[Column] Neo-authoritarianism is feeding off isolation

Posted on : 2023-03-08 17:24 KST Modified on : 2023-03-08 17:24 KST
In contrast to the social policies used by authoritarian regimes to secure the loyalty of their subjects, loneliness and atomization prove to be key resources mined by neo-authoritarianism
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung

By Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov), professor of Korean Studies at the University of Oslo

People all over the world following the recent situation in Russia and its invasion of Ukraine are all surprised by one thing: Putin’s high approval ratings, which seem to be based on nothing.

The average Russian’s disposable income has stagnated, having barely increased since 2012. The average worker’s wage has dropped lower than their peers in China, famously known as a low-wage country. Furthermore, Putin’s now year-long invasion of Ukraine is far from a success. Russian forces occupy 16% of Ukraine’s territory, and even defending that land is a challenge to the Russian military.

Despite having no commendable results to put forward, Putin’s approval ratings remain high. The majority of the population is struggling in relative poverty and the war of aggression the regime has advocated for is showing disappointing results, yet Putin’s approval rate is a whopping 83% after 23 years in power. How is it that a dictatorship that has been so unsuccessful economically and militarily manages to have such a firm grip on the general public? In order to understand this, we first need to examine the nature of Putin’s dictatorship.

Many try to analyze Putin like they analyzed the old Soviet system. However, Putin’s dictatorship is nothing like the one-party rule of the Communist Party. Putin has the conservative United Russia party on his side, but unlike the Chinese Communist Party or the North Korean Workers’ Party, it does not function much as a mass mobilization device or a back door for bureaucrats.

Putin’s state is not a Soviet, Chinese, or North Korean-style authoritarian state, but a neo-authoritarian dictatorship. To varying degrees, Orbán’s Hungary, Erdoğan’s Türkiye, and Modi’s India share many of the characteristics of neo-authoritarianism. The likelihood of one political faction garnering all the power in South Korea, which has a de facto two-party system, seems slim, but the hawkish conservative faction does have some neo-authoritarianism characteristics.

Authoritarian regimes typically closely control the flow of information, often blocking any information that contradicts the ruling party’s official ideology. Neo-authoritarian regimes in the internet era are unable to meticulously restrict information, so they instead rely on the construction and dissemination of discourse online and offline so as to coax large numbers of the electorate into following along.

They capitalize on the stereotypes, fears, group complexes, and prejudices of their constituents to ensure that even if the people have access to the opposition’s opinions and arguments, they choose and support the discourse purported by the regime. If necessary, the regime creates fake “facts” that play to those fears and prejudices.

Since the beginning of this war, I have had many debates with highly educated Russian expatriates who have actively defended the invasion of Ukraine. As people who live abroad and are fluent in foreign languages, they have easy access to foreign media that criticizes the invasion. However, they merely parrot pro-Putin media narratives about how “the vicious West always targets Russia,” that “the Ukrainian Nazis are coming alive to attack Russia,” the “importance of ‘restoring’ former Soviet territory,” and the importance of an “ultimate central regime” in Russia. They even cite fake news created by pro-Putin media, claiming that the US is conducting biological weapons experiments in Ukraine.

Russian propagandists have successfully created and disseminated a narrative of the conflict as the “evil West versus good Russia,” that plays on their inferiority complex, resentment, and fear of the West — sentiments that many Russians share — as well as a desire to get even for the “disgraceful” fall of the Soviet Union and the antipathy towards the rise of nationalism in neighboring countries. Many Russians who believe in this narrative support the aggression of the neo-authoritarian regime even as they live in relative poverty and watch their military struggle on the battlefield.

Traditionally, authoritarian states have actively utilized social policies to secure the loyalty of their subjects. North Korea, which once followed the Soviet model, offered free education and free healthcare to its citizens in the late 1950s. It was the first Third World country to do so.

In contrast, neo-authoritarian states are stingier with welfare programs. Russia’s welfare spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) is about 12%, like South Korea, which is considered a “welfare backward” country among industrialized nations. Instead, neo-authoritarian states destroy solidarity among their subjects, such as workers, so that atomized individuals struggle to survive and are exposed, alone, to the seductive messages of propaganda.

Only 3.5% of all Russian workers belong to democratic unions that are relatively independent of the state, due to the extreme repressions of the regime that includes continuous (and ongoing) union busting and imprisonment of activists. That is a figure worse than South Korea, where 6% of workers belong to unions.

In addition, the percentage of workers suffering from precarious employment, such as temporary work, is about 46%, which is higher than that of South Korea (37.5%). In short, powerless individuals, who have had to face little welfare, precarious work, and the atomization of the individual, have been captured by the neo-authoritarian regime’s seemingly appealing nationalist messages.

Fortunately, South Korea is far from neo-authoritarianism as an institution, as peaceful transitions of power are the reality. However, the policies of the current hard-line conservative government and the rhetoric of the right-wing media that defend it are not unlike those that can be seen in Russia. The government’s continuous attacks on unions and its indifference to reducing precarious employment are no different from what the Putin regime is guilty of.

The distinction is that while Putin’s grand narrative centers on the West and the US as “eternal enemies,” the Korean far-right’s hate campaign centers on bashing unions, air traffic spying manipulation, and anti-North Korean incitement. Where Putin’s narrative centers on “centralized power,” the discourse of South Korea’s far-right focuses on “the market” and “meritocracy.”

Just as many poor Russian youth support increased military spending and the invasion of Ukraine, rather than advocating for more welfare spending, many poor Korean young people affirm a divide based on “meritocracy,” which is decided by inherited wealth. Many Koreans, like Russians, hold a worldview that is completely at odds with their class interests. This is why South Korea will never be immune from the dangers of neo-authoritarianism, a dystopia in the age of a capitalist crisis.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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