Fantasizing authoritarian capitalism: a brief history

There is a long tradition of trying to accurately theorize the relationship between capitalism and authoritarianism. Notably, this reflects fundamental questions linked to the influence of the economy on politics as well as politics on the economy. Is the political sphere merely a deterministic reflection of the economy? Is the economy a byproduct of a prevailing hegemonic politics? These concerns have taken on seemingly new life with the advent of globalization. As noted in the previous chapter, the assumption that liberal democracy would naturally follow from the international spread of marketization has been dramatically put into doubt. Yet it remains unclear how to properly theorize and contextualize the simultaneous growth of economic liberalization and political authoritarianism in the contemporary age.

A still common assumption driving much of the mainstream scholarly literature and public debate is the equating of privatization with economic freedom and as such inherently counter to political authoritarianism (Giavazzi and Tabellini, 2005; Haggard and Webb, 1993; Pickel, 1993). Indeed, a central thrust of contemporary political science remains how to effectively conjoin political liberalization with economic marketization (Robinson and White, 1998; Salame, 1994; Widner, 1994). Private enterprise is viewed by many as the epitome of personal liberty. This idealized perception is captured in the common reference to capitalism as the “free market” or even as a process of economic “liberalization” (Easton and Walker, 1997; Ken Farr et al., 1998; Pitlik, 2002).

Stemming from this association of marketization with economic freedom is the belief that this naturally contributes to political freedom. Put differently, the current era of globalization is marked by a belief that there is a symbiotic relation of personal liberty in the marketplace with the creation and strengthening of liberty politically. Milton Friedman belies such a view in his rather famous declaration:

Historical evidence speaks with a single voice on the relation between political freedom and a free market. I know of no example in time or place of a society that has been marked by a large measure of political freedom that has not also used something comparable to a free market to organize the bulk of economic activity. (Friedman, 1962: 9)

The modernization theories of the twentieth century have become transformed in the twenty-first century into a new triumphalist discourse of the inevitable victory of the liberal democratic state that combines economic and political “freedom” (Deudney and Ikenberry, 2009).

Nevertheless, perspectives highlighting the inherently authoritarian character of capitalism itself have challenged these ideas. These views directly question the normative legitimization of capitalism as being based upon political “consent” and “free labor.” Instead, they stress the exploitation at the core of these “private” economic relations. Capitalism relies on the authoritarian power of managers to profit from the labor of a less powerful workforce. Similarly, twenty-first-century capitalism continues to produce an authoritarian form of managerial-based politics (Amin, 1997; Canterbury, 2005).

These relations certainly fit the beginnings of an industrial economy - one that was marked by quite regulative and hierarchical employment relations. Indeed, counter to much present discourse, the nineteenth and early twentieth century witnessed the association of mass economic freedom not only with private enterprise but also with labor rights (Foner, 1999). Here, liberty was encapsulated in the enhanced collective power of the workforce to counteract the domination by owners and management. The economic “freedom” of the market was equated at points with ideas of “slave wages” and even more radically “wage slaves” (Persky, 1998).

Extending into the modern period, critical scholars have sought to illuminate the continued regulative and repressive character of contemporary capitalism. The proliferation of worsening labor conditions internationally, popularly associated with the increased use of “sweatshops” in less-developed economies, highlights, for many, the authoritarianism at the heart of capitalism. Yet, even in developed countries with stronger labor protections and the proliferation of human resource management styles, critical scholars illuminate the authoritarianism that remains central to workplace relations.

Corporate Culturists commend and legitimise the development of a technology of cultural control that is intended to yoke the power of self determination to the realization of corporate values from which employees are encouraged to derive a sense of autonomy and identity. (Willmott, 1993: 563)

This reading of capitalism as authoritarian by nature speaks to and potentially reframes the discussion on the effect of politics and economics on each another. Early theorists critical of capitalism assumed that economic relations were deterministic of political relations. Marx famously envisioned the economy as the fundamental structural driver of the political “super-structure” (Marx, 1977; Williams, 1973). The political sphere, in this regard, was a malleable but nonetheless constant force for legitimizing capitalist economic relations. Liberal democracy was decried noticeably as merely a political mirage of liberty masking the repressive reality of market-based exploitation. Globally, colonialism and imperialism were traced back to an inexhaustible profit motive of capitalist elites and their eternal hunger for new markets (Marx, 1990; 1992).

Recently though, there has been a recognized need to complicate and possibly go beyond this deterministic model. Rather than economics serving as the foundation for the political, it is now the political that is prioritized as the basis for sustaining entrenched economic practices and values (Soderberg and Netzen, 2010). The economy then is viewed as an outgrowth of existing political relations and dominant ideologies (Laclau and Mouffe, 1986). Capitalism, in this view, can be democratized at both the micro level of the workplace and at the macro level of national as well as trans-national politics. Whether or not the market produces an authoritarian politics is completely context dependent. Or more precisely, that the economic is continuously able to be politicized and as such transformed.

This book seeks to find a middle ground between these poles of determinism and contingency. On the one hand, it rejects the previous economic determinism of Marxism. It studies political authoritarianism and economic capitalism as contingently formed sets of social practices and value systems. To this end, both are equally formed through historical social movements and ideological struggles. Moreover, while connected, they are not always linked cleanly or compatibly. Rather, formal politics and everyday economic relations are always both negotiated alongside and in uncertain relation with one another.

On the other hand, this analysis does hope to reveal the ways capitalism can positively help to foster and reinforce diverse forms of political authoritarianism. It aims to do so through revealing the various symmetries between the authoritarian characteristics of capitalism economically and the authoritarian politics in which this often informs. This may be found in the simple transference of certain market values into the political realm (e.g. the consenting to a powerful manager or leader in exchange for personal well-being). Or it may take the form of an authoritarian political response to the chronic problems associated with a capitalist economy (e.g. repressive scapegoating strategies against a minority population deemed publicly “responsible” for a disappointing economy).

This work looks specifically at how economic globalization is helping to produce a similarly globalizing political authoritarianism. What are the specific discourses associated with contemporary globalization that create the conditions for wide-ranging forms of despotism and political repression? Specifically, how are these processes producing rather appealing capitalist fantasies of political authoritarianism nationally? Such an investigation requires a more thorough theoretical and historical overview of this relationship of capitalism to authoritarianism.

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