Is “Authoritarianism” Really “Being Revealed to be Weak” Around World?

Photograph Source: The White House – Public Domain

Beware of elite academics who tell you that things are better for democracy and the common good than they really are.

Commenting last week on connections between (a) the US-American fascists Steve Bannon and Donald Trump, (b) the January 6the Capitol Riot, (c) the Brazilian fascist Bolsonaro family, and (d) the fascist attack on Brazil’s national government buildings twelve days ago, the liberal media-acclaimed “fascism expert” and 20th Century European historian (at NYU) Ruth Ben-Ghiat said something rather odd.

Here’s some of her exchange with “P”BS reporter Laura Barrón-López:

Laura Barrón-López: You say, strongmen like Mr. Trump and Bolsonaro aren’t necessarily going to go away. But Daniel Twining, President of the International Republican Institute told my colleague Nick Schifrin this:

‘I think we can look at the fact that our system worked, that that’s the long-term takeaway. The institutions held. Good people, Republican and Democrat, proceeded to effect a peaceful transfer of power. And guess who had a bad subsequent year or two following January 6? Actually, it wasn’t the United States. We had political change. We had some economic renewal. What — the people who had a bad year were actually dictators in Iran, Russia, and China.’

[As its name suggests the IRI is a product of the Republican Party – P.S.]

So, what do you say to that assessment that, overall, democracy seems to have held?”

Professor Ben-Ghiat:We are witnessing a time when authoritarianism has been — is being revealed to be weak. I mean, these protests in China are a really big deal, as they are in Iran. And Putin’s war is a classic example of autocratic backfire, where the terrible performance of the Russian military is showing that it is an institution that has been ravaged by Putin’s kleptocracy and by institutionalized lying, that everybody’s too afraid of falling out of a window to tell the truth. So, authoritarianism has never been weaker, in a sense, and — but that’s why these people are kind of roaring back, grasping at anything they can do. It’s like their last chance to prevail.”

As Democracy Erodes Worldwide”

This is unduly sanguine, to say the least. The theocratic state of Iran has significantly rolled back the remarkable women-led revolutionary movement there with bloody and systematic savage repression including Internet blackouts, live ammunition, and public executions. The Islamic Republic’s security forces are repressing protesters with brutal impunity.

China has contained the much less radical protests (it is strange for Ben-Ghiat to mention the Chinese demonstrations in the same breath as the openly revolutionary struggle in Iran) in the world’s largest nation with a combination of high-tech repression and a relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions (leading to a dramatic escalation of pandemic mortality that permits the authoritarian Chinese state to say “told you so”). Nearly half a century after the tragic Chinese capitalist counterrevolution, the fake-communist Chinese government is a master practitioner of high-tech repression and authoritarian/totalitarian propaganda atop savage economic inequality and environmental spoilation.

The at least fascistic if not outright fascist Vladimir Putin regime has jailed tens of thousands of antiwar protesters and has used state television to effectively sell his openly imperialist (if also US-/NATO-provoked and US//NATO-exploited) invasion of Ukraine (which he now absurdly claims was launched to stop Ukraine’s “Nazi” assault on Russia with “LGBT ideology”) to much of the Russian population. His military defeat by supposedly democratic, US- and NATO-equipped forces in Ukraine is far from certain.

The murderous Buhddi-fascist Myanmar regime’s crackdown on the democracy movement there rolls on. Petro-monarchical despotism holds unchallenged sway in in the Saudi kingdom. Judeo fascism rules Israel under the far-right Netanyahu government. Egypt continues to suffer under the iron heel of dictatorship. A far right-wing coup is ongoing in Peru. The democracy movement has been crushed in Hong Kong and India has significantly rolled back civil and voting rights in the name of repressive Hindu ethno-religious nationalism.

