The power of dissident solidarity in the rise of ultraliberal authoritarianism


Jean Wyllys | Judith Butler
Dec, 2021

Over the last decade we have witnessed a global resurgence of authoritarianism and the far right. The rise of Trumpism in the United States, Bolsonarism in Brazil, as well as Orbanism in Hungary and the consolidation of Putin’s power in Russia all show that the period of liberal politics following the fall of the Berlin Wall is drawing to a close. This period has brought with it two significant cultural transformations. On the one hand, there has been a growing and inclusive process of recognising and defending civil rights and marginalised groups, expanding beyond the traditional lines of social class to include race and gender. On the other hand, technology has been thoroughly incorporated into daily life, paving the way for globalisation and shaping ambivalent socio-technological environments—in terms of control and emancipation—which have widened the gap between the worry-free wealthy and the marginalised poor.

From a critical perspective, the warnings voiced in the 70s and 80s that the wellbeing of wealthy countries was being financed outside their borders through the exploitation of poor nations were insufficient, or ignored, nor was there any truth to arguments in the 90s which defended the need for “another” globalisation. Even the warnings of the 21st century went unheeded, when people started to point out the dangerous levels of speculation in the global financial system and the technocratisation of politics, which brought about a long period of public austerity coupled with record-breaking profits for banks and corporations. This all brings us to a present moment in which, now that history’s lessons have been ignored, we are seeing the emergence of a worldwide, reactionary and nostalgic far right movement which aims to restore an impossible, irrecoverable sense of global identity.

Photo_ Colores-Mari_ CC BY 2.0

The inconvenient questions of migration and sexual diversity

A cursory analysis of various current far-right movements reveals that one of their common denominators is anti-feminist discourse and a defense of the heteronormative monopoly on morality. There is an underlying fear that acceptance of LGBTQ+ movements will mean the destruction of the nation, the nuclear family, and even humanity itself, collectively perceived as bowing down to the patriarchal figure of the man. Identifying a group of social movements as demonic and destructive demonstrates the very essence of fascism, as these groups must be wiped out, destroyed or driven outside the borders of the nation.

There is a similar rhetoric surrounding migration, according to which Western civilisation is under threat from the invasion of barbaric peoples. This fear, along with the desire to protect the spiritual heart of the nation, is used as a justification for closing borders, as well as expelling and subjugating migrant people through indefinite detention in internment centres. The objective is the same: preventing what is seen as an impure and destructive force from entering the political core of the nation. These practices of indefinite detention and an ideology rooted in superiority, which are aimed primarily at Arab and Muslim identities, are grimly reminiscent of the dehumanisation suffered by Jewish people in the mid-20th century. These groups of people, along with many others, are considered corrosive elements which must be annihilated, hidden or detained indefinitely. The resulting message is clear: the nation must be purified.

All of this is occurring against a backdrop of neoliberal consolidation, from which not even fights against injustice can completely escape. The more anarcho-reactionary personalities such as Elon Musk are willing and able to finance coups d’etats and anti-democratic governments in countries of strategic business interest, the more socially complex the struggles against their domination become. Neoliberal logic, founded as it is on triumphant individualism, constantly attempts to appropriate the world’s transformative forces. Its cunning lies specifically in disrupting the organisation of social processes, absorbing and thus neutralising any struggle which seeks to enact widespread change. This constant threat also generates a dangerous feedback loop between emancipatory and reactionary dynamics.

There are clear faults in how basic needs such as housing, healthcare, employment and food security are managed on a social level. We are witnessing the literal, physical destruction of the world we live in, which in turn injects our society with feelings of confusion and frustration. Instead of explicitly identifying and naming the root of this terror and imminient destruction, the far right singles out racial and sexual minorities, gender dissidents and progressive forces as the perpetrators of an attack, and in doing so, they distract attention from climate collapse. That is, when they do not openly deny its effects outright.

If what we want is to prevent authoritarianism from advancing further, as democratic and antifascist forces, we should not limit ourselves to merely questioning the mechanisms of these large platforms, nor should we wallow in nostalgia for a pre-digital world. Our task is much more difficult: we need to promote critical reflection, push people out of their intellectual vacuum and take on responsibility as political entities in our own right.

In places like Brazil we have seen how the dismantling of social services through neoliberal government and the rise of a virulently homophobic, transphobic and antifeminist far right have been accompanied by the advance of the conservative evangelist movement, which has gradually displaced liberation theology and other forms of Christianity. The nuclear family is vaunted as the only space in which social structures are stable and solid, with masculinity and patriarchy seated at the head of the table. This model comes into conflict with new family structures which have become increasingly common over the last few decades. This includes gay and lesbian families, queer childraising practices, genderfluid identities among younger people, and so on. There are feminists raising their children out of wedlock, or refusing to raise children at all. There are more and more people choosing to end their marriages, or who are choosing new forms of connection which can be more complex, or less complex, involving a greater, or smaller, number of people. All these new forms of family are perceived as a threat to traditional family structures. Obviously this is not the case, but they certainly call into question the supposed universality and preeminence of patriarchal power, which asserts structural and financial dominance over the nuclear family through heteronormativity.

