What does authoritarianism mean in times of coronavirus?

Photography: Mauricio Macri and Mario Vargas Llosa in a conference of the International Foundation for Freedom (Abril, 2018), © Casa de América, @Flickr.

            The signatories criticized “the impossibility of working and producing” and warned that “statism, interventionism, and populism resurface with an drive that suggests a shift away from liberal democracy and the market economy.” After denouncing some governments that they consider authoritarian, such as those of Cuba and Venezuela but also Mexico, Argentina, and Spain, the declaration concludes by rejecting the idea that “that these circumstances force us to choose between authoritarianism and insecurity, between the philanthropic ogre and death.” The text is short and loaded with liberal and conservative clichés: criticism of the “ideologized” authoritarianism of the populists, and the authors’ own concern for (economic) freedom. This, of course, did not prevent it from being broadcast widely in the mass media.

Neoliberal anti-authoritarianism

            However, these political positions must be understood as a part of the broader transformation of liberalism and republicanism into a harsh neoliberalism and anti-populism in Latin America. Since at least the 1990s, liberalism has been monopolized by neoliberalism, which has stripped it of its old egalitarian ideas. Today, this discourse is fundamentally centred on criticizing economic interventionism as authoritarian and populist. But this agenda is also accompanied by all kinds of conspiracy theories, such as a paranoid Cold-War-style anticommunism without communists, the “fascism” of so-called “gender ideology”, or even the “imperialist threat” posed by Cuba and Venezuela. This present alliance between neoliberalism and paranoid conservatism has its best representative in Jair Bolsonaro, but it has been spreading in public discourse throughout Latin America.

            All these opinions, increasingly popular in the mass media, use and abuse the term authoritarianism: from the authoritarianism of lockdowns and preventive quarantines to the authoritarianism of feminists, income taxes and “political correctness”. Authoritarianism is everywhere. Thus, it would seem appropriate to ask what authoritarianism means today. Especially in times of the coronavirus pandemic when the entire world looks more like a military scenario than one of democratic deliberation: calls for national unity, daily death tallies, mandatory quarantine, regulation of an emergency economy, surveillance, calls for discipline, and so on.

What kind of freedom?

The coronavirus pandemic not only makes the disorientation of Latin American right-wing political forces visible, but also leads us to reflect on what we are talking about when we speak of authoritarianism and freedom. This is because neoliberalism always resorts to the supreme principle of freedom for its ideological legitimization, on which basis it presents a defence of private property, unregulated markets, and free competition. In these discourses, freedom is understood as the possibility of pursuing private goals without constraint, and the term “authoritarianism” is used to criticize any state and social interference in the private sphere.

            Because of this, it is not only the state or institutional regulation that appear as potentially authoritarian and a threat to freedom, but also any kind of social demand. This neoliberal understanding of freedom is fulfilled when government is absent and when communal ties do not interfere. For neoliberalism, society itself is the threat of authoritarianism, to the extent that it wants to be more than just a frictionless arena of competition. By defending the sacred principle of the private sphere, neoliberal discourse denounces as tyrannical or fascist anything that smells like “social justice”.

            But coronavirus presents us with a quite simple fact: each one of us depends on the cooperation of everyone else. In order for the enjoyment of certain rights to be possible, it is first necessary for all the members of the society to be able to satisfy their fundamental needs. Without daily precautions, like washing your hands or maintaining social distance, but also more basically without public hospitals or general access to public healthcare, no one will be protected anywhere in the world. The individualist discourse has never sounded more inappropriate than today, when the irresponsibility of a few puts the lives of many in danger. The increasing death toll reminds us that the freedom of individuals is always social, that my life, my well-being, and my health are not just “mine”, because I depend on the behaviour and health of others, and theirs depends on what I do in turn.

            Hegel showed that the idea of freedom takes the form of an interaction, as it consists of a practice whose condition of possibility is the reciprocal recognition of the objectives and needs of all members of society. This social idea of freedom is contained in Marx’s definition of socialism as “an association of free men”.[i] For Marx it was about organizing society as a space of reciprocity in which the activity of everyone should take the needs of the others into consideration. In fact, his critique of capitalism not only questions the inequality it produces, it also denounces the fact that it does not even fulfil its own promise: the realization of freedom.

