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Authoritarian Neoliberalism: Philosophies, Practices, Contestations

by Ian Bruff on September 3, 2018

While debates on the conceptualisation and utilisation of neoliberalism continue to produce vibrant points of analytical contention, the term ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ is fast becoming an established part of critical social science scholarship, as shown by its deployment across numerous disciplinary and critical perspectives. The special issue ‘Authoritarian Neoliberalism: Philosophies, Practices, Contestations’ for the journal Globalizations, which was co-edited between myself and Cemal Burak Tansel, aims to contribute to the ongoing conversations by advancing three main objectives:

  • Advancing a wider set of conceptual and methodological tools to bolster the study of neoliberalism (for example, literary theory, archival research, legal analysis).
  • Rectifying a number of significant empirical and geographical lacunae in accounts that theorised neoliberalisation processes (for example, articles on Middle Eastern, African and Latin American cases).
  • Informing political struggles and envisioning alternative futures (for example, in challenging assumptions which associate neoliberalism too strongly with economics or free markets).

Our introductory essay to the special issue expands on the above themes while also discussing key issues of conceptualisation and periodisation, which we think are of importance not only for the discussions of (authoritarian) neoliberalism, but also for broader questions of knowledge production and praxis. On the former, we reiterate our contention that authoritarian neoliberalism does capture important global trends that warrant our attention, but it is not a template conceptualisation that can be uncritically applied across the world or across time. Hence the discussion in our work of practices, repertoires and spectrums rather than an attempt to formulate strict typologies and models. Moreover, in response to questions asked of us at conferences and in seminar debates which cite Antonio Gramsci and especially Nicos Poulantzas but not Stuart Hall, we affirm that Hall was a politicised and politicising scholar in all respects and thus of crucial significance for us. Hall also provides important insights into neoliberalism, stressing its provisionality in conceptual and political terms. In other words, by drawing on the contributions of Hall in particular, and becoming more attuned to how inequalities of power are produced and reproduced in capitalist societies, we are able to consider more fully how other worlds can be made possible.

On periodisation, we note that it is important to remain aware of the tensions created by the political organisation of capitalism which continually build barriers against substantial democratisation, as well as to the fact that many instances of neoliberal reforms across the world materialised through the deployment of highly coercive state strategies. However, we also think that while it is important to take into account systemic imperatives in explaining why capitalism produces authoritarian governance, we cannot reduce all instances and forms of authoritarian practices to a general capitalist law of motion. Doing so obscures a vast spectrum of governance techniques and potential ways to resist and overcome them, and risks producing, in the process of invoking the need to produce a more accurate picture of periodisation, an ahistorical account of temporally seamless authoritarian capitalist statecraft.

Moreover, we identify two distinct research trajectories on authoritarian neoliberalism: one focusing on the intertwinement of authoritarian statisms and neoliberal reforms; and another which traces various lineages of transformation of key societal sites in capitalism (e.g. states, households, workplaces, urban spaces), via spatially and temporally uneven yet cumulative neoliberalisation processes that are observable across different cases. These are not mutually exclusive orientations, but they ultimately prioritise a different set of research questions and would suggest different political strategies when considering questions of resistance. Contributions to this special issue are situated within these two trajectories, and by doing so, reveal both the continuities in some of the neoliberalisation processes under scrutiny, and the qualitative changes experienced in the others – particularly (but not only) in relation to executive centralisation and legislative activism, and conflictual entanglements between these evolutions and other key societal sites.

The special issue contains eight articles in addition to our introductory essay. Ian Bruff and Kathryn Starnes argue that neoliberalism, even in ‘pure’ theory texts by key intellectuals such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, has never been about free markets; states and households play a crucial role instead. Mareike Beck and Julian Germann focus on the importance of corporate hierarchies and management techniques in the emergence of German neoliberalism, critiquing in the process established assumptions about ordoliberalism. Graham Harrison argues that more ‘developmental’ strategies, while with greater chances of sustained capital accumulation than their neoliberal equivalents, do not necessarily lead to the more democratic or equal society that critics of neoliberalism often assume. Nadine Kreitmeyr shows how the growth of social entrepreneurship networks in Jordan and Morocco may suggest a pluralisation and partial liberalisation of these societies, but are presently serving to forge paths of authoritarian renewal via neoliberal co-optation.

Alke Jenss extends previous work on authoritarian neoliberalism by considering the coloniality of power in local forms of statehood in southern Mexico, and the consequences this has for studying localised expressions of formal and informal social relations. Cemal Burak Tansel shows how the selective mobilisation of executive and coercive powers across multiple sites, particularly through judicial and administrative restructuring, have been utilised in Turkey to increase the scope of commodification of urban land and in housing. Adriano Cozzolino argues that the narrowing down of political space to contest policy, via constitutionalisation, emergency laws and administrative restructuring, has been ongoing in Italy since the late 1970s but also intensifying over the last decade. Finally, Angela Wigger’s critique of the European Union’s so-called new industrial policy shows that real change will not come from EU institutions as currently configured, but instead from an entirely different set of practices in the solidarity economy which have as their premise democratically-managed social relations of (re)production.

The special issue expands on the collective step taken towards formulating ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ as a research agenda in States of Discipline: Authoritarian Neoliberalism and the Contested Reproduction of Capitalist Order. Inevitably, it does not cover all aspects of the topic and related themes, but as already noted, this is a living and evolving research agenda – inclusive of evolutions in our own work. Future scholarship on authoritarian neoliberalism would be enriched by, for example, work on: genealogies of authoritarian neoliberalism in earlier contributions from a range of neoliberal intellectuals; the intertwining of more commercial and more securitised forms of power, especially in terms of violence and policing; understandings of and struggles over the term ‘public’, be it in terms of public services, public spaces, public goods, and so on; enhanced connections and dialogues between a greater range of critical-theoretical approaches (for example, historical materialist, feminist, postcolonial, anarchist); the notion of the ‘non-market’, so central to neoliberalism yet also the potential basis for an alternative society in the future (e.g. the solidarity economy); and anthropologies of resistance in their particular socio-spatial contexts. Thus, we look forward to future conversations, debates, and contributions regarding authoritarian neoliberalism.

*This post was co-authored with Cemal Burak Tansel

Ian Bruff
Ian Bruff is Lecturer in European Politics at the University of Manchester, UK. He has published widely on capitalist diversity, neoliberalism, and social theory. He recently completed a large cross-country project on the diversity of contemporary capitalism(s) with Matthias Ebenau, Christian May and Andreas Nölke, which produced two German-language collections in 2013 (with Westfälisches Dampfboot and the journal Peripherie) plus an English-language special issue in 2014 (the journal Capital & Class) and an English-language volume in 2015 (with Palgrave Macmillan). He is currently researching the political economy of authoritarian neoliberalism in Europe, and is the Managing Editor of the Transforming Capitalism book series published by Rowman & Littlefield International.

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