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Review of States of Discipline

by Sirma Altun on April 18, 2017

“Neoliberalisation is never found alone” claims Jamie Peck, Nik Theodore and Neil Brenner. “As a necessarily incomplete program, wherever it is found, neoliberalism is therefore a creature of less-than-happy marriages, revealed in various states of contradictory yet constitutive cohabitation with ‘other halves’”. States of Discipline: Authoritarian Neoliberalism and the Contested Reproduction of Capitalist Order is a thought-provoking book on the “constitutive cohabitation” of neoliberalism and authoritarianism that is seen to work, through a set of disciplining mechanisms, to secure capital accumulation at the expense of democratic politics and popular participation at times of political and economic crises.

Acknowledging the plurality of existing ‘authoritarian neoliberalisms’ or ‘the modalities of authoritarian neoliberalism’, the book is structured around chapters looking at the forms authoritarian neoliberalism takes in different spatial and scalar contexts. Comprised of thematic discussions on new organisational models of policing (Chapter 3) and gendered effects of authoritarian neoliberalism on academia (Chapter 4); case studies from different countries including Spain (Chapter 2), United States (Chapter 5), Turkey (Chapter 6, 10), Italy (Chapter 7), Greece (Chapter 9), Egypt and Morocco (Chapter 11), Cambodia (Chapter 12), China (Chapter 13); and the analysis of the role of legal infrastructure for enforcing neoliberal policies on European Union level (Chapter 8), States of Discipline offers a rich multidisciplinary intervention to the current scholarship on the relations between neoliberalism and authoritarianism. Indeed, the editor of the book, Cemal Burak Tansel presents the text as an initial step towards a new research agenda whilst offering authoritarian neoliberalism as a ‘conceptual prism’ to look at a spectrum of disciplining state practices that erode democratic politics and deploy coercive state power especially in the post-2008 crisis period.

The first chapter by Tansel skilfully lays the theoretical foundations of authoritarian neoliberalism, which provides a basis for other chapters to build their investigations of the manifestations of authoritarian neoliberalism in different spatial and scalar contexts. In particular, Tansel’s introductory discussion covers how neoliberalism and authoritarianism is perceived throughout the book. On one hand, neoliberalism is defined as a “specific mode of capital accumulation and political rule” which is shaped by the agency of advanced capitalist states and international institutions”. On the other hand, “the constitutive role of local state strategies, socioeconomic conditions and class struggles” is also recognised in structuring the diversified nature of actually existing neoliberalisms. Hence, authoritarian neoliberalism works through a broad range of disciplinary strategies including “explicit demonstrations of coercive state power” and “manifestations of administrative and legal mechanisms that entrench extant power relations and inequalities” in different spatial and scalar contexts.

Tansel proceeds with an equally important discussion on how authoritarianism is conceptualised throughout the book. On that account, Tansel remarkably stresses that the book does not subscribe to a “coercion-oriented understanding of authoritarianism” in which “coercive apparatuses of the state are perceived as external to liberal democracy”. In contrast, by acknowledging the internal relationship between authoritarian state power and processes of capital accumulation, the book draws attention to the similar forms of state responses to economic and political crises of capitalism in formal democracies and in traditionally defined authoritarian regimes. Undoubtedly, the perception of authoritarianism outside the ideal-typical democracy-authoritarianism dichotomy embedded within mainstream social science literature is one of the primary strengths of the book. By this way, the book allows the readers to think beyond the limits of the liberal West/authoritarian East framework and to see nuanced forms of actually existing neoliberalisms that have taken in different spatial and scalar contexts, the example of which can be found in Kean Fan Lim’s discussion on neo-authoritarianism in China (Chapter 13).

The Chinese case is notable primarily because in Lim’s words it “demonstrates how neoliberal logics were selectively integrated within and subsequently reinforced authoritarian capacities that were already an integral part of the Chinese party-state”. Accordingly, Lim traces the historical roots of the Chinese household registration system, namely hukou. Established in 1958 to control population mobility between rural and urban China, the hukou institution has evolved into a dual citizenship regime leaving rural hukou holders with a restricted access to urban settlements and basic welfare provisions (Cheng and Selden 1994; Chan 2010). According to Lim, the continuity of the hukou institution in the Mao and post-Mao eras in China has served a “sustained absorption of rural resources – land, labour power and monetarily defined surplus value- for urban-based industrialisation”, which is at the same time highly internationalised.

Additionally, Lim looks at the uneven spatial expressions of reform and opening up policies, such as selective enrollment of Chinese state space into the circuits of transnational production networks.  According to Lim, spatial reorganisation through state planning targeted at increasing growth levels is tied to neo-authoritarianism in China in three main aspects: “(1) it takes place without public input and yet involves large amounts of direct and indirect public financing; (2) it often involves contentious requisitions of land that lead to forced evictions; (3) it leaves unchanged key institutions of Mao-era state authoritarianism”. Here, Kim’s analysis on neo-authoritarianism in China shows significant similarities with Annalena Di Giovanni’s analysis on urban transformation and city branding in Istanbul, Turkey (Chapter 6). For Giovanni, authoritarian neoliberalism through urban transformation corresponds to “centralised zoning and planning decisions under the office of prime ministry” while “public input has been necessarily marginalised”. Moreover, relocation and zoning has become central to urban transformation in Istanbul since “privatised, upmarket areas inside the city are contracted to private developers close to the AKP” (or Justice and Development Party).

Although Lim’s analysis is unreservedly powerful in revealing the tangled relationships between the Mao and post-Mao era institutions in shaping authoritarian neoliberalism in China, one question remains mostly unanswered throughout the chapter: how does the top-down spatial politics of authoritarian neoliberalism resonate within the local communities? In other words, what is the role of local societal responses in shaping the spatial politics of authoritarian neoliberalism in China?

Overall, States of Discipline provides a very timely discussion on neoliberalism, authoritarianism and state strategies of discipline from around the world. Perhaps it would have been an easier guide for the reader if the book should have been divided into parts according to thematic discussions and case studies. Still, the book offers a very rich and diverse content and it comes highly recommended.

Sirma Altun
Sirma Altun is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. Her research interests lie in the political economy of contemporary China, specifically in social welfare transformation and urban poverty. She is also interested in looking at the question of hegemony in China from a critical socio-spatial perspective.
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