Digital platforms and the exploitation of base instincts

The rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930s was made possible by the advent of mass communications technology, and our current political cycle is closely tied to developments in the very same field. Our relationship to the internet is completely mediated by social networks and the conglomerate corporations that control them. These platforms determine the relationships that we have in these contexts by playing to our most base instincts and urges: anger, fear, insecurity, anxiety, and so on. This strategy is rooted in the total exploitation of neurochemical processes which lead us to seek out more and more stimulus, and to spend more and more time on social media looking for that next “rush” of endorphins.

The more time we spend online, the more susceptible we become to the advertising slotted in between the pieces of digital content we consume. Digital advertising is the driving force behind these large platforms and keeps them in business. In a markedly neoliberal context, the business model of these platforms is guided by profits which are extracted from the exploitation of our base instincts, and not from the political and social consequences of this extraction. They are, after all, private companies first and foremost. Shoshana Zuboff refers to this as “surveillance capitalism” because, in addition to exploiting our emotions and passions, it puts us in a permanent state of being connected, and of being surveilled by corporate agents who aim to commercialise our personal information and saturate our digital lives with commercial stimuli.

This environment has enabled the ascent of populists to positions of power, as they base their rhetoric on exacerbating these same instincts and urges. In his last book, Moses and Monotheism, Freud poses the question of whether democracies can be intermittent: why are there no permanent, perennial democratic systems? Why are there more autocracies, theocracies and authoritarian regimes in the world than there are democracies? Freud looks for answers in the individual, and finds them in processes of identification. We cannot forget that Bolsonaro, like Trump and Orban, were all democratically elected. There is something in far-right rhetoric that calls into question certain aspects of subjectivity and the human psyche, making the masses adopt and adhere to their ideas. The advance of authoritarianism is closely connected to the use of nationalist rhetoric, as well as the growth of the most fundamentalist strains of major monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Via subjective processes of identification, people relinquish or transfer their individual responsibility to a Father, a God, a political leader, a patriarch: always to the myth of a higher authority.

If what we want is to prevent authoritarianism from advancing further, as democratic and antifascist forces, we should not limit ourselves to merely questioning the mechanisms of these large platforms, nor should we wallow in nostalgia for a pre-digital world. Our task is much more difficult: we need to promote critical reflection, push people out of their intellectual vacuum and take on responsibility as political entities in our own right. This work must be based on two strategic foundations: identifying the underlying causes of precarity and creating alliances rooted in solidarity and radical hope. We must build a transnational network, following principles which provide an alternative to neoliberalism.

Solidarity and dissidence

Capitalist accumulation of wealth and financial speculation destroy lives, creating debt for people who are chronically unable to pay, and who therefore live in a permanent state of subjugation. As a result of the growth in precarity and temporary work becoming the norm, employment has ceased to guarantee a decent wage or any form of social security. Social protections against hunger, illness and homlessness in supposedly “developed” countries have been weakened by the extraction of social wealth, carried out by an elite who only grow richer and richer. For this elite class of people, exploitation of the Global South no longer provides the resources needed to support the middle classes of the Global North. Corporate attacks on syndicates and unions have undermined the ability to defend and support workers’ rights, and the sense of precarity has only intensified. To this we can add the now undeniable climate crisis, the effects of which can be seen wherever we look. People feel hunger lurking at their backs, growing closer and closer.

Photo_ Hossam el Hamalawy_ CC BY 2.0

Taking all this into account, it is vital that dissidence be accompanied by processes of coordination. We need to be able to name and clearly identify the roots of precarity, the true threats to life. How can we do this? By calling out necropolitics, which takes the side of big business and private interests in any conflict between capital and our very own lives. We cannot limit ourselves to simply denying and rejecting the absurd accusations spat out by the far right; we must recognise the fear of life-threatening precarity, challenge it and offer responses. It is impossible to deny that the means of production, health, shelter and ways of life of the majority of people are being destroyed, but neoliberalism remains an abstract concept which seems very distant from the everyday lives of many people. It is our duty to bring it to the awareness of the general public, and to draw attention to its social and economic workings, which cause so many people to live as prisoners of fear and panic.

