The age of authoritarianism and the end of the world as we know it


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COINCIDING with the inaugural of Donald J. Trump as the new American President, the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group held what they called a ‘counter-summit’ in Koblenz, Germany. A coalition of formerly fringe elements of the far right, including the Dutch Party of Freedom, the Austrian Freedom Party, and the new German Alternative for Deutschland were celebrating their moment of ascendancy.1 On the heels of Brexit, and in the context of rightist, strongman governments from Poland and Hungary to Russia, Turkey, the Philippines and India, the ENFG appears, with their historic ties to Nazism and avowedly fascist ideologies, to be part of a larger wave of authoritarian populism sweeping the world.

The globalization of the economy, of conflict, and of crises has helped lay the conditions for this moment.2 Multinational corporations have taken advantage of tax loopholes to shelter their assets and deprive states of fair-share revenue. Disaggregated chains of production have allowed them to weaken or thwart labour and environmental regulations, move jobs from country to country with ease, and sustain a downward pressure on wages – global corporatism produced by the globalization of the economy. The Long War (on Terror) has threatened the well-being and physical safety of people everywhere: on streets, on strolls, in cafes, in homes, as non-state actors assault civilian life while state guided missiles and smart bombs collaterally damage anyone in the vicinity of potential suspects – the globalization of conflict. And typhoons, hurricanes, mudslides, tsunamis, and flooding, along with the vector borne diseases they herald, have caused devastating losses to life, limb, and livelihood. This while human driven climate change continues with each passing moment to make matters exponentially worse – the globalization of crises.


Fearful for both their personal and economic futures, people in democracies have turned to their local governments to protect them, yet no single state or even group of states can rise to these challenges for these are problems of a planetary scale. And so faith in democracy, its institutions, and its processes – the cacophonous din it was meant to corral into conflicted but complementary conversation – has correspondingly declined.3

Simultaneously, our international institutions have also fallen short. Ebola revealed just how thin a prophylactic was the World Health Organization’s shield, easily ruptured. The IMF not only failed to adequately address the Greek debt crisis, it added to it with austerity, its internal audit later admonishing its own actions.4 The International Criminal Court’s blinkered prosecutorial focus on Africa to the exclusion of other, visible perpetrators, has triggered continent-wide efforts to withdraw from the Rome Statute, South Africa leading the way.5


These twin failures of local democratic means of redress, and of the liberal international order, have opened the door for populists and given a sense of cohesion to their rise. If democratic norms and niceties have proven ineffective, the need of the hour is a strong leader who can take decisive action, they proclaim. They alone can fix it, they sing in chorus. If our international systems cannot make us safe, if the global elite has failed us, we must reject them, they say. So they now repackage xenophobia, jingoism, and racism, as a defence of ‘the people’ against outsiders who would destroy their host’s culture, community and country, leading some observers to dub them the Nationalist International or the League of Nationalists.6 As French National Front Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen exulted: ‘We are experiencing the end of one world and the birth of another. We are experiencing the return of nation states.’7


In the United States, Trump’s rise has certainly been dependent upon a resurgent nativism and a latent racism made visceral in reaction to the first African American presidency. But the country’s perceived exceptionalism and rugged individualism have long been key elements of the national identity, part of the myth and mystique of the US sense of self. Institutional shortcomings at the national and international level have reinforced a belief widely held by a significant portion of the population that government is simply unnecessary, that it only gets in the way. Trump has skilfully played up these sentiments to cast his aspirations, and his vision, as uniquely and authentically American, part of a longer historical narrative that is isolationist in some senses, and unilaterally aggressive in others.

The rise of Narendra Modi in India bears some striking parallels. The prime minister too argued during his campaign that India was plagued by poor governance, by a corrupt political class, and by institutional failure. India had been brought to its knees, he went on, by kowtowing to minorities and diluting the richness of its originary thought. He promised a strong hand and deliverance through development.

