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The rise of authoritarian capitalism in the twenty-first century

As the twenty-first century dawned there was fresh optimism for the triumph of democracy over political authoritarianism. The end of the Cold War supposedly signaled the “end of history” and with it the rise of liberal democracy and the demise of authoritarian regimes worldwide. Associated with this promise was the spread of economic capitalism internationally. It was to be an era of peaceful democratic markets. As one commentator at the time famously declared:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. (Fukuyama, 1989)

Yet the first decade of the new millennium has belied these optimistic expectations. While it is indeed an age of capitalist globalization, political authoritarianism has not only survived but seems to be gaining new steam. Moreover, it has done so in the name of preserving marketization nationally and trans-nationally.

This apparent contradiction between economic liberalization and political authoritarianism has raised questions about the contemporary role of capitalism as a positive force for democratization. Rather than transitioning previously totalitarian states toward democracy and deepening it within perceived established liberal states, globalization has instead been theorized as enhancing despotism and repressive policies. Economic liberalization is increasingly viewed as a national “shock” that requires an oppressive sovereign state to implement and maintain its commonly unpopular “reforms” (Klein, 2007). This has also brought to the forefront deeper concerns regarding the fundamental relation of capitalism to authoritarianism. In this regard, economists are pointing to the inherent function of marketization for creating and sustaining political oligarchy (Piketty, 2014). These fears have only been exacerbated following the financial crisis of 2008 alongside the rising power of authoritarian “great powers” internationally.

At stake then is how to account for this paradox, that the more economically liberal a country becomes, the greater its reliance on authoritarianism seems to be across contexts. More precisely, to illuminate how the deepening of marketization worldwide is contributing to the strengthening of explicitly dictatorial regimes and the illiberal policies progressively pursued by traditionally democratic states. What are the underlying dynamics driving this diverse “authoritarian capitalism” in the twenty-first century? How to explain the rise of authoritarian capitalism in the age of globalization? What does this reveal about the more fundamental relationship between political authoritarianism and economic capitalism?

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