On Repression and Resistance


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December 8, 2020

On Repression and Resistance

  • academic freedom
  • Brazil
  • China
  • Human rights
  • Poland
  • Resistance
  • Turkey

This piece was first presented at the “Repression and Resistance: Inside and Outside the Academy” webinar organized by the New University in Exile on November 12, 2020. The webinar was focused on discussing the rise of authoritarianism, anti-intellectualism, and censorship globally, offering perspectives from Turkey, China, and Brazil. The presentations called attention to restrictions on academic freedom and free speech in each country, and highlighted strategies academics use to push back on governmental repression”. The keynote was delivered by Judith Butler on “The Human, Humanities, and Human Rights” which focused on the shutting down of gender studies programs globally and how this connects to the issue of human rights. Elzbieta Matynia was the moderator.

I would like to start by thanking the New University in Exile Consortium, particularly the Consortium’s marvelous director, Prof. Arien Mack. Thanks to Arien’s persistent efforts, uprooted academics from all over the world find their voice in a new community of like-minded scholars. I would also like to thank Prof. Richard Bernstein and Prof. Judith Friedlander, who hosted our seminar during the first two years, and Prof. Irena Grudzinska Gross, who is doing so now. It is extremely valuable for the members of this seminar— purged, exiled, or self-exiled academics—many of us arriving in the U.S. as criminalized human rights activists, to be seen and embraced by this intellectual community. The New University in Exile Consortium has provided a safe and nurturing space for all of us, in some cases for three years, assisting us in many different ways—material, psychological and intellectual. As uprooted academics, it has been profoundly meaningful to meet once a week to exchange ideas and present aspects of our work.

The “Repression and Resistance” webinar put together by the consortium on November 12, follows on the heels of some much needed good news. After the Democrats’ victory in the U.S. presidential elections, I have completely changed the tune of what I was planning to play. We may infer from this election that there is indeed an effective way to resist an emerging autocracy: build an eclectic cross-class, cross identity coalition. Creating a broad alliance of liberal democratic forces apparently still works, particularly in the early stages, before a right-leaning populist movement succeeds in capturing the state. 

We know from what has recently happened in countries like Turkey, Hungary, and Poland that it doesn’t take long for the disease of populism to metastasize. And we know from Sheri Berman’s account of the fall of the Weimar Republic that in the absence of strong institutions, and genuinely representative political parties, an infiltrated, parallel, substituted civil society ends up educating and producing blind followers of autocrats. In Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, we have witnessed how authoritarian leaders co-opted the very mechanisms developed by human rights activists and feminists and used them to repeal those same rights and liberties. 

At a recent international gathering, women activists and MPs from Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Macedonia, and others, compared notes and arrived at this conclusion. We confirmed that after capturing the state, autocratic forces typically coopted our methods, creating new organizations in a parallel civil society; these organizations, which present themselves as grassroots associations, in fact took instructions from rigidly controlled centers of command to reverse the gains made by the feminist and LGBTQ movements. In all these countries, where autocratic political parties now have the reins of power, the leaders have been successfully moving forward with a long-term agenda of denying the autonomy of individuals over decisions that impact their lives. 

But women living in these authoritarian regimes, like Turkey and elsewhere, are fighting back. Most recently, as Elzbieta Matynia has described, women in Poland have led a nation-wide demonstration against a new law that prohibits abortion.

I want to stress the following: The goal of autocratic movements is to deny both individual autonomy and collective democratic autonomy. These are two sides of the same coin. As they campaign, autocratic movements persuade their followers to relinquish their autonomy and, once they gain power, these movements systematically target civil liberties. 

Without minimizing the importance of the Biden-Harris victory, we should not assume that the U.S. is out of danger. Far from it. By almost any measure, Americans are living through a very volatile period marked by a world-wide pandemic and compounded by a global economic crisis, which in turn has been deepened and intensified by a digital revolution that is changing the mode of production and erasing job and income security for millions of people. These concrete and objective circumstances can generate a great deal of anxiety and anger, creating precisely the kind of insecurity and sense of hopelessness that populist autocrats know how to manipulate and exploit for their purposes. 