I could go on. In a report on global democratic decline issued last November, the Sweden-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) reported that, in the words of Euronews reporter Heloise Urvoy:

More countries are moving towards authoritarianism as democracy erodes worldwide…half of the world’s democracies are in a state of decline amid worsening civil liberties and rule of law, while already authoritarian governments are becoming more oppressive. [The IDEA] said this decline comes as elected leaders face unprecedented challenges ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to Russia’s war in Ukraine, the cost of living crises, a looming global recession, and climate change. The ‘Global State of Democracy 2022’ report showed that the number of countries with the most severe democratic erosion is at its peak and includes established democracies like India and the United States… The decline of global democracy includes the undermining of credible election results, restrictions on online freedoms and rights, youth disillusionment with political parties, as well as out-of-touch leaders, intractable corruption, and the rise of extreme right parties that has polarized politics… democratic standards in Europe have tended to plateau, meaning progress is still possible but is not always achieved. This can lead to some disillusioned citizens seeking other ways to fulfil their expectations: “That dissatisfaction manifests itself in very strident political attitudes that often scapegoat parts of the population, and embrace particularly the message of far-right parties, said IDEA’s Secretary General, Kevin Casas-Zamora.”

Authoritarianism may be facing some hiccups around the world, but it is clearly premature to say that it “has never been weaker,” with its supporters reduced to desperate, last-ditch actions.

“Take the Leap”

Notice that the IDEA includes the USA among nations that experienced “democratic erosion” in 2022. As well it should. Please read my latest Paul Street Report, which details many and different ways in which 2022 was a year of Republi-fascist and Christian white-nationalist (or, if you prefer, just authoritarian) triumph, enabled in no small part by the nation’s leading state-capitalist strikebreaker and imperial warmonger Joe Biden. Authoritarianism and indeed Christian white nationalist neofascism are alive and well in “the world’s greatest democracy.”

Sticking to the USA, why the reluctance of so many to acknowledge how bad authoritarian and even – trigger alert – fascist things are now? “If we start explaining how America is in fact in an authoritarian situation with Donald Trump and his administration,” Professor Ben-Ghiat sagely told Salon’s Chauncey de Vega in July of 2020 (see my long endnote below for the link), “then another question arises. One of the reasons so many people are scared is that to admit the truth about Trump and authoritarianism then means they would have to do something about it. Many people do not want to take that leap.”

Indeed. Let us re-phrase this excellent formulation for 2023:

The United States of America is in an authoritarian situation with the corrupt corporate Democratic Biden administration, the Republi-fascist-run US House, the right-wing Amerikaner base and militias, the Christian fascist Supreme Court, the dollar-drenched Democrats, the overworked and atomized population, the giant US Empire and military-industrial-complex, the corporate media, and the right-leaning and archaic US Constitutional order, including the reactionary powerful and lifetime-appointed Court, brazenly plutocratic campaign finance rules, rampant voter suppression, extensive gerrymandering, the ridiculously powerful and lethally malapportioned US Senate, the Senate filibuster, and deeply reactionary states’ rights. It we start explaining all this, all of which contradicts and indeed mocks the conventional description of the USA as “an established democracy,” then another question arises. One of the reasons so many people are scared is that to admit the truth about the underlying authoritarian and potentially fascist situation here means they would have to do something about it. They’d have to go deeper than the usual small and minor actions that do nothing to confront the fundamental and basic oppression structures and the capitalist-imperialist system that brings fascism to life at the same time that it ruins livable ecology, creates endless and potentially terminal war, and stirs up deadly pandemics.

Authoritarianism is hardly weakening at home or abroad. Radical change is coming, one way or another, under the lethal bourgeois world order. It’s up to us to fight to make this radical change revolutionary and socialist instead of arch-reactionary and fascist. The former (socialist) path means a potentially decent and even glorious path towards liberation from class and all forms of oppression (that would be communism) The latter path means continued class rule, many-sided oppression, an ever-heavier iron heel on our necks, and likely environmental and/or global thermonuclear and/or pandemicidal extermination. People might want to pay attention and get organized and mobilized to take a radical leap towards socialist revolution if they don’t want to take a radical fall into exterminist and hyper-authoritarian Hell.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).