Upon taking power, Modi centralized authority in his office. He has sought to put himself out front, an exercise in branding to equate every success with himself personally, epitomized by his decision to wear an extravagant suit with monogrammed pinstripes during the 2015 visit to India of US President Barack Obama, which was simultaneously spun as a major foreign policy victory. This desire for publicity is rather shallow, a call for all of the acclaim and none of the shame. The media is regularly targeted by acolytes, and dissent is stifled through what some have charged is an orchestrated campaign.8


Underscoring this connection, Steve Bannon, now a far-right advisor to the new American president, spoke of his admiration for Modi in a speech back in 2014, casting the Indian’s victory as part of a global revolt of the right.9 Many analysts have since argued that Modi is part of the model on which Trump and those still contesting elections are based, that understanding one provides key insights into the other, especially since they now all feed off each other.10

Yet for all this there remain crucial differences. While Modi, Trump, and the rest may share rightist nationalist ideology at a broad theoretical level, in practice their worldviews do not exactly align. Modi wants to attract foreign investment, for instance, and to work with international corporations to set up manufacturing hubs in the country, and to otherwise grow jobs. Trump wants much the same thing, but this fact puts him at odds with Modi, not in alliance: India and America cannot both be ‘first’.11

More broadly, Modi sees India as a great beneficiary of globalization. In the context of the three metrics I have identified as key to the rise of authoritarianism, middle class Indians generally have felt besieged more by globalized crises and conflicts than by corporate houses.


Modi made some of this plain in a 17 January 2017 speech to inaugurate the second Raisina Dialogue, a flagship event in New Delhi co-hosted by the Observer Research Foundation think tank and the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, meant to explore issues related to ‘India and the World’:

‘Globally connected societies… are leading the march of humanity. But, sluggish growth and economic volatility are also a sobering fact… The result, globalization gains are at risk and economic gains are no longer easy to come by. Instability, violence, conflict, extremism, exclusion and trans-national threats continue to proliferate in dangerous directions. The multi-polarity of the world, and an increasingly multipolar Asia, is a dominant fact today. And, we welcome it. Because, it captures the reality of the rise of many nations. It accepts that voices of many, not views of a few should shape the global agenda. Therefore, we need to guard against any instinct or inclination that promotes exclusion, especially in Asia.’12

India, simply put, is not really ‘anti-globalist’, even under a right wing government. While the country has not in recent years held the place of prominence in the international order it believes it deserves, it has remained content to work within normative channels to seek a seat at the high table.13

Modi may want, and may even foster, warm personal relations with President Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and may additionally see some opportunity for India’s advancement through specifically renegotiated deals, but he remains committed to a multilateral, multipolar world, as do India’s policy-making elites.14


There are, of course, many types of internationalism, the liberal order that has governed us for the past 70 years but one. While today’s populists simplistically juxtapose their rigid nationalism with globalism, the two forces have in fact long gone hand in glove.

While the Westphalian Peace led European states to respect the borders and internal affairs of their neighbours, for the most part, their appetite for imperial expansionism remained insatiable, for with it came tremendous financial gain and opportunity for personal glory. Print capitalism of the late nineteenth century gave the nation state much more coherence and internal consistency, but not incidentally coincided with belief in scientific racism and the ‘white man’s burden’. Colonies shored up not only the resources but the very identity of the metropolitan centre of imperial internationalism. Western nation states, in other words, were intricately intertwined with, and were key to, this particular form of globalization, and much of the course of twentieth century history, including its catastrophic global conflicts, can be seen as a triangular dialectic between nationalism, imperialism, and internationalism.15


Many saw the shortcomings of the old order as one that inevitably and repetitively led to conflict, and they argued that new forms of internationalism were necessary to rein in the dangers posed. After all, following World War I, a previous good-faith effort spearheaded by South Africa’s Jan Smuts had already attempted to bind competitive imperialisms within a benevolent diplomatic system, but the League of Nations proved weak and ineffective, ultimately unable to ward off the Second World War.16


Visionaries throughout the interwar period, but picking up steam from the thirties, argued that what was needed was progressive internationalism, by which they meant a form of global federal democracy. Led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, they saw this as the only way out of a permanent cycle of escalating violence that would lead humanity to its final destruction. Nehru adopted this principle as the undergirding plank of independent India’s foreign policy, and the country became a vocal champion of the cause, which had both mass appeal and support from intellectuals and activists from around the globe.17

But progressive internationalism was never actually adopted. While India made some headway during the 1950s, reactionary forces empowered by Cold War paranoia successfully throttled this alternative then. While the international order conceived at Dumbarton Oaks and Bretton Woods, and born in San Francisco was rife with possibility, the post-pubescent version of the late fifties and early sixties had already hardened and jettisoned its more idealistic elements.