            Regrettably, liberalism has monopolized the idea of freedom, while the socialist traditions have become associated with equality and regarded as considering demands for individual freedom as a petty-bourgeois whim. However, today it has become fundamental to hold to a socialist idea of freedom capable of showing that “the free development of each one is the condition of the free development of all”,[ii] as Marx and Engels once wrote. The current crisis reveals how only cooperation and reciprocity can make freedom of any kind possible.

            Against the individualist discourse of neoliberalism, the pandemic shows that the mere survival of humanity depends upon solidarity and cooperation. Old and abstract philosophical questions—such as “am I free when the other is not?”, “can I fulfil myself when the other is constrained?”—have become the concrete discussion topics of our everyday life. This situation provides us with an opportunity to rethink what authoritarianism means when basic rights, such as that of movement, are suspended and we believe that it is for our own good.

            The pandemic also makes clear that authoritarianism means more than the obstruction of the private sphere. Authoritarianism not only refers to the excessive presence of state authority but to its absence, it means not only intrusion into the private sphere but also entrenched processes within it that mean it is able to be indifferent to human needs. The individualist idea of freedom is not only illusory but dangerous. The coronavirus pandemic seems to have shaken the philosophical foundations of neoliberalism.

            It is still unclear what the outcome of this crisis will be, and all predictions about the demise of neoliberalism sound overly hasty. It is even possible that the crisis will present us with nothing but a swathe of neofascist options. Forecasts about the future in a scenario that is changing day by day do seem ill-advised for now. However, the crisis opens up the prospect of discussing a different type of freedom, and it is not necessary to dig into the history of philosophy to do so. Latin America has a rich history of community organization, social movements, memories of resistance, and struggles based on experiences of freedom built on bonds of solidarity. And from there it is also possible to articulate a different critique of authoritarianism.

On the “philanthropic ogre”

In Latin America, which has been suffered from constant austerity policies, a lack of resources and a highly informal labour market, the spread of the pandemic could be explosive, as can be seen in the images coming out of Guayaquil or Manaus. The current crisis reveals that social inequalities are a product of a precarious public health system and fiscal adjustment. The progress of the pandemic and fatality rates show that the virus does not have a “democratic character” at all, as many analysts keep repeating, but rather reflects the inequalities of class, race, ethnicity, and place of residence. Inequalities in healthcare access and in the ability to practice social distancing and go into quarantine (whether due to the quality of housing or to the immediate necessity of going out to work) explain the differences in contagion rates within cities. Once again, this brings up the issue of the role of the state.

            Criticisms of authoritarianism, both from left and right, have frequently aimed to question the abuses of the state, that “philanthropic ogre” as Vargas Llosa and his friends call it. An important part of the leftist tradition conceives the state as “nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”,[iii] as the Communist Manifesto famously puts it. For its part, liberalism has always seen the state as an annoying intruder in the free life of society or as a source of corruption. In any case, for both of them, the threat of authoritarianism always referred to the state.

            Latin American history offers numerous examples of state authoritarianism, not only during bloody military dictatorships, but also in democratic times. That did not change at all. As a matter of fact, in many Latin American countries with central-left governments, human rights are under threat and abuses of authority by the police have increased. The assassination of Giovanni Lopez in Mexico or Luis Espinoza in Argentina, two bricklayers murdered by the police in countries ruled by progressive governments, are sad examples of this phenomenon.

            But these days a strong social state is required. We see how all over the world, while states are expanding their repressive measures, they also intervene by manipulating interest rates to soften the impact of recession, injecting millions of dollars into the economy to avoid economic collapse and massive unemployment. Some countries are even planning to nationalize their healthcare systems and increase public spending on welfare. Even though there are strong indications that the pandemic is leading to an increase in authoritarian tendencies, it also emphasizes the role of state in fostering social policies and the dogma of austerity seems to have been forgotten, at least for the time being.

