Introduction | Authoritarianism, Crisis, and Solidarity in the Time of COVID-19: Global Perspectives from the South

© for the photo: Kaloian

The COVID-19 crisis is no exception: the origin of the virus is tied to the human exploitation of nature and the consequent loss of habitat for animals, it is spread through global mass transportation, finds ideal breeding grounds in societies stripped of adequate healthcare due to years of neoliberal privatization, and it is having a devastating impact on global society as a whole. In this sense, the pandemic globally accelerates multiple underlying crises that have formed part of capitalist normality for quite some time, and uncovers the fragility of neoliberal reasoning: whether global value and production chains or national healthcare systems, whether supranational arrangements or one’s own body, all dimensions of neoliberal capitalism have been deeply shook up.

Those of us who followed the international media coverage or talked to people from around the world were overwhelmed by the sheer globality of the phenomenon that we are witnessing, with an apparently universal period of lockdown and curfews that affected more than half of the world’s population. Nevertheless, it is becoming ever clearer that this crisis is not the same for everybody. In fact, the contrary is true: the virus, the measures taken against its spread, and the resulting global crisis all have a highly differential impact on people. These differences are structured along the lines that capitalism has inscribed into humanity—class, gender, race, and the country that issued your passport, to name a few—and these days they matter even more than usual.

“Behind the facade of an apparently global state of exception there lies a set of highly segmented responses to the pandemic”

In this sense, it is not so much the apparent universality of the measures taken by governments worldwide (like the closing of borders, the declaration of curfews, etc.) that is shocking, but rather the uneven impact that these measures have on different social groups. Behind the facade of an apparently global state of exception there lies a set of highly segmented responses to the pandemic—responses that affect people differently, produce different discourses about specific social groups, and are inscribed in a political agenda and embedded in a specific context of social cleavages and struggles. For those who work in delivery, healthcare, or selling goods on the streets, “lockdown” means something very different than it does for those whose major worry is the stability of their home office´s internet connection. By now, we have sufficient statistical data that shows how COVID-19 affects the poor much worse than it does those with access to proper food, housing, and healthcare. And in some contexts, there is even an explicit mobilization of society around these divides, often encouraged by state actors—in India, for instance, Hindu nationalist groups were quick to blame Muslims for the spread of the virus, while in some European countries historically marginalized groups are increasingly being blamed for new outbreaks. 

“Does the pandemic state of exception pave the way for further undemocratization—and if so, is this process happening on a global scale, or are there meaningful differences between regional developments?”

It seems important to stress these differences especially with regard to the debate that evolved around Giorgio Agamben´s texts on epidemic and the state of exception. The “lockdowns” in Italy and elsewhere, Agamben argued, manifested the “tendency to use a state of exception as a normal paradigm for government”. His view was harshly criticized by some commentators for what they saw as its indiscriminate framing of every curfew or other measure—however necessary they may have been to control the epidemic—as sheer, unjustified authoritarianism. As later developments have shown, not every curfew was necessarily disproportionate or ill intended—and, as the Trumps and Bolsonaros of this world have shown, not every opposition towards drastic measures is well intended. The combination of different sets of economic interests and ideological stances has influenced each government’s approach. But even Agamben´s critics could not deny that those measures were taken in a highly undemocratic guise, profoundly affecting the rights and lives of citizens reduced largely to paralyzed bystanders. Can or should these measures be seen as authoritarian, and what meaning would the concept acquire, then? Do they really manifest new, even more hierarchical ways of governing that go beyond epidemic control? Does the pandemic state of exception pave the way for further undemocratization—and if so, is this process happening on a global scale, or are there meaningful differences between regional developments? What is, in short, the specifically authoritarian dimension of the world´s responses to the pandemic?

At the International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies (IRGAC), we have been studying and comparing authoritarian dynamics in different countries of the Global South since before the outbreak of COVID-19. The IRGAC currently brings together 18 postdoctoral scholars from countries of the Global South who seek to better understand the regional and global interconnections of authoritarian capitalism and reactionary populism. Our aim is to combine in-depth studies of national, regional, and local processes of socioeconomic transformation and politics with a global perspective from the South, that recognize and analyze the universal manifestations of authoritarian capitalism and the universalizing processes that lie behind the “rising tide” of authoritarianism.