Compassion will have to play a significant role in all this work. It is essential that we recognise our fear of destruction as something real and legitimate, and as something very human that we all share. On the other hand, there is an undeniable trend towards perpetuating certain privileges within social movements, and we have to keep this in mind and be prepared to have difficult, complex and potentially confrontational discussions. Conflict can be exhausting, but we all stand to gain a lot from focussed discussion of these matters. Only conflict and dissidence can question the status quo, and thus encourage social change.

If we recall the process through which Black feminism reached its central position in academic debates and contemporary social movements, we can see that this was achieved through confrontation, specifically by confronting white privilege. It is therefore important to develop collective strategies for managing conflict, and in a more individual sense we need to be ready to be confronted, and to listen when our problematic behaviours, however unconscious they may be, are pointed out. As subjects of privilege, we must be open to being challenged and accept it as an opportunity to learn, without letting defensiveness be our default reaction. Solidarity is not just the product of contact between different identities, we need to willingly surrender to the mutual transformation that this dialogue implies. This is what will create long-lasting solidarity.

There is a dangerous account of the developments of recent decades as a linear timeline, in which each progressive movement supplants the previous movement and rejects its principles, thus raising the bar of what can be considered truly progressive or feminist. First there was feminism, then gay and lesbian liberation movements, next the queer movement, and then transfeminism. However, our real story is one of difficult and necessary coalitions between overlapping communities and movements which, now more than ever, need to find ways of working together through networks built on solidarity. We should remember that consensus is not essential for solidarity, and that solidarity is not always beautiful: often it necessarily entails anger and strife.

Our current moment highlights the necessity of alliances rooted in solidarity, and there is a very clear reason for this which we cannot lose sight of: Neo-Fascism. We believe it is important to call this phenomenon—fascism—by name because it does not just attack some distant thing called “gender ideology”; its attack is baked into a virulent and apologist defence of traditional values, of the heteronormative family and patriarchal power, not just on a personal, household level, but at the level of public policy. If we look at, for example, the right wing antifeminist movement, attacks are not only levelled at women’s sexual liberty and reproductive rights, but they are also, simultaneously, aimed at same-sex marriage and trans rights. They are aimed at workers and at the rights of indigenous people to make sovereign decisions regarding shared wealth. They are trying to repeal progressive laws in order to restore a social order which, in their eyes, has been destroyed by progressive, dissident forces. It is not a reaction, it is a process of restoration. They want everything to go “back in its place”, and not just on a legislative level: they want to force political and sexual dissidence back into the closet, to close community centres and criminalise or pathologise new forms of social organisation, in the public as much as in the private sphere.

Conflict can be exhausting, but we all stand to gain a lot from focussed discussion of these matters. Only conflict and dissidence can question the status quo, and thus encourage social change.

Accordingly, now is not the time for transphobia to step forward as the champion of feminism. A feminism which discriminates, and which accepts or promotes inequality is not feminism. Nobody is safe: you might not consider yourself to be a dissident, but under fascism someone will make that decision for you. Anyone feeling a violent impulse to do so could attack you in the street, simply because they thought that you were not abiding by the parameters traditionally assigned to your gender. In light of this, the feminist movement’s defense of the rights of women is also the movement to defend gay people, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people and anyone else who has a dissident gender identity. These struggles are all connected by a common set of aforementioned enemies.

Diverse identities and shared goals

Feminism is defined by solidarity across sex, race and national borders. Its strength lies in the ability of all people to connect to this space without leaving behind their own identities. It is not easy to move forward side by side with different political allies but it is our only option if we are to fight this new fascism, which is rooted in white supremacy, hypernationalism, devastation of the Earth by large corporations and the “freedom” to attack other members of society. The mobilisation needed to confront all of this must be built around a solidarity which is continually expanding.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about what is referred to as “identity politics” which, according to some people, provokes infighting within progressive movements and undermines the left’s real objective, which should ultimately always be focussed on class and capitalism. From this perspective, identity politics is seen as superfluous, but what it seems to ignore is that there is already a preexisting feminist critique of capitalism. There are feminist strikes, as well as a long tradition of Marxist feminism which has been debating and analysing the role of reproduction labour and care in society from a materialist perspective for decades. We also have feminist queer, gay and lesbian movements which are centred on equallity and freedom, i.e. on the right to live free from violence and discrimination. All of this is to say that the radical aspirations of these social movements, which so many people reduce to being about identity, are in fact nothing more and nothing less than the fundamental pillars of the most basic democracy.

