Reflecting on the political implications of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, Jürgen Habermas suggested that ‘existential uncertainty is now spreading globally and simultaneously […] There was never so much knowing about our not-knowing and about the constraint to act and live in uncertainty.’ Perhaps channelling the rhetoric of Donald Rumsfeld’s remarks in 2002 about the relationship between ‘knowns’ and ‘unknowns’, Habermas highlights the quotidian uncertainty arising from swelling popular recognition of cracks in the ideological hegemony of liberalism. Seemingly-perennial catastrophes and contradictions since the Global Financial Crisis and, more recently, the Global Coronavirus Crisis have seen mounting questioning and even rejection of extant ideological and institutional configurations – from both the Left and Right. Consequently, more so than at any other time since Francis Fukuyama’s gnostic diagnosis that the conclusion of the Cold War marked the ‘end of history’ – presenting liberal democracy and capitalism as constituting the apotheosis of human civilisation – liberalism appears to offer little succour to its advocates and in mainstream political discourse. The ideological closure offered by the extant order suddenly appears less certain, while the trajectory of global political economic processes is, in turn, unclear.
In this context, the status of ‘democracy’ and its relationship with broader political economic developments has come under increased scrutiny from many quarters. In particular, the pernicious impacts of four decades of neoliberalism on democratic norms and institutions, along with the need to devise substantive alternatives, have been the subject of a diverse and growing body of critical scholarship (eg. Brown 2019; Dardot and Laval 2019). Such noxious effects on democracy have been grossly evident in recent years. Most obviously, they have manifest in the rapid rise of far-right populist leaders and social movements around the world, combining the worst excesses of neoliberal economism with institutionalised authoritarianism and promulgation of exclusionary politics in a form of ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’. Indeed, it is hard to ignore the contribution of the political economic dislocation engendered by four decades of neoliberalism under successive US Governments in laying the foundations for the rise of Donald Trump and the broader Trumpist movement. In turn, Joe Biden’s frequent promises of a ‘return to normal’ – reviving many tried-and true neoliberal practices, and heavily surrounding himself with corporate interests while renewing attack on the political Left – does not instil much confidence in the prospect of a brighter, more democratic future, especially amidst the ongoing GCC.
However, even in such cases, the relation between neoliberalism and democracy is far-from-straightforward. Rather, it raises myriad questions that are pertinent for both scholars and progressive social movements – especially given the multiple, overlapping crises afflicting contemporary capitalism. How should the nexus between neoliberalism and democracy be understood? Why and how have advocates of neoliberalism sought to reconfigure democratic processes? How has the notion of ‘democracy’ itself been understood, institutionalised and restricted to liberal forms of representation under neoliberalism? Have the persistent contradictions and unequal outcomes arising from the GFC and ongoing GCC engendered a crisis in the legitimacy of neoliberal institutions despite neoliberal practices remaining central to state policy practice? Does the (re-)emergence of right-wing populist political forces promulgating nationalistic programs – both within and beyond the state – present a fundamental challenge to the global accumulation processes characterising neoliberalism? Conversely, are they ultimately compatible with one another in the form of an ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’? Does the current crisis-ridden conjuncture demonstrate that neoliberalism is inherently incompatible with democracy? Or should democratic processes and discourse be understood as more fundamental to securing the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism? What role, if any, should liberal democracy have in reconfiguring alternative post-neoliberal political economic configurations? Are alternative, more radical democratic forms possible and desirable?
