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Nothing new under a(n authoritarian) neoliberal sun?

by Matthew Ryan on October 2, 2018
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What is the purpose of theory? What utility is offered by our concepts and frameworks? Why do we group social phenomena in some ways and separate them in others? These fundamental questions probably seem simple—or simplistic—to a seasoned academic. But as a political economist coming to the end of a year of studies within the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge, these questions have taken on new salience in my thinking. In recent months, I have had frequently to argue that ‘capitalism’ is a useful historical category. There is absolutely a danger that a preoccupation with empirical rigour can undermine the ability to use theory as a (politically) necessary abstraction. And yet, this perspective has cast my previous work on contemporary political economy in a new light, pushing me to return to the epistemological questions above. With the scholarly movement around ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ gaining pace, I thought it might be useful to take stock from a slightly wider vantage point.

Expanding on the important work of States of Discipline, Ian Bruff and Cemal Burak Tansel have brought together an exciting special issue of Globalizations, which further develops their research agenda on ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’. Elsewhere on this blog, I have articulated concerns regarding the emergent conceptualisation of this term and here would like to return to these queries and couch them slightly differently. To be clear, I see this program as a significant contribution to our understanding of neoliberalism and work done under its rubric has shone light on horrifying empirical developments: especially in parts of the world often ignored by such debates. And what is more, many of the questions I have raised in the last few years have been addressed, sometimes through clarification of the emerging conceptual framework, sometimes by extending the empirical consideration of authoritarian neoliberalism and sometimes by addressing, intentionally or indirectly, my own questions.

There is, however, one point that we seem to keep coming back to. What is new about ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’? There is no precise definition of the term, or summation of the research pursued under its rubric. Already, four years on from its introduction in Rethinking Marxism, the term has exploded into all sorts of usages, inflections and conceptualisations, indicative of the fertility of its conceptual soil. And while its authors are at pains to stress that authoritarian neoliberalism did not simply spring out of nothing in 2007, periodisation of some kind does seem central to the novelty of the framework. Periodisation hinges on words like ‘more’ (coercion) or ‘intensification’ (of authoritarian state action) or ‘increasing’ (authoritarian entities and practices in, for example, households). In my recent article published in Competition & Change I have queried whether this is simply a quantitative change, where we see more of something that was already going on, or whether we might be witnessing a qualitative change: are the mechanisms underpinning such forms of power shifting, or are these processes somehow relating to capital accumulation and reproduction in a different way? This challenge has been addressed explicitly by Bruff and Tansel, both on this blog and in their editorial article in Globalizations, and by exploring this defense we come back to those fundamental questions with which we began.

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.

Ian Bruff and Cemal Burak Tansel, ‘Authoritarian Neoliberalism: Philosophies, Practices, Contestations’

Is it fair to assume that any challenge of periodisation assumes that all periodisation is a useless endeavour, necessarily implying we collapse back into an ahistorical totality? Pointing to structural arguments regarding the antithetical relationship between capitalism and substantive democracy does not mean this is the default alternative explanation, but rather is a rhetorical tool to elaborate a question. Is there an argument that—however unevenly—there is a process at work in the post-2007 context which has changed the mechanisms underpinning authoritarian state actions? Periodisation within neoliberalism is certainly possible, depending on ones’ vantage point: Neil Davidson provides just such an example, as does Bob Jessop, albeit from different perspectives. But I think it is important to make it explicit if this is where the novelty of a framework is found. And if this is a central claim by the proponents of ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ as an emerging research agenda, then more work needs to be done to fully articulate these claims.

If, on the other hand, periodisation is de-emphasised and, instead, ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ focuses on ‘knowledge production and praxis,’ then the framework has different questions to answer. Bruff and Tansel have articulated three main objectives for their recent contribution:

  • 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).

Ian Bruff and Cemal Burak Tansel, ‘Authoritarian Neoliberalism: Philosophies, Practices, Contestations’

Again, these are admirable goals. Yet, if novelty is found in methodological tools, geographical focus, increased intersectionality that looks beyond the state to consider the everyday and the household, or simply challenging free-market conceptions of neoliberalism then this begs the question as to whether a new concept is needed to pursue these goals. Neoliberalism is already considered across disciplines, epistemologies, and methodologies. Neoliberalism is already contested on its Eurocentric tendencies. Studies of neoliberalism have never been isolated at the level of the state. Meanwhile simplistic conceptions of neoliberalism that define it in reference to the ‘free market’ have been widely and comprehensively discredited. None of this is to say that further research along these lines is unnecessary, but simply to ask whether we need a new concept to do so.

I know I am not the only person to have spent years reading and thinking about ‘neoliberalism’, only to throw my hands up in the air and ask what the term actually means. Some have assessed the conceptual cacophony and deemed that the term ought to be ejected from our social-scientific lexicon. In accord with Will Davies, though, my view is that despite the messiness we ought to keep having the conversation; even if that means having it over and over and never quite coming to an answer. In this context, I do look skeptically on things that add to the noise, without a clear need. ‘Authoritarian neoliberalism’ may well prove to be a necessary contribution to this ongoing debate. I believe that this necessity will hinge on its ability to make an explicit periodisation of neoliberalism, based on qualitative and quantitative argument, and unearthing the mechanisms that drive authoritarianism within and beyond the state. That is a demanding task, but not an impossible one. Shying away from the challenge of periodisation while emphasising the above divergent goals seems to abdicate this responsibility while distracting from the novelty of the concept of authoritarian neoliberalism and its past and present manifestations.

Matthew Ryan
Matthew Ryan holds postgraduate degrees in Political Economy, and in Economic and Social History, from the University of Sydney and the University of Cambridge respectively. His research has focused on neoliberalism and its manifestations in Australian fiscal policy, as well as contributed to debates around ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’. Most recently Matthew’s research has considered the origins of coal mining in colonial Australia, looking to inform contemporary debates regarding the historical roots of global ecological crises, and probe alternative futures.

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