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A responsible global hegemony: the capitalist fantasy of authoritarian “good governance”

On January 25, 2015 the leftist coalition-turned political party, Syriza were elected to power on an explicit platform of “anti-austerity.” They ran on the need to challenge their European and international creditors - collective referred to as the “Troika” - in regards to their looming debt repayment. As one Athenian citizen observed, “They were voted in to say no. No to the same old, same old. Because the people have been desperate, they have felt humiliated and impoverished” (Hurst, 2015). While commentators focused on their potential to offer a “new economic agenda” challenging the reigning domination of neoliberal austerity, it also hinted at an emerging and dangerous political reality. Namely, it gestured toward the ability of international and regional actors to impose neoliberalism on national states, forcing them to accept economic austerity and a politics that will enforce it. The democratic resistance of the Greek people to these increasingly coercive capitalist regulations put into sharp relief the increasingly authoritarian character of this international market order, one in which democracy is often the enemy of “good governance” and thus needs to be continuously disciplined.

These negotiations starkly reveal the profound foreign influence on contemporary democracy. External actors can often have as strong if not stronger political effect on countries than an economic one does (Bratton, 1989). Empirical studies show that external incentives and conditionalities strongly impact democratization, and as such, democracy is not as commonly assumed a “domestic affair par excellence” (see Ethier, 2003). Positively, many modernists believed that in the new millennium democracy would soon become a “global entitlement ... that increasingly will be promoted and protected by collective international processes” (Franck, 1992: 47).

Despite such optimism, the positive international impact on democracy promotion has been ambiguous at best and negative at worst. There is little evidence, for instance, that foreign aid positively effects democratization (Knack, 2004). Moreover, such efforts are found to be most successful when there is a strong incentive for countries to accept and become part of an unequal neocolonial order, such as the prospect of entering into the EU (Schimmelfennig and Scholtz, 2008). There is also often a failure to empirically analyze the actual as opposed to assumed political impact of international organizations like NGOs on democratization, leading scholars and policy makers to adopt “inadequate, explicitly normative interpretations” (G. Clarke, 1998: 40).

Critically, it should not be overlooked how foreign influences can explicitly work against democracy. In the immediate post-Cold War era, despite fresh claims of the “end of history” with the triumph of liberal democracy globally, realpolitik on the part of dominant powers often trumped democratic concerns. Under President Clinton through the 1990s, Middle Eastern democracy promotion was, for instance, marginalized due to fears that it would bring to power anti-American regimes (Hawthorne, 2001) while Europeans were worried about the threat of political instability on their borders (Xenakis, 2000).

This trend has continued into the twenty-first century, especially linked to the proliferation of neoliberalism internationally. Scholars note that this hyper-capitalist paradigm actively limits the ability of NGOs and other external actors from fulfilling their democratic role (Farrington and Bebbington, 1993; Edwards and Hulme, 1995; Fisher, 1997; Zaidi, 1999; Roberts et al., 2005). Institutionally, it allows former political elites to move into international organizations, notably “democracy promoting” NGOS. Such transfers, in practice, limit the scope and ability of populations to either ideologically challenge neoliberalism or create the foundations of a mass based democracy (Farrington and Bebbington, 1993). Further, authoritarian governments use the “threat” of these democratizing “foreign” organizations to legitimize their power and enhance repression domestically (Carapico, 2002).

More broadly, “neoliberal globalization” can be understood as “a new US based form of imperial globality, an economic-military-ideological order that subordinates regions, peoples and economies world-wide” (Escobar, 2004: 207). Rather than democratization or the nurturing of greater popular participation, international institutions committed to a neoliberal agenda promote a “one-size-fits-all” market-based technical solution to national development. Consequently, “Any agenda for social and political change is lost in this technocratic discourse that essentially argues that NGOs be utilized to legitimize World Bank-sponsored attempts to foster widespread acceptance of the neoliberal ... state” (Mercer, 2002: 18). Concretely, this entails the decrease and elimination of needed social services, in the process weakening the legitimacy of the state (Fowler, 1991; Marcussen, 1996; White, 1999). For this reason, global organizations and their partners are commonly referred to as a “parallel state” (G. Clarke, 1998) and countries as a “franchise state” (Wood, 1997) within this expanding neoliberal order.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that the state has been irrevocably neutered or even completely disempowered. If globalization poses a threat, it is to democracy not to the power of the state (Scholte, 1997). The growing private sector (and privatization of politics) still requires a strong state to protect its profitable interests and uphold social order. Yet this role transcends that of a mere sovereign “night watchman.” Instead, it grants the state and its affiliated political agents a renewed right and capability to do what is necessary to implement and preserve these capitalist “reforms.” Thus, the proliferation of civil society is needed to limit the state economically but also strengthen it as a legitimate authority (Diamond, 1994). Concretely, “NGOs have become harnessed by the state and [have] been used as a tool to implement the neoliberal model” (Gideon, 1998: 304).

Reflected is a global capitalist fantasy of national and trans-national sovereignty. One that centers on the empowering of national governments, and if necessary international bodies, to encourage, protect and deepen neoliberalism. Present is a political project for spreading capitalism globally, one nation at a time. The triumphant rhetoric of democracy promotion is transformed into a discourse for neoliberal justification. Martell (2007: 173) notes, “Third wavers propose globalist cosmopolitan democracy ... when the substance of their arguments do more in practice to bolster the sceptical view of politics based around inequality and conflict, nation-states and regional blocs, and alliances of common interest or ideology, rather than cosmopolitan global structures.” This global “common interest or ideology” is manifested in the increasingly coercive demand for national governments to adopt practices of “good governance” compatible with neoliberal beliefs and expectations.

Significantly, a vital element of this fantasy is the strengthening of the authoritarian power of the state as well as international organizations. It is progressively the “responsibility” of governments to be “responsible” or face threatening international consequences for their “irresponsibility.” This means that the states must be equipped and given the political ability to enforce this neoliberal paradigm, even in the face of popular dissatisfaction. It also means that the World Bank and IMF must be allowed to directly involve themselves in the political affairs of countries as well as punish those that deviate from this “correct” path.

This chapter sheds light on the authoritarianism crucial to the contemporary international spread and maintenance of capitalism, specifically its modern neoliberal variety. Rather than a weakened state or merely trans-national forms of sovereignty, it illuminates its continued reliance on an emboldened governmental force for its protection. The promise of “good governance” exists as an affective discourse for increasing the scope of national governments to broaden the limits of its coercive power in order to “secure” marketization domestically against popular threats. In this respect, corporate globalization has produced “self-disciplining” neoliberal states. It has additionally dramatically expanded the authority and subsequent authoritarianism of international actors to influence and directly determine a country’s politics to reflect these neoliberal values. Present, as will be shown, is a multi-level global authoritarian fantasy of capitalist good governance.

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