Opinion: Democracy fatigue and the resurgence of authoritarian populists

The rise of the right has created a totally new political situation, leaving opportunities for a more radical political left. Now is the time for the Left to do the hard work.

authoritarian populist
People begin to think only when the fault lines occur and they think deeply when the world order breaks down. The politics of today is changing significantly; the jolts are as deep as those from earthquakes. The triumph of Donald Trump, a self-confessed sexual predator and racist, or the electorate apotheosis in India and Philippines bear witness to the trend. Ashish Nandy referred to Modi as a “textbook case of a fascist and a prospective killer”. Mass murder accused Rodrigo Duterte rises in the political foray and there is mass acclaim for pitiless despots and imperialists like Putin in Russia and Erdogan in Turkey.
These populist authoritarian leaders and scurrilous demagogues are gaining ground in different countries of the world. Even the secessions of our time, for instance from ISIS to Brexit have several unique causes. For one, ethical constraints have weakened everywhere, often under the pressure of public opinion. The apparent ‘muslim rage’ identified with mobs of brown-skinned men with bushy beards has now taken different faces, from saffron-robed Buddhist ethnic-cleansers in Myanmar to blonde white nationalists in Germany.
Freud wrote the ‘primitive, savage and evil impulses of mankind have not vanished’ but continue to exist in a ‘repressed state’, waiting for ‘opportunities to display their activity.’
The liberal world order is crumbling. Slavoj Žižek says, “the trump victory is the final blow to the Fukuyama dream and the final defeat of liberal democracy”. It would be, however, a mistake to forget that the initial signs of reactionary movements already were visible in Europe 15 years ago, when Jorg Haider’s FPO came second place in the 1999 Austrian parliamentary elections, prompting a right-wing coalition government under Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel.
In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round of the French presidential elections, where he lost to Jaques Chirac. These leaders who have risen in the new populist movements are typically xenophobic, misogynist and authoritarian in their functioning. Their followers usually share many of these tendencies but they are also fearful, angry and resentful of what their societies have done for them over the years.
In the Neo-liberal world order, Economic sovereignty, as a basis for national sovereignty was always a dubious principle. Today, it is increasingly irrelevant. In the absence of any national economy that modern states can claim to protect and develop, these nations in many populist movements perform their national sovereignty by turning towards cultural majoritarianism, ethnonationalism and stifling intellectual and cultural dissent. In other words, the loss of economic sovereignty everywhere produces a shift towards emphasizing cultural sovereignty.
Vox Populi (Thought process of the followers) has been brilliantly showcased in the book ‘The Great Regression’, by Arjun Appadurai. The author talks about various ways in which today’s widespread feeling of being fed up with democracy itself have a distinctive logic and context.
Firstly, the extension of the Internet and Social media to growing sectors of population led to web-based mobilisation, easy propaganda, identity building and peer seeking; and these have created the dangerous illusion that we can all find peers, allies, friends, collaborators, coverts and colleagues; whoever we are and whatever we want.
Secondly, the fact is that every single nation-state has lost ground in its efforts to maintain any semblance of economic sovereignty. When we add to these factors; the worldwide deepening of economic inequality, the global erosion of social welfare, and the planetary penetration of financial industries that thrive on circulating the idea that we are all at risk of financial disaster, impatience with the slow temporalities of democracy; It is compounded by a constant climate of economic panic.
The same populist leaders who promise prosperity for all often deliberately concoct this sort of panic, for instance, the Demonetisation exercise in India to root out black money by illegalizing 500 and 1000-rupee notes. These currency notes were a vital part of everyday life for poor and middle-class workers, consumers and petty commercial operators.
The leaders and their followers have bonhomie on some ground. Like the leaders hate democracy because it is an obstacle to their monomaniacal pursuit of power. The followers are victims of democracy fatigue who see electoral politics as the best way to exit democracy itself. This hatred and this exhaustion find their mutual ground in the space of cultural sovereignty, enacted in scripts of racial victory for resentful majorities, national ethnic purity and global resurgence.
This is precisely the fact that the Neo-liberal world is the incubator of authoritarianism in today’s time.
Žižek argues, “In a nice Hegelian move when capitalism won its external enemy and united the world, the division returned”. Pankaj Mishra says, “The liberal world made the human beings subordinate to the market, replacing social-bonds with market relations and sanctifying greed. It propagated an ethos of individual autonomy and personal responsibility, while the exigencies of the market made it impossible for people to save and plan for future”.
Where does the “Left” stand in this charade?
Right-wing populism thrives because the world of the working classes has been destroyed by corporate capitalism and has been further developed by cultural progressive elites, who from 1980 onwards, focused their intellectual and political energy on sexual and cultural minorities, generating fierce cultural wars.
The main theoretical proponent of leftist populism is Chantal Mouffe. According to Mouffe the main reason for the failure of the left is its non-combative stance of rational argumentation and lifeless universalism. Since this post-political third way is no match for the agnostic logic of right, they successfully mobilized anti-immigrant populists like Le Pen. The only way to combat for the left is by going back to a leftist populism. The left populism also moves beyond the old working class, anti-capitalists, and brought together a multiplicity of struggles from ecology to feminism. Zizek says, the rise of new right is the second phenomenon; the crucial thing is the disintegration of the state concept of centre-left.
The new organic corporate intellect like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates say that capitalism in its present form will not survive and that the discourse needs to be changed. The left should shift focus from the Big Bad Wolf of populism to true problems.
The left has no choice but to re-emerge with the moral world of lives and those which have been torn asunder brazenly by the rippling effects of capitalism. A revitalized left could lay the foundation for a powerful new coalition committed to fighting for justice for all. The left alternatives should be a program of new and different international agreements. Agreements which would establish control of banks, enforce ecological standards, secure workers’ rights, healthcare services, the protection of sexual and ethnic minorities etc.
The rise of the right has created a totally new political situation, leaving opportunities for a more radical political left. Now is the time for the Left to do the hard work, or to quote Mao, “there is disorder under heaven; the situation is excellent.”
Moin Qureshi is a student of Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.



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