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Neoliberalism at War and the Authoritarian Turn

Theory & ResearchIn this short piece, I would like to explore some hypotheses about the connection between the global transformations of what we used to call “neoliberalism”, and the world becoming much more authoritarian.

After the authoritarian shock provoked by the electoral triumphs of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and the likes, the recent electoral wins of Lula in Brazil or of Joe Biden in the United States as well as the successes of social-democratic and liberal forces in certain European countries has brought the illusion of a democratic normalization. But it does not take much to confirm that it is precisely that — an illusion. Not only because the Trumps or Bolsonaros of the world may return sooner rather than later, but also because of two more important reasons: on the one hand, such figures have deeply transformed the political culture and the ideological landscape of their countries in the long-term and, on the other hand, their emergence is not independent of the economic and social transformations that have occurred over the past few decades.

Neoliberalism, the “new reason of the world”

Although we lack an unequivocal definition of the concept "neoliberalism", there does seem to be a certain consensus around the fact that the crisis of 2007-2008 — and perhaps that of the pandemic — has led to the development of a new historical stage in the trajectory of neoliberalism. Looked at more closely, this new historical stage is characterized by the multiple and overlapped crises that became visible after the breakdown of (what its supporters considered) the utopian moment of neoliberal governance. These crises include ecological crisis, the political crisis of representation, the ideological crisis of imaginaries, the crisis of the post-Cold War international order following its end, and the crisis of capitalist social reproduction. Taken as a whole this is what Edgardo Lander (2020) has called in more holistic terms “a civilisational crisis”. 

Given that the political establishment has been discredited for their leading role in the implementation of neoliberal reforms, and the difficulties the radical left have faced in articulating a viable alternative to the crisis, we have begun witnessing an increase in non-democratic modes of governance and the emergence of different political forces with explicitly anti-egalitarian and authoritarian agendas. However, before tackling the features of this new authoritarian phase of the neoliberal trajectory and the mainstreaming of the far-right by means of a “pathological normalcy” (Mudde 2010), I would like to begin by briefly addressing a somewhat more basic question: what is neoliberalism? 

This is a key question because, due to the way it has become loaded and made vague to the point of essentially signifying nothing, the term neoliberalism often seems to say more about who is using it than about what the term actually refers to, provoking certain scepticism about its explanatory capacity. However, the imprecise meaning of a concept and the politicized nature of its use should not be a reason to abandon it — in fact, this happens with all concepts of political thought, from populism to liberalism, from freedom to democracy — instead, this imprecision is a further reason to explore it in more detail. We can begin by stating that neoliberalism is an intellectual programme formulated more than 100 years ago. Its official birth is usually dated to the Walter Lippman Colloquium in 1938, when a group of personalities such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Alexander Rüstow, Wilhelm Röpke, and Raymond Aron, among others, came together with the idea of renewing liberalism in order to contest the collectivist tendencies — fascist corporatism, Weimar socialism, Soviet communism, and the American New Deal — which they considered responsible for World War One. 

Although neoliberalism is much more than an intellectual programme, we can provide a rough overview of its core tenets through the explanation of three basic ideas. Firstly, unlike 19th century liberalism, for neoliberalism, the market is not a natural or spontaneously occurring  phenomenon but an artificial entity that has to be created, nurtured, and defended by the state. Neoliberalism is not a laissez-faire ideology, but rather a theory about the active role of the state in expanding the logic of the market to all spheres of social life. Secondly, neoliberalism sees the market fundamentally as an information-processing mechanism that functions through the price system. Thus, the theory goes, the market is the only social entity capable of producing knowledge on a grand scale about what consumers want, what should be produced, and where social resources should be directed. Thirdly, the market is believed to be not only technically and epistemologically supreme, but it is also the supreme instance in moral terms since it is the concrete expression of individual freedom insofar as it allows us to know what is socially and individually good and desirable. Consequently, any interference with the market is a moral affront to fundamental individual freedoms (Escalante Gonzalbo, 2016).

The artificial character of the market, as well as its epistemological, technical, and moral privilege in the configuration of social life, all lie at the heart of all core neoliberal proposals, from which other key ideas are subsequently articulated — such as the superiority of the private over the public, the individual as the ultimate reality and the subordination of politics to the market. Nevertheless, neoliberalism was not merely an academicdiscussion about the state of the economy but, as became clear from the 1970s onwards when it was adopted beyond academic circles, a political programme designed to reshape the state, society, and the entire common understanding of how the world should function, until becoming what Laval and Dardot have called “the new reason of the world” (2009). In other words, neoliberalism has turned out to be the defining cultural framework of our time. This is why the fact that while today we speak of a crisis of neoliberalism after the crash of 2007–2008, this does not imply that it has lost its effectiveness in reshaping society; although it may have lost the seductive power it possessed in previous decades, it still largely retains its position as the dominant shaper of global governmentality.

