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Home arrow Political science arrow Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalization


It is perhaps tempting to critically ascribe this authoritarianism to traditional forms of capitalist repression and colonial maneuverings. Undoubtedly, the present bears the weight of this past. The market has always been regulatory - dictating to an extent available politics and institutions. Profit has similarly always been imperial - rapacious, to quote Marx, in its spread and dependent on the exploitation of the weak by the strong. The future of the current world thus begins in its history.

Yet while this era echoes what came before, it is not identical. It is a reflection yes, but also an evolution. The question at the heart of this analysis is how present-day discourses and processes of globalization reinforce political authoritarianism.

There is not surprisingly a growing set of literature on precisely this concern. The seemingly ceaseless and unstoppable international expansion of capitalism has given rise to novel perspectives for understanding the politics and governance of this new world. These range from efforts to shift the focus from national governments to trans-national governance to neoliberalism’s need to coercively reshape the globe in its image.

Theories of hegemony, in particular, go a long way in shedding light on this relation. The global expansion of capitalism is supported by a range of ideological justifications. To this effect “any new historical bloc must have not only power in civil society and economy, it also needs persuasive ideas and arguments ... which build on and catalyse its political networks and organizations” (Gill and Law, 1989: 94). The politics of hegemony involves the incorporation, co-option and repackaging of past ideas to legitimate present-day material interests, power relations and ideologies. As Gramsci (1971: 168) observes:

An appropriate political initiative is always necessary to liberate the economic thrust from the dead weight of traditional policies (and ideas) - i.e. to change the political direction of certain forces which have to be absorbed if a new homogenous political-economic historic bloc, without internal contradictions, is to be successfully formed.

There is a definite story of power to tell at this point. Economic and political elites must continually promote marketization as both necessary and desirable. In this respect:

[I]deas in the form of intersubjective meanings are accepted as part of the global political economy itself. This is significant because ideas, developed for example by key organic intellectuals, can play a crucial role in forging a hegemonic project in times of structural crisis. (Bieler and Morton, 2003: 480)

The market does not only sell things. It also must also be sold and resold within a dynamic and diverse geopolitical marketplace. Crucial to this international selling of enhanced capitalism are clear and inspiring stories of market progress.

Modernization theory stands as one such narrative. The belief that markets lead to democracy was a powerful global myth. It elegantly connected so-called economic freedom with political freedom. It was a tale of prosperity and liberalism that could be applied and embraced all countries and populations. It bridged cultural and differences into a shared pursuit of upward economic and political development. Providing the modern world a discourse to look past bloody histories of colonialism for a present of common purpose and toward a future of universal progress.

The fall of the USSR was supposed to herald an “end of history” in just such a direction. However, a strange thing happened on the way to modernity. Markets were not paving a road to genuine democracies. Instead history appeared to be arriving at a destination of authoritarianism; one that combined capitalism with illiberalism, marketization and oppression, economic reforms with growing political despotism. It is a historical development that:

[H]as confounded the expectation that authoritarianism was merely a transitional phase before democracy, proving under certain conditions autocracies can last ... As democracy flourished in unexpected territories, political scientists forecast the downfall of many remaining autocracies ... The remainder is a tale of authoritarianism in the age of democratization. (Brownlee, 2007: 2)

The contradiction between triumphant expectation and troubling reality represents a profound crisis for contemporary capitalism and globalization. If democracy, and indeed economic prosperity, were not on the horizon, was this not simply domination and imperialism updated for the new millennium? This ideological tension was exacerbated, as it usually always is, by a structural crisis of capitalism. The 2008 financial crash put in stark relief these issues, raising questions over the desirability of markets and financial capitalism. Even the traditionally conservative Wall Street Journal admitted in late 2009 that the “crisis compels economists to reach for a new paradigm” (Whitehouse, 2009).

Required was a new story of capitalism. A tale that could reinforce today’s marketization as a harbinger of a better tomorrow for everyone, in every nation. As French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared (Phillips, 2009: 1) “either we re-found capitalism or we destroy it,” a theme reinforced in the January 2009 Paris summit, tellingly entitled “New World, New Capitalism.” That same year, newly inaugurated US President Barack Obama proclaimed at the G20 London Summit that world leaders had “made enormous strides in committing ourselves to comprehensive reform of a failed regulatory system” enabling them to “put an end to the bubble-and-bust economy that has stood in the way of sustained growth and enabled abusive risk-taking that endangers our prosperity” (Obama, 2009). This cycle of instability and recovery echoes scholarly perspectives linking the success of capitalism to its ability politically to strengthen itself in the face of crisis. At stake is the reconfiguration of alliances and beliefs to reflect a changing and often unpredictable socio-political climate.

The fantasy of authoritarian capitalism reveals these tensions in full. It highlights efforts to infuse marketization with fresh legitimacy. It refocuses attention on the capacity of governments and international institutions to properly guide markets for the global betterment of society as a whole. More precisely, it reaffirms the ideological correctness of capitalism for directing development. Yet it now retells this narrative of coming prosperity as involving, indeed needing, a strong national and supranational sovereign to correctly manage this process, protecting this blueprint for progress from internal and external modern-day threats.

Significantly, it transforms narratives of development from a story of inevitability to a contemporary morality tale. Citizens and governments, across contexts all around the world, must be “fiscally responsible.” It is their moral obligation to pay their debts, resist today’s temptation for spending in order to save for their future. Obviously, the sin of going against this market orthodoxy can be quite alluring. Populations and states can so easily fall prey to “irresponsible” investments in social welfare or expanding public ownership and services. That is why a strong sovereign is needed to ensure that citizens and government do not go astray from their financial obligations; a twenty-first century “big brother,” always watching just in case individually or collectively we fail to perform our moral duties as market subjects.

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