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The tyranny of (neo)liberal democracy: a global capitalist fantasy of authoritarian freedom

On May 8, 2015 the United Kingdom woke up to a rather shocking political result. Against almost all professional expectations and predictions, the Tories had not only remained in power but had actually gained seats to form a majority government. They had done so on the back of a strong ideological commitment to neoliberal austerity policies. It would seem that this victory was another blow to “big government” in favor of free-market economics. Yet, rather surprisingly, one of the first measures this emboldened Conservative government proposed was the creation of new “tough anti-terror laws” meant to directly take on “poisonous Islamist extremist ideology” (Dominiczak and Prince, 2015). These measures echoed an earlier 2011 briefing by the London Metropolitan Police warning citizens to report such “threatening” groups as anarchists who advocate a “political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchy” (Booth, 2011). Reflected, in this seeming contradiction, is one of the crucial paradoxes of the contemporary age - the more the state retreats economically, the more it seems to expand politically. It is this relationship between weakened economic sovereignty and strengthened political sovereignty that is at the heart of authoritarian capitalism, one which is witnessed not only in countries committed to “modernization” but also those that are ostensibly already fully “modernized.”

While the end of the Cold War has produced with it certain democratic gains, these are often far from being substantively democratic or liberal. The proliferation of “defective democracies” are increasingly understood to be permanent rather than temporary features of the current global political landscape. “They tend to form stable links to their economic and societal environment and are often seen by considerable parts of the elites and the population as an adequate institutional solution to the specific problems of governing “effectively” notes Merkel (2004: 33): “As long as this equilibrium between problems, context and power lasts, defective democracies will survive for protracted periods of time.” Indeed, the problem of illiberalism has emerged as a defining issue of the twenty- first century, particularly when it appears that even in the face of challenges from state capitalism, the normative consensus - that it best represents idealized values of freedom and liberty - remains unshaken.

Perhaps most problematically, the worries over illiberalism often appear narrowly confined to the non-Western world (Brownlee, 2009; Ekman, 2009). Tellingly, this is progressively associated with the pressures of corporate globalization internationally. The deepening of neoliberalism produces in its wake a reactionary politics combining traditional patriotism and expressions of jingoism, with quite predictable politically and socially repressive results. Referred to as “neo- thirdworldism” it notes that “in the post-cold war world order based on the hegemony of the USA weakens, rather than strengthens, the forces of democratic liberalism in Indonesian society - and reinforces the consolidation of an illiberal form of democracy” (Hadiz, 2004: 55). These interventions not only challenge optimistic modernization narratives but also highlight the imperialism central to current processes of economic and political globalization.

Yet these same illiberal trajectories, ones similarly justified in the name of preserving liberalism and democracy, are also witnessed in “developed” Western liberal democracies. Issues connected to globalization such as immigration have brought to the fore “illiberal liberal states” reflecting “a challenging new influx of illiberal practices among states that are supposed to bestow and adhere to the principles of liberalism and the rule of law” (Guild and Groenendijk, 2009: 1). This increasing illiberalism is, further, linked to the rising priority given to the need for security against terrorism following the attacks on September 11, 2001 in the USA (Bigo and Tsoukala, 2008). As one scholar presciently asked, under this new security regime, are “security, risks and human rights” ultimately a “vanishing relationship”? (Tsoukala, 2008). These concerns are as valid in the UK, France and the USA as they are in Indonesia, Singapore or Mexico.

Such formal and informal instances of illiberalism are, moreover, intimately and positively related to simultaneous policies of deepening marketization. The transition away from social democracies and the welfare state have led to fresh conceptions of “modernization,” trumpeting the ability of post-industrial societies to provide individuals with greater forms of “human development” - associated with neoliberal values of individualism and choice - that are supposedly conducive to enhanced democratization (see Inglehart and Welzel, 2005). Nevertheless, in practice, it is more and more shown that greater economic capitalism serves to delegitimize even established democracies through its being controlled and supported by financial and political elites (Dutkiewicz et al., 2013). Additionally, they reinforce an “authoritarian syndrome” that manifests concretely in illiberal practices and rhetoric. It is not surprising then, that Western Europe and the USA have seen the growth of “right-wing populism,” commonly championing a more coercive state to deal with domestic threats and internal foreign “others,” as well as provide “law and order,” directly connected to the prevalence of neoliberal culture (Berezin, 2009).

Underlying this present-day illiberalism is a deeper authoritarian logic, characteristic of and perhaps inherent to liberal democracy itself. A key tension of these regimes is that in the name of preserving and promoting “liberal freedom” they must rely upon the illiberal efforts of governments. To this end:

[Liberal] governments regularly find themselves compelled to formulate social policy with which to regulate some members behaviour. Defending that liberal individualism has required government policy, a practice manifest in a range of government initiatives during the last century New Liberalism, Progressivism, the New Deal, the Great Society, the New Right, New Labor, Gingrich’s Contract with America, and New Democrats. (King, 1999: 2-3)

This dependence on strong, not untypically illiberal, government interventions extends to neoliberalism. Marketization economically has been partnered politically with an “aggressive interventionism” that “is reflective of a distinctly ‘Schmittian’ liberalism, which aims to clarify the core values of liberal societies and use coercive state power to protect them from illiberal and putatively dangerous groups” (Triadafilopoulos, 2011: 861).

Represented is what can be called a tyranny of liberal democracy, one that has only grown in prominence and scope it seems with the advent of neoliberalism. It is tyrannical in distinguishable but ultimately complementary ways. First, in that it speaks to a coercive element often found within otherwise liberal democratic contexts. The existence of an inscriptive state for enforcing social norms in unequal and oppressive directions is so intertwined with this evolution and history of liberal democracy to make it appear fundamental. The second is that it defines and confines the limit of democratic participation, governance and the expression of freedom to the boundaries (both figuratively ideologically and literally geographically) of liberal democracy. What it means to be “modern,” “democratic” and “free” is delimited to liberalism conceptually and in practice. In the era of globalization and neoliberalism, this tyranny has only expanded, embracing the strategic and coercive deployment of the state to preserve marketization in the name of protecting and realizing a narrow but romanticized horizon of liberal democracy.

Imperative to this neoliberal project of illiberal liberalism is the promotion of a capitalist fantasy of authoritarian freedom. Here the desire for agency in an otherwise over-determined economic environment is transformed into a desire for a strong state actor who can safeguard the nation and its citizen’s “freedom” against its internal and external enemies. The powerlessness felt in the face of a market economy that cannot be questioned nor regulated is translated into a renewed emphasis on the need for the state to ensure political security and social stability. This longing plays into authoritarian discourses and values of enhanced imperialism abroad and policing at home done in the name of spreading and protecting, respectively, “free market liberal democracy.”

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