Wolfram Schaffar on authoritarian developments, the crisis of democracy, and the connection between critical analysis and political change
« If push comes to shove, the democratic institutions that currently exist must be defended. This requires soberly assessing which short-term strategic alliances have to be forged. It’s a difficult balance. »
Dr. Wolfram Schaffar
Wolfram Schaffar is a political scientist who deals primarily with the topics of the democratization process and the erosion of democracy, social movements, alternative development policy, the internet, and social media. He was Professor of Political Science and International Development in Vienna until May 2018 and has also worked abroad as a researcher and guest lecturer. Wolfram Schaffar has been a member of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s advisory board since 2016. Tom Strohschneider spoke with him for maldekstra #4.
maldekstra: So far, your academic work has focused on countries in Southeast Asia like Thailand and Myanmar or China, and you’ve also taught for a long time as a professor in Austria. Looking at the countries mentioned, we’re already at the heart of the issue: there are more or less clearly authoritarian developments occurring in each of them.
Wolfram Schaffar: That’s right, although the differences can’t be ignored. But to stick to the example of Thailand: in 1997, people were still euphoric when the “people’s constitution” came into effect. Since then, we have witnessed an authoritarian regime in Thailand for which – with all due caution – the term “fascism” is appropriate. These days, when I meet former colleagues from there in exile, for example in Paris, it also takes on a personal dimension that affects me deeply. After two or three years in exile, people are often broken.
Authoritarianism, nationalism, post-democracy, the erosion of democracy, de-liberalization—an abundance of terms is used worldwide to describe the mounting political crises. Which do you lean towards in your analysis?
There is no term that is entirely analytically accurate. The situation we are talking about here is one marked by a variety of developments. If you wanted to do justice to these differences in an analytical way, you’d have to use a whole basket of categories to try to grapple with the crisis of democracy that we are witnessing everywhere. But this leads to a situation that is politically paralyzing, because you encounter statements like “the world is complex”. This poses a problem for critical thinking, which should also make it possible to change the situation.
What was it like in the 1920s and 1930s?
At that time, terms like “Bonapartism” and “fascism” were coined in order to describe authoritarian dynamics. But it had been 60 or 70 years since Louis Bonaparte’s regime, and “fascist” was a term of self-description used by Italian right-wing combat units, the Fasci di Combattimento. What appear to us today to be well-defined analytical categories go back to anachronistic and clumsy concepts that people struggled with at the time to describe a radicalization that resisted subsumption under the available conceptions of predictable political development.
So they were political rather than analytical terms.
Back then, categories like “fascism” served to make an unexpected turn in world history comprehensible, and at the same time to mobilize counter-forces. If you apply this to today, then it is also more a matter of coining a term that enables political action, a term that is suitable for mobilization and strategy.
The political action you are talking about has at least one point of reference: it should prevent something from being put in danger, from disappearing, from diminishing. In our case that something is democracy, but here too the question arises: what concept do we have of democracy, and what concept do others have of it?
In the context of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, the critical debate regarding democracy plays an important role. Colleagues like Alex Demirović, Mario Candeias, Fritz Burschel, Sonja Buckel, and David Salomon have presented highly nuanced analyses of democracy: as a form of bourgeois rule that owes its existence to the implementation of capitalism but is not merely a capitalist system of governance. Under capitalism, democracy is the only form in which it is possible to reconcile interests both within and between classes. The question is: against the backdrop of this critique, how can we go beyond a (neo-)liberal form of democracy without losing sight of the progressive potential, the forms we have achieved of a liberal system that accepts human rights?
Each of us has two fronts, so to speak.
Yes. On the one hand, the criticism of actually existing democracy still stands: democracy does not live up to its own claim, and that has something to do with the economic conditions to which it owes its existence. The erosion of democracy begins at the moment of its implementation, just as Johannes Agnoli described in the 1960s in The Transformation of Democracy. There is an inscribed tendency for democracy to solidify itself into a merely formal, liberal-looking system. But at the same time, it would be wrong to say that this is why we do not need democracy. That would be the other front. When you defend democracy against those who are undermining it, you can’t do so uncritically. But at the same time, you can’t wish for it to be dismantled, either.
Colin Crouch, who coined the term “post-democracy”, paints an almost entirely hopeless picture: we are at the end of a development that he describes as a curve—from the beginnings of democracy in antiquity to the zenith of its development, the “moment of democracy” in the period after the Second World War, to the present day where post-democracy sits at the other end of the parabola.
