Why is authoritarianism rising, and what can be done about it?
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A review of: Pranab Bardhan, A World of Insecurity: Democratic Disenchantment in Rich and Poor Countries, Harvard University Press, 2022.
By John Harris
It is widely acknowledged that democracy is in retreat across most of the world. The Varieties of Democracy Report (V-Dem), published from the University of Gothenburg in 2022, reported that “The last 30 years of democratic advances are now eradicated. Dictatorships are on the rise and harbour 70 per cent of the world’s population”. This figure, for the population of countries that are considered either ‘electoral autocracies’ or ‘closed autocracies’, was found to be up from 49 per cent in 2011. Though there are different ways of understanding and measuring democracy and autocracy there is no doubt about the extent of ‘democratic backsliding’. What has been involved has been the whittling away of critical elements of liberal democracy, rather than anti-democratic coups. A trend in point is the finding by V-Dem that in 2021 as many as 35 countries suffered from a decline in freedom of expression.
The economist Pranab Bardhan has long ranged beyond his discipline in asking questions about social and political change. In his bold new book he explains the rise of authoritarianism, in many cases driven, as he says, by populist demagogues – leaders who claim to embody the popular will and who, though they may emerge in formal democracies, then trample upon the rules and institutions of representative government. He subsequently presents a strong defence of democracy against ‘the temptation of authoritarianism’ represented by China, before proceeding to develop an argument - addressing the question ‘what is to be done’ - for the rejuvenation of social democracy.
Bardhan is far from starry-eyed, however, about the possibilities of progressive change. He devotes one chapter to the challenge posed by ethnic nationalism in many countries, and another to the dangers of the slide to majoritarianism in democracies, as has happened in India. While aware of the virtues of decentralisation and of the possibilities for local deliberative democracy, he is forthright about the dangers of localism, such as arise from control by local bosses prioritizing their own interests. He ends the book with a quotation from Rabindranath Tagore, “As I look around I see the crumbling ruins of a proud civilization strewn like a vast heap of futility. And yet I shall not commit the grievous sin of losing faith in Man.”
It is easy indeed to be pessimistic about the current state of the world, but a different state of affairs has first to be imagined if the consolidation of authoritarian rule, even of totalitarianism, are to be averted. This is what Bardhan attempts. Yet readers may find that his own analysis makes it hard to discern a route to the realisation of his ideas for the renewal of democracy. There was a moment during the pandemic, when a head of steam for change seemed possible – the moment that the anthrop0logist Don Kalb refers to as that of ‘enlightenment egalitarianism’ . But as Kalb argues, the moment may well have passed, as the forces of finance capital have reasserted themselves and threaten the renewal of austerity.
Bardhan’s analysis of the rise of authoritarianism is grounded in the dominance of finance capital over the last forty years – though he doesn’t develop the argument - and the ‘grotesque’ rise of inequality that it has brought about. This has, he argues, been damaging to democracy in both ‘advanced’ and developing economies. But inequality of itself does not explain the turn to authoritarianism and the surge of populism. The causes for these trends are located in widespread economic insecurity, which has eroded the middle classes, but, as some of Bardhan’s critics have argued, it isn’t at all clear that these conditions differ radically now from the late twentieth century.
Bardhan’s answer to this criticism is to argue that as important as economic insecurity is the ‘cultural insecurity’ bound up with it. ‘Status anxiety’ (‘fear of falling’) has been experienced by many, who also fear liberal shifts in values (such as those relating to the heightened status of women). A common response to these anxieties (and the associated sense of victimhood fostered by populist politicians) is to blame liberal elites as well as immigrants and minorities. As, for example, a recent commentary on the Indian media  had it, “India’s insecure, down and out middle class likes to put a face to all its insecurities, fears, anger, resentment and hate – TV channels give them that face, the Muslim”. The most popular TV channels in India also star presenters who vaunt incivility toward the upholders of liberal values and portray them as ‘anti-national’.
These are persuasive, though now familiar arguments, that resonate with analyses by researchers working in Europe and North America. Their work suggests that a tipping point was reached in the second decade of the century, in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the subsequent ineffectual reform of finance capital. These brought a loss of trust in governments and a sense of having reached a dead end, thus creating fertile ground for authoritarian populism. How far these arguments should be generalised is a matter for debate. There are, no doubt, factors that are specific to every case of democratic decline, but Bardhan’s analysis benefits from the parallels that he shows in the contrasted cases he personally knows best – those of India and of the United States.
Bardhan locates underlying causes of the rise of authoritarianism in the ways in which capitalism has developed. He goes on, however, to advocate not a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, as the means of overcoming authoritarianism, but rather its regulation and restructuring in the interests of economic and social justice and of undercutting the conditions allowing populist demagogues to flourish. This is what social democracy has always aimed to achieve, and Bardhan goes on to lay out in detail what the policy agenda for social democracy should entail – recognizing, however, that social democratic parties have very widely been in decline, as the strengths that organised labour used to bring to them have been weakened, with the fragmentation of labour markets.
There is only enough space to outline Bardhan’s proposals. He suggests that for its rejuvenation, social democracy must address economic insecurity, through improved, universal, accessible basic health care, education and skill formation, and the provision of basic livelihoods, as perhaps through the introduction of universal basic income (which he has long advocated). The ways in which capitalism works have to be changed through measures that enhance the voice of workers in the governance of firms; that tackle the problem of monopoly power (and the crucial problem of the extent of rentier capitalism - so much on display in India); and that more effectively regulate finance capital and its international mobility. There needs to be reform of public finance to end subsidies that benefit the already wealthy, and the funds that are saved will contribute to the financing of a social democratic programme, along with wealth and inheritance taxes.
So brief an outline does not do justice to Bardhan’s practical policy ideas. The realisation of a programme like this, however, surely requires the deepening of democracy to challenge the privilege and the power of finance capital. It is far from clear where the drive for this is to come from, given the energy behind populism along with the coercive power that populist regimes build up. Bardhan clearly recognises this energy as he seeks to explain it in the early part of his book. The radical sociologist Erik Olin Wright’s case that “Ultimately … the strategy of eroding capitalism depends upon the existence of a web of collective actors anchored in civil society and political parties committed to such a political project” , is undoubtedly accurate, but it seems rather close to the argument of ‘let’s assume a tin-opener’. There are grounds for hope, however, in such developments as the revival of unionism that is happening among ‘gig’ workers in a country such as India, as well as in the United States or in Britain – and in the cracks that appear to be opening in authoritarian populist regimes, such as that of Erdogan’s, following the avoidable tragedy caused by Turkey’s earthquakes. Finally, is there any more effective strategy for the renewal of democracy than one on the lines laid out by Pranab Bardhan?
 Kalb, Don. 2023. ‘Double Devaluations: Class, value and the rise of the right in the global North’, Journal of Agrarian Change 23: 204-19.
Al-Jazeera, on-line, via India Cable Twitter post, February 15, 2023. https://twitter.com/catale7a/status/1625341410412236802?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email
Wright, Erik Olin. 2019. How To Be An Anti-Capitalist in the Twenty First Century, London: Verso, p. 121.
John Harriss is Professor Emeritus of International Studies at Simon Fraser University, and previously taught at the LSE and the University of East Anglia. He has done research in and on India since 1971. Most recent book (with Craig Jeffrey and Trent Brown), India: Continuity and Change in the 21st Century (Polity Press, 2020).
Cite this article as: Harriss, John. March 2023. 'Why is authoritarianism rising, and what can be done about it?' Today's Totalitarianism. https://todaystotalitarianism.com/authoritarianism-rising