Authoritarianism is an insidious sort of oppression, frighteningly easy to establish and appearing in many forms. It can manifest as a parliamentary system of governance where MPs are not allowed a free vote, thus ensuring that any majority is unchallenged regardless of its proportion. It can manifest as a toxic narcissist who consistently undermines free press, judicial independence, and civil rights, while stoking hatred and bigotry amongst his supporters, thus preventing democratic checks and balances from doing their job. It can manifest as the gradual disenfranchisement of vast swathes of the population based on gender, religion, class, and race, ensuring that all opposition is stifled and silenced. It can, of course, manifest in the form of an unashamed autocrat with absolute power and zero accountability, but that is far more common in popular imagination than in reality.
Unfortunately, it is the prevalence of that singular image that makes it difficult to challenge the global spread of authoritarianism. In theory, being able to define such despotism in a narrow way makes sense. It allows the problem to be easily identified and almost formulaically challenged. It certainly creates the potential for solidarity that crosses boundaries by creating a common ground of marginalisation. The problem, of course, is that the oppression in question is far more chimeric and dynamic, which makes this type of dissent completely pointless. If anti-authoritarianism is only equipped to handle a narrow definition of authoritarianism, it is bound to fail.
Furthermore, leaders and governments are very happy to exploit this misconception. Painting foreign leaders as tyrannical – when such tyranny is understood to be only type of action – makes it easier to deny such criticisms of your own policies. For instance, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, both authoritarian in their own destructive way, have a habit of deflecting local and regional criticism by pointing fingers at each other. I may be bad, they boldly say, but I am not that bad. Thus, even though criticisms against both leaders can and do exist simultaneously, they often fall short of connecting the two under the same umbrella, which prevents the creation of genuine anti-authoritarian solidarity.
This is where an application of utopian politics can be very useful. Much like authoritarianism, utopianism has an unfortunate history of being simplified and misconstrued in the mainstream. Contrary to popular belief, utopia is not a perfect, static, and incorruptible society; it is the ability to recognise contemporary issues and create innovative and radical solutions to them. There are some subtle differences in how this is interpreted by its various scholars – Lyman Tower Sargent, Ruth Levitas, Tom Moylan, Lucy Sargisson, Gregory Claeys, Krishnan Kumar, Ashis Nandy and Sara Ahmed being some of the most prominent among them – but all of them do generally agree on its focus on critical thinking and challenging the status quo.
True emancipatory utopia takes this principle a step further by arguing that radical potential for change can only happen when it is applied to the liberation of marginalised groups. Championed by the likes of Moylan, Sargisson, Nandy and Ahmed in particular, this vein of critical utopianism also stresses one crucial aspect of political action: the ability to acknowledge and respond to different contexts. In doing so, it recognises that similar challenges might still need specific, and often disparate, solutions depending on the circumstances on the ground.
It allows for the contradictions of how any given action can be both progressive and regressive, depending on where it is implemented. The overall goal may be the same, but it recognises and, indeed, encourages the interaction of global problem-solving with different types of identity politics, privilege, and available resources. It is no stretch to suggest that authoritarian systems are dystopian – that negative, narrow antithesis of a thriving and pluralistic utopian world. Challenging such a dystopia cannot be dependent on a similarly narrow solution. Therefore, anti-authoritarianism needs to be consciously engaged with diversity. Part of this involves coming to terms with the uncomfortable truth that emancipation from authoritarianism can not only be different but even potentially conflicting.
A very basic example of this can be seen as follows. Islamist authoritarianism (as seen in states like Saudi Arabia and extremist groups such as Islamic State) is dependent on the enforcement of restrictive norms on its victims and must be tackled by a recognition of secularism, freedom of thought and, most importantly, the ability to freely critique such forms of Islam. Anti-Islamic authoritarianism (as in the anti-Muslim policies of Trump and the Islamophobic bigotry of Narendra Modi’s BJP), in contrast, can only be challenged by supporting and uplifting the vibrancy of the Muslim community, including protecting their right to defend the tenets of their faith. Both are equally valid responses to equally destructive forces, but only when understood and applied within their respective contexts. Demanding that both forms of authoritarianism need to be tackled in exactly the same way is not only outrageously simplistic but actively harmful and, arguably, oppressive in its own way.
This might sound obvious, but it is a painfully common occurrence in the global activist community. Conservative Muslims in the UK rightfully call out the horrific Islamphobia of the state they live in but have remained comparatively silent when it comes to Islamist oppression in states like Brunei, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. White gay activists are almost delighted in calling out any attempt by the Trump administration to misappropriate Pride but are equally happy to call the police on black trans women protesting at Stonewall. Similar issues exist in progressive left spaces that call out Israel for discriminatory and abusive policies against Palestinians but turn a blind eye to the rise of anti-Semitism around the world. Meanwhile, the real oppressors exploit these situations and prevent communities that might otherwise be allies from reaching out and helping each other.
Global solidarity is a wonderful and necessary ingredient to tackling authoritarianism. But we must not confuse this need with a need for a solidarity that is universal and singular in its approach. We must be able to engage with difference, not from those who wish us harm, but between those who are fighting the same fight as us, just in diverse ways. Only then can the dystopia of authoritarian terror by replaced by the utopia of emancipation.
Ibtisam Ahmed is a Doctoral Research Student at the School of Politics and IR, the University of Nottingham, UK. His thesis examines utopias and colonialism, arguing that true utopia can only be achieved by uplifting marginalised voices. He has written and publicly spoken about colonial legacies on queerness, race, classism, and language. He wants to highlight silences and work with marginalised groups to return their agency in academia and in activism.