Co-Written by Bhabani Shankar Nayak & Ernesto Gallo
What is happening to democracies across the globe? Neoliberalism and the rise of authoritarianism are moving together and, by dismantling social harmonies and states, are threatening democracy’s very existence. In fact they are combining and consolidating in different forms, of which three look more remarkable.
First, there is the rise of nationalist populism. The success of Donald Trump in the USA, Narendra Modi in India, Boris Johnson in Britain, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Jair Messias Bolsonaro in Brazil and many others is not only an example of the symptoms but also the result of a democratic deficit in the present world. Old political forces are losing ground (for instance traditional conservative, liberal, and social democratic parties) and, following Gramsci, “the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic ‘men of destiny’.” Local, national and international politics is increasingly driven by ethnic, racial and religious conflicts in Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East; examples are the wars in Kashmir and Myanmar, or the ‘proxy’ wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The populist upheavals have not changed the old-world order; they are rather reinforcing it more vigorously, by imposing a harsher neoliberalism and creating an illusion of welfare only for the national/religious/ethnic community of choice. Religious fundamentalism, national glory, lawlessness, vulgar wealth and huge inequalities are five common features between old and modern world. They have laid the foundations for reactionary nationalism and authoritarian capitalism across the globe;democracy and states have become tools of such a dangerous worldwide process.
Together with nationalist populism, the world has witnessed the rise of two other types of authoritarian political form. In Europe, the continental union has increasingly imposed its rules as a technocratic infrastructure mainly aimed at incorporating Eastern and later Southern European countries into a neoliberal (more specifically, or do liberal) system in which democratic choices are marginalised in the name of a repressive ideology of austerity masked as ‘technocracy.’ Far from being a neutral instrument for the common good, rule by experts has proved instrumental to the wishes and interests of Western European corporations, their supporters in ‘core’ countries (especially Germany), and their allies in the so-called ‘periphery.’ The third type of authoritarian neoliberalism has emerged in countries where authoritarianism was already a reality (for example, China, Russia, Central Asian states), and in which it has taken on more nationalist, protectionist, and repressive features, mostly as a response to pressure coming from the neoliberalising West. Russia and the various ex-Soviet -stan have embraced more authoritarian forms after being catapulted to neoliberalism in the 1990s. China has become more authoritarian in reaction to its growing engagement with the global economy, and also to defend the economic benefits, if limited, its hundreds of millions of citizens have earned over the last four decades.
Authoritarianism, in short, is spreading in a variety of forms.
The pioneers of globalisation and lovers of free market argued that they would bring peace and prosperity by ending war and conflicts. They also argued that it would help in the growth and establishment of vibrant and multicultural democracies, and even put an end to history itself. In reality, globalisation has expanded the conflicts and old world inequalities. The rich have become richer and the poor, poorer. The class, gender, race, caste and regional fault lines continue to grow. The neoliberal capitalist project has out manoeuvred the ideal alternatives of the October and French revolutions and the promises of anti-colonial struggles. All idealisms are in a downward spiral. How do we analyse these upheavals? Is it a sign of the Westphalian nation state’s end?
It is impossible to offer alternatives for a better tomorrow without understanding the present predicaments and their history.
Lineages and transformations of the state
The democratic deficit of the state is embedded within the history of the capitalist and Westphalian nation state. The peace Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 set the conditions for the emergence of capitalist forces by establishing states based on the idea of territorial sovereignty. It helped to end thirty years of savage war in Europe and complemented the changes leading to the industrial revolution in Britain. Together with later peace treaties (for example, Utrecht in 1713), it also helped Europe plunder other continents with colonial rule in different parts of the world. The resources of the colonies were used to establish different institutions of economic development and democratic governance in Europe.
Therefore, ‘Westphalian’ states are innately colonial, capitalistic and authoritarian by nature but dressed up as democracies. Their democratic deepening depended to a large extent on the exploitation of vast regions of the world, clearly a non-democratic process. The referendum results and debates over Britain leaving the European Union (EU) are a classic example of democratic deficit and its relationship with European capitalism as embodied by the EU.