The liberal international order had its successes over the years, not least the fact that the Cold War never actually resulted in an all out battle to the finish. On the other hand, critics are quick to point out that its list of failures is long: it did not prevent major wars from breaking out, from Korea to Vietnam; it did not stop ethnic cleansing or genocides, from Bosnia to Rwanda. To make matters worse, Great Powers have successfully manipulated the system since the seventies to their advantage, from the eighties on successfully enmeshing neo-imperial ambition within a new discourse of humanitarianism.18


And so we have come to a crossroads. From where we have travelled, we now have three options before us. We can stay the path we have been on, cling to the status quo, trying to tinker at the edges with minor reforms. But recall that the rise of populists has been in response to a general unhappiness with the way things are, with a widely held feeling that things are bad and getting worse. The existing liberal order has not been able to address our problems, and in my view simply cannot because it in fact, contrary to the diagnosis of Le Pen and her ilk, is too dependent upon nation states. The causes of misery and fear are global in scope and beyond the means of our existing institutions, national and international.


The ENFG and their allies around the world instead propose taking us back to the nineteenth century system of state-to-state relations, of Great Power politics mitigated perhaps by a rekindled Concert of Europe.19 Advocates see globalization only as a modern phenomenon, one that can easily be undone. De-globalization, they argue, will re-empower states and better connect them to their respective peoples.20 By putting national interests first, states will emerge stronger and ultimately richer and more powerful.

The shortsightedness of all of this is rather plain to see. Leaving aside that this path too will be unable to adequately address transnational conflicts and crises – imagine a bunch of self-absorbed national states trying to contain and eliminate the next fast moving killer virus – every populist is arguing that they will make their respective countries great again, that they will subsequently renegotiate everything on a case-by-case bilateral basis.


Assuming they are initially successful, there will be red tape and contradictory practices of an astonishing magnitude. But ultimately none of this will solve the underlying economic issues as they so claim. Jobs will not return to the developed world by strict protectionist measures because they were, in fact, by and large not lost to the so-called developing world through open trade. Instead, job losses throughout the global economy have primarily been driven by technological change, increased productivity, and automation. And this process will only accelerate in the coming years, with 20-25% of all blue and white collar jobs at risk according to several respected assessments.21

Shrinking economic prospects will force nation states cut off from the rest of the world to look outside for new markets, very likely triggering a new wave of expansionism leading to imperial acquisition. The powerful will bully the weak unimpeded. And, eventually, the Great Powers will find themselves in opposition to one another. And we will have war again, on a scale we cannot imagine.22

So against the two rather unappealing options – of staying the course or taking a rightward, backward turn to the nineteenth century – is the path of progressive internationalism. Yanis Varoufakis, who rose to fame as the anti-austerity finance minister of the Syriza government in Greece, argues that this is the only possible way forward.23 Varoufakis, who knows a thing or two about populism, believes that progressive internationalism can effectively redress peoples’ economic and security anxieties, and so can ultimately deliver what right wing populism cannot.


Perhaps the key to the success of rightist rhetoric over the last several years has been the underlying appeals based on nostalgia. Leavers in Britain promised a restoration of British glory. Trump wants to make America great again. These gauzy representations of the past summon a simpler time, imagined simultaneously as one of tremendous power and achievement. The allure of nostalgia is great, a siren song so seductive that none see the danger until their dreams have been dashed upon the rocks.24 How do we hear this song yet have our ship sail right past, as Odysseus did to defeat the Sirens and end their reign of terror?


Anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one, especially an unfortunate sudden loss, knows that grief too can feel overpowering, all encompassing. In the throes of grief, many people lose sight of the day-to-day and get drawn further and further into the past. They long for what is lost. For some unable to cope, the future has no meaning and the present becomes insufferable. It is a challenge to overcome such loss, yet people do it every day. The specific cause of release varies, often the passage of time, perhaps a visit from a friend, or a chance encounter with a stranger. But suddenly, there is a new day, and the past recedes. It is not forgotten of course. It, and what we have lost become a part of us, something to cherish, sometimes to regret, a guiding force to direct our decisions. We find we have something to live for.