In 1951, the great theorist of totalitarianism, Franz Neumann, described in Anxiety and Politics how anxiety caused by global instability and crises, not unlike what we are living through today, cause people to regress psychologically and become susceptible to mob mentality, making otherwise sane individuals follow blindly charismatic leaders with a Messianic vision. Similarly, Karl Loewenstein, writing in 1937, warned that when people were struggling to survive in Europe during the upheaval of the 1930s, they often gravitated to leaders who mounted an emotional political campaign for ethnic and racial supremacy rather than to those who championed a constitutional, rational, evidence-based, deliberative government for all.

In sum, the objective circumstances we face today will, I fear, continue to produce anger, resentment, bitterness, nihilism, cynicism, and anxiety, providing fertile soil for radical populism to grow. 

As we think about forms of resistance, we should separate the subjective experience of resistance from the objective value of resistance. When we talk to human rights activists who continue to live in the countries where they are fighting for change, they usually express confidence in the strength of their resistance. Their subjective feeling of resistance never fails them; it gives them the strength to carry on. But what ultimately matters, unfortunately, is not just their feelings, but the presence of an objective resistance. By objective resistance, I mean a form of resistance that builds a united front and broad alliances—a resistance movement with courageous members who dare to go out of real or performative ghettos. A resistance that has drawn together an eclectic group of allies, belonging to different social classes and ethnic/sexual/gender identities. Only such a resistance movement can combat the very elastic broad alliances that fascists and other right-leaning populists routinely create. Since autocrats rely on dividing us, our categorical dictum should call on us to unite around a basic set of common rights, and common needs, without discrimination.

The window of opportunity for building such an alliance against an autocratic regime is very small. These alliances can only be built during the early stages of the rise of fascist populism. They are very difficult to build in the later stages when the movement captures the state and civil society. Once in power, the autocratic regime establishes its own political economy and co-opts the struggles of minorities, of women, of the working classes. 

But even then we can be hopeful because, as women in Turkey have demonstrated, there are always possibilities for objective resistance. The Women’s movement in Turkey, the only organized resistance we can talk about right now, has managed to stand united against all odds, despite the regime’s attempts to divide them along ethnic and religious fault lines. While the Women’s movement in Turkey is a defensive not a proactive force, under the circumstances, it is still impressive. 

Together, women have managed to hold the line, at least up until now, and kept Parliament from introducing a law that would allow men to marry adolescent girls down to 13 years of age. And they did so again when they prevented President Erdogan’s ruling party from withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention. The Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention is the most advanced international treaty on the elimination of all forms of gender-based violence, not just domestic physical violence, but psychological and economic violence, as well. These examples demonstrate that even now, in a severely metastasized political system, where resistance can no longer level the playing field against the biased rules of the autocratic game, it can occasionally still hold the line. 

However, for such resistance movements to survive, they will need the strong support of women in other countries. Just as autocrats cooperate and learn from one another, so must women, ethnic and religious, and sexual minorities. Of particular interest right now for Turkey’s women is the struggle of feminists in Poland. I do hope that these two movements will strengthen their ties, and cooperate.

It should come as no surprise that I did not say anything about resistance in the academy. It is emotionally challenging for some of us to admit it, but the academy is just an institution, and like any other institution, its integrity and strength depend on the people who constitute and govern it. Like other institutions, the academy has always been and will continue to be infiltrated, hijacked, captured, and co-opted. It may even turn into a factory to educate the docile subjects of a new patriarchal autocratic regime. This fact should not depress us. 

As Gramsci warned us many years ago, there will always be organic intellectuals in the enemy camp and organic intellectuals in the resistance. What matters is for us to find a way to come together as quickly as possible and build the broadest alliance we can. We should not be swayed by emotions, nor be smugly satisfied with ourselves for identifying with the resistance, while doing essentially nothing. We should dedicate ourselves instead, wisely and prudently, to overcome the increasingly global and formidable enemy, by building a broad alliance, both at home and transnationally. 

And while doing so, we should recognize that the Biden-Harris victory in the US is not a coincidence; it happened thanks to the massive efforts of American political activists who built a broad alliance. We have to follow in their footsteps and continue building solidarity with other resistance movements across the globe if we hope to prevail.

Aysen Candas (Columbia University, Ph.D.) is a political scientist and human rights activist who is researching the transition from democracy to autocracy; before she resigned, she was a tenured faculty member in Boğaziçi University’s Political Science and International Relations department; in 2016, she went into exile, as she was being persecuted for having signed a petition that called on the state to stop committing violence in Kurdish villages.


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