‘Authoritarian Neoliberalism: Philosophies, Practices, Contestations’ by Ian Bruff and Cemal Burak Tansel (eds) reviewed by Lars Cornelissen

and (eds)
Authoritarian Neoliberalism: Philosophies, Practices, Contestations

Routledge, Abingdon, 2020. 142 pp., $155.00 / £120.00 hb
ISBN 9780367375447

Reviewed by Lars Cornelissen

About the reviewer

Lars Cornelissen is the Academic Editor for the Independent Social Research Foundation and is an …


There are few criticisms of neoliberalism that are as commonplace as the assertion that neoliberalism is hostile to democratic politics. For decades now, scholars have argued that the spread of neoliberal thought and policy invariably goes hand in hand with a hollowing out of democratic institutions, the curbing of democratic citizenship and resistance, and even at times the wholesale abandonment of the democratic ideal. The volume here under review, Authoritarian Neoliberalism, rehearses this commonplace critique, but it does so in a way that bolsters it markedly, enforcing it with empirically rich and theoretically sophisticated analysis.

The first thing to be noted about Authoritarian Neoliberalism is that it is a reprint of a special issue of Globalizations – volume 16, issue 3 to be precise. It remains unclear as to the precise merit of reprinting material that has already been published, as the notion that a book may be more accessible to members of the general public than journal articles is in this case rendered void by this volume’s prohibitively hefty price tag. That said, if its reprint increases the visibility of this collection of essays amongst scholars, this is certainly no bad thing, for the research it presents it most certainly worthy of note.

The aim of the volume, as editors Ian Bruff and Cemal Burak Tansel note in their introduction, is to contribute to the burgeoning literature that seeks to develop and deepen the concept of ‘authoritarian neoliberalism.’ Although they insist on keeping the exact meaning of that concept open and ‘messy’ (4), at its heart it refers to a specific feature of present-day political economy: ‘how contemporary capitalism is governed in a way which tends to reinforce and rely upon practices that seek to marginalize, discipline and control dissenting social groups and oppositional politics rather than strive for their explicit consent or co-optation’ (2). Crucially, the practices that serve to close down democratic control or dissent come in many forms, ranging from new directions in urban planning and local government initiatives to large-scale recalibrations of the balance of power in favour of the executive. This is where the editors’ insistence on methodological ‘messiness’ comes in: if we are to trace the highly varied ways in which neoliberal authoritarianism may take shape, focusing on ideas, policies or material conditions in isolation will serve only to restrict our understanding. For this reason, most of the volume’s essays present case studies of specific instances of neoliberal authoritarianism, patiently documenting the local and specific features of authoritarian creep as it occurs in the real world.

If its embeddedness in rigorous empirical research is one of the volume’s two greatest strengths, its focus on case studies from the global South is the other. Scholarly discussions surrounding neoliberalism continue to be almost exclusively focused on the global North, dealing primarily with European and Anglo-American thinkers, networks and case studies. Authoritarian Neoliberalism makes a point of doing the opposite, focusing its gaze on a multitude of non-Western contexts and inviting ‘a more thorough examination of global South cases hitherto viewed as marginal to the study […] of neoliberalism’ (3). Although the work presented in its pages is, by necessity, limited in scope, the volume’s effort to break current scholarship’s Euro- and Anglo-centrism is most welcome.

With all of these conceptual considerations in mind, the first of the volume’s eight chapters is in many ways a surprising inclusion. Written by Ian Bruff and Kathryn Starnes, chapter two does not offer a case study of authoritarian creep within neoliberalised spaces, instead proposing a methodological intervention. Its key claim is this: ‘We propose to treat canonical neoliberal texts as literary endeavours: how they are written is as important to critical enquiry as their content’ (16). By paying attention to how they are emplotted and to the narrative techniques deployed, neoliberal writings can be shown to rely upon certain implicit assumptions. This is key, as it is at the subterranean level that many of neoliberalism’s constitutive ontological premises reside. Although this is a welcome intervention in the field, as critical scholarship has much to gain from a more rigorous consideration of neoliberal ontology, the chapter does feel out of place in the context of the volume at large.

Indeed, the remainder of the volume is more clearly rooted in the kind of patient empirical study that the introduction promised. Chapter three is a case in point. Authored by Mareike Beck and Julian Germann, it offers a highly detailed account of the business strategies developed by one particular German corporation, Bertelsmann AG, a prominent media conglomerate. It traces how Bertelmann’s management strategy was adjusted in the face of changing market pressures, ultimately leading to an elaborate managerial system that was geared towards centralised control and that ‘equip[ed] its managers with extended powers to control labour in the interest of the firm so that competition would not be counterproductive’ (36). This chapter usefully documents how market competition on the micro-level in fact incentivises authoritarian creep.

Chapter four, by Graham Harrison, casts a slightly wider net, reflecting on authoritarian neoliberalism’s career in post-colonial Africa. Although it lacks the empirical specificity of most of the rest of the volume, it covers more conceptual ground, in particular by locating the notion of authoritarian neoliberalism in a broader Marxist conception of state power. As Harrison’s analysis of ‘the African experience with neoliberalism’ (51) shows, neoliberalism in its authoritarian guise is highly prone to (if not dependent on) crises, which in turn necessitate further repression and coercion. As such, further study of this region could yield valuable insights into the inner workings of neoliberal statecraft.

