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Globalization and the desire for authoritarianism

With the demise of the Soviet Union, there seemed to be no barrier to the spread of liberal democracy and global economic prosperity. Globalization promised greater international cooperation and national democracy. In practice, the last two decades have witnessed a resurgence of authoritarianism and quite virulent forms of nationalism. The question is why this is the case. Or more precisely, what is it about globalization that breeds this type of political authoritarianism and parochialism?

This reflects the supposed paradoxical character of present-day globalization. At the dawn of this millennium, US labor leader John J. Sweeney (2000) stated, “In its current form globalization cannot be sustained. Democratic societies will not support it. Authoritarian leaders will fear to impose it.” Such sentiments seem naive in light of contemporary circumstances whereby democracies and dictatorships alike have fervently embraced marketization and an international “free market.” At stake then, is a perceived choice between popular, specifically national, sovereignty on the one hand and a growing economic international financial regime on the other. According to the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haas, “states must be prepared to cede some sovereignty to world bodies if the international system is to function” (Haas, 2006).

To put it more bluntly, the stronger globalization is the weaker national, and perhaps democratic, self-determination appears to become. Such insights may be accurate, but they fail to get to the core of the issue at hand - it speaks to the results, not the cause of this problem. A common perspective for understanding this dynamic is to attribute it to structural problems of corporate globalization (Scholte, 2000). According to Ohmae (1995: vii), corporate globalization spells the “end of the nation state” as it has “raised troubling questions about the relevance - and effectiveness - of nation states as meaningful aggregates in terms of which to think about, much less manage, economic activity.”

There is much to recommend from this reading. It is undeniably true that rising political and economic inequality is a historically fertile breeding ground for populism of both right- and left-wing varieties.

Further, the harmful social effects of this marketization, or “shocks,” as Naomi Klein aptly refers to them, necessitates a strong state to ensure the implementation of these “reforms” in the face of often widespread popular dissent. Yet this explanation does little to explain why such authoritarianism remains so attractive to individuals across contexts. It is not just that the implementation of hyper-capitalism commonly requires the iron fist of a willing government. It is that this authoritarianism is also often demanded, or at least supported, from the bottom up. The appeal to either hard or soft authoritarian rule - with all its traditional accompaniments of a reified leader and civil repression - is gaining in popularity politically in exact relation to the spread of globalization economically. The globalization paradox can, therefore, be restated: as corporate globalization grows so to does the desire for authoritarian state power.

This chapter looks more in-depth at how economic discourses of globalization are catalyzing popular desires for political authoritarianism. Specifically, it contends that the portrayal of corporate globalization as “inevitable” and “necessary” creates an intensified desire for individual and collective sovereignty. Rather than simply be a “subjectless” part of an inexorable and unavoidable spread of an international financial regime, people affectively embrace their right and ability to shape this process to their own advantage - to be, in this sense, a subject of globalization instead of merely being subjected to it. As will be shown, this fantasy of sovereignty associated with globalization is quite conducive to conventional authoritarianism, and ironically serves to provide a popular legitimacy to capitalism’s ongoing structural necessity of a regulative state for its survival and growth.

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