The market despots: the global capitalist fantasy of authoritarian nationalism

On September 2, 2005 CCP leader Li Junru announced the “Chinese will not dream an ‘American Dream’ but a Chinese one” (People’s Daily, 2005b). This declaration symbolized a new vision not just for China but capitalism in general. But what is this “Chinese Dream”? How is it different from the “American Dream”? It illuminates specifically how the CCP, from Deng onwards, has attempted to create a new “dream” of capitalism compatible with established revolutionary values of singleparty rule, national progress and Chinese exceptionalism. More precisely, they have done so according to a worryingly similar authoritarian governing paradigm used by Mao to champion socialism in the early revolutionary period.

The notion of a “Chinese Dream” represents a larger, more dangerous political trend arising alongside and from globalization; one based on a potent mix of virulent political nationalism and strident economic marketization. Globalization is transformed into a national project. Emphasized is the ability of country to shape marketization to fit “local conditions.” In this respect, “We are still far from even mapping out the kind of global culture and cosmopolitan ideals that can truly supersede the world of nations” (Smith, 1990: 188). The preceding decades have only heightened this reality, as globalization has ironically transformed contemporary capitalism from a global to a national fantasy.

As the above quote suggests, central to this shift is the revitalization of the importance of the state. Traditionally it was assumed that corporate globalization would weaken national sovereignty and its associated actors (Ohmae, 1990). The significance of national governments were said to be on the wane - a relic of a past age before the rise of an international “free market.” Many theorists at the time had even gone so far as to predict that global forces, by which they usually mean trans-national corporations and other global economic institutions, global culture or globalizing belief systems/ideologies of various types, or a combination of all of these, are becoming so powerful that the continuing existence of the nation-state is in serious doubt (Sklair, 1999: 144).

Indeed, a crucial attraction of globalization was its proposed doing away with nationalist rivalries and parochial allegiances. The state was to “wither away,” to be replaced by a more cooperative and interdependent capitalist global order. Nevertheless, as Jones (2000: 268) observes, despite these optimistic views, “The State will persist because the need for the State has grown, but also because the local resource pools and socioeconomic problems on which States are based are undiminished.” Of course, such utopian visions were always unrealistic. The state was not going to be discarded so quickly or easily. However, these romanticized assumptions did seem to point to, at the very least, a relative decline in the importance of the nation and national governments. In its place supposedly would be a more integrated economic and therefore political international system and culture.

In the face of such lofty predictions, the twenty-first century has witnessed nationalism return with a vengeance, figuratively and at times quite literally. Ethnic strife linked to the disintegration of the USSR has given way to virulent patriotism across the world. This new era is marked by renewed popular longings for national progress and power coupled with novel powers granted to state actors for achieving these goals.

At a deeper level, this represents the revival of desires for agency increasingly linked to established ideas of national sovereignty. It reflects the paradox discussed in the previous chapter - whereby the greater the perceived power of globalization the stronger the feeling of powerlessness and wish to exert human control over it. State governments, thus, once again emerge as the key figures for exerting such control and recovering the lack of agency attributed to corporate globalization.

Obviously, such longings stand in an almost schizophrenic relation with the reigning economic orthodoxy rejecting “big government” and the “welfare state.” Further, the ideological impulse to simply dismiss capitalism runs counter the historical reality of the death of communism in the twentieth century. To this effect, the rejection of markets appears apocalyptic - impossible to even conceive - while the blind embrace of globalization feels exploitive and the surrendering of freedom. Into this void, governments have regained their appeal as forces for shaping marketization for the national population’s specific benefit. They are the intermediaries for guiding a potentially oppressive and invasive international market into a liberating and prosperous national economic policy.

Crucial politically, in this respect, is the rise of a new and increasingly attractive form of authoritarian capitalism. The demand for national sovereignty, intimately associated with a lack of individual agency, is transposed onto a strong state actor. The personal dictator or the “party” resonates with a yearning to feel once more in control. They are unbound by strictures of globalization while still secure in its promise of future progress. Such longings are readily witnessed in rising powers such as Russia and China. In each, an economics of marketization is matched by a politics of explicit and implicit authoritarianism. Reflected is the broader appeal and rise of market despots.

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