Hot-off-the-presses, the latest issue of the Journal of Australian Political Economy – a special issue titled ‘W(h)ither Democracy? Revisiting Neoliberalism and Democracy in Contemporary Capitalism’, for which I had the privilege to act as guest-editor – offers one-step toward addressing such questions. The issue is divided into four sub-sections, with each featuring a series of articles focussing on a particular theme: (i) conceptualising the relations between neoliberalism and democracy; (ii) addressing how political economic configurations have been reconfigured under neoliberalism; (iii) examining the growing preponderance of authoritarian neoliberalism, militarism and the rise of far-right populism; and (iv) speculating about possible alternative futures, for better or worse. Finally, the volume concludes with reviews of four books recently published on the broad theme of the special issue. Collectively, these contributions – reflecting the diverse cultural, institutional, paradigmatic and political backgrounds of their authors – demonstrate that the relation between neoliberalism and democracy remains a complex area ripe for ongoing critical political economic research.
Conceptualising the relations between neoliberalism and democracy
Following my editorial introduction, the issue commences with a series of articles seeking to conceptualise the complex relations between neoliberalism and democracy. This is a fraught area for political economic research, with some scholars drawing attention to the de-democratising or anti-democratic character of neoliberalism, while others have highlighted how democratic processes have productively contributed to the neoliberal project. The opening contribution, from Quinn Slobodian, intervenes in this debate by comprehending neoliberalism less as a strictly anti-democratic ideology, than one accommodating diverse political formations towards its ends. Specifically, rather than favouring constraint of democracy per se, Slobodian examines the intellectual evolution of neoliberals in the public choice tradition toward deploying referenda as a means to secure ‘neoliberal secession’ from the perceived leftward drift of supranational integration.
Thomas Biebricher then takes a step back to explore how neoliberalism – both in theory and practice – has (re-)shaped and disfigured contemporary democracy. Critically analysing the thought of the public choice theorist, James Buchanan, Biebricher identifies two pernicious, if contradictory, influences on democratic processes engendered by neoliberalism. First, he notes how the latter has contributed to the constitutionalisation of particular policy areas, thereby removing them from direct governmental control. Second, he highlights the reassertion of the (white) individual and its narrowly understood freedom from external ‘intrusion’, which has stimulated further anti-establishment responses such as the rise of far-right populism.
The final piece in this section, by Evan Jones, adopts a longer-term perspective to explore the historical relations between liberal theory and democracy in Great Britain. A central plank of liberalism, and surely part of its pervasive appeal, is univeralism: liberal moral principles should apply equally to all human beings in all contexts. Jones, however, demonstrates that contrary to its universalist pretensions, the application of liberalism has always been highly selective and strongly correlated with capitalist class relations. Specifically, during the Nineteenth and early-Twentieth Centuries, liberalism promulgated socially harmful practices entrenching and deepening of capitalism, such as imperialist processes, subjugation and subordination according to race, gender and class, and suppressing individual rights relative to those of corporations.
Reshaping political economic configurations
Building-on the previous predominantly abstract discussion, the second sub-section addresses some of the more concrete ways in which neoliberalism has reconfigured political economic processes and the concomitant implications for democracy. Kyle Bailey opens with an insightful account questioning whether new models of ‘stakeholder capitalism’ – ostensibly putting people and planet before profit – offer a developmental path that genuinely deviate from neoliberalism. Drawing on a case study of Unilever and utilising from global economic, environmental and social governance, Bailey contends that ‘stakeholder capitalism’ does not represent a clear break with – so much as a shift within – neoliberalism. Indeed, it is critical of neoliberal ideology only as a means to re-legitimise and entrench the class forces and institutions driving global neoliberal restructuring.
The next article, by Elizabeth Humphrys, Simon Copland and Luke Mansillo, presents an original analysis of trends in contemporary Australian electoral politics. Examining empirical data across a range of indicators, they identify an anti-political drift, characterised by popular withdrawal and disengagement from conventional politics. This trend has profound political economic implications for addressing the most substantial problems confronting contemporary Australian capitalism, as policies of the scope and scale necessary to address looming challenges – such as climate change or future pandemic akin to COVID-19 – cannot be implemented by a fractured political class.
