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The Rise of the Self-Disciplining Capitalist State

The present era has witnessed the evolution of a state that while reducing its responsibility for economic regulation has promoted its increased obligation for managing the political and social sphere. The overriding emphasis is one of maintaining capitalist discipline, not giving into the lures of corruption or the populist but ill-conceived desires of many of its citizens. Governments, in this respect, have taken on an almost paternalistic role. Forcing their populations to be “responsible” and “self- disciplined” as if the acceptance of neoliberal reforms was a matter of personal and national maturity. To ensure this “mature” perspective states must be willing to act decisively and at times coercively to stamp out the threat of “irresponsibility.”

Economically, there is a renewed sense that developing countries should become self-sufficient. The reliance on loans or donor aid is seen as simply a transitionary stage to a point where they can compete independently without assistance in the global marketplace. This idea is captured in the call for such countries to evolve from a “rentier” to a development state (see for example Verkoren and Kamphuis, 2013). Ignored are the power dynamics that prevent developing countries from attaining such autonomy. Yet it also represents an affective narrative of neoliberal modernization. Where all that is needed to economically develop successfully is to faithfully adhere to the capitalist reforms proscribed by international organizations.

Crucial to this discourse is the broader notion that financial solvency is directly linked to countries taking “personal responsibility” for their economic health. It involves being willing to make “hard sacrifices” in the form of spending cuts to decrease national debts. This sentiment was especially relevant in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Here the crisis was framed as a moment to if not completely transform the financial system, to at the very least reform it. It soon, however, turned into an opportunity for strengthening these financial ideologies, as the crisis:

[H]as been ideologically reworked, at least in the UK, from an economic problem (how to “rescue” the banks and restore market stability) to a political problem (how to allocate blame and responsibility for the crisis): a reworking that has focused on the unwieldy and expensive welfare state and public sector, rather than high risk strategies of banks, as the root cause of the crisis. (Clarke and Newman, 2012: 2)

Central to this shift was the exporting of austerity globally as the “appropriate” response to deal with this near economic meltdown. In this spirit, Britain was “repositioning itself as a model of probity and good fiscal housekeeping” to the world (ibid.: 2).

Reflected was a prevailing ethos in which countries must actively create the policies and institutions necessary for meeting these now moral demands of austerity and structural readjustment. Even before the crisis, in 2005 the G-7 with the support of leading international organizations emphasized the concept of “national ownership” associated with the increasingly coercive expectations of “good governance.” Such demands for countries to be responsible have reconfigured state power. As early as the 1990s it was apparent that “On balance, stabilization and structural adjustment programs ... facilitate a major continuation of some forms of intervention (influence and mediation), redirect others (regulation, mediation, and distribution), and reduce those associated with state production and planning” (Biersteker, 1990: 477). In the twenty-first century, as marketization became as much a moral principle as an economic priority, governments were increasingly ethically legitimized as an authoritarian force for capitalist self-disciplining.

Ironically, but perhaps not unpredictably, discourses of democracy promotion and liberalism were used to justify market-based authoritarianism. Civil society, once the touted harbinger of democratization, was transformed into a social sphere whose principle aim was to remain “apolitical” in its commitment to implementing and preserving marketization (Hawthorne, 2004). Yet it was also politicized in the name of forcing unwilling governments to adopt neoliberal reforms, ostensibly for “the good of the country.” These predominantly middle class “reform movements” were directed against widely supported elected populist governments, challenging democracy when it threatened “good governance” (Thompson, 2004).

Further, the depiction of developing countries as lacking certain telltale modernization traits such as a “democratic culture” or “entrepreneurial spirit” were continually given as reasons “to extend the control of states and international financial institutions over their ostensible beneficiaries, while concealing their own essentially political character” (Abahamsen, 2000). Tellingly, the rise of a “self-disciplining” state extended to all social and political spheres. A chief “promise of good governance” was the possibility of a decentralized power structure more responsive to local populations (Grindle, 2007). Yet this power was largely contingent on local governments being “responsible,” as even a proponent like Grindle admits. Additionally, this disciplining capitalist morality came to include in many contexts the respect for, or at least acceptance of, the authoritarian state. As Dalmasso (2012: 222) observes in the Arab context, “human rights campaigners had to depoliticize their demands, and sometimes their structures” so as not to directly challenge nondemocratic “good governance” regimes “in order to obtain their desired reforms.”

Evolving was a clear differentiation globally between states that governed themselves “properly” and those that did not. In the immediate post-Cold War era the international order was characterized by “an increasingly sharp division between ‘core’ states who share in the values and benefits of a global world economy and polity, and ‘marginalized’ states, some of which are already branded ‘failed’ states” (Hout, 1996: 168). During this time, the World Bank portrayed “good governance” and therefore politics as a whole, simply as a “purely technical questions of policymaking, such as ‘getting the basics right’” (Kiely, 1998: 81).

At the heart of this “good governance” was thus the effort to produce “self-disciplining” neoliberal states. It represented “new forms of transnational control accompanying the rise of global capitalism ... to replace coercive means of social control with consensual ones in the South within a highly stratified international system” (Robinson, 1996: 616). Significantly, whether or not a country was democratic ultimately mattered very little. What was chiefly important was the degree to which they embraced marketization. As Schmitz (1995: 69) argues:

The key thing to ask of developing countries was not whether they were democracies or autocracies ... but whether they had the governing will and wherewithal to create the “appropriate policy framework” required to achieve efficient markets and the successful implementation of donor and creditor- mandated economic liberalization programs.

This overriding emphasis on states to be “self-disciplined” would become, even more troublingly, ever-more authoritarian.

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