I do not share the view that the idea of the parabola suggests the end of a development. If we had already reached the end of the line with democracy, we would no longer have to talk about saving, developing, or reinforcing it. It makes more sense to me, as Demirović has suggested, to assume a cyclical development in which moments of crisis or renewal are intertwined with political economy. This renewal must take place over and over again so that a new cycle of accumulation can begin at all. It is in this cycle that democracy will experience a new stage of development that will once again form the combat arena between the classes, the preconditions for compromises.
But isn’t there a danger here of an overly deterministic outlook; one that considers that a capitalist crisis will inevitably lead to crisis of democracy?
No, that would also be a deficient way of understanding the connection. Democracy is not automatically dismantled when an economic crisis arises. The context is more complex and contradictory. Under capitalism, the expansion of democracy responds to the necessity of finding compromises between divergent interest groups and social classes. This purpose may be served by a parliament, for example, but only if the interests of the people are plausibly represented there. But if the people successfully organize themselves and actually insist on their right to be asked, to have a say, it can quickly become dangerous for the ruling classes; after all, the people form the majority and can demand to be involved in a more tangible way. But this also leads to counter-movements that—time and again, but not inevitably—rely on authoritarian solutions. Of course, in periods of economic growth generous compromises can also be made from the side of capital, which we saw during the era of Fordism. But conversely, there is also no automatic mechanism that dictates that things become more democratic when things improve economically.
Democracy is also always a question of the movements that have taken up the cause of its implementation and expansion. It appears to me that this is lost in the idea of Crouch’s parabola. There have always been pushes towards democratization, often independent of situations of economic crisis.
Yes, that’s true. For example, in Thailand, where people are imprisoned for 15 years or more for merely criticizing those in power, or simply “disappear”, a music video entitled “Rap Against Dictatorship” appeared at the height of the oppression. It spread rapidly through social media and caught the military government by surprise, like the sound of a new round of democratization. Explanations that only focus on economic factors fall short here. People clearly also strive for freedom in a rather idealistic form; the need not to be brutalized and, as Michel Foucault put it, “not to be governed in such a way” also speaks to something quite uneconomic. The fact that many critical analyses fail to systematically deal with this question definitely also has something to do with the fact that the concept of freedom is occupied “by the other side”.
Johannes Agnoli, whom we have already mentioned, spoke of the “involution” of democracy, which is characterized “not by a desire to assert itself against the old constitutional norms and forms, but by its attempt to try to make use of them”. This sounds very much like today’s patterns: today, authoritarians come to power through elections, “democratically”, so to speak. They appear less often in the guise of military dictatorships or otherwise deviant regimes. What does this say about the way things might go?
This description probably applies more to the world of the OECD than to the Global South. But I would also be wary of generalizing this in Europe and of thinking that a relapse into barbarism, like we saw in the 1930s, is impossible. It is trite to say that history does not repeat itself. But if historical development is open in principle, we shouldn’t disregard the possibility of authoritarian regimes becoming radicalized, leading to excesses of the worst kind, such as we cannot conceive of today. We think that humanity has learned – that humanity had to learn – from Auschwitz. But what if that isn’t the case? Otto Bauer and August Thalheimer, who were already writing about fascism in the 1920s – that is, before it had really started gaining traction – had one central concern: They wanted to warn people of the dangers of failing to take seriously the developments and the leaders in Italy and Germany, who had likely seemed ridiculous at first. We should keep this in mind when we look at Donald Trump and think, it can’t be true that this caricature of a politician was elected at all and should still remain in office. But we should always ask ourselves the question: What if there is something underpinning this phenomenon that we don’t yet understand?
Do you have an answer?
I have to return to Colin Crouch here, because his notion of the parabola of democracy also raises this question: is it possible that we are at a point where our previous assumptions about potential futures no longer apply because the preconditions from which developments arise have radically shifted? What is the significance of China’s rise with its new mode of capitalist development? What does the spread of the internet and social media mean for democratic states? What does it mean when we think about the planetary crisis that is affecting our ecology, climate, and resources, which imposes limits on economic growth and thus also on the possibility of achieving social integration by way of redistribution? Perhaps we don’t yet fully comprehend this epochal situation.
What characterizes the new?
