All posts

Capital’s paradise: the rise of global illiberalism

David Parkins/ The Economist
David Parkins/ The Economist

Donald Trump’s election has rightly been acknowledged as a milestone in the political history of the 21st century. He joins an illustrious group of world leaders with a shared distrust towards ideals of liberty, equality and fairness who subscribe to the political ethos of authoritarianism and who are not afraid to use fear mongering, popular prejudices against various groups of people, threats and violence to gain and retain power. This increasingly powerful company, whose membership includes Vladimir Putin, Tayyip Erdoğan, and many others, can rightly be called the force of 21st century illiberalism – to use the term with which their Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orbán described his own project.

There are numerous explanations as to why our age is being dominated by this menacing global force. General distrust toward liberal democracy, growing xenophobia, and tribalism all keep illiberalism in power; these may have been given rise to by the decline of traditional left wing politics, the increasing economic uncertainty following the 2008 crisis and so on. However, a fundamental issue essential to understand global illiberalism is rarely discussed; it is the radical transformation of the relationship between capital and political and military power during the last couple of decades which had long-ranging effects throughout the political and social sphere. Global illiberalism can hardly be understood without taking into account this development.

Most analysts would certainly agree that illiberalism, in one way or another, is the result of the economic-political transformation of the last three or four decades which the literature commonly designates as the expansion of neoliberalism. Indeed, since the early 1970s, and especially after the election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and following the immergence of the Washington consensus, most of the world’s major and minor powers have adopted economic policies along the lines of the teachings of the neoliberal school focusing on deregulation, privatisation, the implementation of a minimal state and maximal market liberation.

According to these explanations, illiberalism would be an answer – a violent reaction to the rise of neoliberalism. The unregulated free market and the minimal state led to a rise of income inequalities while the acceleration of capitalist accumulation made the global economy more prone to crises which jeopardized the financial and social standing of large masses of people (mainly the lower middle class). Furthermore, the crises exposed a large number of people to populist ideologies of strength and authority that promised to restore stability and prosperity through central power and direct action. The imagery of national glory and various forms of nationalist, racist, and occasionally religious fundamentalisms allied with these authoritarian forces rather naturally while the current advance of illiberalism ensued.

Under this construal illiberalism is posited as an anti-neoliberal, sometimes even anti-capitalist force that stands in opposition to global capital. Indeed, there are numerous principles and practices characteristic of the various forms of illiberalism that seem to oppose capital and neoliberal expansion. Protectionism, isolationism, and welfare chauvinism, endorsed by the European far-right as well as the presidential election of Trump, are prominent examples; these policies disrupt the seamless flow of capital and introduce interventionist elements to the free market setting preferred by the advocates of neoliberalism. However, we should not rush to the conclusion that illiberalism is essentially antithetical to neoliberal capital.

The expansion of neoliberalism consisted in far more than the adoption of certain doctrines of economics throughout the globe. On a deeper level neoliberalism is characterized mainly by the transformation in the relationship between capital and political and military power. As David Harvey observes, neoliberalism has to be understood not just as an economic, but more importantly as a political project whereby the ruling classes (political and financial elites) reasserted their dominance increasingly threatened by the Left (unions, workers’ movements, anti-colonial movements, and so on) in the post-World War II era. The growing influence of the Left and the welfare state also led to a general slowdown or stagnation in global capital accumulation; power and capital had to join forces which led to the rise of neoliberalism.

However, the neoliberal doctrine, downplaying the role of unions and the state, was only one tool in the arsenal of the alliance of capital and power to restore accelerated accumulation and class rule. Far more important were the various forms of direct and indirect political and military interventions in the interest of capital. Tangible examples are the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 and the 2003 Iraq war or the creation of the European periphery, the EU’s Southern and the Eastern member states, subject to systematic exploitation by the Western centre, labouring under the constant threat of overwhelming political and financial force which is capable of severe retaliation in case of insubordination. The Greek example is a clear evidence of this.

