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Developing authoritarian capitalism: the global capitalist fantasy of authoritarian modernization

On March 23, 2015 Singapore’s founding father and longest-serving Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew passed away. Leaders from across the world joined in praise for his leadership over the young “city state” country’s development. President Barack Obama called him a “true giant of history” while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon referred to him as a “legendary figure in Asia” (Rawlinson, 2015). These words are perhaps understandable given Singapore’s economic record of robust growth, global openness to business alongside low levels of acute poverty (despite high inequality). Yet they are also somewhat disconcerting when considering the government’s now seven-decade long authoritarian rule. Indeed, only a month later, a teenage blogger would be arrested and face up to three years in jail for criticizing this “true giant of history” online (Abernethy, 2015).

The death of Lee Kuan Yew highlights growing tensions to optimistic accounts that marketization will inevitably lead to both progressive political and economic development. The global shift toward neoliberalism raises renewed questions over whether policies of privatization and deregulation can provide for concrete development goals linked to health and welfare as well as genuine democratization. At the end of the last century, in the midst of the supposed liberal democratic “end of history,” a new mentality for national development emerged, revolving around the “dominance of a market oriented approach to the question of national development and the willingness of governments to follow the policy dictates of international finance organizations based on this perspective” (Portes, 1997: 229). However, in the intervening years, it is increasingly ambiguous whether marketization is indeed a driver of development. Kumi et al. (2014) echo a common refrain when they ask “Can post 2015 sustainable development goals survive neoliberalism?”

These concerns have extended beyond social and economic critique and into the political sphere. Present is a distinct pessimism about the prospects of democracy in an age defined by global capitalism, when before it was seen as a mere inevitability. “Democracy has retreated in Bangladesh, Nigeria, the Philippines, Russia, Thailand, and Venezuela, and the Bush administration’s attempts to establish democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to have left both countries in chaos,” bemoans Inglehart and Welzel (2009: 1), “These developments, along with the growing power of China and Russia, have led many observers to argue that democracy has reached its high-water mark and is no longer on the rise.” Previous evidence backs up this pessimism regarding the future of democracy globally, as it has been shown empirically that economic “modernization” does not naturally or even necessarily lead to political democracy (Przeworski and Limongi, 1997).

This lack of democracy within modernization is by no means a new phenomenon. Rather, it follows a precedent of past examples of authoritarian modernization existing across the world at the end of the twentieth century. Latin American countries throughout the 1970s, for instance, adopted a “bureaucratic authoritarian model” combining economic capitalism and political repression (Collier, 1979). Here the state’s “arbitrary rule over workers, politicians, and students is accompanied by attempts to establish pragmatic and predictable relationships with the private entrepreneurial sector, particularly international business, and to rationalize the advance of the economy as a whole” (Kaufman, 1979: 166). This authoritarian model of development, furthermore, expanded beyond the Americas and came to influence East Asian countries such as South Korea (Im, 1987).

In the present era, this “reform-driven” authoritarianism is mirrored in the rise of “semi-authoritarian” states internationally. These are nations that remain dominated by a single party and are marked by illiberal practices, usually associated with dictatorships despite - and in some cases precisely through - the presence of certain established democratic institutions and practices. Significantly, marketization not only exists alongside this contemporary authoritarianism but in fact strengthens it. As Ottaway observes (2013: 148):

An additional source of ruling party financing at public expense is provided by the liberal economic reforms undertaken by democratizing regimes or by those that want to appear as if they are democratizing. Privatization programs provide ample opportunities for building up the finances of the dominant party and those associated with it.

At the international level, the power relations characterizing corporate globalization further contribute to this authoritarian trend. The demands of global hegemons require simultaneous political stability and managed processes of economic marketization and (if need be) political reforms. To this end, hegemons such as the United States are often more concerned with a managed form of “opening up to the world” rather than an open and vibrant democratization in these client countries (Hinne- busch, 2006). The global spread of democracy meant to accompany the global spread of capitalism has been in practice one of controlled economic liberalization, creating a fertile ground for the persistence and expansion of modern authoritarian rule.

Less explored though, is the affective “grip” of this emerging form of authoritarian capitalist development. To be more exact, what popular discourses are being marshaled to justify formal and informal state and international repression in the name of a market-based “modernization”? As will be shown, present is a similar fantasy to that of “market despotism” described in the previous chapter. States are increasingly perpetuating a utopian fantasy of economic and political development, associated with marketization and democratization, respectively, that justifies a monopoly of power and quite oppressive popular rule. They do so, moreover, through drawing on the unique possibilities and challenges they face as “developing countries” in a globalizing world.

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