            Of course, it could be just another strategy of capitalist restoration in times of crisis, but it could also indicate something different. In 1944, Karl Polanyi characterized economic liberalism as a “stark utopia”, because “such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness”[iv] without the intervention of other social institutions. In exceptional times, states are forced to react and intervene in exceptional ways and this opens up the possibility of new political narratives, new imaginaries and new commitments.

            Today, more than ever, we urgently need to discuss the state again. As Poulanzas showed, the state is essentially the “material condensation of force relations between classes and class fractions”.[v] Developing this idea in the Latin America context, Alvaro García Lineras—former Bolivian vice-president and one of the most influential leftist intellectuals in Latin America—claims that the state is not the realization of the political mobilization of society, but it can be a tool to help consolidate the achievements of social mobilization, because “the state is also the social community, its common achievements, the collective goods it has won”.[vi] Maybe it is time to think the state again as a place of struggle, so that community values can be articulated in order to confront individualist values. Understanding the state only through the lens of authoritarianism may not be the best strategy now, at least not to confront the neoliberal right. 

What popular organizations offer

After the decline of left-wing populism in the region, the public is sceptical about a discourse that heralds the heroic return of the state and the end of neoliberalism. The structural problems of Latin America remain the same: social and economic inequality, dependence upon a primary product export model, criminality, environmental degradation. But we must remember, as a historical lesson, that government and the state are not the same and that restoring the collective foundations of our everyday life through essential services has to do with the capabilities of the state. Without indulging in the populist sacralization of the state nor in the neoliberal demonization of it, we urgently need to comprehend it as a site of class struggle, in which the organizations on the ground can play a central role.

            Many social and regional organizations have created “crisis committees” and “healthcare centres” dedicated to awareness campaigns, setting up information stands, monitoring people at risk, and distributing prevention materials. For example, La Poderosa, a “villera” organization (from  “villa”, the Argentinian word for slum) operating throughout the country, has set up health emergency areas that are responsible for ensuring daily communication and providing assistance to the elderly in the neighbourhood. In addition, because of the shortage of face masks, many organizations have set up their textile cooperatives to manufacture and distribute them, even to hospitals and public institutions. The rich history of community organizations in Argentina is also an index of the state’s failure to provide basic services keep people alive.

            Until now, coordination between the state and these organizations has involved conflicts due to their different political and operative logics. However, the crisis has shown that if the state neither coordinates nor cooperates with kinds of popular organizations, it can reproduce and reinforce existing social inequalities. And this is not only a problem of economic resources, but also one of political decision-making. Social organizations, community centres, and actors in the local economy are the ones who know their neighbourhoods, who recognize people’s needs and how to facilitate access to social support. Instead of concentrating social assistance in the hands of the state, it is crucial now to strengthen local procurement, supply chains, and social organizations such as community kitchens or local food producers. These experienced community networks have knowledge and an organizational capability that many states in our region lack.

             Indeed, the articulation between the state and the community organizations is not only the best way to mitigate the social consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, but also an opportunity to envisage ways out of neoliberalism. To answer the question of what authoritarianism means in times of coronavirus, we urgently need to dispute the idea of freedom propounded by neoliberal rhetoric, to take it out of the private sphere and demonstrate that freedom is only achievable within the framework of social bonds. The histories of political resistance and popular self-organization in Latin America provide concrete models of this social understanding of freedom.


[i] K. Marx, Capital. Vol. 1, London: Penguin Classics, 1976 [1867], p. 171.

[ii] K. Marx, F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto. New York: International Publishers, 2007 [1848], p.31.

[iii]     Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, p. 11.

[iv]     K. Polanyi, The Great Transformation. The Political and Economics Origins of our Time, Boston: Beacon Press. 2001 [1944], p. 3.

[v]   N. Poulantzas, State, Power and Socialism, London: Verso, 2000, [978], p. 129.

[vi]     A. García Lineras, “El Estado y la vía democrática al socialismo”, Nueva Sociedad, no. 259, p. 155, https://nuso.org/articulo/el-estado-y-la-democratica-al-socialismo/.