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Home arrow Political science arrow Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalization


The traditional political narrative of capitalism is one of the ongoing triumphs of democracy. The freedom provided by markets goes hand in hand with the liberalization of a society politically. This national discourse is supposedly universal in its scope, as all countries regardless of culture or history can draw upon the forces of marketization to produce a stable and vibrant liberal democracy. However, this triumphant narrative is undercut by the more complex, and at times seemingly explicitly antagonistic, relationship of economic capitalism with the creation of greater political freedom and democracy.

Recent discussions focus on the sheer variety of the political forms capitalism can take. Indeed, it seems to be adaptable to quite progressively regulative social democracies as much as it is at home in explicitly pro-market political environments (Dore et al., 1999; Hall and Soskice, 2004; Rueda and Pontusson, 2000). In the contemporary period of globalization, this variety has come to encompass, as will be shown in the next chapter, single-party political regimes who are nonetheless economically committed to expanding marketization at all costs. This authoritarian capitalism echoes previous instances where dictators were supported and ruled in the name of implementing a capitalist economic agenda. Repressive measures were legitimized as an important means for fighting communism and providing the stability necessary for capitalist economic growth (Kirkpatrick, 1982).

New historical perspectives are needed to account for the positive interaction between capitalism and authoritarianism. Crucial for such a historical recounting is to move away from deterministic explanations of this relation. Put differently, both Marxists and liberals, despite their differences, have often assumed that there is a necessary and immutable way the economy affects the political sphere. From a so-called “modernization” perspective even up to the present, this outlook is captured in the firm belief of mainstream thinkers and policy-makers that democracy is an organic outgrowth of marketization. By contrast, many Marxists contend that capitalism will necessarily deconstruct due to its own internal contradictions, leading politically to the transition toward socialism (Bullock and Yaffe, 1975; Chesnais, 1984; Clarke, 1994; Grossman, 1992; Mattick, 1981; Yaffe, 1973). Yet this notion has been called into severe question both by the failures of actually existing socialism and the fact that capitalism has remained resilient in the face of multiple historical crises.

Economics and politics are, thus, in a constant, and never predetermined or easily predictable, historical negotiation with each other. “Open Marxists” highlight this contingent rather than deterministic history (Bonefeld, 1992; Burnham, 1994). They stress the role of crisis periods for reconstructing the politics of capitalism. In the words of Bell and Cleaver (1982: 191) “such a ‘political reading’ of crisis theory eschews reading Marx as philosophy, political economy, or simply as a critique. It insists on reading it from a working-class perspective and as a strategic weapon within the class struggle.” This reconstruction can be quite diverse in character. It may mean the expansion or diminishing of the state’s involvement in the market, depending on what the political situation demands. Politically, it could entail further repression or the caving-in to popular pressure for reforms (whatever they may be) to shore up capitalism fundamentally and the authority of elites (Cleaver, 1992).

Such readings gesture toward the compatibility of political authoritarianism for expanding capitalism economically. The state has always played a significant role for supporting and strengthening marketization (Wolfe, 1977). Theoretically, the more representative aspects of liberal democracies are eternally threatened and potentially diminished and limited by the need to protect the rights and power of capitalists (Miliband, 1969; Wright, 1979). Empirically, the state functions to regulate and shape the norms required for the advancement and strengthening of capitalism (Jessop, 1982; Poulantzas, 2000).

From this vantage point, the rise of authoritarian capitalism becomes clearer. Capitalism can politically be more or less authoritarian depending on the broader socio-historical climate. More to the point, authoritarian capitalism can arise through rendering itself an attractive political discourse. This insight reflects the ideas of neo-Gramscians, who situate the politics of capitalism as inexorably linked to processes of popular legitimization (Cox, 1987; Ruggie, 1982). Quoting from Gramsci himself:

A crisis occurs ... This exceptional duration means that uncurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves ... and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making efforts to cure them within certain limits, and to overcome them. (1971: 178)

These legitimizations are subject to continual change and evolution in light of political and social events.

Authoritarian capitalism can therefore be seen as a historically specific, though by no means historically unique, dominant political discourse. The previously discussed work of Laclau and Mouffe (1986) is especially instructive in this regard. They emphasize the formation and entrenchment of socio-political relations through the hegemonic struggle between discourses for supremacy. Authoritarian discourses and practices are then inexorably associated with broader processes of socio-political legitimization and maneuvering. Key is their effectiveness in popularly framing market policies or conversely, the ability of marketization policies to be strategically directed in support of authoritarian political regimes.

This is not to imply though that the politics of capitalism is completely arbitrary. Rather, it is to show that it evolves out of specific historical and cultural contexts that render certain understandings more sensible and attractive than others. At stake, hence, is to better illuminate the sociohistorical factors that have made authoritarianism politically appealing as a discourse within the present age of expansive global capitalism.

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