“Trends that were already observable before the crisis have acquired more momentum and get imposed by even more hierarchical and often more brutal means”

Notwithstanding the apparent similarities in crisis management strategies worldwide, we started to ask ourselves whether there are identifiable patterns regarding a specifically authoritarian, or authoritarian-populist, way of dealing with the pandemic and the resulting social and economic crisis. At first sight, the answer to that is no, there isn’t: the differences between how regimes that can be characterized as authoritarian have acted in the face of COVID-19 seem to be too huge, and the similarities with liberal-democratic regimes too big, to identify a common pattern. In all countries, the crisis is a “moment of the executive”. Although there are, of course, major distinctions regarding the institutional and extra-institutional checks and balances, as well as the capacities to defend basic human, social, and political rights, this should remind us of the fact that there is more of a continuum than a clear, qualitative break between (neo-)liberal democratic and neoliberal authoritarian statehood and political actors.

Nevertheless, as the situation continues to evolve, what we do see is an expansion and deepening of the authoritarian-populist discourses and practices of states and movements. Trends that were already clearly observable before the current crisis have generally acquired more momentum and get imposed by even more hierarchical and often more brutal means, as the executive organs and the repressive apparatuses are subject to even less control. After a first moment of confusion and volatility during which the course that they would take was rather unsure, authoritarian-populists soon tried, more or less successfully, to integrate the pandemic into their discursive frames and their political agendas. As the constant mobilization of fear and hatred, the systematic weakening of democratic rights—especially for those perceived as “minorities”—and the imposition of a political agenda in a highly undemocratic fashion is, by definition, their core business, it comes as no surprise that the paths taken by authoritarian governments in the Global South go in this same direction. But the concrete steps that they take, the way they discursively frame the crisis, the conflicts that arise, and the resistances that they cause were not (and often still are not) always predictable.

What they all do have in common, though, is an ever crueller will to guarantee capitalist accumulation and control over the workforce and populations, accentuating the specific neoliberal dimension of current authoritarian regimes. The process of “normalization” that governments from all over the world are promising these days is, in fact, the intent to overcome the momentary “crisis of denormalization” by renovating and restructuring a spectrum of disciplinary and governmental strategies that allow for a molecular control of populations and the constant valorization of value. This logic has led to an apparent contradiction: in many countries, crowds have gathered to demand the right to a proper period of lockdown, with government support. The antiracist protests have been occurring precisely because the right to live is such a crucial demand.

“The ways in which the coronavirus crisis is unfolding in the Global South show us both the alarming extent to which authoritarian policies and reactionary populist rhetoric can grow, and the promising resilience and creativity of political oppositions”

Examining the state and society responses to the coronavirus crisis across the Global South is of particular importance given that prolonged economic and political crises are considered to be quintessential features in most Global South countries. Historically, the states there played a different role in crisis governance considering the complex histories of colonialism, and the inefficacy or complete lack of welfare capacities. In this respect, the ways in which the coronavirus crisis is unfolding in the Global South show us both the alarming extent to which authoritarian policies and reactionary populist rhetoric can grow, and the promising resilience and creativity of political oppositions. Peoples of the Global South have remarkable traditions of organization and communal provision beyond the state which emerge as viable alternatives challenging the authoritarian rule of neoliberal states. At the same time, the scale of resources and welfare measures needed to tackle the pandemic shows the need for more accountable and democratic ways of governing that ensure the safety and welfare of everyone. Social media is also an important outlet in the Global South; it gets used for disinformation campaigns as well as for self-organization against authoritarian governments. The role of big technology companies in designing and controlling the landscape of such means of communication needs to be scrutinized in a scenario when virtual interactions are becoming increasingly essential.  

Writing on Latin America, Gustavo Robles, in his article on what “authoritarianism” means in the time of the coronavirus crisis, shows that behind the far-right´s somewhat surprising critique of “authoritarian statism” lies a cynical understanding of individual and economic freedom. Meanwhile, popular organizations constitute concrete experiences of cooperation and reciprocity that are, in fact, operating beyond the state, all of which again forefront the state within our political debates and actions, as Robles argues.

