IN THE GLOBAL “GRIP” OF AUTHORITARIAN CAPITALISM
The structural mandate for a disciplining capitalist sovereignty has produced, and to an extent is produced by, new normative legitimizations for authoritarianism. Democracy and the need for democratization remain dominant political ideals rhetorically. Nevertheless, the requirement for states and international organizations to make sure that citizens and institutions are fiscally “responsible” requires novel ethical and affective justifications for this repressive regulation. The increased portrayal of capitalism as a moral duty is coupled with an enhanced moralization of its structurally necessary authoritarian politics.
Current processes and discourses of globalization, significantly, shift governance away from democratic decision-making in favor of a more technocratic, and in practice despotic and illiberal, sovereignty. The emphasis on good governance grants states the right to “self-discipline” national institutions and groups to facilitate enhanced marketization. It provides them an ethical and appealing rationale for not just defending but implicitly and explicitly promoting such authoritarianism.
Modern-day Ethiopia exemplifies this legitimization of authoritarian capitalism. After a generation of famines and economic underdevelopment, much publicized and broadcast throughout the world, the country has achieved impressive growth rates of over 10 percent for the past decade (World Bank, 2013). Their success has led some economists to refer to them as an “African Lion,” linking it to the so-called “Asian Tigers” of the 1990s. Tellingly, while the policies that have made this “economic miracle” possible are market-driven, most of the accolades have gone to the country’s state for implementing, guiding and when necessary enforcing this agenda. According to Dereje Feyissa Dori, African Research Director at the International Law and Policy Institute, who is based in the capital of Addis Ababa, “The idea is a state with a sense of mission. It is building capitalism from above” (quoted in Kushkush, 2015).
Undoubtedly, the regime has much to be proud of based on its efforts. Extreme poverty has been reduced from 38.7 percent in 2004-5 to 29.6 percent in 2012-13. Poverty overall has declined to 33 percent since the beginning of the new millennium, dropping from 44 percent in 2000. Furthermore, hospitals are being built with foreign aid in rural areas and new construction projects litter the urban centres, especially the capital. Nevertheless, despite the triumphant rhetoric, these impressive results are not driven solely, or necessarily, principally by marketization strategies. Instead as the World Bank admits:
Since 2005, agricultural growth has been responsible for a reduction in poverty of 4 percent a year, suggesting that the agricultural growth strategy pursued by the Government of Ethiopia has paid off. High food prices and good weather ensured that increased use of fertilizer was translated into higher incomes for poor farmers with access to markets. Government spending on basic services and effective rural safety nets has also helped the least well-off in Ethiopia. The Productive Safety Net Program alone has pushed 1.5 million people out of poverty. (World Bank, 2015)
Moreover, this state-driven capitalist development has come with a high political and human cost. While the country’s government has become increasingly federalized, in contrast to the centralized rule marking most of the twentieth century, this has not meant that its authoritarianism has been substantially weakened or abandoned. The Ethiopian People’s
Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has governed Ethiopia since 1991, monopolizing power through state violence and the manipulation of elections. Additionally, it has wielded this power in the name of advancing a market agenda against any and all opposition. The regime has been criticized for a wide range of human rights offenses, many of which are done to protect its market-based “development” strategy from internal threats.
Yet these “costs” of development are put aside in favour of a triumphant narrative of authoritarian capitalist progress. According to Obang Metho, Executive Director of the advocacy group the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, “When a society is not free, development is not as sustainable. It is not investment in building the human capacity of the people, but only in infrastructure and opportunities that mostly benefit the narrow interests of regime cronies” (quoted in Kushkush, 2015). Still, the international community has largely ignored such concerns, trumpeting instead the ability of a strong marketization state for creating a “middle income country.” Quoting one gushing BBC Africa correspondent “if you’re looking for results, then this vast climate-change challenged country, led by a hugely ambitious and severely authoritarian government, is worth a visit” (Harding, 2015).
