27-29 October 2022
University of Bremen

Situating Soft Authoritarianism
Between Geopolitical Complexities and
Everyday Practices

Yisares 2022: Young international Scholars Autumn Research School 2022

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The Topic

The Russian government’s war against Ukraine has exposed multiple dimensions and geopolitical faultlines of contemporary authoritarianisms: The systematic hijacking of state institutions and accumulation of wealth through the extraction and capitalization of gas, oil and coal clearly stand out as indispensable preconditions for Russia’s neo-imperialism and military power. The invasion has been accompanied by the dissemination of state-steered lies, disinformation and ethno-nationalist narratives. The remnants of independent media and the political opposition are threatened by a subordinated judiciary. And on a global scale the acquiescence of China and India to Russia’s invasion indicates bolstered alliances between authoritarian and soft-authoritarian governments. Some pundits predict a geopolitical confrontation between an authoritarian block and seemingly re-consolidated “West”. The reluctance of many postcolonial states to support Ukraine facing this attack by its imperial neighbor contributes to currently emerging geopolitical complexities.

These dynamics pose new challenges for any critical engagement with contemporary forms of authoritarianism, which range from fully fledged authoritarian regimes to authoritarian practices within formal liberal democracies. War, securitization and anti-terrorism policies, suppression of movements against social inequalities and inhumane border regimes have time and again brought about violent policing or authoritarian legal and administrative measures also within liberal democracies. However, in past years, we have witnessed an increased dismantling of democracy from within. In a number of countries, such as Turkey, Poland, Hungary or India democratically elected politicians have managed to erode democratic principles, practices and institutions. They attack independent media and put immense effort into bringing courts under their political control. They meddle with constitutional law to impede procedures of accountability and dismantle fundamental human and citizens’ rights and freedoms, to inhibit effective political participation and a functioning opposition. Often these shifts are accompanied by discursive practices variably discrediting migrants, sexual or religious minorities and political opponents. Gradually but systematically the rules of the political game are changed to secure the power of authoritarian governments and leaders, while maintaining a democratic façade.

The Autumn Research School

During this autumn school we will take the emerging geopolitical complexities as entry point to explore and situate these forms of soft authoritarian government anew. We ask whether the current geopolitical situation impedes a further shift towards political rhetoric and interventions hollowing out democratic procedures and institutions. Or does it perhaps offer new opportunities for the tacit introduction of more authoritarian legislation, the mobilization of hate speech and the militarization of public life? What forms of transnational networks and relations of authoritarianisms can we observe?

In different thematic modules we will examine some of the legal, administrative, discursive and digital practices with which democracy is undermined in detail. We will look at how illiberal discourses are normalized, institutions hijacked, laws rewritten, and zones of exception created. We will ask in which way these practices and discourses really manage to cover up their authoritarian intentions and deceive their citizens? And, finally, we will explore the forms and scales of violence hereby engendered.

Throughout the whole autumn school, we will also revisit the different concepts that have been developed to examine the recent conjuncture of populist, anti-liberal and authoritarian trends inside nominal democracies. Do we still dispose of the right vocabulary to analytically dissect the contemporary moment? Or do we need to adjust our conceptual and methodological toolset to make sense of authoritarianisms in exacerbated geopolitical complexities?

Confirmed Speakers

Hayal Akarsu (Utrecht University)

Evren Balta (Özyeğin University)

Darren Byler (Simon Fraser University)

Éric Fassin (Université Paris VIII Vincennes – Saint-Denis)

John Keane (University of Sydney/ WZB Berlin)

Seraphine F. Maerz (Goethe University Frankfurt)

Svitlana Matviyenko (Simon Fraser University)

Shalini Randeria (Central European University)

Ranabir Samaddar (Calcutta Research Group)

Yatun Sastramidjaja (University of Amsterdam)

Kristóf Szombati (Humboldt University Berlin)

Renata Uitz (Central European University)

The Organizers

The Young International Scholars Autumn Research School is organized by the Research Group “Soft Authoritarianisms” at the U Bremen Excellence Chair Prof. Dr. Shalini Randeria, the U Bremen Research Project “Datenpolitiken und Autoritarismus: Digitale Verflechtungen und demokratische (Un-)-Möglichkeiten”, the Research Training Group “Contradiction Studies” and the Collaborative Research Platform “Worlds of Contradiction” (WoC) at the University of Bremen. It is funded by the University of Bremen and WoC.

Dates and Online Format

Due to the unforeseeable development of the COVID-19 and possible travel restrictions in autumn 2022 the research school will be held as an online event. The programme is divided into five modules on three consecutive days: 27-29 October 2022.

Due to the generous funding by the interdisciplinary research platform Worlds of Contradiction (WoC) and the University of Bremen, participation will be free of charge.

Check the schedule

Thursday, 27 October 2022

Welcome & Introduction

Short break before Module 1

Module 1

Keynote and Seminar: Flexibility as ‘Soft Authoritarian’ Technique

Soft authoritarian rule is characterized by a cunning way of combining democratic and authoritarian techniques of government. Elections are held, constitutions rewritten, inspection committees and reforms implemented, while power is centralized, media and opposition harassed, and the rule of law undermined. Often, these regimes are therefore regarded as in transition: either as not-yet democratic or in terms of democratic backsliding. But, what does it mean to understand these modes of soft authoritarian government in their own right, as modes of governing which flexibly combine authoritarian, illiberal and democratic legal and administrative practices? John Keane argues that these “new despotisms”, as he calls them, “strive to be flexible”. They have the skill to pragmatically adapt to and learn from crisis. This makes them particularly resilient and durable. Elaborating on different empirical cases, this module aims at taking a closer look at flexibility and adaptability as specific to these forms of government. It provides both an introduction to the key conceptual approaches and addresses the concrete practices of these “learning despotisms”, while also asking what they mean for envisaging change and opposition.

