. Even if it varies from region to region, academics are closely linked through their (often forced) nomadic or migrant careers, which take them from temporary contract to temporary contract across countries.(7)

In view of the (increasingly authoritarian) neoliberal restructuring of university settings and deteriorating conditions for critical scholarship worldwide, as well as the precarious working conditions for academics, we must ask ourselves what left-wing scholarship is or ought to be. On the one hand, we are looking for an answer to this in the links between intellectual labour and left-wing political practice: How can these connections be conceived and, above all, concretely implemented? On the other hand, we reflect on the conditions under which we (want to) work (together). Because, as Michael Hirsch writes:

"Emancipatory intellectual work is not only about the struggle for content and ideas, but also about their formal determination". 

He therefore advocates a specific connection between progressive ideas and reflection on the working and living practices of intellectuals themselves. Otherwise, emancipatory ideas and efforts will remain rather powerless — and the massive everyday suffering due to the alienated living conditions in the wage-labour society will remain rather mute and formless.(8)

In recent years, academics have done well at standing up for freedom of thought and scientific inquiry, but have often been less effective in fighting for their rights as workers (or even perceiving themselves as such). In this sense, left-wing scholarship requires class consciousness and concrete practice aimed at changing one’s own working and production conditions. The fact that this practice can only be conceived in conjunction with other social struggles is noteworthy, because a defining characteristic of the current authoritarian-reactionary pressure on scholarship and society at large is its specifically neoliberal form. This means that attacks on civil rights (such as academic freedom), attacks on social rights, and intensified exploitation and precarization are closely interwoven (a fact that we describe as authoritarian neoliberalism).(9)

Militancy and Scholarship

It is therefore not just a matter of showing solidarity with other struggles, but of understanding that these struggles are our own as well — and, consequently, of connecting our intellectual and political practice in an organic way. But this also involves some contradictions: how, for example, how do we deal with the tension between academic and political rigour? How do we communicate complex ideas in a way that is accessible to a wide audience? What knowledge should we share with whom? What criteria do we use to measure the impact of our work?

The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung is not the worst place to raise these questions and outline possible answers — precisely because we are not directly subject to the evaluation criteria of academic institutions. In our discussion, our comrades emphasized that this ability to collectively give ourselves a “value system” outside the “regular” academic world is one of the special features of the IRGAC:

"In a normal institutionalized academic circle, there’s a market: what makes your work valuable is that you publish in good journals or you receive certain grants. But IRGAC is a different thing, you can be more autonomous. And you can be freer, in terms of establishing connections between fields, outside the academia and also to our academias back in our countries.If you do an event with trade unions, [universities] don’t care. But here we have an environment to make it valuable, so that people have the initiative, the motivation to do this kind of things. In a university, nobody cares if you bring together labour struggles from different countries, or if you create networks between social movements. IRGAC gives us this environment, gives us this horizon... Maybe it’s not worth anything in a more traditional, mainstream sense, maybe it doesn’t mean anything anywhere else, but here it means something. It’s about creating a space outside of the mainstream system of value [in academia]".

This “outside” is more of an “outside within” — because it is not about simply throwing out the sciences and the rules that give them shape, but about participating in them and trying to change them. This is why the connections we have built in recent years with universities and critical academics in the Global South are very important to us. In our discussion with IRGAC colleagues in preparation for this text, the question of how we create solidary connections within the institutions was central. In most cases, our interlocutors criticized the fact that postdoctoral researchers from countries in the Global South come to universities in the Global North and bring their experience, studies, and knowledge along to then monetize it all for the local system: “You should bring it here and monetize it, put it into the service of the German academia. And there’s no return [to the academia and societies in the South].” In contrast, the functional logic of the IRGAC is quite different:

"IRGAC gave us a platform to make connections with the academia in our countries, which allowed us not to be a “Global South scholar” doing work for a German university in the traditional way …, but to give us this platform for being in connection with the knowledge production of our country, and with the activism in our country". 

Based on these considerations, we have also organized various symposia and workshops outside Europe, where we have brought IRGAC together with other research communities: at the Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina in 2022, and at the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in 2023. These meetings were important not only because of the South-South dialogues and the resulting collaborations between researchers from different continents, but also because our research group was able to create sustainable institutional connections that form a basis for future cooperation.