Vital, in this regard, is how this renewed ethical justification for authoritarianism expands established legitimizations for state power within a capitalist society. The extension of enhanced sovereign policing builds on previous normative arguments for the proper role of governments within a market system. Specifically, it takes from and extends upon both libertarian and liberal legitimizations of state power.
For market libertarians, on the right side of anarchy so to speak, government power is limited to that of the “night watchman.” They are charged with maintaining public order and safety. The aim is to allow the private economy to operate as free from state interference as is safely possible. In the new millennium this once singular task of the government has grown substantially. It is now asked, as discussed above, to maintain not only civic order but also fiscal order. Put differently, governments increasingly take as their right the need to protect society from those who threaten marketization and as such “economic health.”
The promotion of governments as modern-day “night watchmen” exists both as a structural necessity and an affective discourse legitimizing state power and repression. It unites the population against “dangers to development” and “financial irresponsibility,” providing capitalism a secure environment in which to operate effectively and spread. Far from minimizing the state, it is expected to regulate the social and cultural sphere in order to preserve a “responsible fiscal order.” This can range in practice from anti-corruption campaigns, the spearheading and policing of “good governance,” reducing the rights of employees and directly repressing civil protests.
Yet, the logic of authoritarian capitalism has also captured more critical perspectives of marketization and globalization. Under a conventional liberal paradigm, governments are invested with the power to help deal with the problems and inefficiencies produced by a market economy. Lessening inequality, building infrastructure, investing in research and technology development - all to varying degrees, depending on context - rely on a strong public sector. However, in the current era, this liberal rational has been reconfigured. Presently, the state is turned to in order to properly “guide marketization” to best fit specific national and cultural conditions.
Crucially, the state once again becomes a focal point for “leading” development. It is put forth as a primary, if not the primary, force for ensuring that countries properly follow the “marketization” blueprint for achieving and retaining economic prosperity. This state promotion goes hand-in-hand with a resurgent fantasy of authoritarian capitalism. Governments must do whatever is necessary to guarantee that policy and populations do not deviate from these “correct” market proscriptions.
Similar to almost all tyrannical appeals, the story of authoritarian capitalism is composed of a potent mixture of hope and fear. The hope that with “good governance” and a willingness to stay the present course, capitalism will deliver socioeconomic progress. The belief that across contexts, nationalities, cultures and histories, marketization will pave the way for a brighter tomorrow for everyone. The fear that this straight path to progress will be blocked by those who would sacrifice future wellbeing for short-term gains. Those who would challenge this internationally accepted model for growth for their own corrupt personal profit. Without the strong arm of the state and international financial institutions, these threats could easily derail marketization and therefore national development.
Just as importantly, this despotic market narrative has gone global. It transcends the fate of individual nations and regions. It now involves all of us, universally as part of a shared, and vulnerable, international financial order. The world’s survival and advancement depend on protecting the global marketplace. Authoritarian measures, both by national and trans-national sovereigns, are required to deal with those who intentionally or unintentionally would put this fragile but necessary order in jeopardy. This includes terrorists and the “economically irresponsible” alike. In the contemporary age of globalization, those who fail to be good global market citizens impact not just their own welfare but potentially the entire world’s.
Thus, being “economically responsible” transcends the narrow limits of self-interest. It is a global moral duty that individuals, groups and countries have to those who also reside on earth. The failure to adopt austerity or pay back your debts can have ripple effects, creating waves of instability that will wash up on and destroy the shores of your international neighbors living oceans away from you. To refuse to conform to these market-oriented ethical mandates is to selfishly put the world and its collective well-being in danger.
The fantasy of global economic marketization therefore demands political authoritarianism. It is more than a structural necessity. It is a popular desire. It plays into the hopes and fears of an international populace raised to believe that their present survival and future wellbeing depend on the stability of the international financial order. It is for exactly this reason that strong, and if necessary oppressive, capitalist sovereigns are supposedly required to protect this vulnerable global market and the continued economic development of the world’s population.