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In the global grip of authoritarian capitalism: from liberal democracy to capitalist sovereignty

A few months before the socialist Albanian republic fell, an Italian economist visited the country as part of an international mission. While there he saw littered throughout the countryside bunkers of all sizes. They stood out amidst the economic poverty and political repression of a formerly supposedly “liberated” socialist republic. After several weeks, the professor finally asked one of his guides why the nation invested so much in bunkers despite having so many other seemingly more pressing needs. His guide looked around suspiciously and said to him, “To defend us from our enemies.” In the two decades since the fall of communism and the triumph of global capitalism, it appears that international and national elites are following along a similar destructive and authoritarian path - ruthlessly defending themselves from “enemies” while the market system they promote so fervently increasingly crumbles around them like modern ruins. The real question is, what we are defending ourselves from and more importantly is it in fact worth defending?

The overriding aim of this book is to illuminate the positive relationship between political authoritarianism and economic marketization. Contemporary processes of globalization are conventionally trumpeted as a harbinger of universal democracy. Yet the reality is one of growing market despotism and illiberalism. One characterized by dictators for whom progress means marketization and their own continued monopoly on power. Liberal democracies with militarized police forces and ruled by elected plutocracies. International financial institutions that reserve the right to politically discipline economically “irresponsible” nations.

Key, in this respect, is how this more authoritarian mode of economic development sheds light on the deeper evolution of capitalism connected to globalization. Importantly, the current era is commonly depicted as a time when the free market is expanding both inwards and outwards. Internally it is reshaping society, economics and politics to reflect financial values of profitability and privatization. Externally, the reach of capitalism is extending to every corner of the globe.

The overall role of politics, consequently, lies in its capacity to concretely institute and successfully sell marketization. Modern-day sovereigns must eternally create the conditions for an expanding capitalism and police populations for this purpose. The structural function of the state and IFIs is to use their powers to guarantee that individuals and nations become and remain “responsible” market citizens.

Yet, just as crucially, it must present an appealing fantasy for justifying and garnering popular support for this enhanced marketization. Indeed:

[T]he substantial institutional unity of the state could be understood narrowly (as the state’s capacity to use constitutionalized violence to reproduce its own institutional system and secure compliance with its policies in the face of resistance) and/or more broadly in terms of its capacity successfully to perform its global political function of maintaining social cohesion. (Jessop, 1990: 8)

The question then is how does sovereignty perform its institutional and political function for implementing and strengthening modern capitalism. Specifically, how does it get people nationally and internationally to “buy into” the market?

Political authoritarianism fulfills both of these roles. It invests national and trans-national sovereigns with new and expanded powers to “discipline” societies in conformity with market values. Yet it also offers a novel fantasy trumpeting the empowerment of strong governments to successfully guide and implement this contemporary promise of market development. In the present age, therefore, this increased authoritarianism stands as both the “iron fist” and “velvet glove” for the global spread of capitalism.

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