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The Capitalist Fantasy of Authoritarian Freedom at Home

While not completely unprecedented, neoliberalism has introduced a rather novel paradigm for legitimizing and maintaining a liberal democratic policing state. Harvey (2005: 202-3) characterizes neoliberalism as the “brutal withdrawal of the state from all social obligation (except policing and surveillance).” Such a mentality, if not always a reality, provides the grounding for an affective authoritarian political discourse, increasingly defining liberal democratic governance. It is one where democratic power is chiefly, almost exclusively, fixated on the disciplining and often coercive “managing” of social relations. Crucial to such authoritarian justifications is an emerging capitalist fantasy of neoliberal authoritarianism.

Revealed, in turn, is a globalized model for deploying illiberal tactics for “preserving” liberal democracy and the free market. Critical, in this respect, is delimiting democracy to its traditional liberal boundaries, especially when it endangers the prevailing hegemony of financial capitalism and its elites. This policing for the sake of preserving liberal democracy was displayed in the use of “strategic incapacitation tactics” against “Occupy Wall Street” which focused on issues of social control and coercive preventative measures in the name of risk management.

This employment of state power to “incapacitate” this expansion of democracy beyond the limited confines of liberal elections and rights represents existing “conflicts over the use of space both public and private, contentious efforts to control the production and dissemination of information, and unprecedented levels of surveillance” (Gillham et al., 2013). It is similarly apparent in surveillance legislation, such as the 2015 French Bill that:

[a]uthorises the government to engage in preventive surveillance of private communications and public spaces for a broad range of motives - from terrorism to economic espionage and the monitoring of social movements - without proper ex ante control. It also orchestrates the legal whitewashing of mass surveillance, and legalizes tools and policies that directly echo those of other surveillance superpowers, like the US, the UK or Germany. (Treuger, 2015)

Less explored is the “ideological” appeal of this repression associated with neoliberalism. To this end, the failures of social democracy and Keynesianism produced the need for new “liberating” discourses. “Neoliberalism owes its strength to its ideological appeal,” argues Clarke (2004: 60). “The point for neoliberalism is not to make a model that is more adequate to the real world, but to make the real world more adequate to its model.” This has been met with affective authoritarian discourses of policing, centered on a strong state or person for “providing order” to what appears to be a crime-ridden, poor and chaotic social situation. This discourse is not only linked to globalization but is an increasingly global paradigm for affectively justifying a more despotic state presence in public discourse. Exemplifying this progressively universal trend, was the adoption of former New York City Mayor Rudolf Guiliani’s “innovative” policing methods in Mexico City.

Giuliani’s policies in Mexico City constituted a performance: policing in drag, a dressing up of policies cloaked in the language of control, and alternatively marketed with Giuliani’s masculinity and reputation as a “tough guy.” This performance is part of the “making up” of neoliberal policy to mask as effective, comforting, logical, and inevitable a set of policy prescriptions that has led to more insecurity, not less. (Mountz and Curran, 2009: 133)

The key here, is not the achievement of security but the constant attempt to achieve security, and therefore paradoxically the need to continuously maintain insecurity. Crisis grants to governments new capacities attached to new fantasies for preserving capitalism. For instance, the Great Depression legitimated the state to regulate and intervene in the private economy in quite novel ways (Skocpol and Finegold, 1982). In the present era, the “crisis” of liberal and social democracies is now a continuous process of government’s managing crisis - similar to a corporation that must constantly discipline workers and police internal problems for the sake of maintaining order and profit. This is especially true in relation to a competitive global “marketplace.” For this reason, “politics everywhere are now more market driven. It is not ‘just’ that governments cannot manage their national economies; to survive in office they must increasingly ‘manage’ national politics in such a way as to adapt them to the pressures of transnational forces” (Leys, 2003: 2).

Politically at stake is the turning inward domestically of the international policing mentality that legitimizes modern neoliberal authoritarianism. Just as following 9/11, the USA and other great powers were supposedly justified in policing the world to “manage crisis” (Rana and Rosas, 2006), so too are they expected to regulate the country to safeguard its cherished liberal values. Emerging is an affective liberal authoritarian discourse connected to an increasingly conservative politics. It is one that simultaneously embraces the decreasing of state power in the “private” economy and its increase for preserving patriotic ideals as well as law and order. The US Tea Party represents, in this respect, a potent mix of hope and fear combining a neoliberal disdain for big government economically with a desire to restore “national values” (Skocpol and Williamson, 2012). This present-day “reactionary politics” (Parker and Barretto, 2014) strongly echoes the authoritarian populism accompanying neoliberalism in the 1980s. Tea Party spokesman Rob Kuzmanich declared “Conservatives are trying to conserve America’s liberating values ... the Tea Party unites around three values: limited government and the rule of law, free market capitalism and personal responsibility” (quoted in Parker and Barretto, 2014: 1). Tellingly, while at least ideologically opposed to government overreach economically at home, they share a commitment to unilateralism and enhanced national sovereignty in the world (Mead, 2011).

Present is a broader attempt to deploy this affective authoritarian discourse for expanding marketization domestically. “The current attack on employee unions and public school teachers should be example enough of the anti-democratic bias of free market fundamentalism,” according to Shapiro and Tomain (2014: 72). “Not to put too fine a point on the matter, the future regulatory state requires public policies to recapture the lost generation of economic and political gains.” What cannot be ignored, however, is that neoliberalism is fundamentally regulatory, and significantly state based in its expected regulation. It requires governments to “police” the population to ensure its stability and survival.

Reflected, thus, not only in these right-wing politics but also generally, is a capitalist fantasy of neoliberal authoritarianism. Witnessed, in this respect, is the “rise of the competition state” in which “both state and market actors are attempting to reinvent the state as a quasi-‘enterprise association’ in a wider world context ... this process does not lead to a simple decline of the state but may be seen to necessitate the actual expansion of de facto state intervention and regulation in the name of competitiveness and marketization” (Cerny, 1997: 251). The state is considered necessary to ensure that the nation remains competitive through policing existing and potential threats. This policing focuses on the political (e.g. those sources that are “non-liberal”) and social (e.g. those whose behavior is making us less competitive, such as welfare cheats and drug users, immigrants and terrorists). Underpinning this need is an affective liberal democratic politics of authoritarianism - whereby policing becomes the primary means for populations to assert collective agency in shaping social relations and preserving its cherished, and largely unquestioned, ideals of “freedom.”

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