Ailynn Torres Santana analyzes different Latin American experiences comparatively through a feminist lens. Her approach shows the differentiated impacts that the pandemic has on women’s rights and the role of fundamentalist and authoritarian actors within it. 

Fábio Luís Ferreira Nóbrega Franco discusses how the COVID-19 crisis in Brazil revealed many of the management strategies to which platform workers have been subjected. He presents this phenomenon as a new understanding of how uberization produces and mobilizes subjectivity effects, when uberization is also rooted in gendered and racialized forms of labour.

Writing from Argentina, in his piece on “Living (and Working) in Pandemic Times”, Mariano Féliz discusses how the ongoing crisis is turning into an acceleration of the tendency to continuous primitive accumulation by capital, which constantly reinvents its strategies to exploit and discipline labour.

Regarding the same country, Julieta Mira’s analysis shows that Argentina has been experiencing various forms of violations of fundamental rights caused by the actions of the security and police forces in the context of restriction of movement, and how that is a root for authoritarianist practices.

In Mexico, the pandemic operates as a backdrop to the government’s developmentalist objectives. As Inés Durán Matute argues, indigenous and grassroots resistance to this version of development is now also responsible for thinking up alternatives in the face of López Obrador’s weak and dismissive handling of the health crisis.

In Brazil, Sabrina Fernandes tells us that the Bolsonaro government has left the citizens to their fate while downplaying the virus as nothing more than a “little flu” and normalizing eventual deaths amidst an economic crisis and austerity agenda. The spreading of fake news regarding the disease serves to depoliticize the real conflict and make it about the “enemy”, that is to say the “communists”.

Also writing on the populist use of media, Fathima Nizaruddin shows how Modi’s India is a prime example of how the pandemic can be instrumentalized to further the government’s current authoritarian agenda, especially as it works through an “infrastructure of hate” targeting particular groups.

Similarly, Gopal Krishna’s essay discusses the state-proposed app Aarogya Setu which traces citizens’ contact with COVID-19, and he also discloses how the pandemic is used as a justification for the profiling and mass surveillance of Indian citizens without their consent, nor any transparency mechanisms.

Continuing our reflections on the role of the media in authoritarian settings, Nwet Kay Khine’s piece provides insights about how the lack of press freedom and democratic rights adversely affects the management of the pandemic in Myanmar; this shows the dangers of framing an authoritarian mode of response to COVID-19.

Commenting on how the pandemic unfolded in the Philippines, Verna Viajar mentions how the Duterte government treated the pandemic as a law and order emergency rather than a public health one through a harsh and ill-planned lockdown policy, and sought to manipulate the emergency to quash public opposition. She focuses on the protest movement growing on social media, and on challenging the authoritarian policies and corruption of the government.

Ülker Sözen discusses the fragmentary approach that the AKP government in Turkey adopted in the governance of the pandemic, whereby the anti-coronavirus measures had a contradictory, incomprehensive, and haphazard pattern. Furthermore, she argues that the coronavirus crisis disclosed the vulnerabilities of the AKP regime and Tayyip Erdoğan’s leadership strategy, mainly tied to the dilemmas of the country’s economic growth model and the intensifying financial crisis.   

Boaventura Monjane writes about the C-19 People’s Coalition, which has been making crucial contributions proposing people-centred alternatives to the current corporate-controlled food system that characterizes South Africa. The author argues that the COVID-19 ‘momentum’ is an opportunity to birth something new, besides the food justice movement not representing a strong political force compared to its industrial-based labour union counterparts.

We hope that with this dossier, we help to shed some light on how authoritarian governments and movements in the Global South have been reacting in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, and how this crisis, for the time being, seems to be fuelling a particular neoliberal, populist, and authoritarian tide worldwide. At the same time, our goal is to highlight the creative and cooperative popular resistance strategies that are taking place in vast parts of the South, so as to contribute to strengthening and deepening our ties for global solidarity and emancipatory politics worldwide.

The Editorial Committee (Ailynn Torres Santana, Börries Nehe, Fathima Nizaruddin, Julieta Mira, Sabrina Fernandes & Ülker Sözen)