What is necessary is for all the forces that fall within the spectrum of political dissidence—marxists, progressives, queers, and so on—to fight side by side against their common foe. It is within the very space opened up by this struggle that we can put dissidence into practice. The idea of identity politics is being used to consolidate male supremacy’s position at the forefront of left wing politics, and we therefore need to confront difficult decisions and complex but crucial questions at the heart of our solidarity alliance. However, we cannot lose sight of what is undoubtedly the most powerful identity-based movement in the world today: white supremacy, which is the fundamental identity at the core of all current politics. Right now there are ships, armed to the teeth with the most cutting-edge technology that humanity has ever created, patrolling the Mediterranean Sea, repelling fishing boats full of helpless people and turning them away to their deaths. These ships are defending an identity: one that is national, white and European, and they are but part of an entire political project constructed around this identity.

We should be clear what we are referring to when we talk about recognising diverse identities. It is not about trying to fight against heterosexuality, white men, housewives or the nuclear family. What we are trying to do is guarantee the full extent of civil and political rights for all people who do not belong to a hegemonic group. Obviously, in the neoliberal context we find ourselves in, we need to be aware of tactics of appropriation which, through individualism and consumerism, aim to redirect identity to create another source of fodder for their own systems. However, once our conditions are established, we must recognise that declaring and guaranteeing the right for minorities and the less privileged to exist under equal conditions is the only way for us to set aside differences and focus on the same objective: fighting against any and all forms of domination.

Moving from resistance towards the regenerative power of radical hope

An important source of inspiration in coordinating solidarity-based alliances which defend life and a planet under constant threat of subjugation is the struggles of indigenous people. In Ideas to Postpone the End of the World, Ailton Krenack describes how indigenous people have survived the numerous “apocalypses” which they have faced. They have reinvented themselves and resisted, transmitting their knowledge and conserving forests, jungles and flora, as well as their ancestral knowledge. Krenak highlights the need to learn from the resilience of indigenous people.

However, looking back to what we can learn from indigenous peoples does not mean that we can ignore the challenges and opportunities that technology provides. Technology has, in our collective imagination, been hijacked by dystopian forces. We cannot imagine a world without it, because we are cultural and technological creatures, and so we should appropriate this technology and use it to create a worldwide network of solidarity. There is a word which has been used to death by neoliberals, and which we need to re-appropriate for our own ends: globalisation. How can we do this? By respecting our cultural and ideological diversity, while at the same time building a network of international collaboration and solidarity.

Photo_ Dima Bushkov_ CC BY 4.0

We need to invest in public space and develop meeting spaces where, through the arts and secular rituals, we sit down to eat at the same table, in as much of a literal sense as a figurative one. This may sound naïve, but it is not. This is what will save us: destroying the idea of the enemy and of danger. A prerequisite of progress is faith in the possibility of changing and transforming reality. The future cannot exist without hope.

Elsa Dorlin talks about the joy of the strike, of the enormous and unconditional happiness involved in striking. When we talk about eating together, singing, or going on strike, we are talking about something intimately connected to collectivism and to community. These are lavish, luxurious moments rooted in joy and euphoria: the euphoria of saying “no”, at last, to exploitation and extractivism, to the violence which has kept people down for so long. The act of saying “no” together with other people therefore becomes an overwhelming and immensely exciting moment of solidarity. The wild successes of of the Ni Una Menos (Not One More in Spanish, the feminist movement against femicide and violence against women) in Argentina and Latin America and youth movements against climate change are all examples of calls to action which have resulted in collective dissidence. There is a mutual call to rebellion which is being collectively constructed at this point in time, and it is exciting, electrifying, and even joyful.

When a group of Egyptian activists, who had participated in demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo, visited the camp in Zuccotti Park several years ago, the first thing they did was ask about the music. “There’s no music?”, they commented. They went on to explain that “if there’s no music you’re not going to last long… you need joy”. Regenerative joy, experienced with and through other people is an integral component of solidarity. How can we get hundreds of thousands of people out into the street? We need to make it something exciting, inspiring and enthusiastic, but not in a manic or fleeting way. It should be backed up by legislative action and other types of victory, such as the fight for abortion rights in Argentina, or anti-eviction movement in Barcelona. These have, in turn, inspired similar movements across the globe, such as in Oakland, other parts of the United States and Poland.

In spite of all the suffering we are seeing on a global scale and widespread feelings of hopelessness, movements like this can still allow us to feel moments of elation and regenerative joy, strengthening our sense of enthusiasm and mutual incentivisation. This is not about self-gratification, but a sense of harmony and satisfaction that we all can enjoy together. It goes beyond ourselves as individuals, this communal joy, and it needs to be an integral component to the survival of any solidarity movement. It provides the strength we need, and will form the backbone of all the struggles which must unite and join forces if we are to successfully confront Neo-Fascism.

This text is a summary of the ideas resulting from a conversation between the authors as part of the seminar entitled “From Disobedience to Solidarity”, organised by the CCCB (Barcelona Contemporary Cultural Centre).