The Global Rise of Authoritarianism

Authoritarianism was the dominant political form in the pre-constitutional, pre-democratic societies present in the form of monarchy and autocracy. Amongst its proponents were Aristotle and Plato making it a prominent part of the foundational political thought. But what makes it persist amidst other political alternatives in the present times? This reading list explores the evolving trends of authoritarianism across the world.



There has been renewed interest in exploring the nuances of authoritarianism. Earlier perceived as only a transitional paradigm, real-world developments have indicated the exact opposite—that authoritarianism is here to stay and is as dynamic and evolving as any other form of politics.

But authoritarianism cannot be merely treated as a new political category. Stretching as far back as ancient Greece, authoritarianism (the rule of one) was among the three models that featured in Aristotelian categorisations as well with the other two being the rule of the few (oligarchic or feudal), and the many (liberal).

As this 2019 EPW article by Kamal Mitra Chenoy explains, 

“The strategy of mobilising people on the basis of economic and cultural anxiety, and constructing identity-based nationalism to gain power is described variously as majoritarian nationalism, populist authoritarianism or right-wing populism (RWP).”

 As per the Freedom House project’s Freedom in the World 2021 report, 2020 saw a sharp acceleration in the global decline of democracy. By their analysis, “fewer than a fifth of the world’s population now live in fully free countries.” This pattern counters many experts (such as Francis Fukuyama) who had made strong predictions of the flourishing of liberal democracies in the 21st century. The political alternative presented by democracy has been actively contested by many, with the argument that the development of the modern state has not proportionally resulted in a flourishing of democratic institutions, resulting in the delegitimisation of this political form, and subsequently, the declining public trust in it.  

Authoritarianism can be understood as a principle of blind submission to authority. In government, authoritarianism denotes any political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or a small elite that is not responsible to the people. Authoritarian leaders tend to exercise power arbitrarily, with no regard for constitutional norms and morality. 

Why Study Authoritarianism?

Understanding authoritarianism better can help us navigate the “social phenomena such as ethnocentricism, prejudice and intergroup hostility” (Stellmacher and Petzel 2005). Authoritarian regimes have often been linked to xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. Many scholars believe that investigating authoritarianism can help us better analyse group social behaviours.

Michel Foucault similarly argued, “what makes the domination of a group caste, or a class, together with the resistance and revolts which the domination comes up against, a central phenomenon in the history of societies is that they manifest in a massive and universalizing form, at the level of the whole social body, the locking together of power relation with relations of strategy and the results proceeding from their interaction.”

Many psychologists and sociologists have also unmasked why some citizens display unwavering obedience to authority.  For instance, Wilhelm Reich, explained in his book, ‘The Mass Psychology of Fascism’  how fascists and authoritarians come into power through their political and ideologically oriented sexual repression on the popular masses. He further explained how the fascist movement feeds upon authoritarian patriarchal social structures. Similarly, in Eric Fromm’s work, amid all the insecurities that the modern world has to offer, authoritarianism is described as a “mechanism of escape.”

Networked Authoritarianism
Digital platforms, once created for free speech purposes, are instead said to have helped authoritarian states to surveil, track and control their populations as well. These platforms are used for intelligence services. Thus, the digital becomes the new political, protecting and maintaining authoritarian stability.

In the Indian context, during the COVID-19 pandemic surveillance became a common phenomenon. As Kritika Bhardwaj wrote in her 2020 article, "Digital Surveillance Systems to Combat COVID-19 May Do More Harm Than Good," 

“The most notable of such digital interventions has been the creation of Aarogya Setu, a contact-tracing application being used to identify who a user interacted with in order to warn them in case the user tests positive for the infection. States have also taken to widespread deployment of drones in several cities to enforce quarantine measures as well as the lockdown itself. However, evidence suggests that these interventions may only end up ramping up surveillance without achieving any of their stated objectives.”

In countries with long-established democracies, internal forces have exploited the shortcomings of their systems, distorting national policies to promote hatred, violence, and unbridled power. Today’s authoritarianism, often occurring within democracies of both developed and developing countries, develop authoritarian-populist features—a style of government that fuses personal leadership with conservative nationalism. Faced with deep insecurities, people trust authoritarian regimes not only to give them a sense of nationalism but also to secure them against all the challenges they are encountering.

As Shweta Singh contends in her EPW article titled "Authoritarian Populism, Illiberal Democracy and the Making of an Economic Crisis: The Case of Sri Lanka:

“There is a need to pay greater attention to the surge of this particularistic populist poli­tics, most evident in Eastern and Central Europe and now in South Asia, which can be classified as authoritarian populism.” 