Capital and power have clearly always been allied. It is a standard claim of critical theory that political structures in modern societies, together with a number of institutions, such as education and the media, are organized according to the logic of capital and serve capitalist production. Within this traditional setting the role of power was mainly to create, through political or military action, clear spaces for capital to conquer and to structure these spaces. This process went mostly through legislation and governance, so that capitalist production can take place in an undisrupted manner.

However, as capital and power become more intertwined in the neoliberal era, we witness the rise of a different type of relationship between these two forces. As capital becomes more reliant on power and power more invested in the interests of capital, the two gradually cease to be external to one another. They do not have different interests anymore, nor different institutions or personifications. Capital constantly needs the interventions of power, and power constantly needs to stabilize and expand crisis-prone capital to stabilize and expand itself; this interrelation intensifies and gradually reaches a point where they do not merely aid, but rather become one another. Capitalist production does not merely happen in spaces enclosed by power, but rather through the exercise of power itself. As Antonio Negri remarks, already in the late 1980s, “mediation is dead. The production of goods takes place through domination.”[1]

This restructuring of power and capital helps us understand the phenomenon of illiberalism. Traditionally capitalist production has taken place through the institutions of the market and wage labour. However, as capital and power gradually became indistinguishable, these structures became obsolete and superfluous, sometimes even fettering, for the expansion of capital-as-power. Wage labour and the market exist within legal frameworks which, especially in a liberal-democratic setting, are sites at which capital can be contested and fought against. This potential rift in the edifice of capital’s rule was precisely what the labour movement capitalised on throughout its existence.

Capital-as-power, however, can very well function without the mediation of the market and wage labour. Capital which is first and foremost the separation of life-activity from living beings; the transformation of lifetime into dead labour. Direct domination, physical and symbolic (or simply: force and propaganda), can very well orchestrate this process of separation and accumulation by itself. This can only happen, however, when power and capital are characterised by the specific kind of interrelation we are discussing here. If power is as external to capital as the market, direct domination merely represents another potential terrain where capital may be contested. If, on the other hand, capital and power are gradually becoming identical, as it happens in the late neoliberal era, then this threat ceases to exist as the interests of capital and power increasingly overlap. Capital-as-power can thus freely replace the market with direct domination.

Illiberalism is nothing but the expression of this interest. In illiberal regimes, in various forms and to various extents, institutions of the rule of law and liberal democracy are destroyed or emptied by restricting their scope to certain privileged circles of society. The paradigmatic form of political action ceases to be legislation or the exercise of juridical power; these are replaced by the informal or semi-formal workings of direct domination. The exposure of the individual to power’s will is not constrained or legitimized anymore by the structures of law or the public. Instead of the subtle disciplining of communicative space through the legislation and the media, as in liberal regimes, or totalitarian ideology, as in most 20th century autocracies, illiberal power is expressed as sheer violence: a forceful ceasing of control over people’s bodies and minds through physical coercion and emotional control.

Indeed, inciting fear and hatred against arbitrary groups of people, including not only minorities, but political opponents and opposition media, and transforming these emotions into direct action in the service of power have been consciously and effectively employed by illiberals. Illiberal power does not persuade or manipulate, but paralyzes through terror and renders helpless through arms and force. We observe this throughout the illiberal scene. The political utilization of hatred and violence was a central organizing force in Donald Trump’s campaign; the president-elect called upon his supporters multiple times to physically assault his political opponents, he advocated the incarceration and legal or physical punishment of politicians, journalists, and others. In Hungary, to cite a different example, the conscious creation of a fearful and violent atmosphere centred on the theme of xenophobia has been instrumental in solidifying the ruling illiberal party’s position in the past few years.

In Russia and Turkey, of course, the political utilization of fear mongering, the silencing of dissident movements or opposition media, the imprisonment of political opponents are already part of everyday reality. These are far from being exceptional instances of barbarism, alien to our civilized world. To the contrary, they are the clearest expressions of what power is becoming in our age. Arbitrary violence and excessive brutality are part of the functioning of power throughout the Western world; so far, it has been mostly directed against marginalized groups, minorities, illegal residents, and outlaws (think of the outrageous inhumanity with which authorities, not just the police, but also politicians, treat migrants in the current migration crisis).

