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Spreading the Capitalist Fantasy of Authoritarianism Freedom Abroad

This resurgent, and markedly authoritarian, liberal democratic optimism has had profound global consequences. The twenty-first century has been littered with not only the continued corporate exploitation of “emerging markets” but costly Western-led military invasions, civilian casualties and the strategic use of torture. Importantly, neoliberalism as an international project of economic transformation has brought with it an emboldened state actor, one who is charged with the “responsibility to protect” this world, whatever the cost. Such messianic political discourses represent more than mere affective justifications for capitalism, or the idealistic clothing of a national realpolitik. Instead, it illustrates the legitimization and organizing of contemporary politics around a capitalist fantasy of neoliberal authoritarianism.

Concretely, the USA and its coalition of allies in Europe and internationally, have waged a “War on Terror” characterized by direct military interventions, the use of drone warfare and the legal deployment of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” New evidence is continuously emerging regarding the sheer scale and brutality of these measures. The Iraq War caused hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths with potentially thousands more killed by drone attacks. Beyond these casualty figures have been shocking reports and images of prison abuse and torture including waterboarding, rectal “feeding” and sleep deprivation.

For many, these actions symbolized a total denigration of the Western liberal democratic tradition. “There is this America today, profoundly corrupted by its twentieth century accumulation of power and wealth, untempered by thinking, responsibility and humility,” wrote noted scholar Wendy Brown in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, “where ‘democracy’ stands for little more than decadent indulgences, ignorant supremacism and imperial designs” (Brown, 2004). Speaking to similar sentiments of outrage, the prominent philosopher and social critic Slavoz Zizek railed against the “moral neutrality,” which films like Zero Dark Thirty provided to the American reliance on torture:

Torture saves lives? Maybe, but for sure it loses souls - and its most obscene justification is to claim that a true hero is ready to forsake his or her soul to save the lives of his or her countrymen. The normalisation of torture in Zero Dark Thirty is a sign of the moral vacuum we are gradually approaching. (Zizek, 2013)

By contrast, those perpetuating these offenses, portrayed their aims in almost messianic terms. In defense of the American Iraqi invasion, then

President George W. Bush revealed, “God told me to liberate Iraq.” The struggle against terrorism was framed, fundamentally, as war not just between enemies but entire ways of life. According to Bush, “This struggle has been called a clash of civilizations. In truth, it is a struggle for civilization.” More precisely, it was all in the service of realizing a liberally inspired utopian vision, where the “common danger” of terrorism was “erasing old rivals” and “in every region,” Bush gushed, “free markets and free trade and free societies are proving their power to lift lives” (Bush, 2002).

It is perhaps tempting to explain this democratically sanctioned global repression as merely the latest propaganda for the global expansion of capitalism or the real politics of the USA, or more likely both together. Indeed, this has been an early and ongoing critique of this updated form of “liberal imperialism.” To this effect:

[R]ather than a moral shift away from the rights of sovereignty, the dominance of the liberal peace thesis, in fact, reflects the new balance of power in the international sphere. Justifications for new interventionist norms as a framework for liberal peace are as dependent on the needs of Realpolitik as was the earlier doctrine of sovereign equality and non-intervention. (Chandler, 2004: 59)

While such critiques are warranted, they are by no means exhaustive. Notably, the concrete prospects of security, the “realist” calculations for how to best achieve the safety of the nation, are arguably best ensured not through continual top-down superpower interventions but rather the global encouragement of bottom-up democracies. “Thus the emergence of diverse democracies strongly influenced by the interests of ordinary citizens - nondomineering regimes domestically” hypothesizes Gilbert (1992: 12) “would contribute to the existence of nonaggressive norms and regimes internationally.” Yet they also fail to capture the affective appeal of these liberal democratic sovereign discourses of international intervention and imperialism.

Significantly, the attractiveness of this empowered and expansive state was linked to the failures of previous liberal democratic notions of modernization. Rather than give birth to an international order of flourishing democracies and prosperous democracies, as predicted at the end of the Cold War, the new millennium witnessed the rise of terrorism and failed states. Into this political vacuum, neoliberalism emerged as a new modernization fantasy, replete with a global vision of historical progress. As Latham (2011: 158) notes:

With modernization discredited and no single overriding narrative of progress to replace it, neoliberals took the field with their own promises of accelerated, benevolent change ... Neoliberalism, in other words, prevailed precisely because it revived a vision of the global mission of the United States and made the same sort of transformative claims that modernization had.

These desires tapped in, further, to growing anxieties linked to an ever dangerous world, filled with the permanent specter of terroristic threats. At stake then was the arrival of a new affective political discourse, combining the certainty of market-driven economic development and the passionate belief in the continuing need for a strong state to protect it. This dual embrace of marketization and sovereignty was reflected in the enhanced rhetoric of unilateralism deployed by the Bush Administration, a relative departure from the multilateralism of the previous decade (Leffler, 2003). Such discourses of liberal democratic authoritarianism feed into a mentality of unilateralism, which reflects the desire for agency (specifically state agency) in an existentially insecure world.

Illustrated is the precise political dynamic associated with neoliberalism that bolsters affective rationalities of authoritarianism. It is one premised on the capacity of a national government to construct and safeguard the “correct” path toward global development, not only for themselves but others. It is a longing to “feel in control” of “natural” economic forces, to assert a sense of human agency into an already proscribed “modernization” history. Such political longings, and their interventionist results, were integral to the very beginnings of neoliberalism. It was part of a “Wilsonian mission” in which US intervention was needed to create a peaceful neoliberal order (Smith, 1994). Since 2001, these impulses have only been enhanced and strengthened. To quote Smith (2012: 385-6) at length on the topic:

Under the terms of the “responsibility to protect”, the progressive imperialism became a form of just war and the American military that George W. Bush announced was “beyond challenge” was tasked with ushering in a new dawn of freedom worldwide. For in a uni-polar world, a global mission was conceived, as in neo-liberal and neo-conservative hands neo-Wilsonian evolved into a hard ideology, the equivalent in conceptual terms to Marxism- Leninism, with a capacity to give leaders and people a sense of identity and worldwide purpose to a degree that liberalism had never before possessed.

At stake was the rise of a resonant and dangerous global capitalist fantasy of authoritarian freedom abroad, and as will be shown, also at home.

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