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Expressions of repressed violence: authoritarian neoliberalism in contemporary capitalism

by Ian Bruff on November 7, 2016
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Authoritarian neoliberalism is not a template conceptualisation that is then uncritically applied across the world or across time, but it does capture important global trends that warrant our attention. It also gives us conceptual tools for thinking about capitalism more broadly and for looking beyond the present towards a more equitable world. My thanks to Adam Morton for giving me more space when I needed it, and to Cemal Burak Tansel for comments on an earlier draft.

I first started playing around with the concept of authoritarian neoliberalism (AN) in summer 2010, as an attempt to make sense of the fact that, far from being defeated by the eruption of global crisis in 2008, neoliberalism seemed to be even more firmly entrenched and in a more intensely and more explicitly anti-democratic form. This led, in summer 2011, to a 5000-word thinkpiece, originally for myself as a resource but then as a paper which was derisively rejected by Political Quarterly for being based on outdated notions about capitalism (!). Subsequently, I beefed up various parts of the argument and submitted to Rethinking Marxism at the end of that year, and then went back to other projects while it took a slow path through the reviewing and revisions process (which helped me later as I could insert references to the Gezi Park protests and the European Union’s Fiscal Compact). In other words, I did not anticipate that the arguments in the RM article would attract such attention, as shown by (for instance) the use of AN in publications on the American homeland security state, EU competition regulation, the media in Turkey, and across a whole volume based on the concept. This is all still rather surreal; even more so now there is a blog post dedicated to interrogating the article, and I welcome Matthew Ryan’s comments and questions. The rest of this post comprises a response-cum-clarification.

Does ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ really represent a break in the periodisation of capitalist development?

In my article, I refer to Nicos Poulantzas’ final book to argue that ‘certain forms of capitalist state are likely (but not guaranteed) to predominate’ within different periods in history, and that this is not a smooth process (p.119). Therefore, there is no expectation that AN-type processes unfold simultaneously everywhere, or indeed that they will unfold everywhere – as my work on capitalist diversity shows, unevenness is very much part of capitalism, regardless of the era. So we have to be careful when deploying our concepts, theories and notions; that is always the case, regardless of the topic (this also means that Ryan needs to be more attentive on historiography, as Banaji and Moore Jr. are very different scholars and I would never put them together). Nevertheless, I remain convinced that AN captures important, contemporary global trends while also giving a distinctive understanding of capitalism in a more general sense. On the latter, I see my work as aligned with Michael Perelman’s path-breaking critique of classical political economy and Silvia Federici’s outstanding book on primitive accumulation and the body, for both highlight two key things: the ‘free market’ has always been a fictional construct; and the centrality of coercion to capitalism is persistently under-explored. On the former, three of the most significant features of today’s capitalism are: in the context of continued crises of production (low or non-existent growth) and reproduction (e.g. precarisation and forced migration), near-ubiquitous discourses of necessity and sacrifice as opposed to those of choice and rights; increasing breaks with formal as well as substantive political and social rights in the global North and South (drawing on Lukas Oberndorfer here); and the growing visibility of state coercion across multiple fronts and sites. Which leads me to:

Is it legitimate to conceptually group historical events as disparate as constitutional debt ceilings on the one hand, and direct, violent state repression of protest, on the other?

ThomasKey to my article was the argument that we need to adopt a more expansive definition of authoritarianism, beyond (for example) brutal policing of demonstrations to also include ‘the reconfiguring of state and institutional power in an attempt to insulate certain policies and institutional practices from social and political dissent’ (p.115). For me, this is a crucial point, and actually nothing to do with dialectics in the way Ryan suggests. I am happy to put on record that I am very uninterested in/unconvinced by Hegelian ways of thinking, which assume an essentially logical identification between concepts and reality and therefore succumb to formalist modes of reasoning which obscure more than illuminate through their relentless search for conceptual coherence and methodological categorisability (Peter Thomas’ The Gramscian Moment and E.P. Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory are key influences here).

Hence, on authoritarianism, it is counter-productive to draw a line between two sets of practices which both coercively seek to exclude and marginalise parts of the population from economic, political and social life. This is especially the case when protests emerge in response to (for example) the constitutionalisation of austerity, which are then met with violent policing tactics in the name of democracy – after all, if Parliament votes for intensified attacks on workers’ and social rights, then surely the protestors are the extremists and not the elected representatives?

