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THE RISE OF THE MARKET DESPOTS

The twenty-first century has witnessed a pronounced rise of explicitly authoritarian regimes. However, in the face of mainstream expectations, these dictatorial regimes have also embraced marketization (see for instance Ottaway, 2003; Bunce, 2003; McFaul, 2002; Carothers, 2002; Diamond, 2002). Countries such as China and Russia have adopted a market system while still maintaining the necessity of a strong, and at times intervening, government presence. The state socialism of the twentieth century has morphed into the state capitalism of the twenty- first century (Lane, 2008; Levitsky and Way, 2010). As one liberal commentator opined:

[T]he free-market tide has now receded. In its place has come state capitalism, a system in which the state functions as the leading economic actor and uses markets primarily for political gain. This trend has stoked a new global competition, not between rival political ideologies but between competing economic models. And with the injection of politics into economic decisionmaking, an entirely different set of winners and losers is emerging. (Bremmer, 2009: 41)

Whereas this has sparked widespread fears among some mainstream thinkers of the “end of the free market,” it can also be seen as an attempt to politically preserve and sustain this transition to a market economy within a volatile global economic and political climate.

Indeed, the effects of this resurgent “statism” have had a resounding, and not all together unexpected, political effect. Notably, it has legitimated the continued, and at times enhanced, policing and repressing of the population by the government. Scholars have referred to this phenomenon as “soft authoritarianism,” a form of “political control in which a combination of formal and informal mechanisms ensure the dominance of a ruling group or dominant party, despite the existence of some forms of political competition” (Kesselman et al., 2009: 340). It acts, in this regard, as “a type of paternalist authoritarianism that persuades rather than coerces” while often “emphasizing conformity to group interests over individual rights” (Fukuyama, 1992: 60-61). Yet there is often very little that is “soft” about such regimes and their practices. While relying less on such practices they still exhibit the traditional characteristics of “hard” authoritarian governments of the past. They are replete with political prisoners, state censorship and the formal and informal suppression of internal opposition (see for example Nasir and Turner, 2013; Moss, 2014; Slater, 2003; Svolik, 2012).

Further, they are commonly constructed around the cult of a strong leader or leadership, able to singularly guide the country in the right direction for its present and future prosperity. Here “The manipulation of the electoral process, undermining of democratic institutions, frontal attacks on the rival opposition parties as well as democratic civil society, and the promotion of the personality cult of the leader are usual practices under soft authoritarianism” (Uyangoda, 2015). Perhaps the most famous exemplar of this new “cult of personality” is found in Russia with the rise of Putinism (Cassiday and Johnson, 2013). While, certainly not all instances of state capitalism are marked by a charismatic leader, as in the past with fascism or totalitarian communism, they nonetheless exhibit a strong commitment to the ability of an autocratic government to “guide” development. They are, therefore, despotic both in their championing of a strong state actor and in their willingness to engage in a range of repressive measures for defending this central leadership.

This continuation and growth of despotism flies in the face of previous assumptions following the end of the Cold War. It was widely believed, as previously discussed, that the spread of the market economically would go hand in hand with the spread of democracy politically. Yet, if anything, the reverse has occurred. The long march of capitalism globally has been met and, as will be shown, politically aided by a turn to authoritarianism nationally on both a large and small scale. Previous predictions of liberal democracy as the “end of history” are being replaced for some by a new vision of “blurring borders between democracies and authoritarian capitalism, rather than the triumph of democracy or the resurgence of authoritarianism, that defines the global political landscape” (Krastev, 2012).

There is, of course, a traditional story to somewhat explain this continued presence of authoritarianism at the beginning stages of capitalism’s “end of history.” During the Cold War, the support for right-wing dictatorships was defended on the grounds that they would transition into liberal democracies (Kirkpatrick, 1982). The reasons for this optimistic view were twofold. Politically, it was argued that a conservative despot was closer to the ideals of liberty than their left-wing communist counterparts. If they were not democratic at least they supported “economic freedom.” Economically, it was said that these repressive regimes were by nature temporary, as the development of a market economy inherently leads politically to liberal democracy.

Nevertheless, the persistence of authoritarianism directly undermines the underlying logic of these optimistic liberal understandings. Instead, they point to the deeper and more intimate linkages between marketiz- ation and despotism. Far from transitioning or withering away to the “ash heap” of history, these authoritarian regimes are thriving. Tellingly, they are doing so not in opposition to capitalism but firmly in support of it, even as they appear to pose a threat to their liberal democratic counterparts (whether real or perceived). “Today’s global liberal democratic order faces a significant challenge from the rise of nondemocratic great powers,” argues Professor Azir Gat in a 2007 New York Times editorial, “the West’s old Cold War rivals, China and Russia, are now operating under ‘authoritarian capitalist’ rather than Communist regimes.”

Present then is a political authoritarianism that does more than simply co-exist alongside marketization. It actually appears to maintain, bolster and reproduce the deepening of capitalism economically. For this reason, these modern regimes can be termed “market despots” - as they simultaneously advocate for greater privatization while also promoting a strengthened right to exclusive rule. There appears then to be competing economic and politics logics at work; the shrinkage of the state from the private sphere and its enhancement in the socio-political one.

For those familiar with the historical evolution of capitalist political economy, this is not a particularly surprising contradiction. The presence of a strong and supportive state has always been crucial for the implementation and spread of a market economy (Wolfe, 1977). Yet that does not mean that in each context or era, this structural support is completely identical. It is imperative, therefore, to illuminate how and in what ways a stronger state is being legitimized and how this legitimization is uniquely justifying capitalism and political authoritarianism within its current era.

The rise of globalization as a modern phenomenon is then central for comprehending this current proliferation of market despotism. Beyond the concrete processes of marketization, the discourse of globalization also creates its own political conditions. Put differently, it frames the contemporary climate in specific ways, directing political desires and identities in quite particular directions. At stake is how globalization is producing desires for authoritarian rule in such a way that reinforces capitalism economically.

 
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