THE GLOBAL CAPITALIST FANTASY OF AUTHORITARIAN NATIONALISM
Crucial for addressing this concern, is to better understand the contemporary appeal of authoritarianism. It is perhaps an easy and all too understandable perspective to view these regimes as merely unpopular; as repressive governments that simply retain their power through fear against a cowed population. Yet, this is a rather narrow view, ignoring the widespread popular support enjoyed by many of these regimes. The Pew Research Center reports, for instance, that 87 percent of China’s population supported the government in 2010, a figure consistent with the 80 percent approval ratings the regime had been experiencing in recent years (Bell, 2011). Moreover, the solution is not solely, or even primarily, reducible to charismatic leaders. Indeed, in the same poll, 66 percent of Chinese citizens thought progress had occurred in their lifetime, while a full 74 percent are optimistic about the future.
Thus, while established authoritarian factors such as fear or personality cults certainly have an effect, they far from fully explain either the persistence or fundamental appeal of market despotism. Historically, the popularity of state capitalism has been aided by the 2008 financial crisis that “discredited free market capitalism for many in the developing world” (Bremmer, 2010: 46). Moreover, the discourse surrounding such authoritarianism reveals much of its attraction. It tellingly centers on the need to recapture and preserve a national identity against the encroachment of a faceless and exploitive globalization. To this effect, it plays on a quite resonant and timely “us vs. the world” politics (Bloom, 2011).
Driving this sentiment is the feeling of lost agency caused by the seemingly uninterrupted and unstoppable spread of corporate globalization. The attraction of nationalism is a renewed attempt to invest in an identity in which marketization is not directed at but works for a twenty-first century population. Accordingly, “the duty of the passive citizenry is merely to recognise the legitimacy of the regime; the duty of the state is to provide security by weeding out citizens who are troublesome” (Nasir and Turner, 2013: 340). Key to such a dynamic, is the ability of the state to deliver a “compressed modernity,” sacrificing the need of individual rights for the broader goal of achieving collective prosperity through state-led marketization (Kyung-sup, 1999).
Authoritarian governments, whether in the figure of a single person or a party, come to represent (both literally and figuratively) this struggle for freedom, contra globalization. The state stands in stark contrast to faceless marketization processes that appear irrepressible and at first impression outside the grasp of human management. If globalization threatens to rob individuals of the enjoyment of their freedom, despotic regimes promise ironically to restore to them this agency.
Reflected is a quite distinct authoritarian fantasy borne out of the discursive political conditions of present-day global capitalism. Zizek (2006), for instance, depicts a “totalitarian” fantasy as the embrace of a ruling figure or party that can singularly realize and implement an unchangeable social law. In such a case, “the law has lost all formal neutrality” and the correctness of all norms and practices are ultimately determined by the judgment of an authoritarian ruler. The predominant example, in this sense, is that of Stalin, who pronounced his exclusive ability to put in place the “unmovable laws of history” toward the coming of communism. Here:
The fetishist functioning of the Party guarantees the position of a neutral knowledge ... The Stalinist discourse is presented as a pure metalanguage, as the knowledge of “objective laws,” applied “on” the “pure” object, (representing) the descriptive [constatif] discourse of objective knowledge. The very engagement of theory on the side of the proletariat, its “hold over the party,” is not “internal” - Marxism does not speak of the position of the proletariat; it “is oriented to” the proletariat from an external, neutral, “objective” position. (Zizek, 2006: 33)
The political fantasy underpinning market despotism similarly fetishizes the party, often in quite totalitarian ways - though in practice they rarely reach the totalitarian extremes of their historical predecessors. Present is the ability of a government to link its rule to a positive fantasy, in doing so, affectively associating their regime with the realization of the country’s future prosperity and more fundamentally psychic wholeness. As Tie (2004: 163), drawing on the work of Zizek, observes, “Totalitarian orders emerge, alternatively, where this sequence reverses, where the unconscious supplement resonates with popular, pleasurable fantasies, and underpins an authoritarian regime.” Consequently, “the civilised, even charitable nature of this unconscious underpinning enables authoritarian rule to gain a level of authority unavailable to ‘traditional’ sovereignty. Brutality embraces affection” (ibid.). Returning to the “soft authoritarianism” of state capitalism, it is the ability of the government to apply its “correct knowledge” to local conditions that reinforces this “popular, pleasurable, fantasies” of state-led capitalism and, thus, justifies repression in its name.
Nonetheless, this resurgent capitalist fantasy of authoritarian nationalism, has added a new dimension to this established totalitarian trope. Significantly, it reflects the “traditional” fantasy of authority at work within globalization generally. In this respect, non-totalitarian authority is underpinned by an affective discourse that simultaneously expounds the “non-violent” and procedural nature of its power while having to “supplement” this rule with “excessive” practices that while illegal are fundamental to the survival of the underlying power relations upheld by this sovereign order (Zizek, 1994). Examples, historically, can be found ranging from the creation of the KKK as an extra-governmental force for maintaining racial segregation within an ostensibly democratic American state to modern practices of police brutality to deal with marginalized communities within contemporary liberal nations (Tie, 2004).
Returning to the context of contemporary globalization, the authoritarian excesses of the state capitalists illuminates an analogous need for an actor able to, if necessary, coercively protect and maintain corporate globalization. The post-Cold War fantasies of an integrated “free market” economy characterized by universal democracy is supplemented by a strong national actor who can “do what needs to be done,” even if it does not always conform to international standards of human rights, in order to ensure structurally that marketization continues unabated and discursively; that it serves the needs of the population as opposed to foreign and domestic elites. Illustrated is the requirement of a strong state actor, whose actions may or may not be always officially sanctioned or accepted, to do the “dirty work” of implementing capitalism globally amidst a regime of global governance that rhetorically stakes its legitimacy to values of “non-coercion” and “fairness” in support of continued national and trans-national inequality economically and politically.
In this respect, the rise of the market despots is a virulent combination of traditional and totalitarian fantasies. These authoritarian capitalists represent both the “illegal” but necessary supplement to the liberal hegemony of the “free market” while also the fetishized rulers whom uniquely and “objectively” know how to deliver progress to their citizens. They embody, to this effect, the appeal of the anti-hero - the affective investment in an individual or group who directly contravenes and intentionally breaks entrenched social norms and laws when necessary. Market despots of the twenty-first century are modern-day political “bad boys,” unafraid to sneer at universally accepted “truths” of market globalization for the sake of their country and subjects.
Importantly, their resistance is not aimed at capitalism itself but an “exploitive” capitalism being imposed on them by sinister global forces. Revealed, therefore, is a new fantasy of “national authoritarian capitalism” whereby a leader or regime is solely able to direct marketization for the “good of the people” based on their specific and unique cultural conditions.