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The Self-Disciplining Capitalist Fantasy of Authoritarian Good Governance

The once celebratory narrative of capitalist democracy has been gradually replaced and progressively undermined by new priorities of “good governance.” The expectation that governments have a moral not just economic duty to be financially “responsible” grants states new legitimacy to use their sovereign power to protect these reforms. Governance in the present context is a pretext for the government’s enhanced regulation of the civil and political sphere to preserve marketization. It is “good” if neoliberalism flourishes and “bad” if it does not. The “good” in “good governance” also has a strong affective dimension - symbolizing the fantasy that if countries follow neoliberal development principles and organize their politics effectively to this end, they will soon achieve both economic growth and shared prosperity. Yet it relies on an authoritarian cycle of “self-disciplining,” whereby states are granted ever more power to police “irresponsible” domestic threats blamed for undermining “good governance” and thus stalling national progress.

Western governments and international financial institutions draw on this affective promise of marketization linked to “good governance” for extending their influence and strengthening neoliberalism ideologically. They subsume all efforts for socio-political change into an approved narrative of capitalist development. Demands for more employment, greater economic welfare or increased democracy are translated into a call for “better institutions” so that free market polices can work more successfully. This is true even in contexts where such polices are being explicitly resisted. European support for the Arab Spring was in fact an attempt to promote neoliberalism “in order to foster a mode of subjectivity that is conducive to the EU’s own norms and interests” (Tagma et al., 2013: 357). More to the point, it signifies Europe’s efforts to subjectively govern these movements, exemplifying a contemporary “form of politics and economics that seeks to subject the agency on the ‘Arab street’ to EU standards” (ibid.: 375).

Such governance demonstrates a contemporary type of colonial neoliberalism. Foreign powers defend and bolster authoritarian regimes across the world as a primary method to ensure stability. Countries with direct political and economic strategic importance to Western countries are most able to retain non-democratic rule (see Brownlee, 2005; Carothers, 2003; Dalacoura, 2005; Diamond, 2010; Dunning, 2004; Levitsky and Way, 2002; Schedler, 2002). This support for authoritarianism denotes an increasingly global model for ensuring the successful spread of neoliberalism. Consequently:

The failure of Western democracy promotion is rooted in the contradiction between the dominance of global finance capital and the norm of democratic equality; in the periphery, neo-liberalism is most compatible with hybrid regimes and, at best, “low intensity democracy.” (Hinnebusch 2015: 335)

These realist considerations are bolstered by an affective politics of crisis and reform, one where the state takes center stage as driver of “good governance” change. Autocracy and illiberalism is deemed a “necessary evil” to furthering economic development. The fantasy of “good governance” as the silver bullet to mass progress provides the basis for “strong” states to reassert their right to rule and effectively deal with threats to their power. They do so often with the full backing of the international community. “In a context of economic crisis and political liberalization, external support from foreign powers can strengthen the capacity of regime incumbents to maintain tight control over democratic reform processes,” observes Yom and Al-Momani (2008: 39), “foreclosing the possibilities of opposition victories in their struggles to capture larger slices of state power and hence ensuring continuity in the autocratic system.”

Politics, in turn, is transformed chiefly into a type of authoritarian capitalist “self-disciplining.” Autocratic governments, like Tunisia before the Arab Spring, used statistical and data collection procedures to “develop the fiction of the regime as a model student” of market capitalism (Hibou et al., 2011: 12). This manipulation of official statistics by rulers reinforced the capitalist fantasy of authoritarian good governance both internationally and domestically. Specifically, these non-democratic governments trumpeted their “economic discipline” to outside actors while repressing internal dissent arising from the less ideal reality of these reforms. Returning again to the case of Tunisia:

While the fundamentals of the economy might indeed have been good enough for global markets and international investors and trading partners, the economic miracle of Tunisia had a very dark side where under-employment, unemployment, difficult access to the labor market, income inequalities and wide regional gaps were the main features. (Cavatorta and Haugb0lle, 2012: 184)

The new global order of “good governance” thus creates the conditions for a pragmatic authoritarian state. Writing of the effectiveness of EU democracy promotion in the Middle East following the Arab Spring, Van Hullen (2012: 117) notes:

The degree of political liberalisation determines the fit between the domestic political agenda and external demands for reforms. It reflects different “survival strategies” between political inclusion and exclusion and is therefore a scope condition for rather than the result of cooperation and change.

Governments view “governance” as the simultaneous “stage-managing” of political reform and concrete adoption of economic marketization as simply an act of survival. Girod and Walters (2012), for instance, show how the “stage-managing” of democracy can be used to incentivize greater foreign aid - one which allows elites to ignore and repress popular opinion.

Structurally, state power is expanded then for the ostensible purpose of ensuring “good governance” and a stable socio-political environment for marketization. “Unlike earlier governance programs identified with structural adjustment,” argue Jayasuriya and Hewison (2004: 572), “this new governance envisages a more active role for the state as a regulator of civil society seeking to promote the disciplines of the market.” This enhanced power of governments is enshrined in policy initiatives, aimed at educating populations as to how to better adapt and take advantage of neoliberalism. Tellingly, these initiatives signify “a distinctly political project that uses the liberal language of participation and empowerment as a strategy of ‘antipolitics’ that marginalizes political contestation” (ibid.: 571).

A vital function of the state then is to preserve order for the sake of furthering neoliberalism within its borders. This includes the empowerment of governments to deal with “regional and global security issues” that benefit more developed countries - such as the EU supporting Arab autocrats to coercively repress the increase of immigration from their countries into Europe (Hollis, 2012). All threats to such stability, whether political or economic, are solved through recourse to greater political authoritarianism. In 2001, the financial crisis in Turkey led to what Aybar and Lapavitsas (2001) refer to as “free market authoritarianism,” a term that seemed progressively apt in the next decade-and-a-half of Turkish neoliberal politics. Such repression highlights a deeper authoritarian “self-disciplining” logic associated with the transition to neoliberalism. For instance, structural adjustment programs “by creating critical problems of legitimacy for African regimes, erodes their political capacity to govern. This encourages regimes, some of which already exhibit dictatorial and authoritarian tendencies, to resort to even more repressive measures in carrying through adjustment reforms” (Ibhawoh, 1999: 158).

Illuminated is the affective legitimization of political authoritarianism for protecting economic marketization and development. According to Brownlee (2007) “durable dictatorships” are the result of a powerful political party able to include elites and marginalize grassroots opposition. This extends to the political “policing” of neoliberalism generally. At stake is the moral and economic demand for governments to ensure their countries act “responsibly,” leading to ever further repression and control by the “self-disciplining” capitalist state.

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