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THE NEW LIBERAL DEMOCRATIC POLICE STATE: THE CAPITALIST FANTASY OF AUTHORITARIAN FREEDOM AT HOME

The economic expansion of neoliberalism internationally has been accompanied by an emboldened and quite authoritarian imperial state politically. This authoritarian governance has also spread inward. There is moreover, a deep interconnection between this outward- and inwardlooking authoritarianism. As Gilbert (1992: 12) observes, the “interconnection between power-rivalry, the ideologies of anti-radicalism and ‘racism’ that make enemies of at most international and domestic rivals, and the constriction of democratic options at home.” Indeed, the central features of this affective political discourse - the desire for agency in the face of economic marketization and protecting liberal democracy from existing and future threats - holds true, if not even more so in the domestic sphere.

The History of Liberal Democratic Authoritarianism

The function of the state in liberal democracies is at once a structurally necessary and politically ambiguous one. On the one hand, it has a structural importance for supporting capitalism and capitalists as well as enforcing liberal rights. On the other, a supposedly distinctive feature of these market-based societies is the limited role of governments in the economy and the personal life of its citizens. Nevertheless, as discussed in Chapter 2, there is a long history of authoritarianism, both in the public and private sphere, within actually existing liberal democracies.

Capitalism traditionally, at least rhetorically, is commonly put at odds with state power, in favor of a “free market.” Murray (1971: 88-91), however, lists six general functions of the capitalist state for capitalism: (1) guaranteeing of property rights; (2) economic liberalization; (3) economic orchestration; (4) input provision; (5) intervention for social consensus; and (6) management of the “external relations of a capitalist system.” Moreover, market building is inexorably connected to state building, not only structurally but also sociologically (Fligstein, 2001).

The state, thus, has always had a part in intervening to maintain the power of capitalists as well as the overall well-being of the market system (Taylor, 1972: Wolfe, 1977). In the context of liberal democracies, the question was how to balance the requirement of the state for the survival of capitalism with the overriding normative ideologies of limiting such intervention whenever possible. “Perhaps the chief task of economists at this hour is to distinguish afresh the Agenda of government from the Non-Agenda,” Keynes famously remarked, “and the companion task of politics is to devise forms of government within a democracy which shall be capable of accomplishing the Agenda” (Keynes, 1926). In practice, this commonly meant an almost at times “invisible” empowering of the state. The United States in the nineteenth century, for instance, had a:

[G]overnment that was often most powerful in shaping public policy when it was hidden in plain sight. Such was the case when the government created and nourished a corporate-driven market, stimulated expansion by subsidizing exploration and removing the Indians and influenced trade patterns through communication and transport policies. (Balogh, 2009: 4)

One area domestically where the role of the state was not so much “hidden in plain sight” but actively celebrated was as a policing force for ensuring social stability. This policing function can be traced, in part, back historically to the empowering of the state by the bourgeoisie in the early nineteenth century to deal with the rise of unionism at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Capitalists realized early on that in order to stop this trend they would have to combine legal restrictions with local control and governance (Foster, 2003). This historical precedent transformed into a broader government “responsibility” to “police” in order to “give security against the perpetuation of dishonestly, extortion and violence,” a responsibility asserted even by Adam Smith (Viner, 1927: 223-4). This perceived obligation would play out across diverse liberal democratic contexts, which despite differences were all similarly marked by “the expansion of bureaucratic states as power structures maintaining police and military control over potentially rebellious populations and reproducing the conditions of capitalist accumulation” (Alford and Friedland, 1985: xiii).

Present, then, was the legitimate right of the state to police society. This right could be, depending on the society and historical moment, quite limited or expansive in scope. Tellingly, regardless of the extent of its reach, its purpose was to create the structural conditions required for fostering a flourishing private sector. Its duties, in this capacity could range from:

[T]he enforcement of peace and of “justice” in the restricted sense of “commutative justice,” to defense against foreign enemies, and to public works regarded as essential and as impossible or highly improbable of establishment by private enterprise or, for special reasons, unsuitable to be left to private operation. (Viner, 1960: 45)

Normatively, governments were also formally and informally expected to police “unjust” behavior that was deemed detrimental to the market and its citizens. More to the point, “norms of support for a policing agency follow logically from disapproval of the moral equivalent of trespassing and theft” (Swenson, 2002: 29). For instance in Sweden practices such as employee “poaching” and low wages were not only illegal but also traditionally socially disparaged as “disloyal recruitment” and “black market wages.” As such the “full exercise of freedom in an unregulated market was not a capitalist virtue” and demanded government intervention (ibid.: 29-30).

Contained in this mandate, are the components of a capitalist fantasy of authoritarian freedom. The a priori desire to limit the government’s intervention into the economy, except when necessary, produced in its wake both substantive questions as to what was the proper role of government as well as an affective longing for collective agency within these marketizing contexts. While the structural problems of capitalism, manifested in symptoms like poverty, inequality and racism, seemed almost impossible to solve - particularly so through the overbearing hand of the state - what could be controlled were “troubling” individuals and populations. Bittner (1967) speaks, in this regard, of the American policing of “skid row” as a type of “keeping the peace” rather than “law enforcement.” In the past, this repressive and exclusionary mentality has been directed at an array of marginalized communities, from blacks to immigrants to the poor.

This type of authoritarian policing has been heightened as liberal democracies have experienced increased economic marketization at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century. On the surface, it would appear that certain state-sponsored forms of social policing in the service of maintaining privilege have been diminished. Bobo et al. (1997: 17) refer to “laissez-faire racism” where “Rather than rely on state-enforced inequality as during the Jim Crow era, however, modern racial inequality relies on the market and informal racial bias to recreate, and in some cases, sharply worsen racial inequality.” Nevertheless, the state has retained its crucial role for intervening to “safeguard” this unequal liberal democratic order. “Laissez-faire racism” has been joined by growing police brutality, inordinately affecting black citizens but also extending to the population generally.

The democratic dimension of this repression is central to the modern perpetuation of this rising authoritarian capitalism within liberal democracies. The general powerlessness to literally regulate the economy and existentially shape economic relations has become channeled into a democratic mandate for politicians and law enforcement to use their power and agency to preserve “law and order” (see Beckett, 2000; Stenson, 2001). The “declining support for social welfare” in this respect, “is part of a punitive policy development in which the state has a substantial and active role” (Beckett and Western, 2001: 43). Significantly, the controlling of certain “problematic” demographics is symbolic of a greater desire by democratic communities to reassert a sense of control in an era where such sovereignty seems to be rapidly deteriorating. That state is then popularly charged with repressing those that trespass against liberal democratic and market values. The contemporary democratic impulse for collective rule has become concentrated on enhanced demands for, and practices of, social policing targeting specifically all those that behave economically and politically “irresponsibly.”

 
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