Authoritarian Neoliberalism

It is precisely the coming to terms with this new stage of neoliberalism that is now at the centre of many academic and political debates.It has thus has become frequent to use the term “authoritarian neoliberalism” in order to offer a Zeitdiagnose of the crisis of neoliberal legitimacy and its brutal resilience in the absence of emancipatory alternatives (Bruff & Tansel, 2019) that is currently occurring. In this understanding, authoritarian neoliberalism consists of the “reconfiguration of the state into a less democratic entity through constitutional and legal changes that seek to insulate it from social and political conflict”, at a historical moment in which it is “less able to obtain the consent or even the reluctant acquiescence necessary for more ‘normal’ modes of governance” (Bruff, 2013, p. 113).

This approach has given rise to a research agenda aimed at analyzing elements of the phenomenon of authoritarian neoliberalism such as the political prioritization of constitutional and legal devices over democratic institutions of participation, the centralization of state power in the executive branch in contrast to deliberative bodies, the increase in political persecution, the repression of social contestation, the regressive restructuring of economic distribution mechanisms, the imposition of regressive budget cuts, and austerity policies without popular consultation, among other things. However, authoritarian neoliberalism should not be understood as a fundamental hegemonic crisis or the definitive eradication of mechanisms designed to build consent. This is not only because powerful and efficient forms of consensus still remain, but also because the institutional predominance of repressive and anti-democratic forms of statehood concerning material and symbolic concessions can still gain a certain degree of social acceptance, as have seen in the legitimate support for different authoritarian regimes around the world.

Undoubtedly, one of the notable advantages of the concept of authoritarian neoliberalism is that it allows making the usually simplistic discourse of the "crisis of democracy" or the "crisis of representation" seemingly more complex by avoiding both the fetishism of politics — which analyzes the current authoritarian turn based on the profile of leaders, movements or political forces —  and the fetishization of ideas, which has reduced analysis to the content of ideas, theories, and programmes formulated by think tanks. However, this “authoritarian neoliberalism” agenda is not exempt from criticisms that are worthy of deep consideration if we wish not only to retain the productivity of analyzing this concept, but also to enhance the theoretical depth of any subsequent diagnosis.

First, much of the research carried out in relation to authoritarian neoliberalism has focused on regime-type analysis and the legal institutionality of the state, in which class struggle and political contestations play a secondary role at best, and which do not take into account the micropolitical infrastructure and ideological environment in which these instances of authoritarianism are produced and reproduced "from below". Secondly, this approach may also engage in a problematic periodization that understands the authoritarian character of neoliberalism as a historical novelty, leading to the idea of a “democratic past” of neoliberalism as qualitatively different from the current authoritarian one. Thirdly, such periodization entails a certain degree of Eurocentrism, since it suggests a progressive history of Western liberal democracies — where authoritarianism would once again be an exception — in opposition to the history of the global peripheries, where authoritarianism has historically been seen as a normality (Salgado, 2022).

In view of this, it is important not to exaggerate the differences between this current authoritarian phase of neoliberalism and more previous ones that have been less aggressive. As Nico Poulantzas (2000) has put forward with the idea of “authoritarian statism” in the late 1970s, authoritarianism should not be understood as a precise moment within the history of neoliberalism, but as a constitutive logic of capitalist statehood and of the neoliberal mode of accumulation. These are authoritarian logics of different temporal intensities and geographical idiosyncrasies, whose materiality is constituted by colonial relations of power at a global level (Robles and Nehe, 2022). 

Thus, it can never be emphasized  enough how the current model of capitalist accumulation was established by means of the bloody military dictatorships in Latin America, the repression of the organised working class in the Global North, by the structural adjustment programmes imposed through debt blackmail in Africa, by the privatisation shocks delivered uppn the former socialist countries in Eastern Europe, or by the brutal capitalist modernization of Southeast Asia. Nor should we overlook the fact that in the very ideas that neoliberal thinkers hold dear, there is — without exception — a distrust of democracy, in which they see the danger of totalitarianism  in the will of the people. Hayek's support for the Pinochet regime and the support for South African apartheid provided by many neoliberal thinkers should be understood as an inherent outcome of the very premises of neoliberal thought.