Populist nostalgia is about the reconstruction of past systems. The way to counter it is to offer people a path to a more hopeful, positive future. To reassure them that we hear their concerns and that we can effectively address their needs. To give them something to live for.

Varoufakis has thus called on western democracies to recommit to New Deal ideals, to weave an altogether new social safety net and build infrastructure of the future.25 The unexpected defeat of Geert Wilders and his Party of Freedom in the recent Dutch elections, and the equally startling rise of Jesse Klaver and the GroenLinks, underscores the potential power of this path.26 A new global deal will take this progressive vision truly international. Though informed by history, this is not nostalgia since it does not seek to recreate a long-lost world. It instead seeks to creatively use past successes to guide effective policy choices today with the aim of a more unified, more just, more sustainable planet for all.


From another era of darkness, Nehru lights a beacon, to catch fire in our time and to show us the way forward: ‘The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers…; to fight and end poverty, and ignorance, and disease… and to create social, economic, and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman... and pledge ourselves to cooperate with [the peoples of the world] in furthering peace, freedom, and democracy.’27



1. Nicola Slawson, ‘Marine Le Pen Leads Gathering of EU Far-Right Leaders in Koblenz’, The Guardian, 21 January 2017,

2. For details, see Manu Bhagavan, ‘We Are Witnessing the Rise of Global Authoritarianism on a Chilling Scale’, Quartz, 21 March 2016,

3. Gwynn Guilford, ‘Harvard Research Suggests that an Entire Global Generation has Lost Faith in Democracy’, Quartz, 30 November 2016,

4. Annie Lowrey, ‘I.M.F. Concedes Major Missteps in Bailout of Greece’, The New York Times, 5 June 2013, http://www.nytimes. com/2013/06/06/business/global/imf-concedes-major-missteps-in-bailout-of-greece.html?ref=global&_r=0.

5. Luckystar Miyandazi, et al., ‘Why an African Mass Withdrawal from the ICC is Possible’, Newsweek, 2 November 2016, It is worth noting, however, that efforts to withdraw from the Rome Sta-tute have also been met with significant pushback continent-wide, especially given the context of our authoritarian moment.

6. See for example: http://www.economist. com/news/international/21710276-all-around-world-nationalists-are-gaining-ground-why-league-nationalists; http://www. 60b9885. Cf. Sean Illing, ‘Why Trump’s Populist Appeal is about Culture, not the Economy’, Vox, 27 March 2017.

7. Geir Moulson, ‘Le Pen Sees Year of ‘Awakening’ as European Nationalists Meet’, Business Insider, via the AP, 21 January 2017, Cf. Manu Bhagavan, ‘The Nation-State is Making a Global Comeback – And We Should All Be Very Afraid’, Quartz, 30 June 2016.

8. Swati Chaturvedi, I am a Troll. Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, 2016. Cf. Basharat Peer, A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen. Columbia Global Reports, New York, 2017.

9. Tara Golshan, ‘10 Things We Learned About Trump Adviser Steve Bannon From This Recently Surfaced Speech’, Vox, 17 November 2016,

10. See, for instance: https://www.nytimes. com/2016/11/14/opinion/the-incendiaryap peal-of-demagoguery-in-our-time.html; http://wants-india-as-ally-to-counterbalance-china. html; news/daily-comment/the-strongman-problem-from-modi-to-trump. Cf. Faisal Devji, ‘Age of Sincerity’, Aeon, 17 April 2017.

11. Cf. S.A. Aiyar, ‘Donald Trump’s No Ally of India, Handle Him With Care’, The Economic Times, 31 January 2017,; Srinath Raghavan, ‘If You Think Trump is Good for India, You Are in for a Shock’, The Hindustan Times, 15 February 2017, of-the-trump-administration/story- MiVPcBa1PBsSZ4he1KNDlM.html.

12. For more details on the Raisina Dialogue, see Some observers saw Modi’s Raisina remarks as a gentle warning to Trump. See for instance: Karan Pradhan, ‘Narendra Modi’s Raisina Dialogue Address Actually Included a Message for Donald Trump’, Firstpost, 17 January 2017,

13. Cf. David Malone, Does the Elephant Dance? Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2011.

14. My thoughts in this paragraph have benefitted from a conversation with Samir Saran, Senior Fellow and Vice-President of the Observer Research Foundation. The appointment of Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and the apparent willingness to more openly embrace Hindutva, which has now allowed for gau rakshak vigilantism, is clearly at odds with such commitments and with Modi’s lofty rhetoric. Cf. Ananya Bhattacharya, ‘India is the Fourth-worst Country in the World for Religious Violence’, Quartz, 14 April 2017.

