Why is the academic left silent about the new authoritarianism?

This is a question recently asked by my colleague Dragos Simandan of Brock University, Ontario. In particular he asks, “In my home discipline of human geography I’ve been surprised by the lack of deep criticism (so far!) against the authoritarian management of the pandemic and the brutally quick undermining of hard-won freedoms in the name of a very elastic notion of ‘safety'”. In seeking to catalyse debate amongst critical social scientists about the draconian policies being pursued by neoliberal governments in western Europe – Sweden excepting – Simandan leans on the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Back in May, Agamben was making this argument in defence of political and civic freedoms in the face of the new authoritarianism.

Agamben ends with this chilling indictment of western democracies ….. “At issue is an entire conception of the destinies of human society from a perspective that, in many ways, seems to have adopted the apocalyptic idea of the end of the world from religions which are now in their sunset. Having replaced politics with the economy, now in order to secure governance even this must be integrated with the new paradigm of biosecurity, to which all other exigencies will have to be sacrificed. It is legitimate to ask whether such a society can still be defined as human or whether the loss of sensible relations, of the face, of friendship, of love can be truly compensated for by an abstract and presumably completely fictitious health security”.

Social and civic freedoms are being dismantled in the name of a biosecurity emergency, fuelled by flakey “mathematical disease modeling, neoliberal health policies, nervous media reporting, and authoritarian longings.” Why are so few critical social scientists speaking out against such destruction? History reveals clearly to us who the first victims are of such totalising forces, where the resulting suppressions of human rights and dignity are always justified, of course, in the name of a ‘greater good’.

As with many things, Hannah Arendt put her finger on it in her discourse on ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism‘ (1951): “It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.”

Critical left-leaning social scientists and geographers often lament their lack of voice and influence in society. But just because we don’t have a mathematical model that predicts the future, must not mean we remain silent. If we don’t speak we never will be heard.

Mike Hulme, 8 October

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