Autumn Research School 2022

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