We are dealing on the one hand with authoritarian neoliberalism, which continues to advance, especially at the EU level. Economic rules and a policy of austerity are codified in legal agreements by governing bodies with little democratic legitimacy, and in cases of doubt, such as in Greece, they are enforced through authoritarian means, even if this means going against the express will of the people. However, this European constitutionalism is legitimized by, among other things, the fact that civil rights and liberties and anti-discrimination directives are established at the same time. On the other hand, we are seeing populist movements, like those in Hungary and Poland, gaining approval by verbally opposing the consequences of this neoliberalism. However, this goes hand in hand with right-wing, nationalistic, exclusionary ideologies which, for example, criticize the anti-discrimination principles guaranteed by Europe.
When it comes to authoritarian developments, these days China and Russia are usually the first to be mentioned. There is a lot of truth in this, but it might also be the result of a new dispute over global hegemony. Is a new confrontation between geopolitical blocs emerging?
I’ll get straight to the point with this by asking, who would make up the democratic bloc? The USA and Europe have styled themselves as the defenders of democracy for a long time, but that has always been criticized, and rightly so. In approaching an analysis, one ought to take a closer look. If you do, you’ll see that we’re dealing with a number of varieties of authoritarianism. They take different forms, but there is, however, also a dialogue between them. Since March, the European Union has officially described China as a systemic rival, and of course there are huge differences between the authoritarian constitutionalism of the EU and China. But the logic of the Social Credit System, which is currently being introduced in China and which subjects citizens to an almost totalitarian digital evaluation that rewards good conduct and punishes deviations, can also be seen elsewhere: for example, when a person’s credit rating is reviewed using non-transparent methods and algorithms, when consumer’s digital behaviour is intruded upon, or when mass video surveillance makes every person out to be a potential threat. China is really not that far away. We would only need to take a few small steps. We should keep that in mind.
What role does technological development play for authoritarian regimes today?
A big one. You can go through this with every country in which this development is currently taking place. The consolidation of authoritarian regimes is made possible via the internet: influencing elections and modifying knowledge, for example by using “alternative facts”, control and surveillance, mobilization and emotionalization, manipulating media to systematically produce public spheres that match the needs of domination, and so on.
This is also remarkable because only a few years ago we regarded the internet as a major tool of democratization.
That’s right, but we should be wary of following a “liberal” reading that considers the internet to be an intrinsically good and democracy-promoting entity that is now being manipulated and occupied by evil, state-run, authoritarian actors. Rather, we should take a closer look. Which elements that authoritarian actors are now using for themselves are already implicit in the political economy of the internet, for example? Some internet trolls are simply workers struggling with precarious working conditions, for whom posting “fake news” is a source of income because they can get high numbers of subscribers on their YouTube channel or their site and generate advertising revenue via Google AdSense. This will not be sorted out by banning agitators, but by democratically controlling such platforms and submitting them to social regulation.
In Europe, it is evident that authoritarian dynamics tend to arise more frequently in post-socialist countries. Is this an authoritarian echo of the past? Or does it have something to do with the transformation process that follows the failure of authoritarian socialism?
There is something culturalist in the talk of an authoritarian echo, a defamatory line of thinking: “They are not as good at democracy as we are, because they never really familiarized themselves with it.” This is also often said of societies outside of Europe, but people are quick to forget that Germany, for example, was pretty much the last candidate for forming a functioning democracy after 1945. But one was nevertheless established in the form of the Federal Republic of Germany, and with a very visionary constitution. This was not made possible by the democratic attitude of the people—on the contrary, it was a world-historical combination of circumstances that made democratization possible. When applied to post-socialist countries, this draws attention to the apparently inferior starting conditions for the necessary democratic compromises. Above all, the economic shock therapy of the 1990s proved to be a completely misguided policy.
Authoritarianism, nationalism, post-democracy, the erosion of democracy, de-liberalization, fascism… What would you advise the progressive forces do in the current situation?
If push comes to shove, the democratic institutions that currently exist must be defended. This requires soberly assessing which short-term strategic alliances have to be forged. It’s a difficult balance. We shouldn’t kid ourselves and should be prepared to consider negative, pessimistic scenarios. But at the same time, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to become paralyzed, because it appears to me that the urge to lead a good life and to not allow ourselves to be incapacitated and controlled is universal.
Translation by Louise Pain and Marc Hiatt