♟️ Why it matters how we talk about the 'global' autocratisation trend

Licia Cianetti and Petra Alderman critique the trend for claiming that a 'global' autocratisation is sweeping the world. It is, they argue, not a homogenous process, but many processes that look differently across time and space. Just as we need to better differentiate autocracies, so we also need better language to reflect these differences in autocratisation

Few would deny that democracy is in crisis. Notwithstanding recent academic disputes about measuring democratic decline, the 'end of history' feeling that the world is on a journey, however bumpy, towards liberal democracy has now all but dissipated. This is reflected in the resurgence of regime transformation studies, which aim to explain the reasons for – and, increasingly, resistance to – global autocratisation.

There is growing unease about the future of democracy. This is matched by unease about the language we use for describing it, as reflected during our research Centre’s launch roundtable. The term 'democratic backsliding' initially dominated the discussion. But this term is rightly criticised for assuming a linear change from a democratic to a previous, less democratic or autocratic state. 'Democratic backsliding' is even less apt for describing countries where democracy was never established in the first place. In such countries, the change is, rather, of autocratic hardening or shifts between different autocratic modes.

It is erroneous to describe a country as experiencing 'democratic backsliding' if it wasn't democratic in the first place

The 'autocratisation' turn

'Autocratisation' is gaining traction as an umbrella term describing any backward movements on the democracy–autocracy continuum. While 'backsliding' has limited geographical reach, 'autocratisation' describes a global phenomenon. This is both its strength and its weakness.

'Autocratisation' gives a name and coherence to a sprawling field of study. It brings together scholars of democracy, autocracy, and regional experts from across the globe. Of course, we should celebrate this, but not without interrogating the 'global' in the global autocratisation discourse.

We know that autocratisation is not happening everywhere, and it is not happening everywhere in the same way. We also know that the differences in autocratisation are a matter of quality and not just of quantity. If we are observing a global autocratisation trend, it is most likely not one process but a host of different processes of executive overreach, declining accountability, increased repression, electoral manipulation, illiberalism, and state capture, to name but a few. Each involves different actors and factors, starting and end points, and temporalities.

The 'global' autocratisation trend is, in fact, a host of different processes of executive overreach, declining accountability, increased repression, electoral manipulation, illiberalism, and state capture

Whether democratic or authoritarian, regimes are not static: they emerge, evolve, adapt, break down and fall apart. Even in countries with frequent military coups, such as Burkina Faso, Myanmar, Niger, and Thailand, each coup ushers in a different regime regardless of whether the same military faction carried it out. Clear-cut, paradigmatic cases of autocratisation via executive aggrandisement like Hungary have a prelude that is key to understanding their denouement. Other countries might be careening or swerving – experiencing erratic, back-and-forth movements rather than one-directional change. Translating these qualitatively different, often long-term and recurrent patterns into autocratisation 'episodes' might increase comparability. However, it also risks losing fundamental anchoring to political realities.

The geography of global autocratisation

Some may be tempted to lump different regime transformation processes together simply because they are happening at the same time. In a previous blog and podcast episode, we call out this 'temporal fallacy'. Others lament the 'recency bias' that neglects longer-term histories of democratic degradation. Here, we suggest that paying more attention to the geography of autocratisation ushers in two promising directions for research.

First, it invites us to build a better typology of autocratising transformations. We need different names for different processes. In some contexts, such as Turkey, executive aggrandisement might be the key driver of autocratisation and the main threat to democracy. In others, such as South Africa, the main threat, or barrier, to accountable governance is state capture by private interests. And in others still, such as Rwanda, transformations take the form of autocratic deepening or shifts between similarly autocratic leaderships. We need a more systematic and empirically grounded typology of the different processes that compose the global trend: what they are, why they are happening, and how they are evolving over time. This first direction for research will allow us to draw a map of the composite geography of autocratisation.

We must build a map of where different autocratisation processes are taking place and then ask questions about that map

Autocratisation is global, but patterned

A second, complementary research direction is to ask higher-order questions about the map while reflecting on whether this sense of 'global' autocratisation is, in part, a West-centric perception. Are we paying more attention to autocratisation elsewhere simply because of the recent political developments in the West? And are we trying to understand everything by examining it through a Western political lens?

We need to better spatialise the 'global' in global autocratisation trends, and decentre it from the dominant modes of Western political knowledge production. To do so, we need to ask: Why are so many qualitatively different autocratisation processes happening concurrently? Why are some happening in some places but not others? How do we explain the global patterning of autocratisation? Has this pattern changed over time, and did regional phenomena spread to other parts of the world? And how does it relate to other transformations like the financialisation and oligarchisation of global capitalism, extreme wealth accumulation, technological and communication changes?

Investigating the 'global'

Answering these questions requires moving beyond state-bound explanations of regime transformations. Domestic actors such as incumbents, coup leaders, local economic elites, and mobilised grassroots operate in domestic strategic environments. These environments are not shaped solely by domestic structures such as institutions, state capacity, elite coalitions, or the strength of civil society. Accounts of global autocratisation patterning must better understand how domestic actors and structures interact with global drivers, like capitalist and technological transformations, transnational actors (e.g. corporations, big tech), and international actors (e.g. international organisations like the IMF, donors, autocracy-promoting countries).

Questions of resilience and resistance against autocratisation have attracted more academic attention. Given this interest, a better map of autocratisation types, and better understanding of their global patterning, are more vital than ever. Our mission at the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation is to rethink the language of autocratisation so that it better captures the different spatial and temporal trends that hide behind this aggregate language.

♟️ No.25 in our Autocracies with Adjectives series examining the nuanced differences between autocratic regimes around the world

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Licia Cianetti Licia Cianetti Deputy Director, Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation (CEDAR), University of Birmingham More by this author
photograph of Petra Alderman Petra Alderman Research Fellow, Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation (CEDAR) / Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Leadership for Inclusive and Democratic Politics, International Development Department, University of Birmingham More by this author

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