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


The “free market” is rapidly becoming a universal principle for organizing global socioeconomic relations. It is extending into all areas of cultural and economic life. It is also spreading outward to every part of the globe. Present is the almost total reconfiguration of society to reflect capitalist values. This comprehensive transformation points to the multifaceted and complex nature of this modern “capitalist societalization” (Jessop, 1990: 7). Marketization is joining with and redirecting a range of other social forces - from human rights, to public services, to gender equality - with the purpose of deepening its cultural and economic influence. Whereas traditional capitalist features such as class remain important, they by no means exhaust the ways it is shaping contemporary socio-political relations. Vital, in this respect, to the strengthening and survival of global marketization is the increasing “authoritarianization” of politics and society.

Authoritarianism in the present age is, specifically, aimed at coercively molding society into this capitalist image. The advancement of the “free market” promotes the liberty of the individual and the power of private enterprise. Yet it still requires protection, as it must be defended from those who question its values, practices and interests. A crucial tension then, is how to combine forms of de-centered self-governance with broader types of disciplining sovereign control. This issue was apparent as early as 1990 at the very dawn of the “end of history.” In the words of one commentator:

The challenge of the approaching decade will be to link more complex pressures and demands, which can only be catered for by new forms of structural decentralization, with ever new sophisticated forms of strategic monitoring and control at the macro level. (Cerny, 1990: xiv)

The passage into the twenty-first century has only heightened these concerns. The current capitalist era is often referred to as “neoliberalism.” In contrast to past eras, it represents a more orthodox and enhanced commitment to market ideologies and practices for ordering the social. More precisely, neoliberalism, in principle, is defined by “The priority of the price mechanism, the free enterprise, the system of competition and a strong and impartial state” (Mirowski and Plehwe, 2009: 13-14). The state in this equation is commonly perceived to be close to non-existent or at the very least substantially weakened. However, as will be shown, instead it has been reconfigured and in many ways transformed with dramatic authoritarian consequences.

It is worth, therefore, better understanding the function of the state within neoliberalism in order to begin clarify how it contributes to contemporary political authoritarianism. Contrary to the belief that the state or governments are merely “impartial” actors in the proliferation of hyper marketization strategies, as expressed in the quote above, the public sector plays an important part in the spread and maintenance of neoliberalism. First and foremost, the state exists to protect and defend this increasingly privatized socioeconomic system. In this respect:

The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. (Harvey, 2005: 2)

Nevertheless, the state also takes on a more proactive role. It must do more than simply preserve the market where it is already present. It also helps expand it to areas of social life where it has not yet ventured. Hence, “if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary” (Harvey, 2005: 2).

Still the exact form and limits of this state intervention is by no means completely agreed upon by advocates of neoliberalism. Indeed, the principle of a reduced public sphere runs up against its structural necessity in the implementation and reproduction of this system. As such, the ideal level of involvement of the state for neoliberal thinkers and supporters:

[R]anges over a wide expanse in regard to ethical foundations as well as to normative conclusions. At the one end of the line is “anarcho-liberalism,” arguing for a complete laissez-faire, and the abolishment of all government. At the other end is “classical liberalism,” demanding a government with functions exceeding those of the so-called night-watchman state. (Blomgren, 1997: 224)

Accordingly, the state, far from taking a backseat within neoliberalism, can be viewed as a leader in the forefront of its initiation and survival. Whereas traditional liberalism assumed that the individual “rational market subject” was the “natural condition” of humanity, neoliberals have, somewhat unexpectedly, a more socialized perspective. Namely, that it is society that must foster these values, both individually and collectively. Otherwise, communities could return to inefficient and dangerous group-based ideologies, such as communism. Required, thus, is “a programme of deliberate intervention by government in order to encourage particular types of entrepreneurial, competitive and commercial behaviour in its citizens” (Gilbert, 2013: 9).

A crucial, but relatively less acknowledged, leadership function of the state is to ensure the necessary political stability for these economic changes to be successful and long standing. In this sense, there is a certain paradox central to neoliberalism: as the economic power of the state decreases its political power increases. Governments are granted augmented power to ensure social order, to “police society.” Accordingly, they must spearhead a “deliberate” strategy of government intervention to secure public order and deal with threats to this order. Central to neoliberalism, therefore, is a distinct rationale for political authoritarianism - the promotion of a “strong state” to be a vigilant “night watchman” to guarantee not only the public’s safety but also the orderly creation and reinforcing of economic marketization.

Indeed, in the new millennium the “night watchman” role of the state has evolved significantly. Notably, it has done so to better reflect prevailing market values and capitalist interests. The very meaning of the “order” that must be protected has changed. It is no longer just or even primarily “public order.” It is now principally the “financial order.” The state must be ready and willing to defend the global market economy against any and all threats. This includes those who would endanger the world’s present well-being and future progress due to their intentional, or unintentional, economic “irresponsibility.” The rallying cry of the “War on Terror” has shifted, likewise, from fighting those whose violence and extremism destroy accepted liberal freedoms to new international battles against “economic terrorists.” National governments, hence, must be empowered to safeguard marketization and global capitalism wherever and whenever it is in jeopardy.

Significantly, this “authoritization” does not end at the level of state. Just as capitalism is “global,” so too is its progressively repressive form of sovereignty. Individuals and civil society groups are not the only ones potentially guilty of economic “irresponsibility” and “terrorism.” Governments can also be a danger to international stability, through promoting “misinformed,” “shortsighted,” “risky” and “selfish” policies that question or directly oppose marketization. Needed, therefore, are transnational “night watchmen” who are willing to enforce these often unpopular but necessary “economic reforms.” International financial institutions as well as powerful donor countries serve to keep market dissidents in line globally. Revealed is a growing authoritarian new world market order.

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