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Walk before you Run: Nurturing the concept of ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’

by Matthew Ryan on October 17, 2016
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Around the world more and more states are introducing or tightening government debt limits, or considering constitutional balanced budget amendments. In 2015 the democratic wishes of the Greek polis were summarily disregarded by the European Union, as a referendum was ignored in favour of continued austerity. The regulatory capacity of states in many spheres – environmental policy, labour policy, government services – is being threatened by the spectre of emerging trade agreements such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). Concurrently, the violent arm of the state is being visibly flexed in response to protests and riots in many countries. Nowhere is this turn to authoritarianism more apparent than in Turkey, under President Erdoğan, but we are also seeing riot control police and the military deployed in countries as diverse as France and India, to name a few. These developments all highlight the imperilled status of democracy in this current conjuncture. They also present a challenge for social scientists, who seek to understand and explain such phenomena, and the relations between these seemingly disparate processes.

In response to this context, Ian Bruff recently introduced ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ as a conceptual apparatus to understand these changes, noting ‘the increasing frequency with which constitutional and legal changes, in the name of economic “necessity”, are seeking to reshape the purpose of the state and associated institutions’, a process whereby the state ‘reconfigures into a less open and democratic polity’. Authoritarian neoliberalism has been embraced by many already. The concept was the focus of much discussion at the International Initiative for the Promotion of Political Economy’s (IIPPE) annual conference, held in Lisbon in September (this post is derived in part from a presentation at IIPPE). There was also a stream of papers planned for the European International Studies Conference (EISA), which was unfortunately cancelled, due to the turmoil in Turkey, where the conference was to be held. That ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ has received so much attention so quickly is not surprising, especially considering the context outlined above. For those concerned by the above developments (and many others besides), the concept of ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ resonates immediately. Indeed, it is my belief that this concept is a most welcome development in our understanding of neoliberalism and the state in the current conjuncture. There are, however, some significant challenges ahead for the concept of ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’. No matter how appealing it may be heuristically, if these outstanding questions are not answered, then surely we cannot hope to convince our comrades – let alone our opponents.

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

In his classic political history, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Barrington Moore Jr. noted that as well as the democratic route to capitalism, there was an historical alternative:

the second path was also a capitalist one, but, in the absence of a strong revolutionary surge it passed through reactionary political forms to culminate in fascism. It is worth emphasising that, through a revolution from above, industry did manage to grow and flourish in Germany and Japan.

This fraught relationship between capitalism and democracy is, of course, hardly isolated to the twentieth century. From Athenian democracy, to early parliamentary assemblies on the Iberian Peninsula, the revolutionary emergence of Western democracy in eighteenth-century France, or the much-storied founding of democracy in the United States of America, early democracies have always co-existed with forms of extraction through coercion, whether through slavery, caste systems, or simple violence.

In short, democracy and capitalism have a complex historical relationship. From historically grounded texts such as Moore Jr. and Jairus Banaji, we see explicitly authoritarian forms comingling with capitalist development, posing an important problematic for our periodisation of ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’. If these two forms of social organisation have always existed in historically specific and contingent (re)articulations, then on what basis does authoritarian neoliberalism represent a qualitative change? Following on from this, it would also be wise for us to ask hasn’t neoliberalism always exhibited authoritarian tendencies? It seems to me that an explicit engagement with debates around the periodisation of capitalism is necessary, in order to justify why authoritarian neoliberalism might be new or different to these historical tendencies.

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?

The popular understanding of authoritarianism is associated with strong central power and limited political freedoms. This often involves limitations to political pluralism, and social mobilisation, all ensured by a visibly-repressive violent arm of the state. How does one justify the theoretical opening of this category to include processes which have historically been constituent parts of democracies, such as constitutions and trade agreements? Bruff justifies this with reference to Nicos Poulantzas and Stuart Hall, but is this sufficient?

And even if we assume this, what is the justification for grouping together violent and non-violent state strategies? This ultimately becomes an argument based around ‘internal’ or ‘external’ relations, and the methodology of abstraction. ‘Authoritarian neoliberalism’ would seem to make a counter-intuitive claim of violent and non-violent limitations on popular-democratic demands on the state being internally related.

But as is often the case with such dialectical arguments, there are often criticisms regarding where one draws boundaries around related processes, or whether all processes can in the end be subsumed by a totalising capitalist frame. How do we defend ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ against such critiques?

And finally, a question raised by Bruff himself:

‘whether the contradictions inherent to authoritarian neoliberalism—especially with regard to the strengthening/weakening of the state—have created conditions in which progressive and radical politics can begin to reverse the tide of the last three decades’.

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

In his theorisation of ‘authoritarian statism’, Poulantzas argued that the contradictions inherent to this kind of state strategy created both a strong state, and also the conditions for a challenge of that state. But what mechanisms actually bear out the ‘strengthening/weakening’ dynamic? This seems to me a most important and exciting avenue for further research.

This list of questions is not exhaustive. There are many other challenges facing the research agenda, and suggestive avenues for further work – both theoretical and empirical. I would argue that Bruff’s contribution is an important one, but that this framework must walk before it can begin to run.

Matthew Ryan

Matthew Ryan is a postgraduate research student in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He was recently awarded the Frank Stilwell Award in Political Economy. He is currently working on the relationship between neoliberalism and democracy, with particular focus on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

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