The concept of authoritarianism is typically defined as the manifestation of absolute governmental power within a societal structure, able to exercise control over a population regardless of legitimacy. Within contemporary Western civilisation, the implementation of liberal democracy claims to have eradicated authoritarian politics, as mechanisms including extensive suffrage and regulatory legislation legitimises governmental procedures and limits the acquisition of power. However, the increasing focus of ‘left-wing’ political figures throughout Europe has incited widespread debate as to whether socialist ideology is a remnant of authoritarianism, with commentators and journalists alike mechanically churning out the unoriginal discourse of caution, chaos and crisis.
To conceptualise the antagonistic interaction between political ideologies, with socialism on the left and neoliberalism on the right, as a struggle between authoritarianism and democracy provides a rudimentary account of governmental structures. It maintains the erroneous depiction of a contemporary neoliberal establishment constructed uniquely from meritocratic principles, whilst systematically categorizing socialist policies as irrational or unachievable without authoritarianism. Hostile tendencies towards leftism has resulted in the centralisation of political institutions that traditionally emphasised socialism and social democracy, whilst conversely, neoliberal conservative polices have been permitted to develop increasingly zealous tendencies without inciting similar mainstream opposition. Why is this?
Socialism and neoliberalism are variations of a representative democratic model and therefore both contain components of authoritarianism. In order to perceive the reasoning behind the aforementioned division of hostility, it is necessary to shift our political analysis from dualistic ideological interactions to the established dominant episteme and the political apparatuses that maintain it. Whilst observing the political dynamics of contemporary western society, it is essential to remain concerned with the developments of twenty-first century capitalism. To elaborate, the relationship between capitalism and representative democracy during the post-war period emphasised state regulation of market dynamics, comprehensive welfare systems and the nationalisation of economic capital. However, the late twentieth century witnessed the development of neoliberalism, typically defined as a hegemonic politico-economic framework implemented in bourgeois society to accelerate the acquisition of economic power and control by the ruling elite, and consequently experienced substantial market deregulation, privatisation and state dismantlement. Subsequently, capitalism in the twenty-first century has emerged as an authoritarian institution no longer dependent on democratic systems, but permits the continuation of the liberal democracy as an auxiliary institution for legal justification of action. Therefore, the dominant political and socioeconomic episteme, which transcends regulation by parliamentary systems, can be referred to as ‘liberal democratic capitalism’ and represents the focus of our analysis.
In relation to the aforementioned dominant episteme, the structure of the modern political sphere has constructed substantial methods of developing what we will refer to as ‘neoauthoritarianism’. To elaborate, through observation it is possible to perceive that contemporary governmentality has transcended the boundaries of parliamentary systems and now adheres specifically to dominant capitalist interests. However, this development does not manifest simply as the destabilisation or displacement of traditional institutions, but rather their comprehensive integration into a complex interdependent network pertaining to the aforementioned episteme. The structure of this establishment can be broken down into three essential components that require analysis: traditional parliamentary institutions, extensive regulatory technologies, and globalised ideological frameworks. Traditional parliamentary institutions function as mechanisms of manufacturing periodic and controlled political consciousness in a generally apathetic and depoliticised public sphere. This temporary political engagement provides neoliberal democratic capitalism with an engineered legitimacy necessary to maintain societal dominance. The implementation of a substantial network of regulatory technologies assists in perpetuating the depolitisation necessary for systemic capitalist production. These technologies include video monitoring systems and the associated propaganda that reminds us all to be upstanding citizens in the presence of consent and explicit supervision, a barebones education system designed to engineer commodified and expendable labour, and the development of hegemonic consumerism to saturate the mind of the depoliticised individual. In order to maintain the functionality of regulatory technologies and the continued domination by liberal democratic capitalism, the emergence of global ideological frameworks was essential. Indicative of this, the establishment of international institutions, including the World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund, safeguards capitalist interests around the globe and ensures that phenomena such as lobbying and ‘revolving-door’ politics perpetuates the complex interdependent network of contemporary governmentality.