Speaker: John Keane (University of Sydney / WZB Berlin)

Chair: Ulrike Flader (University of Bremen)

Coffee Break and Virtual Networking on the Weser Riverbank

Module 2

Panel Discussion: Soft Authoritarianism in Geopolitical Complexities

In this public opening event four panelists will reflect on the effects of Russia’s war against Ukraine on soft authoritarian governments and tendencies. On the one hand, they will address geopolitical consequences: In which way has the war shifted the strategic position of countries such as Turkey, India, Poland and Hungary? What new geopolitical alignments and alliances between soft authoritarian and authoritarian governments can be observed? And which critical insights can we gain by scrutinizing the discursive opposition between authoritarianism and democracy fiercely enforced by some Western actors from a postcolonial perspective? On the other hand, the panelists will exemplarily examine the domestic consequences of these geopolitical shifts: How does the war affect soft authoritarian agendas in Hungary, India or Turkey? Do the intensified geopolitical tensions offer new opportunities to push forward rightwing policies, the militarization of public life or the promotion of hate speech in political discourse? Or might new alignments and risks on the international level in some cases rather slow down the authoritarian transformation?

Panelists: Evren Balta (Özyeğin University), Ranabir Samaddar (Calcutta Research Group), Renata Uitz (Central European University)

Chair: Shalini Randeria (Central European University & U Bremen Excellence Chair)

Friday, 28 October 2022

Module 3

Roundtable and Seminar: Dissecting Violence in Soft Authoritarian Contexts

Violence has a somehow concealed presence in soft authoritarianism. In general, it is not a military coup or a full-scale revolution that mark the starting point of this form of governance. Soft authoritarian politicians win democratic elections instead, often with large majorities. Still, their policies and discursive strategies enact ‘dark’ political sentiments, the exposure and exclusion of ‘dangerous others’ and the militarization or securitization of public space. Violence is therefore not absent, but rather rendered invisible or laundered by the shift of discursive norms, the introduction of new legal framings or the extension of powers of state agencies. Above, violence is often directed to the margins of society: to migrants, ethnic or sexual minorities. The current counter-example of Russia as a full-scale authoritarian state deploying its military violence in an attack on its neighbor will be taken as an entry point to clarify and dissect the various faces and specific forms of violence in soft authoritarian contexts.

Speakers: Hayal Akarsu (Utrecht University), Kristóf Szombati (Humboldt University Berlin)

Chair: Jens Adam (University of Bremen)

Lunch Break

Peer-to-Peer Session on Participants’ Current Research

Saturday, 29 October 2022

Module 4

Keynote and Seminar: Discursive Practices of Soft Authoritarianism

In many democratic countries, soft authoritarian actors have mastered the art of manipulating the public discourse and even setting the government’s agenda by using discursive strategies and destructive rhetoric. Their toolbox includes various detrimental practices like spreading lies and misinformation, hate speech and ad-hominem attacks on the political opponent. The normalization of racist ideologies, vilification of emancipatory projects and reactionary responses to global and national challenges are part and parcel of the authoritarian backlash against liberal democratic rule. Successfully determining the topic and tone of public debate, soft authoritarian actors establish fruitful ground for growing mistrust in liberal elites and established political parties. Thus, they effectively exploit as well as further fuel a crisis of political representation. In this module, we will focus on the strategic use of language, political rhetoric and discursive practices in soft authoritarian attacks on public discourse and their corrosive effect on democratic legitimacy. In this module, we will focus on the strategic use of language, political rhetoric and discursive practices in soft authoritarian attacks on public discourse and their corrosive effect on democratic legitimacy.

Speaker: Éric Fassin (Université Paris VIII Vincennes – Saint-Denis)

Chair: Hagen Steinhauer

Lunch Break

Module 5

Keynote and Seminar: Exploring Digital Power in Soft Authoritarianism

In digital times, we are facing emerging challenges and urgencies in political and everyday lifeworlds. These include growing digital power in/as soft-authoritarian modes that contribute in different ways to the ongoing undermining of democracies. Both in Europe and in various countries around the world, authoritarian governments and actors draw on a plethora of digital technologies, spaces, and practices. They strive for more flexibility and durability in their social, informational, infrastructural and geopolitical power, while reconfiguring the digitally mediated infrastructures, relations and practices of the political. In this module, we will focus on the digitally enabled and expanded modes and data politics of soft authoritarianism(s). How are sophisticated digital tools and spaces employed as a means of manipulating democratic cultures and structures? In what ways do these tools and spaces give governments a soft hand for covering up authoritarian continuities and scaling up targeted injustices and violence digitally and/or algorithmically? What are the emerging data politics and strategies for counterdata politics in soft authoritarian contexts? We will also discuss fluid transitions between authoritarian, illiberal, and liberal democratic politics with data, and their non-soft and dark consequences for and within the interrelated digital worlds and possible democratic futures.

Speakers: Darren Byler (Simon Fraser University), Seraphine F. Maerz (Goethe University Frankfurt), Svitlana Matviyenko (Simon Fraser University), Yatun Sastramidjaja (University of Amsterdam)

Chair: Nurhak Polat

Coffee Break

Final Discussion, Follow-up and Farewell