15. Cf. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Verso, New York, 1998 (1st pub 1993); Thomas Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994; and Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2014.

16. Mark Mazower, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2009, especially pp. 28-65. For an encyclopedic overview of the history of internationalism, see Mazower’s Governing the World: The History of An Idea, 1815-the present. The Penguin Press, New York, 2012.

17. See Manu Bhagavan, India and the Quest for One World: The Peacemakers. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2013; ‘India and the United Nations, Or Things Fall Apart’, in David Malone, et al., The Oxford Handbook of Indian Foreign Policy. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015; ‘Towards Universal Relief and Rehabilitation: India, UNRRA, and the New Internationalism’, in Thomas Weiss and Dan Plesch (eds.), Wartime History and the Future United Nations. Routledge, New York, 2015; ‘Reflections on Indian Internationalism and a Postnational Global Order: A Response to Partha Chatterjee’, in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 37(2), forthcoming 2017; ‘Indian Internationalism and the Implementation of Self-Determination: Kamaladevi Chatto-padhyay and the United Nations Human Rights Commission’, in Vinay Lal and Ellen DuBois (eds.), A Passionate Life: Writings by and on Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Zubaan, Delhi (with US distribution by the University of Chicago Press), 2017; and Anjani Kapoor and Manu Bhagavan, ‘Beyond the Nation: Ambedkar and the Anti-Isolation of Fellowship’, in Anand Teltumbde and Suraj Yengde (eds.), 125th Anniversary Ambedkar Volume, forthcoming.

18. See broadly the work of Samuel Moyn, especially by way of example, ‘Beyond Liberal Internationalism’, Dissent, Winter 2017,

19. The infamous, but only partially verified, ‘Trump dossier’ compiled by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele and published by Buzzfeed News claims that this is exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin is after. He sees, according to the document, the international order as hostile to Russian interests, and would prefer a return to the older playing field. There, because of Russia’s size and strength, they would presumably return to a place of glory in his view. See: See also:

20. For details on this claim, and contrary points of view, see Steve LeVine, ‘Meet the Leader of a Billionaires’ Club Determined to Stop Trump from Destroying the World’, Quartz, 24 January 2017, destroying-the-world/.

21. See my companion piece, ‘The Doctor and the Cure: The Crisis of Sovereignty in the Twenty-First Century’, in the online symposium on the return of the nation state, on the Brexit: Global Perspectives blog: See also: Martin Wolf,, 5 January 2017;, 27 December 2016;, 6 December 2016; http://www., 29 December 2016; and Julia Kirby and Thomas H. Davenport, ‘The Knowledge Jobs Most Likely to be Automated’, Harvard Business Review, 23 June 2016,

22. Cf. Gwynn Guilford and Nikhil Sonnad, ‘What Steve Bannon Really Wants’, Quartz, 3 February 2017,

23. See:; downing-street/;

24. Carlos Lozada, ‘Why Reactionary Nostalgia is Stronger than Liberal Hope: A Review of Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind and The Reactionary Mind’, The Washington Post, 9 September 2016. https://www.washington

25. See:; Yanis Varoufakis, ‘Western Democracies Need a New Deal’, Cf. Martin Wolf, ‘The Limits of the Market by Paul De Grauwe’, The Financial Times, 7 April 2017,

26. Jon Henley, ‘Green Left Proves to be the Big Winner in Dutch Election’, The Guardian, 16 March 2017, https://www.theguardian. com/world/2017/mar/15/dutchelections-greenleft-jesse-klaver. In Germany, the AfD’s fortunes have dwindled as Martin Schulz has breathed new life into the Social Democrats. Cf. Guy Chazan, ‘AfD’s Frauke Petry Steps Back from German Election Campaign’, Financial Times, 19 April 2017,

27. Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘A Tryst With Destiny’, 14 August 1947, reproduced in The Guardian, 30 April 2007, https://www.