It is here that we come back to the concept of ‘neoauthoritarianism’. As briefly discussed above, the traditional model of authoritarianism centres specifically on the accumulation of absolute governmental power and the restriction of individual freedom. Western civilisation, particularly the United States of America and Western Europe, gradually shifted away from this traditional authoritarian model through processes of democratisation and liberalisation. Subsequently, the development of neoauthoritarianism safeguarded the dominant episteme and associated politics. To elaborate, neoauthoritarianism operates at both the individual and societal level without the explicit knowledge of the population. In contrast to traditional authoritarianism, the individual is permitted to believe that they possess total freedom. To a degree, it can be argued that the individual expresses a freedom of choice in who they are and what they want to do. However, as this freedom of choice is typically commodity based, the individual operates with a limited framework of freedom, only able to construct identities and make choices based on the components provided by the capitalist state.
So we observe the emergence of a pseudo-autonomy, more dangerous that the traditional authoritarianism as the illusion of freedom hinders effective resistance. On the other hand, neoauthoritarianism at a societal level pertains to the established network of global governmentality, maintaining the commodification and ideological hegemony necessary to produce restriction of freedom. Indicative of this are the recently emerged details related to the Trade in Service Agreement (TiSA), which is currently being negotiated by twenty-five members of the World Trade Organisation. Although this document will substantially influence the movement of economic capital around the globe and affect countless individuals and countries, not only are the negotiations being performed in private but once the agreement is finalised the details will remain classified for five years. Agreements such as this operate to maintain the dominant political and socioeconomic episteme within parliamentary systems and societal dynamics, outside the knowledge of the individual. We can observe here more clearly how contemporary governmentality has transcended traditional parliamentary institutions to become a complex network of ideology and regulatory technology.
Whilst considering the political theory discussed within this article, we are better equipped to perceive the reasoning behind the division in hostilities pertaining to leftist and neoliberal policies. To elaborate, the established global framework of political apparatus that support liberal democratic capitalism permits neoliberal policy and legislation without inciting mainstream hostilities as they adhere to the dominant political and socioeconomic episteme. Not only is legalisation negotiated outside the public sphere, as the aforementioned example of the Trade in Service Agreement demonstrates, but are also perceived as the natural state of political action by a depoliticised and commodified population. Subsequently, neoliberal policies are less frequently cited as detrimental and authoritarian, particularly within the mainstream media through which the general public engages with political debate. Furthermore, the political institution of mass media, which occupies a substantial role in maintaining regulatory technologies, derives its construction from neoliberal principles and individuals and therefore is in a unique position to divert hostilities away from similar policies.
On the other hand, even the suggestion of leftist or socialist policies regularly provoke significant hostilities specifically because they contradict the established dominant episteme. It is not that they are inherently more authoritarian than neoliberal policies, but are labelled as such by a predominantly neoliberal institution. Equally, the connotations surrounding the discourse of leftist politics are distorted by the aforementioned labels. One of the most effective methods of ensuring a political ideology remains censored and underdeveloped is to poison the associated discourse. Furthermore, policies that challenge liberal democratic capitalism necessitate direct intervention in order to initiate social change, whereas those that adhere are simply required to maintain established systems and therefore are erroneously perceived as being less authoritarian.
It is the explicit tendencies of leftist policies to challenge established institutions that result an inherent vulnerability to hostility within a political sphere dominated by a counter ideology. Subsequently, it is essential that whilst we perform critical analysis of emerging policies and political figures that we maintain an awareness of liberal democratic capitalism and how it may mislead our perception of political intent. It is rudimentary to focus our analysis on whether a political doctrine is inherently authoritarian and instead must recognise that the dominant political and socioeconomic episteme is fundamental in determining our interpretation of ideological components within policy.
Finally, the quintessential understanding of political critique is obtained from identifying the discourse that emerges from liberal democratic capitalism and perceiving that hostilities towards leftist policies are frequently manufactured by individuals and institutions, such as New Labour, with substantial ideological investment in the dominant episteme.
Written by Callum Cockbill