THE GLOBAL CAPITALIST FANTASY OF AUTHORITARIAN FREEDOM
While the global crisis of illiberal democracy is indeed alarming, underexplored is the affective appeal of this illiberalism linked to neoliberalism, on the one hand, and globalization, on the other. Such authoritarianism, conjoined with the global spread of capitalism internationally and marketization nationally, is legitimized by an emotionally resonant political logic that extolls the necessity of a strong, often repressive, state. The structural need of a powerful government actor able to implement and sustain a neoliberal agenda is transformed into a broader political project championing the empowerment of liberal democratic regimes to safeguard values of political and economic freedom, associated with liberalism and markets, respectively. Reflected, in turn, is a new capitalist fantasy of authoritarian freedom.
Contrary to the triumphalism, until recently, of “modernization theorists,” economic and political internationalism was not initially or primarily justified as a force for spreading liberal democracy. Rather, the first wave of capitalist internationalism was one marked by a telling pessimism of democracy for colonized populations. Even as vociferous a proponent of liberalism as John Stuart Mills doubted, for instance, whether democracy or liberal values could be extended universally (see
Plattner, 1998: 176). Internally, liberal democratic societies relied upon formal and informal methods of coercion. As Mann (1996: 236) presciently observes, “Liberal ‘civil society’ contained a systematic tendency, lasting through the entire modern period, toward committing genocide ... and towards cruel coercion when merely employing labor. These two tendencies have an unmistakable tendency toward those of the SS state.” Liberal regimes historically, then, in practice, have been legitimized and reproduced with reference to affective political discourses containing quite strong authoritarian characteristics. In the contemporary era, this combination of liberalism and illiberalism is witnessed in the prevalence and resilience of liberal autocracies globally. Indeed:
It is now clear, both within and far beyond the Middle East, that liberalized autocracy has proven far more durable than once imagined. The trademark mixture of guided pluralism, controlled elections, and selective repression in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and Kuwait is not just a “survival strategy” adopted by authoritarian regimes, but rather a type of political system whose institutions, rules, and logic defy any linear model of democratization. (Brumberg, 2002: 56)
Within established liberal democracies, Bloom (2015) notes the existence of a militaristic, and in the past literally genocidal, fantasy of a “liberal final solution” in which all social and political problems can be resolved, as well as idealized liberal values spread and realized through the elimination of a malicious “enemy” - ranging historically from “native Americans” and “communist” to the current fixation on “terrorists.”
This resonant politics of liberal authoritarianism gestures toward a deeper affective logic crucial to the general appeal of liberal democracy. Specifically, the ability of a government to protect these cherished ideals from internal and external dangers threatening to destroy them. According to Freeden (1996: 268) “liberals have as a rule endorsed a strong state, precisely because they have entertained a passionate respect for the integrity of the individual and the need to protect that integrity from harmful intrusion.” Significantly, this popular desire and structural need for a strong state concentrates, for obvious reasons, less in the economic sphere and more in the socio-political one with perhaps expected authoritarian results. Going even further, “liberal governance actually creates the historical conditions of possibility for authoritarian governance as it distinguishes the “legal and political order (of ‘the state’) and a ‘liberal police’ of what is exterior to it, classically conceived as ‘civil society’,” creating, Dean (2002: 37) argues, “the injunction to govern through freedom into a set of binding obligations potentially or actually enforceable by coercive or sovereign instruments.”
This reflects a broader capitalist fantasy of authoritarian freedom. It is not only that individual’s long for a state to protect their freedoms. Nor that the desired need to “govern through freedom” provides the grounding for an authoritarian governing logic. There is also a profound market-based dynamic at work. Namely, the prominence of democratic values implies the ability for individual and collective self-determination, while economic liberalism entails the “natural” and “free” functioning of a market ideally external to human control. This tension has previously played out, especially during times of greater economic insecurity, into an enhanced acceptance of government intervention into the economy. However, its more typical manifestation, and one that is almost exclusively pursued in the evolution from liberalism to neoliberalism, is the channeling of this desire of agency into the socio-political sphere. Concretely, this involves the emboldening of the state to protect the population against domestic and foreign threats, with the implicit or explicit intention of making the world and nation “safe” for liberal democracy politically and capitalism economically.
This fantasy has only become more attractive alongside globalization. While being extolled as the only path toward future prosperity, globalization is also presented as a worrying force, full of dangerous threats to national sovereignty and a secure world order. This fear attached to globalization, particularly after 9/11, has bred shared feelings of “global insecurity” contributing to a “globalization of domination.” Bigo and Tsoukala (2008: 11) declare, to this effect, that:
Even if we witness illiberal practices, and even if we attempted to use the argument of an exceptional moment correlated with the advent of transnational political violence of clandestine organizations in order to justify violations of basic human rights and the extension of surveillance is very strong, we are still in liberal regimes.
Importantly, it remains a “liberal regime” both in permitting for a wide range of existing freedoms but also in its continued reliance on a liberal democratic discourse of authoritarian governance. In this regard, at play is less a matter of a “unified strategy” or “Big Brother” and more a liberal authoritarian logic for protecting neoliberalism linked to a globalization discourse.
Connected to these challenges of globalization, voters expect governments to deal with problems of neoliberal globalization even as they have less resources to do so. In this respect:
A crisis of governability has engulfed the world’s most advanced democracies. It is no accident that the United States, Europe, and Japan are simultaneously experiencing political breakdown; globalization is producing a widening gap between what electorates are asking of their governments and what those governments are able to deliver. The mismatch between the growing demand for good governance and its shrinking supply is one of the gravest challenges facing the Western world today. (Kupchan, 2012: 62)
In response, the state has become the focal point for recapturing the agency perceived to be lost in the unstoppable rush toward globalization. Even more so, the previous ability under traditional liberalism to “govern” the market, and therefore exert control over it, is dramatically diminished in the era of neoliberalism.
Consequently, the state has become more assertive in its role for policing society, internationally and domestically, for the protection of liberal democracy and by association neoliberalism. Governments popularly legitimize their growing political and social interventions as simultaneously preserving liberal democracy and reasserting the ability of a democratic community to effectively “govern” itself for the public good. In foreign policy, this can be seen in the championing of a benign but nonetheless aggressive “democratic imperialism” (Kurtz, 2003; Spagnoli, 2004). Domestically it is witnessed in the rise of liberal democratic security regimes, prioritizing enhanced government surveillance and a more militarized police force (Giroux, 2007; Wacquant, 2010). Emerging, hence, is an expanding capitalist fantasy of authoritarian freedom both at home and abroad.