Philip Mendes then offers a critical analysis of the aims and outcomes of compulsory income management (CIM) schemes in Indigenous communities in Australia. Mendes demonstrates that CIM is politically disempowering and represents an exemplar of the extension of neoliberalism to the welfare state, in that it shifts the burden from helping and empowering those who have been disadvantaged by neoliberalism, to merely controlling them to reduce the economic burden on society. CIM thus represents a profoundly illiberal program of paternalistic management that has had, at best, mixed political economic effects on the communities involved.
Finally, Mia Shouha’s article shifts the geographical focus to explore how neoliberalism has reconfigured socio-economic, democratic and geopolitical processes in the South Caucasus. By analysing developments in post-Soviet Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, Shouha argues that there has been a cyclical causal relationship between territorial fragmentation and neoliberalisation. In conjunction with its detrimental socio-economic effects on citizens, the article demonstrates that neoliberalism has also perpetuated undemocratic governance and uneven regional development.
Authoritarian neoliberalism, militarism and far-right populism
The third sub-section considers some of the more authoritarian and violent political economic processes and outcomes engendered over the last decade or so by contemporary neoliberalism. The opening article by Richard Westra examines the constrained character of democracy under neoliberalism and shift of the later toward authoritarianism through examining the historical relations between capitalism and democracy. Westra demonstrates that there is no necessary link between capitalism and democracy; while the latter, where prevalent, remains circumscribed by, and subordinate to, the structural imperatives of capitalism. Neoliberalism has sustained this trend: fostering political economic decay and crisis, while entrenching governmental practices and inequalities that perpetuate such contradictions. More recently, many polities have also revealed increasingly authoritarian inclinations in seeking to institutionalise neoliberalism under the veil of democracy.
The following contribution, from Alison J. Ayers and Alfredo Saad-Filho, explores similar themes in analysing relations between the contemporary drift toward authoritarian neoliberal practices and the contradictory dynamics of contemporary capitalism. Specifically, Ayers and Saad-Filho trace the progression of neoliberal democracies into states of permanent exception, demonstrating that the multiple crises confronting neoliberalism have arisen organically from its internal tensions. Contemporary neoliberalism has increasingly turned to violent and coercive measures to contain the cracks and noxious socio-ecological implications produced by earlier efforts to secure the conditions for capital accumulation. This, in turn, has augmented its social costs, and undermined efforts to secure radical systemic change.
Underlining the importance of investigating political economic dynamics to comprehend contemporary authoritarian trends, William I. Robinson and César Rodríguez next relate the global drive toward militarisation, war and depression to the accumulation imperatives of capitalism. They demonstrate that these bellicose, often frightening developments have largely arisen as capital has sought new outlets for accumulation in the context of incessant global stagnation. Simultaneously, to counter and repress threats to the legitimacy of capitalism and the state in the face of unprecedented inequality and instability, increasingly violent means of containment have been employed to manage immiserated populations. This has cultivated the rise of a global police state and undermined the remnants of extant democratic institutions.
The following two contributions examine authoritarian neoliberal developments in specific geographical contexts. Bengi Akbulut, Fikret Adaman and Murat Arsel present a fascinating case-study of the configuration of such practices in Turkey, elucidating that a distinctive regime of accumulation orchestrated by the state has accompanied the authoritarian turn under Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Focusing on the region of Artvin, they posit that this regime of ‘accumulation by dislocation’ relies not only on the expropriation of labour resources, but also on their dislocation and transformation for specific aims. Adam Fabry then considers the evolution of relations between neoliberalism and authoritarianism in Central and Eastern Europe, focusing on the far-right governments in Hungary and Poland. Specifically, Fabry demonstrates how the prior deepening neoliberal restructuring in these countries by centre-left government coalitions both produced harmful effects for the majority and laid the foundations for authoritarian neoliberal regimes. The resulting far-right governments have, in turn, sought to consolidate a new regime of accumulation by fusing neoliberalism with ‘authoritarian-ethnicist’ discourses and practices.
