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Authoritarian Moments: Configurations, Forms, and Practices of Authoritarianism

Convenors:

Dr. Verena Frick, University of Goettingen (verena.frick@uni-goettingen.de)

Dr. Felix Petersen, Hebrew University of Jerusalem (petersen.felix@gmail.com)


Confirmed Key Note Speakers: Jan-Werner Müller (Princeton University), Annelien De Dijn (Utrecht University), William Scheuerman (Indiana University)

Twentieth-century political thought was built on the fundamental consensus of a deep ideological and systematic opposition between democracy and authoritarianism. Thinkers from different theoretical backgrounds, including Karl Popper, Judith Shklar, Isaiah Berlin, Hannah Arendt, or Karl Loewenstein, agreed on the basic assumption that liberal society can be defined ex negativo from its confrontation with authoritarianism. By contrast, recent diagnoses surrounding the ubiquitous crisis of democracy – for instance, concepts such as illiberal democracy, authoritarian liberalism, authoritarian constitutionalism or electoral authoritarianism – nurture the impression that this demarcation line becomes increasingly blurred.

For the purpose of illustration, take the following three examples: (1) Constitutionalism was for a long time considered a genuine feature of democratic regimes. Recent scholarship on authoritarian constitutionalism, however, argues that constitutions can matter under non-democratic government as well (Frankenberg/Alivar Garcia 2019; Ginsburg/Simpser 2013). (2) The example of Hungary, once the paragon of post-socialist transitions and now a self-declared illiberal democracy, shows that before a democracy will become fully authoritarian, it might turn into an illiberal regime that limits basic rights and political pluralism, while free elections are still held and certain elements of democratic government are intact (Scheppele 2018; Pap 2018; Buzogany 2017). (3) Critics of european austerity politics frequently refer to the European Union as being a liberal authoritarian regime enhancing individual rights and economic prosperity at the expense of democratic self-government (Wilkinson 2019; Somek 2015; Streeck 2015).

In view of these developments, political theory should not collapse into epistemological relativism or draw the conclusion that every political regime is a hybrid regime. Rather, these observations underscore, first, that authoritarian configurations, forms and practices occur in democratic and non-democratic contexts, and, secondly, that institutional constructions and practices that are meant to facilitate political legitimacy under democracy can serve undemocratic regimes as well. The workshop builds on this diagnosis and explores possibilities of theorising and analysing contemporary and historical “authoritarian moments” within and beyond liberal democracy.

Contributions are invited to examine the current authoritarian challenge to political theory and to question the usefulness and adequacy of its inherited conceptual framework for capturing the complex configuration of authoritarianism and democracy. For instance, what distinguishes current authoritarianism from its historical predecessors and in how far do we need new theories and concepts to capture current authoritarian moments? Which narratives occur in order to justify authoritarian politics and how do they relate to established notions of democracy? Does the current institutional shape of liberal democracy itself give rise to authoritarian politics? And which authoritarian traits exist already within democracy? In asking such and related questions, the workshop seeks to move the important debate on democracy and its (inherent) relation to authoritarianism onto a new terrain. Workshop contributions from a range of disciplines are welcome, including political theory and philosophy, political science, law, economics, sociology, and cultural studies.

They can address (but are not limited to) the following dimensions:

  • Traditions and transformations: Contributions can study the history of authoritarian political thought and its relation to democratic thinking, focus on the sticky features of authoritarianism that persist throughout history, or explore the genuine characteristics of current authoritarianism in comparison to historical manifestations.
  • Ideologies: Like every political authority, authoritarian systems have to justify their rule and give reasons for obedience. Contributions can explore changing legitimacy-narratives of authoritarian politics and their ideological grounding, focus on the mimicry of democracy in modern history and the language of authoritarianism, or examine new narratives (or the reformulation of old narratives) to legitimize non-democratic ideas and practices.
  • Institutions: Constitutions can matter irrespective of the political regime and elections are held in authoritarian and democratic regimes. In this context, contributions can study the new authoritarian institutionalism, focus on differences and similarities of democratic and non-democratic institutions (and institutional theory), or explore why current authoritarian regimes seek to ground their legitimacy in constitutions and what role law and constitution play in the consolidation of authoritarian rule.
  • Authoritarianism and democracy: Democracy is always at risk to collapse into authoritarianism. Contributions can focus on the intersection of authoritarianism and democracy by exploring borderline phenomena like militant democracy or state of exception, exploring seemingly a-democratic institutions like bureaucracy and their relationship to democracy, taking so-called authoritarian liberalism to address the impact of neoliberalism on democracy, or examining current contestations of the liberal script more broadly.

To submit a paper, please send a 300-500 word abstract to verena.frick@uni-goettingen.de and petersen.felix@gmail.com; please submit your abstracts before 15th May.