Causes of Spread of Authoritarianism
According to the Freedom House Report, 2021,  2020 saw a sharp decline of democracies. Less than a fifth of the world’s population now lives in fully free countries. This is part of a larger trend of democratic decline and rising authoritarianism that has been underway across the globe for the last 30 years.

James Manor explains in his article, "A New, Fundamentally Different Political Order: The Emergence and Future Prospects of ‘Competitive Authoritarianism’ in India" that the present political order in India is fundamentally different. 

“Because the new order seeks to create a one-man government, with adulation focused on a single leader, it is more a cult than a well-rooted and institutionalised system. Its long-term survival, after the leader moves away from the scene, is open to serious doubt.

Some commons threads that can be observed in the spread of authoritarianism across the globe are:

(a) The excess of globalisation, the excess of capitalism and the creation of exploding inequalities, are believed to have resulted in the loss of jobs and income. Also, globalisation is popularly perceived to be encroaching upon the local identities. This helps authoritarian rulers to promote authoritarianism, creating an illusion of a threat from the outside. Nigel Harris sharply contends in his 2016 article, "On Refugee Migrations: Xenophobia in the Era of Globalisation"

“The apparent irrationality of governments is compounded by the extraordinary costs of maintaining control of movement. The bureaucracy, border controls and policing, internment camps and courts, in sum, is a system of pure state parasitism, with no useful outcomes but heavy costs imposed on anyone who travels. The fantasy rationale is that borders exist to protect citizens from an army of threats, from bugs to jihadists (and the media loyally concentrates on how terrible the abroad is). But, borders do not protect. They are irrelevant in a world of intercontinental and space missiles, of clandestine circulation of narcotics, goods and people” (Harris 2016).

Further, he notes, all these manifestations “aspire to a new illiberal model of the state: authoritarian, with tight state control of the media, toleration of expanded police powers, prisons, torture, severely limited human and civil rights, tight control of migration, etc” (Harris 2016).

(c) Technology platforms often serve as the perfect vehicles for disinformation and surveillance. As Ruchi Gupta quips in her 2022 article called "Politics of Disinformation: Limitations of the Current Approaches and Possible Paths Forward:"

“Making virality instead of quality the primary determinant of a source’s credibility and/or a piece of content’s importance has eroded the distinction between vetted information, propaganda and misinformation in the minds of the user.”

(d) During the pandemic, authoritarianism discovered new ways to strengthen itself with brutal lockdowns, suppression of political opposition, and extra-constitutional measures. As Sohinee Sengupta remarked in her 2020 article for  EPW, 

“Rousing calls for compliance, obedience, neighbourhood surveillance and punitive action, beyond the scope of epidemic control, creates justification for authoritarianism.”

According to the Freedom House report, authoritarian regimes have become more effective at co-opting or circumventing the norms and institutions meant to support basic liberties. On similar lines, Anil Kumar Vaddiraju analyses in his article, "Modernity and Democracy in India Superimposition on a Thin Economic Base:" 

“The state’s lack of commitment towards modern and rational institutions puts even formal democracy in peril. While this may not take place blatantly, the undermining of democracy by authori­tarian populism is for all to see. Thus, the economic basis produces a superstructure which, in turn, keeps the economy continuing in its identitarian backwardness.”

Critique of Authoritarianism

As Ajay Gudavarthi wrote in his 1996 article, "Marxism, Authoritarianism and Peoples Movements,"

“It is only through a multi-faceted and pluralist attack upon localised practices of repression that any global challenge to an authoritarian system.” 

Similarly, Nirmalangshu Mukherji has predicted the threats that authoritarianism can potentially present to the modern polis, Nirmalangshu Mukherji has predicted in his article, "Is the Ghost of Fascism Haunting Political Thought?" that 

“As long as this regime is allowed to operate without significant resist from the ground, it will cause further erosion to democracy and the justice system, while increasing the attack on the livelihood of the unorganised poor.”

As this 2002 EPW commentary, "Turning the Indifferent to Anger" describes the indifference of the citizens to the state’s iron-clad grip on every part of society, “The majority are indifferent and obey orders – not measuring what they are ordered to do against what they are morally supposed to do. They are no longer citizens but passive instruments of the state machine.” 

Hannah Arendt had shared similar anxieties with this form of polity, by stating,  “Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest—forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries.”

Through these investigations, we have tried to explain the contours of authoritarianism, its rise and the sociopolitical context that surrounds it, and it is through them that we can begin to search for alternatives to this political form, which has been present throughout history.


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