The final sub-section features a series of articles exploring the political economic implications of the trends explored in the preceding sub-sections. Is there genuine cause for optimism, or does the future appear bleak? The initial piece, from Geoff Dow, counsels the need for carefully traversing these two poles. In exploring the possibility for (re-)establishing social democratic principles of governance in Australia, Dow traces how neoliberalism has, since the 1970s, thwarted their potential extension, while arguing that populism is playing a similarly countervailing function today. The key strategic questions for further debate, however, remain whether these political economic conditions have fatally undermined the possibility of a rejuvenated social democratic project and, concomitantly, what lessons should contemporary proponents retain from previous experiments?
The next two articles consider the potential role of the degrowth movement in effecting more democratic political economic processes. As a movement encouraging transition away from a political economic system centred on perpetual growth, degrowth inevitably challenges many of the entrenched ideologies, interests and institutions informing neoliberal capitalism (Stuart et al. 2020). Thereby, it offers a potentially novel and important means to build socio-ecologically sustainable post-capitalist alternatives through extending democratic principles into processes of production, consumption and distribution. In exploring this possibility, the first article, by Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson, examines the capacity of urban social movements to act as the principal democratic organising forces of a degrowth transition in cities. Positing the need for alternative, participatory democratic arrangements that negate the structural link between governance practices and unsustainable growth under neoliberalism, Alexander and Gleeson highlight the radical potential of a series of grass-roots social movements comprising a new ‘degrowth urbanity’. The following piece, by Alex Baumann, Samuel Alexander and Peter Burdon, builds on these insights to suggest that any democratic degrowth transition must commence by acknowledging and transforming the extant relations between land, housing and property rights under capitalism. They then consider concrete proposals for alternative land governance arrangements, focussing primarily on a strategy they label ‘Neighbourhoods that Work’ to secure just and sustainable degrowth.
The sub-section ends on a decidedly darker note with the important concluding contribution from Alex Waters. In contrast to the hope that social democratic or degrowth alternatives might emerge from the current malaise of global neoliberalism, Waters holds that neoliberal capitalism has been pushed beyond its limits by near-perpetual crises. Consequently, elites and reactionary social movements are advancing an alternative political economic arrangement to take its place – what Waters labels ‘techno-feudalism’. Building on the profoundly undemocratic and unequal political economic processes engendered by neoliberalism, this alternative is characterised by the ubiquitous presence of technology for social control by the rentiers and oligarchs owning the platform networks ubiquitous in modern life. Evidently, no progressive future will inevitably arise in a post-neoliberal world – without broad-ranging, radical social movements organising to counter the systemic logic of capitalism and extant political economic power relations, the years ahead will be gloomy indeed.
In this respect, the contributions to this mammoth special issue of JAPE ultimately demonstrate the need for the political Left to, as Slavoj Žižek suggests, embrace the ‘courage of hopelessness’. That is, in preference to relying on the deceptively optimistic promise of a guaranteed progressive future, it is necessary to acknowledge that ‘the light at the end of the tunnel is probably the headlight of another train approaching as from the opposite direction’ (xii). In the crisis-ridden conjuncture of contemporary capitalism, the widespread social disrepair and evisceration of democratic processes engendered by neoliberalism – already weaponised by the far-right, as evidenced by the recent armed insurrection in Washington – should be embraced and acknowledged in all its complexity as a crucial means to formulate a more radical, emancipatory alternative. In turn, rather than pinning progressive hopes on fixing the status quo through technocratic tinkering or fetishising ‘more democracy’ as our political horizon, scholars and activists should accept that the dire political economic processes we hope will not happen are immanent (if not already present), unless we summon the political resolution to act decisively and effect systemic change. To paraphrase Romain Rolland’s famous maxim, the necessary optimism of the will must be nourished by a substantial pessimism of the intellect.
I hope readers enjoy perusing through the articles featured in this issue of JAPE, and that they also contribute to developing a more intricate understanding of the magnitude of the challenges ahead in fostering a more progressive, democratic political economic future.