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Tracing out the Imperial History of Liberal Democratic Authoritarianism

Imperialism is commonly contrasted to democracy, not to mention liberalism. It denotes the submission of populations, cultures and states to an encompassing and exploitive empire. Yet, even early examples of classical imperialism, such as in Athens, had “democratic roots” (Galpin, 1983; Orwin, 1986). Within relatively modern times, nineteenth-century European empires, with at least some rapidly developing democratic features domestically, were championed and partially driven by a “mission to civilize” the world (Conklin, 1997). This mission was linked largely to a race that was “transmuted into a more comprehensive notion of ‘civilization’” (Anghie, 2000: 887). The resulting legacy of state- enforced slavery, apartheid and continuing institutionalized racism reflects the potent mixture of liberal democracy and illiberalism central to the capitalist imperialism of the recent past.

Indeed, this governing logic of a “liberal authoritarian state” can be traced back to colonialism. Writing of the Caribbean, Ledgister (1998: 14) notes:

The colonial state thus contained both liberal and authoritarian elements, and its ethos was simultaneously liberal and authoritarian. The civil servants, soldiers, policemen and judges who administered the colonies both upheld civil liberties and provided certain basic services - education, healthcare, sanitation, poor relief - but were ever ready to discipline the masses if this was required in the interest of either colonial power, the local ruling class or both.

This combination of liberalism and illiberalism, democracy and repression, was also on display in metropoles. Whereas “conquest, exploitation and subjugation are old themes in world history,” writes Cooper and Stoler (1997: 1), “What was new in the Europe of the Enlightenment ... was that such processes were set off against increasingly powerful claims in eighteenth-century political discourse to universal principles for organizing a polity.” Nevertheless, while such universalism brought with it a pronounced tension for ruling elites as to whom these values applied to, both in theory and practice, it also served as the foundation for legitimizing authoritarianism in the name of preserving these ideals. It situated the state as the primary force for safeguarding these cherished values, not only within its own borders but also the world over. If colonialism was inspired by private greed, it was certainly justified by an outward looking state-enforced morality.

This empowering of governments was affective in two distinct but connected ways. It provided an appealingly ethical reasoning for the structural requirements of a strong state to sustain and expand capitalism internationally, intimately linked to the desire to spread liberalism universally. Yet, just as importantly, it maintained the indispensable need for sovereign agency without sacrificing the overall commitment to a “free market” economy, a condition that was especially imperative considering the democratic character of these societies domestically.

The Cold War carried over this liberal democratic authoritarianism even in the midst of the mass processes of decolonization following the Second World War. In place of direct rule, was a new ideologically based imperial battle of wills between the liberal democratic USA and the communist bloc led by the USSR. Each tried to establish a sphere of hegemony for not only achieving their realist nationalist interests, but also expanding the reach and dominance of their belief systems. In this way, “the Soviet Union intervened to spread Communist ideology (and/or counter US advances), while Americans did the same, ostensibly to spread democracy (and/or contain Communism)” (Von Hippel, 2000: 4). This framework for conducting international relations, in turn, reflected an affective capitalist political discourse of a robust state that at once defends liberalism and publicly represents the continued importance of democratically legitimized sovereignty that nonetheless simultaneously trumpeted the need for less government intervention economically.

Vital to this authoritarian project was the construction of an affective narrative of modernization. The upward and inevitable progression toward liberal democracy was an officially approved “ideology” (M. E. Latham, 2000), positioning Western governments, specifically the USA, as an altruistic force in the global struggle for realizing liberal freedom. Here, liberal democracy was presented as the “highest stage” of modernization - a type of imperialism for spreading capitalist development (Gilman, 2003). Extolled in this romanticized story of capitalist development was the right and responsibility of governments to actively and forcefully implement marketization internationally. Max Milken, director of the MIT Center for International Studies, pronounced, therefore, that:

A much extended program of American participation in economic development of the so-called underdeveloped states can and should be one of the most important elements in a program of expanding the dynamism and stability of the free world. The best counter to Communist appeals is a demonstration that these (development) problems are capable of solutions other than those the Communist propose. (Quoted in Gilman, 2003: 48)

In this regard, the very perpetuation of a modernization discourse arose in no small part out of an affective rationality of liberal democratic authoritarianism. It represented the marshaling of a democratically elected state to proliferate liberalism economically and politically. It echoed previous US justifications for expanding its territory across the North American continent, cloaking its militaristic (McCaffrey, 1994) and genocidal (Zimmerer, 2007) pursuit of this goal in the romantic discourse of “manifest destiny.”

This belief in “manifest destiny” did not terminate in the nineteenth century but has continued on into the contemporary era, legitimizing the country’s military interventions in the 1990s (Coles, 2002) and after 9/11. Wickham (2002: 116) draws direct parallels, thus, between the War on Terror and the policies targeting Native Americans during the country’s initial westward expansion

The tragic events of 9/11 have unified most Americans against a new world of international terrorism. The psychological shock of America discovering its vulnerability began a period of intense national introspection, soul-searching and profound change to Americans’ self-perceptions - both positive and negative. To many Americans, this period of reflection ignited a spirited revival of the nation’s virtual state religion - one belief combining the sacred and secular into a Christian sense of mission with patriotism. A nineteenth-century variant of this state religion was America’s divine “manifest destiny” to spread democracy and true civilization by territorial expansion and subjugation of native peoples.

Consequently, through discourses of modernization the question of what is the role of democratic sovereignty in a market-based society is transformed into an affective discourse empowering the state to expand the market as part of its liberalizing mission to the world. Democracy - the ability to collectively shape social relations - becomes channeled into an overriding purpose of ensuring the survival and continued success of capitalism. This democratic obligation is, not surprisingly, fertile soil for producing illiberalism in practice with the aim of securing marketization and modernization worldwide.

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