The post-colonial states emerged after the success of anticolonial struggles. The post-colonial states promised democratic governance based on ideals of liberty, equality, justice and welfare of all their citizens. Nehru’s India or Nkrumah’s Ghana are just two examples of a variety of new political forms that attempted to combine liberty and equality, national unity and non-Western ideas of cosmopolitanism. The anticolonial struggle had positive influence on European states. It transformed the nature of the states in Europe by making them more democratic, secular and multicultural in terms of citizenship rights with welfare orientations. Similar processes occurred in the USA, where the 1960s where the age of the ‘Great Society’ and witnessed the struggle and emancipation of women, African-Americans, and other minorities. Yet since the late 1970s the neoliberal Washington consensus has led to the universalisation of neoliberalism by ending ideals of democratic welfare state. The centralisation and securitisation of state became the order of the day to uphold the interests of the private capital which has grown enormously since the implementation of neoliberal policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation.
We live in a world where Vox Populi, Vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God) is replaced by the order of capitalism where market and money dominate the social, economic, political, cultural and even religious sphere. It is within this context that democracy and the state face challenges. Neoliberal authoritarianism emanates from a political and economic project that creates a culture of democratic deficit and a privatised state. The legitimacy crisis of the state creates the vacuums where ruling and non-ruling elites control the masses and all the resources with the help of securitised, centralised and authoritarian states. The ideological narrative of neoliberalism was based on individual freedom but in reality, we live in a society where people are in free prisons of market where prices are independent and free. It means the dead capital is free and lively labour in chains.
The quest for an alternative manifesto
The crisis created by democratic deficit, neoliberal authoritarianism and rise of reactionary right wing politics is a global phenomenon. Local and national contexts are important in the search for alternatives, even if the current political and economic crisis needs international solutions. It is imperative to develop a pluriversal praxis that is applicable to the world today. With this aim, four steps are particularly important.
The first step is to dismantle the structures of the Westphalian capitalist state system and all its affiliated supranational and international organisations. This is only possible by creating a solidarity of all grassroot movements for alternative democracy, for peace, the environment, development and prosperity as inalienable citizenship rights. International institutions should become fully democratic and inclusory, starting with those dealing with peace and development such as the United Nations and the European Union. It is also important to have a continuous solidarity of struggles to develop conditions for non-discriminatory, pluriversal and inalienable rights based on progressive and scientific ideas.
The second step is to develop conditions where local communities can control and manage their local resources based on their needs and desires with egalitarian distributive mechanisms. For example, Kurdish communities in Northern and Eastern Syria are currently at the heart of a system in which private property serves the needs of communities and is complemented by strong elements of cooperation and egalitarianism.
The third step is to develop local, national and international struggles against all conflicts, wars and industries affiliated with them including nuclear weapons. The defence industry (the ‘military-industrial complex’, still existent despite the end of the Cold War thirty years ago) creates wars to expand its profits. According to SIPRI, the USA spends on the military a staggering 649 billion dollars annually, more than the sum of the other nine top spenders. At the same time, the USA ranks 35 out of 37 OECD countries in terms of poverty and inequality.
The fourth one is a continuous struggle against all forms of authoritarianism and all forms of discrimination in every sphere of life. Racism, gender-based discrimination, persecution of LGBT groups, and disrespect for any diversity have regained ground in the West and much beyond it. International institutions should fight them more effectively and promote inclusion at all levels.
Gramsci A (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: International Publishers.
Nordensvard J and Ketola M (2015) Nationalist Reframing of the Finnish and Swedish Welfare States – The Nexus of Nationalism and Social Policy in Far-right Populist Parties. Social Policy & Administration 49(3): 356-375.
Teschke B (2003)The Myth of 1648. Class, Geopolitics, and the Making of Modern International Relations. London: Verso.
Bhabani Shankar Nayak, Coventry University, UK
Ernesto Gallo, Regents University, London
Courtesy: Counter Current