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Art: Hugo Bellagamba

The war hypothesis

Following the posthumous publication of Michel Foucault’s lectures titled The Birth of Biopolitics (2004), it became common in social sciences to consider neoliberalism as a political rationale or form of “governmentality”, rather than as a set of ideas or public policies. In essence, a kind of rationalionalized structure that aimed to dictate the relation between the state, the market, and their respective subjects by expanding the deployment of market logic to the entire social field through the generalization of the enterprise model and the constant creation and management of freedoms. However, many approaches based on these ideas were defined the misleading view of neoliberalism as something free of conflict and violence, as a fluent way of “conducting conducts” and subjectivations that occurred without resistance, harm, or coercion. 

This vision often overlooks the fact that “neoliberal rationality” required the constant use of a belligerent strategy in order to impose itself. The birth of the entrepreneurial subject was only possible after the defeat of revolutionary political forces and projects by dictatorships and repression on the streets and in factories, by the socialzsation of fear (fear of repression, of inflation, of impoverishment, and pauperization), and by social mechanisms of racialization and classifications of certain populations. Following Harvey´s well-known motif of “accumulation by dispossession” (2007), with which he described one of neoliberalism’s key features, the original accumulation does not indicate a primitive historical moment of capitalism, which would later be overcome in legal relations concerning the exploitation of free labour, but rather a logic of violent appropriation that accompanies the whole history of capitalism and which would become dominant during the years of neoliberalism’s ascendency.

Wars against certain populations are the undercurrent of the history of neoliberalism (Lazzarato & Alliez, 2016). Intangible wars such as the "war on terror", the "war on drugs" or the "cyberwar", but also wars in the form of financial extractivism and the indebtedness of subaltern sectors (Gago, 2022), the algorithmic management of workplaces in digital capitalism (Robles & Franco, 2022), the paramilitary violence in territories and communities (Dorsch et al., 2022), the aggression deployed against women and sexual dissidence as a result of the crisis of the patriarchal-wage relation (Expósito, 2022), the exclusionary dynamics of urban gentrification (Can & Fanton, 2022), or the creation of sacrifice zone of ecological destruction (Fernandes, 2022). This “war hypothesis” is not just an occurrence of some radical thinkers; it was in fact Warren Buffett who in an interview crudely stated that “there's been class warfare for the last 20 years, and my class has won”. The war hypothesis simply means that neoliberalism is fundamentally a set of political strategies and tactics in the context of endogenous capitalist crises. 

Sensibilities and desires

The financial crisis has deepened neoliberalism's most anti-democratic and aggressive features,  which have resulted in the emergence of the new far-right, with their appeal to an anti-establishment, anti-globalist, and anti-progressive discourse. The outbreak of COVID-19 did little to change this development, or at least did not trigger the creation of a progressive alternative that went beyond beyond targeted — and limited — social spending. The pandemic has even consolidated the bonds between far-rights forces and neoliberals in the defense of abstract individual freedom. In this new “neoliberalism reloaded”, as Matías Saidel has called it, “the battles between globalists and nationalists, or between open liberal democracy and populist illiberal democracy, are fights over different versions of neoliberalism” (Saidel, 2023, p. 117); simply put, they are different war strategies aimed at hindering any advance in the direction of equality, democracy, or social justice. 

The question now is what kind of connections these transformations of global governance have with the re-emergence of the extreme right, and with the dissemination of nativist and discriminatory discourses with striking similarities throughout the globe? Are they an amorphous mode of contestation or simply the washed-out and brutal face of previously existent neoliberal strategies? What role do they play on the current social battlefield? In seeking to tackle this, Alex Demirovic suggests understanding this authoritarian populism as a “neoliberal crisis management strategy” (Demirovic, 2018 p. 27–42), which works by building a top-down alliance between petty-bourgeois groups and sectors of the working class without the need for bourgeois concessions or compromises. In that case, the question is what kind of benefits undergird the acceptance of this alliance by sectors that have only seen their living conditions worsen in recent years.

What I am seeking to elucidate here is that if, on the one hand, we understand neoliberalism as a strategy in the context of a kind of war, then we need to ask how domination is exercised not only over people but also over their desires. Political organization emerges from a confrontation in which one force not only tries to subjugate the enemy, as in the case of the war, but also to convince them that this is what they wish, or at least that they have no choice but to do so. In the war framed by neoliberalism, weapons such as laws, state policies, and the police on the street go hand in hand with complex machines of destruction and the creation of subjectivities that, along with the resistance and shorshort-circuiting of such that attend them, are located beyond the antinomy between coherence-consensus or repression-ideology. Thus, the war hypothesis is only valid if, at the same time, it attempts to also explain how the illusion of peace is constructed during situations of combat. In this sense, “the politicisation of a neoliberal sensibility” (Catanzaro, 2021) has functioned — and continues to function — as a decisive element of such a war, one which any subaltern counterstrategy must understand and dismantle in order to achieve its aims. 


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