Outlook: Scholarship and Authoritarianism from 2023 Onwards

To create “another”, left-wing scholarship, we therefore need to create other infrastructures and spaces. However, we also have to acknowledge that these are often more fleeting and fragile than we would like. IRGAC is no exception, starting with the fact that postdoctoral fellowships are granted seamlessly in line with the logic of temporary, precarious employment relationships, third-party funding, and the like. In this sense, the IRGAC’s achievements are sometimes a double-edged sword: many of our former fellows have told us that they have taken up full time positions or at least further scholarships after their fellowship — some explicitly also thanks to this funding. However, this often means that they have less time to continue their work at the IRGAC. Despite the ever-present danger of becoming just another stop in the global academic gig economy, the IRGAC has a lot of very positive experience with sustainable academic-activist networking. For example, a group of IRGAC researchers from Asia, Europe, and Latin America has received a highly endowed, multi-year grant for the transnational research project “Platformization, Forms of Authoritarianism, and the Future of Democracy: Perspectives from the Global South”, which is based at the University of Passau and remains an integral part of IRGAC.

The time that scholarship holders have spent doing research in Germany has often led to the formation of lasting academic networks, particularly among academic trustees. This has resulted in joint publications, teaching events, conference participation and, in one case, an invitation to take up a (temporary) research position in Germany. At the same time, several of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s international offices have cooperated very successfully with IRGAC fellows — and often continue to do so after their fellowships have ended. A look at our website shows that many former fellows are still active members of the IRGAC. The (decentralized) IRGAC network (consisting of former and current fellows) coordinates joint events. The previously mentioned scholar-activist symposium in Mexico was largely organized by alumni outside of Berlin, and a lecture series at the OFF-University, in cooperation with Humboldt University and Alice Salomon University, was also initiated by fellows.

In light of worldwide authoritarian shifts and current and anticipated assaults on universities, critical scholarship, and researchers, the need for spaces and networks of solidarity that facilitate both critical reflection and political action has become more pressing than ever. To achieve this, a sustainable, transformational academic practice must scrutinize and improve its own material conditions. However, it must also engage with the researchers’ subjectivity. Reflecting on and transforming this self-image is an intellectual and material prerequisite for left-wing scholarship to actively participate in intensifying social struggles. To effectively assume such an “organically intellectual” role, we as scholars urgently need to develop better strategies — not only against reactionary social mobilization, but also against the pressures of precarization and discipline imposed on both ourselves and our creative and political endeavours.

Translated by Diego Otero and Joseph Keady for Gegensatz Translation Collective


  1. Due to the increasing repression and (often politically motivated) underfunding of universities, our fellows are increasingly unable to work in the countries where they began their academic careers. Many colleagues were fired, had to flee, and often cannot even return for research stays or family visits. For this reason, we increasingly support postdoctoral fellows from the Global South at German universities.
  2. They hail from and work in: Argentina, Bosnia, Brazil, China, Cuba, Iran, India, Lebanon, Mexico, Mozambique, Myanmar, Palestine, Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, and Zimbabwe.
  3. Fraser, Nancy, “The End of Progressive Neoliberalism”, Dissent Magazine, 2 January 2017, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/progressive-neoliberalism-reactionary-populism-nancy-fraser/. (last accessed 29 December 2023).
  4. See Ferdinand, Malcom, Decolonial Ecology: Thinking from the Caribbean World, Cambridge: Polity, 2022. Ferdinand answers this question with a clear “no”, and counters the capitalist concept of globalization with that of worldization.
  5. OECD stands for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
  6. In our deliberations on these matters, we have drawn on the expertise of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Scholarship Department, which has developed a practice over the years that strives to make evaluation and selection processes systematically more democratic, open, and horizontal.
  7. See the discussion “Infringement of Academic Freedom and Counter-Strategies” at the conference “Contesting Authoritarianism”, at https://irgac.org/articles/infringement-of-academic-freedoms-and-counter-strategies-caps-22/ (last accessed 2 January 2024).
  8. Hirsch, Michael, “Repressive Sozialmoral und unbetrauerbares Leiden. Zur Aktualisierung neomarxistischer Arbeitsutopien”, in Jahrbuch für marxistische Gesellschaftstheorie, vol. 1, Vienna, n.d., p. 57.
  9. See Robles, Gustavo and Börries Nehe, “Die koloniale Materialität des Staates. Den autoritären Neoliberalismus vom Süden aus denken,” in Postkoloniale Staatsverständnisse, edited by Martin Oppelt, Christina Pauls, Nicki K. Weber, , Baden-Baden, 2022, pp. 195–216.

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