Democracies Under Pressure. Authoritarianism, Repression, Struggles

Table of contents


Passerelle n°22

, by Rédaction

It seems a fairly unanimous assessment that for several decades, social struggles and solidarity movements have had to take a defensive stance rather than one of progress or of conquering new rights. Even in regions of the world that seemed a source of hope for rights and liberties, there has been a painful retreat: after the rising “pink tide” of the 2000s in Latin America, the subcontinent has experienced a conservative and (extreme) right-wing ebb; Arab Springs have not brought their hoped-for social progress. Everywhere democracy seems to be in retreat, to be under threat, to default on its promises of political equality and guaranteed liberties. On the contrary, authoritarian, conservative governments, “populist” or far-right, are on the rise; those who fight for a fairer world increasingly subjected to violence by the State’s repressive apparatus. Undeniably, from a global perspective, democracies are under pressure.

Much ink has been spilled regarding the concept of democracy. How can it be defined? And what criteria define a regime as more or less democratic? Without returning to issues exhaustively discussed by political scientists, the so-called “liberal” democracies of today may be characterized by certain key elements: a guarantee of human rights and fundamental liberties, a legal system limiting the power of political deciders, the pursuit of the general interest through majority rule, and alternation in the exercise of power with representatives elected on the principle of one citizen / one vote. This established, many contradictions remain, even at the conceptual level: representative vs. direct democracy, political vs. economic democracy, formal democracy vs. informal democratic practices... A fortiori, the contradictions in the implementation of the idea of democracy are many and varied. In this increasingly difficult context for social and ecological movements, new concepts attempt to arise to collectively name unsatisfactory situations: democracy in crisis, democratorship (Potemkin democracies, halfway between democracy and dictatorship), soft dictatorship, shrinking democratic spaces...

This issue of the Passerelle collection has no intention of entering into theoretical debates as to what democracy is or is not. Rather, it takes as its starting point the multiplication of social movements over several years, the global expression of a genuine malaise regarding how our societies are organized, and the increased repression confronting them. Fundamental human rights and freedoms (of expression, association, demonstration, the press) are increasingly under attack, and collective expression increasingly restricted and stifled. We must take stock of the obstacles and limits confronting movements: analyzing them will facilitate surmounting them and reestablishing spaces from which a more just and sustainable world may be constructed.

The subject is vast: we had to pick and choose the themes to be examined in this publication. It seemed unavoidable to begin with economic issues in relation to democratic processes, as this has been at the heart of social conflict over the past decade. Occupy Wall Street versus bank bailouts, Gilets Jaunes for fiscal justice, Chilean protests triggered by increased public transportation fares and ending in the declaration of the death of neoliberalism [1]... The difficulty of concretely influencing policies toward greater redistribution and social justice is palpable; neither advocacy nor social movements seem capable of influencing the decisions taken by heads of State, as though the increased power of multinational corporations had supplanted political power, “dispossessed” of its decision-making ability. To consider democracy in 2021 necessarily involves examining the relationship between private interests and political power: the neoliberal trope of presenting the economic dimension as independent because it is “technical” and “apolitical” must be fundamentally challenged. The various contributions to the first part of this publication attempt to provide some answers to the question of the relationship between political sovereignty and globalized capitalism.

With the increasingly widespread recognition of economic orientations that do not correspond to the general interest, we are seeing the rise of repression and surveillance in order to maintain an increasingly unjust order. Authoritarianism assumes many guises: criminalization of social movements and activists, even of acts of solidarity, constitutional coups d’état, extraordinary legislation (anti-terrorist or sanitary), expansion and broadcast of far-right ideas and tactics in every society, Internet surveillance and censorship, assassinations of human rights activists... Although the State’s repressive abilities are not new, they are more and more widely deployed as social unrest grows. How else can we understand the increasing recourse to surveillance technologies worthy of the East German Stasi in countries that claim to be democracies? Why is it that officially democratic countries have seen the most human rights activists murdered? From Palestine to Bolivia, from Canada to Brazil, as well as France and Tunisia, the authors of articles in the second part of this publication offer elements of comprehension to better understand the mechanisms that contribute to “locking down” democracy.

But, even in the face of repression and authoritarianism, the struggle does not weaken: it draws itself together anew. The third part of this publication explores modes of resistance emerging in this admittedly stifling context. What new paths must be constructed to reverse the trend, defend ourselves in the face of repression and fight back, organize and progress in achieving rights, impose change and social transformation? Once again, without claiming to have exhausted all possibilities, militants, scholars, and representatives of social organizations lay out several approaches to an answer. Physical, digital, or legal self-defense; abolition of the police; debtors’ unions; municipalism as a way to rebuild democracy from the bottom up... All these practices, initiatives, political horizons, demands, experimentations, that are a sources of hope and inspiration – so that we can open up democratic spaces again, go back on the offensive, re-empower people to build
the world we aspire to...

The coordination of this issue of the Passerelle collection took place in a difficult context, that of the year 2020, marked by the Covid-19 health crisis, with major restrictions in access to public space and face-to-face collective organization. The resulting social and economic crisis threatens to reinforce the mechanisms of maintaining an unjust and violent order upon the majority of citizens. It is all the more urgent to better understand the world in which the struggle is developing in order to adjust individual and collective strategies for winning our new battles.

Passerelle n°22 - Democracies Under Pressure. Authoritarianism, Repression, Struggles

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