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CONTEMPORARY FANTASIES OF AUTHORITARIAN CAPITALISM
How then has this fantasy of authoritarian capitalism been manifested, if at all, in the contemporary age of globalization? This would seem a perhaps strange question in a time at the supposed “end of history,” where “liberal democracies” are supposed to reign unchallenged as an ideal and concrete form of government, and in which a globalizing market is meant to create economic, social and political liberalization worldwide. Yet, as discussed, traditional forms of political authoritarianism persist, just as, if not more troubling, does the increasingly “illiberal” character of established and emerging national democracies. At stake is how each are drawing on, though in diverse ways, a common present-day affective discourse of authoritarian capitalism.
To answer this question, it is worth first looking to the past, specifically at the affective legitimization of authoritarian regimes and policies historically, capitalist or otherwise. Notably, any and all fantasies have a certain “totalitarian” character, in their attempt to form an exclusive identity around a specific affective structuring of “reality.” Moreover, this “totalitarian” aspect is very much connected to sovereign discourses associated with a “master”:
What psychoanalysis can do to help the critique of ideology is precisely to clarify the status of this paradoxical jouissance as the payment the exploited, the served received for serving the master. This jouissance of course, always emerges within a certain phantasmic field; the crucial precondition for breaking the chains of servitude is thus to “transverse the fantasy” which structures our jouissance in a way which keeps us attached to the Master - makes us accept the framework of the social relationship of domination. (Zizek, 1997: 48)
However, Zizek (2006: 88) noticeably differentiates between the general “totalitarianism of fantasy” and an explicitly “totalitarian fantasy.” Turning his attention to communist discourses, Zizek highlights the explicitly totalitarian fantasy associated with Bolshevism, particularly during its Stalinist period. It was not just that a fantasy exclusively promised psychic wholeness. Rather, it was that this fulfillment could only be achieved through the auspices of a strong sovereign. Here, “The party functions as the miraculous immediate incarnation of an Objective neutral knowledge ... the paradoxical intersection between the subjective will and the laws” (Zizek, 2006: 67-8). What is particularly relevant to the current era is the relation between a closed ideology of progress to the construction of a totalitarian fantasy connected to supreme sovereign power. Likewise, as will be explored throughout this book, a key function of this supreme sovereign is to protect this “correct” ideology from internal and external enemies.
While the contemporary “psychic economy” of capitalism does not trade, at least usually if ever, in such an all-encompassing “cult of personality,” the totalitarianism of the past does resonate with the rather closed ideological character of current globalization discourses. As will be investigated in greater detail in the next chapter, economic liberalization is extolled as the exclusive path to national and international prosperity. Accordingly, its positive fantasy of progress is quite narrow in terms of underlying economic ideals. Similar to the ways communism was an unquestioned ideology for structuring present society and achieving future development, global capitalism has largely monopolized ideological discussions as to the “right way” to realize socioeconomic progress now and going forward. The primary contemporary question is not what type of socioeconomic system we desire, but rather what is the “right” market society both for ourselves and globally?
This closed ideological fantasy of globalized capitalism has in turn legitimated the increasing power of political sovereigns. More precisely, it dramatically increases the affective appeal of enhanced political power. The primary objective of modern politics is to “correctly” guide the market for attaining national prosperity. In its most positive envisioning, the capitalist sovereign is one who is uniquely able to understand and implement marketization for the benefit of those they rule. Crucial, in this respect, is having an intimate knowledge of the best ways to maximize the effects of the market given a specific country’s particular culture and economic needs. The fantasy of authoritarian capitalism, thus, in the present era is one of a benevolent sovereign “governing” the market in the service of the general population.
Intimately associated with this idealization of sovereignty, is the appeal to a sense of freedom ironically attached to such authoritarianism. There is a natural feeling of disempowerment, an experience of lacking agency, in the face of “inevitable historical processes.” In other words, if there is only one correct path toward progress, and moreover it is already in motion, then what agency is left to individuals? This is a common problem historically for many totalitarian regimes, perhaps most notably international communism and fascist regimes. Yet it also rings true for current affective discourses of globalization.
Indeed, as Zizek points out, authoritarian regimes are “supplemented” by an accompanying and reinforcing affective identification with the sovereign granting them “an enjoyment which serves as the unacknowledged support of meaning” (1994: 56-7). Thus in the face of what Zizek
(1994: 81-2) refers to as “traditional” forms of sovereignty premised on the legal “rights” of the ruler and ruled, individuals reify the non-legal agency found for instance in vigilantes. Their enjoyment, here, stems from the ability to imagine and invest in an identity that is counter to their “legal status” as sovereign subjects. Conversely in a totalitarian regime, where the sovereign is granted unlimited power and employs quite arbitrary and brutal methods for maintaining rule, an affective public image of a “caring” and “personable” ruler emerges (also see Tie, 2004: 163).
The extolling of sovereign power, hence, reinvests individuals, even if only by proxy, with the power to shape history and their destinies. This can be captured positively in the investment in a manager for granting individuals the opportunity to achieve their “dreams” (Bloom, 2013). It is also found in economic fantasies extolling the ability to become like a powerful corporate executive, thus having the freedom to live and act as one pleases (Bloom and Cederstrom, 2009). At the political level, the promise of future “market progress” serves as a potentially unifying social force for organizing society and identity. This beatific political identification often revolves around the ability of a strong sovereign (in the form of a person, party or elected representative) to “correctly” realize this capitalist dream.
A crucial means for experiencing such freedom, furthermore, is via the identification and elimination of enemies. Here the negative aspect of fantasy unites with its positive component. The idealization of a “good capitalist leader” is translated into the justified task of confronting enemies to this national progress linked to the proper implementation of a market economy. This malevolent force, as will be discussed throughout the book, can be quite heterogeneous. It may be a direct economic threat (e.g. immigrants, leftist populists or even bankers), it may be foreign dangers (e.g. terrorists) or it may be international “capitalist” enemies (e.g. the Washington Consensus). Connecting all these forms of demonization is the need to eradicate this enemy who is putting at constant risk capitalist prosperity, a task uniquely suited to a powerful sovereign. In this call to protect “market progress” there emerges a reinvigorated contemporary global fantasy of authoritarian capitalism.
This chapter has provided a brief historical overview of the relationship between economic capitalism and political authoritarianism. It highlighted the “affective economy” fundamental to the survival and reproduction of capitalism both in the past and present. To this end, capitalism, as with all socioeconomic systems, relies in part on the construction of an affective fantasy for its evolving legitimization. This chapter furthermore sought to illuminate the historic compatibility of capitalist fantasies with politically authoritarian values. It concluded by gesturing toward how this fantasy of authoritarian capitalism remains a vital socio-political affective discourse. The next chapter will expand on these conceptual insights, examining authoritarianism as specifically associated with present-day globalization.