Ryan argues that authoritarian state forms and capitalist development have always co-existed, whether in neoliberal or other times, and I would agree. Cemal Burak Tansel shows that AN enables us to avoid enshrining modernist and Eurocentric distinctions between ‘intrinsically’ democratic capitalisms in the Global North and ‘intrinsically’ authoritarian developments in the Global South. More specifically, as Poulantzas asserts in State Power Socialism, ‘law organizes the repressive field not only as repression of acts forbidden by law, but also as repression of a failure to do what the law prescribes…as the codification of both prohibitions and positive injunctions, law is a constitutive element of the politico-social field’ (my emphasis). As such, authoritarianism is always immanent to capitalist societies (for example, the double freedom underpinning ‘free’ exchange, the separation and masked constellations of power between ‘public’ and ‘private’ sites). Therefore, the key question for critical political economists is not whether authoritarianism is present or absent; rather, it concerns the forms in/by which authoritarianism materialises. For example, it could materialise in harsh crackdowns on demonstrators, and it could also materialise in the brutal effects of austerity on the possibilities for living. More concretely, compare the similarities but also the differences between the 1964 and 2016 coups in Brazil.

While one can think of plenty of examples from before 2008, since then there has been a substantial growth of pre-emptive, self-disempowering initiatives, which distinguishes them from (for example) reactive, externally-imposed structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s and 1990s. My point would be that, in the contemporary period, the investment of state-directed coercion, especially juridically, in the attack on formal and substantive rights is a key shift in neoliberal governance compared to before 2008. In other words, the contemporary period is marked by increasingly visible and increasingly diverse expressions of state violence which previously had been more likely to be repressed by the greater respect for these rights.

The question, then, is: does the ‘strengthening/weakening’ dynamic offer hope of successful challenge to authoritarian-type developments?

tanselIn a word, yes. As I argue here, ‘Left’ politics of all stripes has frequently been guilty of taking the law and ‘social’ institutions in capitalism to be somehow neutral, ignoring in the process how they have often been central to, not resistant against, the rise of neoliberalism. AN helps alert us in a more expansive way to how inequalities of power are produced and reproduced in capitalist societies, which in turn enables us to consider how other, more equitable, worlds are possible. Certainly, while the current conjuncture can look bleak, it has confirmed three things: talk of the ‘free market’ no longer masks the centrality of the state to the (re)production of massive inequalities; rhetoric about ‘social’ values is hollow when it is accompanied by the erosion of precisely such values; and the defence of authoritarianism with recourse to the language of economic necessity often indicates a violation of formal and substantive rights.

In addition, one cannot argue that the wrenching changes have ‘worked’ even when assessed against a narrow set of criteria for ‘success’ such as economic growth – a case in point being the continued extension of ‘exceptional’ programmes such as Quantitative Easing. In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that the negative consequences of austerity and neoliberalisation become viewed less as inevitable necessities and more as avoidable options. This is one mechanism by which the strengthened, more authoritarian state becomes simultaneously weaker and more fragile (compare dropping a soft ball and china crockery on the floor). Another is the decline of mediating institutions such as the welfare state and the social rights which they embody (again, Global North and South), meaning they are less able to absorb and ameliorate the effects of crisis.

However, this goes nowhere unless conscious, purposeful, political and social organisations respond in effective ways. The problem for ‘Left’ politics is that such developments are multi-form, ranging from radical Right populism to those favouring a return to classical social democracy and again to autonomous movements seeking to prefigure a better world. Furthermore, the first of these, radical Right populism, is more than capable of allying with more mainstream forms of authoritarian neoliberalism (see Trump in the US and various governing coalitions in Europe); the second, classical social democracy, is discredited in the eyes of many for its compromises since the 1980s; and the third, autonomous movements, have seen their hopes damaged by for example the crushing of Syriza in summer 2015. Nevertheless, and in keeping with a Gramscian outlook on the optimistic will compared to the pessimistic intellect, we have also seen plenty of evidence for possible future breaks with the current situation – see for example Sanders and Black Lives Matter in the US, Corbyn in the UK, the recent, massive general strike in India, and the gradual decay of the legitimacy of the ANC’s pact with neoliberalism in South Africa.

Most important, though, is the growing recognition that the state, for so long assumed to embody the will of the people in democratic and non-democratic societies, is part of the problem and needs to be challenged and transformed rather than relied upon to deliver the ‘public’ or ‘social’ goods. There is the opportunity to fundamentally rethink what kind of state we want as well as what kind of society – the two must go together – because we can see more clearly nowadays what the terrain looks like, and thus what can be done about it. AN, for all of its apparent pessimism and seeming focus on domination, reveals that the way we live today is not inevitable because it is actively constructed by hostile social forces, and that our modes of living could and should be more equitable if a way can be found to reconstruct state and society in new, emancipatory ways.

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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