Direct domination of political violence, however, is increasingly leaving behind the outskirts of society and invades the realm of the everyday. Militarized police and mass surveillance, developed since the early 2000s against drug cartels and terrorists, are now being deployed to supress dissident movements contesting the status quo; examples are this year’s demonstrations in Paris, the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline in the US. Post-truth media together with the development of online echo-chambers prepared the ground for an incredibly effective propaganda machine. All these developments created a situation throughout the developed world in which direct domination is the natural way for power to operate. Illiberal practices are increasingly normalized in all societies and take the place of mediated forms of power.

In implementing the regime of direct domination, illiberalism merely follows the logic of capital in the late neoliberal era. If capital is power and power is capital, then the exercise of direct domination is, in fact, nothing but production – the recreation and accumulation of capital-as-power itself. Capital is reproduced, the separation of lifetime from the living being and the creation of dead labour happens, not only in the work place, through alienated labour, but also whenever we carry out our life activities within the constraints of power, whether or not these are mediated by the institutions of the law, the free market, or wage labour. This type of production reaches maximum intensity in illiberalism, which might be antithetical to free markets and deregulation, but only to replace obsolete forms of capitalist production with direct domination, the newest way of producing and reproducing capital.

Illiberalism was born out of the deepening crises of the neoliberal order, but to aid, not to oppose it. Illiberalism is the cunning solution of capital to the challenge posed by the dissident masses, which are fed up with the devastating rules of neoliberalism. These masses could in fact form progressive anti-capitalist movements as they did in Greece and Spain, and contest capital in very fundamental ways. Illiberalism is the pre-emption of this threat by creating a faux anti-capitalist setting in which direct domination becomes the standard form of interaction between power and the people, allegedly to oppose capital by strong central force, but in reality to subsume the whole society to the production of capital-as-power.

If all this is true, how grim are our prospects? If illiberalism is the paradigmatic form of political organization in the newest stage of capital’s development, then should we expect it to become generalized and all-powerful in the same way neoliberalism did? I would not rush to this conclusion. First of all, capital-as-power is an ideal type; the fusion of capital and power is nowhere complete while at every particular instance there are various forces constantly contesting it. What I advocate here is not the dogmatic historical materialist idea that posits capital’s development as the only force shaping the world order. The autonomous structures of the market, democratic and legal institutions, liberal ideology, and various forms of fundamentalisms, which all rival capital-as-power for the domination of the life world, decompose and transform it everywhere, creating hybrid systems. Although both Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia are expressions of illiberalism, there are of course vast and important differences between these societies.

The most serious challenge to illiberalism and capital-as-power, however, is constituted by us, the people, over whose life they attempt to rule. Our creative activity, our organizations, initiatives and movements, our resistance to direct domination are the primary ways in which capital-as-power can be contested. The counterpart of the development of illiberalism is the new era of mass social movements (from Occupy and the Arab Spring, through Black Lives Matter, to Podemos, Syriza, the Nuit Debout and many others), new forms of mobilisation and new experiments in anti-capitalist organisation. It is the dissident multitude that threatens capital first and foremost by striving not to restore mediated forms of domination, but to liberate human life activity from domination altogether.

Illiberalism, from Russia to the US, is the product of the social-economic trends that shaped world politics for decades. It is not a disruption, however, not a break with previous practices; despite appearances, illiberalism is merely the result, the natural continuation of developments underway since the beginning of the advance of neoliberalism. The increasing interrelation between capital and political and military power, characteristic of neoliberalism since the very beginning, makes it necessary to gradually do away with unregulated free market, and liberal democracy, and to give way to the rule of direct domination; this is precisely what happens in illiberal regimes. Challenging, and dismantling these regimes, therefore, ultimately requires us to address not only their ideology, rhetoric, or political manoeuvres, but also the larger global framework of capital-as-power within which they operate.


Zsolt Kapelner is a Budapest-based author with a background in philosophy, who has published in A2 kulturní čtrnáctideník (Czech Republic), in Dziennik Gazeta Prawna (Poland), Kettős Mérce (Hungary), A szem (Romania), as well as numerous academic philosophy outlets.



[1] Antonio Negri, The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century. Oxford, Polity. 1989. p. 183