In part, this is where chapter five comes in. Written by Nadine Kreitmeyr, this impressive chapter maps social entrepreneurship networks (SENs) in Jordan and Morocco. Through careful analysis of these networks, Kreitmeyr shows what happens when the abstract ideal of entrepreneurship is imported into specific socio-political environments. Although they are framed as solutions to pervasive local issues, in reality SENs provide local elites with the tools to consolidate their power, even as the model of the entrepreneur, long hailed as neoliberalism’s primary form of subjectivity, is promoted as the only viable means of economic advancement. As Kreitmeyr puts it, SEN initiatives in Jordan and Morocco have ‘enable[d] the rulers and elites […] to entrench both authoritarian rule and neoliberal forms of governance’ (66).

Chapter six is a similarly detailed case study of the microphysics of authoritarian neoliberalism. Alke Jenss focuses her attention on urban reform in Oaxaca, Mexico, arguing that efforts to make the city more attractive to business interests rendered it subject both to harsh austerity measures and an aggressive policy agenda aimed at improving ‘competitiveness’. On the one hand, this generated a form of ‘entrepreneurial urbanity’ (78) primarily focused on the tourist industry, which in turn prompted a commodification of indigenous identities and crafts, whilst on the other it fuelled a crackdown on ‘those that deviate from or dissent with urban renewal policies’ (79). Here, as elsewhere, policing and discipline are necessary conditions for ‘competitiveness,’ and the result is authoritarian creep.

In chapter seven, Cemal Burak Tansel similarly looks at urban governance strategies, this time to trace the specificities of authoritarian neoliberalism in Turkey. Focusing specifically on housing policy, he shows that especially under AKP rule the Turkish government has taken direct control of urban development programmes, granting it, for example, ‘the ability to expropriate any land or property owned by real or legal entities’ (94) even as it abolished or rendered powerless local authorities, residents and other civic groups. In concrete terms, these measures have placed urban development firmly in the executive’s hands and have eroded any form of democratic oversight. As Tansel shows, this process it itself embedded in ‘a wider model of governance’ (99) that sees the neoliberal state expand the power of the executive and curb popular dissent.

Chapter eight interrogates a number of legal and constitutional dynamics that have unfolded in Italy over the past few decades. Written by Adriano Cozzolino, this chapter uses a wealth of statistical data to demonstrate that in Italy neoliberal reforms went hand in hand with a reconfiguration of the state, which saw the power and reach of the executive grow at the expense of the legislative. In particular, Cozzolino shows that in the realm of fiscal policy the use of decree law rose sharply, the wider aim being to strengthen the market and insulate it from popular pressures. For the author, this shift is indicative of a broader tendency of authoritarian neoliberalism, for which increasingly ‘executives have turned to emergency legislation on a regular basis, dramatically reducing the space for socio-economic compromises and alternatives to be considered’ (115). In making this case, he provides valuable empirical evidence for a longstanding critique of neoliberalism, which is that it curbs democracy by undermining the influence of democratically elected officials.

The final chapter, by Angela Wigger, unpacks recent shifts in EU-wide policy. Responding to the 2008 financial crisis, the EU has formulated a new industrial policy agenda, which at first glance seems to be a break with the preceding neoliberal period. However, as Wigger argues, in fact this agenda ‘promises to intensify the neoliberal structural adjustment’ approach (122), the twin results of which will be a sharp devaluation of labour and increased inequality across the continent. In the political realm, this new industrial policy has strong authoritarian leanings, necessitating the institution of ‘national productivity boards’ that can operate without any democratic oversight, either from member states or from the European Parliament at large. In short, at the level of EU governance, authoritarian neoliberalism has mutated rather than disappeared.

Authoritarian Neoliberalism certainly has a few drawbacks. For one thing, the chapters are on the short side, which forces authors to condense what are clearly very rich empirical studies into concise and punchy pieces. For another, the volume does not make good on all of its promises, particularly its aim to outline ‘alternative futures’ (9), a topic only two chapters address in any depth. Most distracting is that the volume is somewhat exaggeratedly framed as developing and deepening a highly novel research agenda, taking the titular concept as its centre of gravity. Not only does this generate a tendency for self-citation, which is distracting but not in and of itself problematic, but more worryingly, it prompts especially the editors to sideline several bodies of scholarship on the basis of a misrepresentation of their methodological or political premises (cf. 2-3). This is unfortunate, because much of that scholarship not only complements the volume’s findings but would also without hesitation subscribe to many of the points here levelled at them as criticism. That said, all of these issues stem from the fact that this is an edited collection and not from the quality of the research.

Indeed, in the final analysis Authoritarian Neoliberalism is a boon to critical scholarship. It enriches our understanding of the neoliberal state by offering a series of empirically rich and conceptually well-informed insights into the inner workings of contemporary authoritarian practices. It makes for a sobering read. Given the unabated advance of right-wing formations across the globe, the kind of patient and detailed analysis offered in these essays is a timely and valuable contribution.

25 January 2020

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published.