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FANTASY, CAPITALISM AND AUTHORITARIANISM

Capitalism is traditionally studied as a largely economic, therefore material phenomenon. Yet the success of markets and marketization relies upon deep affective commitments (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005; Hardt, 1999; Kenny et al., 2011). Even at the most basic level, consumption is premised on the emotional appeal of advertisements (Kavka, 2008; Skeggs and Wood, 2012). This affective component extends to all facets of capitalist life, from production to its political legitimization as a socioeconomic system. Employment, for instance, is replete with romanticized workplace identities extolling the virtues of the firm. The search for a job is underpinned by fantasies of personal and professional success (Bloom, 2013). At the broader level, capitalism as an economic system draws on idealized promises of future prosperity and shared socioeconomic development to justify its continued existence, especially so during times of crisis (Bloom, 2014).

More than being just a collection of material transactions, capitalism exists, then, as a dynamic and always evolving affective, or psychic, economy. It is composed of a diverse set of emotionally resonant discourses that help to produce social identity and regulate practices. People, in this respect, are psychologically “gripped” by capitalism - constructing and securing their sense of selfhood attached to its appealing promises of psychological fulfillment. Quoting Zizek again:

[T]he element which holds together a given community cannot be reduced to the point of symbolic identification: the bonds linking together its members always implies a shared relationship to the Thing, toward enjoyment incarnated ... If we are asked how we can recognise the presence of this Thing, the only consistent answer is that the Thing is present in that elusive entity called our “way of life.” (Zizek, 1993: 201)

Revealed, in turn, is a fresh vantage point from which to understand capitalist reproduction. Its preservation is inexorably linked to its ability to psychologically “seize” subjectivity, and in doing so, stand as the exclusive foundation for forming and maintaining identity.

Historically, these fantasies have had a strong connection to authoritarian values. Employment often meant accepting the strictures of a quite hierarchical and regulative workplace. Co-existing alongside political liberalism have been everyday economic institutions largely devoid of democracy and steeped in inequality. Not surprisingly, work fantasies romanticizing the firm were associated with the “seductive” power of managers:

The propeller turning the wheels of “management by seduction” is hidden in the seduction itself: the future presented is pink and rosy and appears to be full of opportunities. Clearly this seduction process is truly a matter of emotions and feelings rather than rational considerations. (Doorewaard and Benschop, 2003: 279)

Indeed, early descriptions of capitalist employment, still characteristic of many workplaces globally, bear much resemblance in spirit to stereotypical authoritarian regimes and the fantasies they deployed.

These authoritarian foundations have survived despite evolutions in workplace culture. New human relations ideas have supposedly revolutionized capitalist employment, emphasizing consensus over coercion. However, underpinning this promise are new justifications for authority and conformity. Human relations paradigms focusing on employee wellbeing as well as their personal and professional fulfillment, nonetheless, maintain a quite regulative capitalist system. In this respect:

the person, not the organization, is managing. It consists of all the person’s varied experiences in education, training, work in several organizations, changes in occupational field, etc. The protean person’s own personal career choices and search for self-fulfillment are the unifying or integrative elements in his or her life. The criterion of success is internal (psychological success) not external. (Hall, 1976: 201)

Such capitalist fantasies have, furthermore, served to directly support the contemporary sovereign power of managers. The contemporary age was meant to spell the end of the authoritarian organization, as there was predicted to be a “crisis of bureaucracy in the age of enterprise” (Courpasson and Reed, 2004: 7). In this new “post-bureaucratic” era, firms would be “structured to increase flexibility, with less formalization and more decentralization than in the traditional bureaucratic organization” (Contu and Grey, 2003: 935). Nevertheless these established authoritarian structures have persisted, adapting to these new institutional forms. As Courpasson and Clegg (2006: 319) observe, “bureaucracy far from being superseded, is rejuvenating, through complex processes of hybridism in which supposedly opposite political structures and principles, the democratic and oligarchic, intermingle and propagate.”

Within these “soft bureaucracies” sovereign power not only remains but is in many ways enhanced. Bosses are invested with a type of transcendental power, able to ensure or prevent an individual’s dreams of fulfillment (Rhodes and Bloom, 2012). There is a spiritualized quality, in this regard, granted to managers, linked to employee desires for an “ideal leader” who is perfectly competent and supportive of their professional and personal desires. Tellingly, complex bureaucratic organizations are framed similarly to the “heavenly hierarchies” of the past, where the higher up in the organization one was the closer they were to “God” (Kornberger et al., 2006). As such, these quite administrative and depersonalized firms become identified with and centered upon a strong leader supervising, like God previously, from high above (Parker, 2009).

Capitalist identity, then, remains largely transfixed, at least at the level of the workplace, to a rather traditional authoritarian perspective revolving around the “good” or “bad” leader. Stavrakakis (2008), in this regard, directly associates contemporary strategies of organizational control with the affective enjoyment they gain in the “symbolic authority” embodied by the present-day manager. Perhaps even more so, it establishes sovereignty as the primary means to understand and practice power.

[T]he processes of comparison, hierarchization, differentiation, homogenization and exclusion that Foucault observes as the objective mechanisms of discipline have as their necessary correlate similar process “within” the ego as I seek to fix identity in the essentially competitive space of the mirror of my own and other’s objectifications. (Roberts, 2005: 637)

At stake then, is to understand how these authoritarian fantasies linked to capitalist labor are also present within the political sphere. Illuminated is the compatibility of capitalism economically with authoritarian structures and fantasies generally. There is a long tradition, as shown, for legitimizing and rendering market-based relations attractive and sustainable through appealing to rather strong sovereign-based affective discourses. The “affective economy” of capitalism relies upon authoritarian fantasies for its continued reproduction. This insight opens the space for investigating how it similarly depends on explicitly politically authoritarian fantasies for the same purpose.

 
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