The deep authoritarian imaginary

Authoritarian populism isn’t the only authoritarian project we should be worried about, as Tanzania under the late John Magufuli showed.

President Zuma and President Magufuli. Image credit GCIS via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0.

The liberation movements in power in Africa today struggled, as their names suggest, to liberate. From South Africa to Uganda, they saw their fights as struggles to free their peoples from different incarnations of imperialism, (neo-)colonialism, white supremacism, global capitalism, and tyranny. Yet, once in power, as so many have chronicled, these liberation movements in turn made their peoples unfree. The regimes that they established became unaccountable police states, which echo their colonial pasts.

Many recent analyses attribute this authoritarianism to the populisms which they have embraced: the template for and the legitimizing vision of this authoritarian rule located in the populist imaginaries that many regimes articulate. I disagree. It may be tempting to see these authoritarian projects as part of a global populist zeitgeist, but to understand the ideational form that these authoritarian projects take, one needs to read them closely in their intellectual and historical contexts. In an article just published, I offer such a re-reading of the political thought of the late President John Pombe Magufuli and his ruling party in Tanzania. I endeavor to excavate the deep authoritarian imaginary located within it. I see an authoritarian vision suspended in an imaginary that is not populist, but elitist.

Not all populisms need to be authoritarian. Some imagine popular struggles of people against power are radically egalitarian, democratic, and emancipatory. Yet “authoritarian populism” has become the label for a distinctive authoritarian vision, which has been articulated in different forms by the likes of Donald Trump, Mateusz Morawiecki, Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi. In this imaginary, there is a people that has formed a will. Yet this will is not, as in democratic theory, plural and the product of fallible judgements expressed by multiple voices and aggregated according to the principle of majority. Instead, it is singular and the product of infallible intuitions available to and held by the people. This will is mediated by, or even embodied in the person of the leader. Anyone who opposes that will or stands in the way of the leader is part of an illegitimate elite.

At first glance, many leaders of liberation movements in power resemble such authoritarian populism in different ways. One might see the parallels between it and the visions of Robert Mugabe, John Pombe Magufuli, Sam Nujoma, Yoweri Museveni, and Jacob Zuma. They all speak of “the people” using one synonym or another. They all justified authoritarian actions or varying degrees and forms. Like the numerous fusions of authoritarian populisms with far-right ideologies, they even imagine national struggles.

However, there is another way of reading these authoritarian philosophies, wherein they do not take the ideational form of authoritarian populisms. Instead, they are suspended in imaginaries of development, liberation, and corruption. These imaginaries borrow from the legitimizing intellectual architecture of one-party African socialisms and Marxisms. They begin not with a conception of the people’s will, but the people’s interest.

No matter how these interests are conceived, their conception in these imaginaries as interests is important. It creates a potential distance between what the people wish for (their will or judgment) and what is best for them (their interests).

In these imaginaries, the people are not the best judges of what their interests are, nor what actions best serve them. Instead, the leaders of the regime are. This epistemic superiority is not rooted in ideas of noble birth or natural aristocracy. Instead, they lie, as past research recognized, in ideas of meritocratic vanguardism; they imagine themselves to be the most able and the most virtuous of the people.

This vision of superiority takes on a new significance in the contexts of urgency they imagine. Their peoples desperately need development or liberation. It is vital that they be defended against the corrupt and the global forces arrayed against them. In these circumstances, the nation cannot afford to make mistakes by deferring to the people’s possibly wayward judgements. The best rulers have a duty to govern on the people’s behalf.

This is a rationale for authoritarian rule, but it is not a populist one. It does not present the leader as the vessel for a will that the people have formed and expressed. Nor does it vilify “the elite.” Instead, it presents the leaders as a virtuous elite. It claims, paternally, that as best rulers they have the authority to govern in the people’s interests, over the people’s wishes, if necessary. This is not a distorted vision of representation. It is a vision of guardianship.

Like so much of Africa’s authoritarian presents, this vision is in part a legacy of its colonial pasts. Colonialism, too, was a form of authoritarianism, founded on the paternalist claim that the (white) rulers knew better than their (black) subjects. While this vision of guardianship is stripped, of course, of these racist ideas, it preserves the paternalist ones.

I have distilled this authoritarian imaginary, this elitist plebeianism, as I call it, through an analysis of the discourse of President Magufuli. I have not undertaken the equivalent deep dives into the speech of all the leaders of liberation regimes in Eastern and Southern Africa. Therefore, it remains an open question whether (and when) each of them articulated elitist plebeian or authoritarian populist imaginaries. But it is hard to square the vanguardism, the elitism and the epistemic superiority that many of them have claimed and performed with authoritarian populism.

If we wish to understand their political thought and the challenge it poses for democracy, as others have advocated, we should revisit and reinterpret their ideas.

Further Reading

The reluctant scientist

The late Tanzanian president, John Pombe Magufuli, was initially lauded for his no-nonsense approach to corruption. But the cracks began to appear within months of his presidency.

Enter the bulldozer

The legacy of Julius Nyerere’s state and state-run economy in Tanzania is a government (and ruling party) that values decree over debate, and control over entrepreneurship. John Magufuli is a model student of this system in its ideal form.