Back to the Future: Authoritarian Neoliberal Regime versus Democratic Social State

The destiny of the 20th century, especially after the WWII, has been determined and shaped by the multifaceted confrontation between capitalism and ‘communism’, the ‘West’ vis-a-vis the ‘East’. But history did not end in 1990s, as Fukuyama tried to convince you; its course has furthermore been accelerated on the wings of Neoliberal Globalism, eroding the social world, altering local politics, reconfiguring the state institutions and generating severe economic conditions and complex realities, from which plants of Authoritarianism have started to sprout and branch out.
In the shadow of the plural significant political, civic and economic events and matters which have happened throughout the recent years and months in the US, Europe, Asia and elsewhere, I found myself reflecting more and more on what, in my view, would be the major collision of polities and ideologies in the 21st century: Authoritarian Neoliberal Regime (or tendencies) versus Democratic Social State (or spirit).
The purpose of this entry is not though to list cases and concatenations of events – they are all known; but rather to intellectually soar above them in order to comprehend them and then, hopefully, to change them.
In this context, Ralph Miliband’s classic, must-read and bright book The State in Capitalist Society (1969) sprang to my mind. I urge you, at least, to delve into its concluding pages (see below; emphasises are mine) and to mull over Miliband’s well-articulated principal insights, not just with respect to the past but concerning the future…

The State in Capitalist Society Ralph Miliband
A prisoner holds up ‘The State in Capitalist Society’ in Southern Michigan State Penitentiary (Jackson Prison). This powerful photo was taken by Taro Yamasaki in 1980 and it appears on the back cover of the latest edition of the book (2009, Merlin Press)


“A deep malaise, a pervasive sense of unfulfilled individual and collective possibilities penetrates and corrodes the climate of every advanced capitalist society. Notwithstanding all the talk of integration, embourgeoisement, and the like, never has that sense been greater than it is now; and never in the history of advanced capitalism has there been a time when more people have been more aware of the need for change and reform (p. 269). Nor has there ever been a time when more men and women, though by no means moved by revolutionary intentions, have been more determined to act in the defence and the enhancement of their interests and expectations. The immediate target of their demands may be employers, or university authorities, or political parties. But… it is the state which men constantly encounter in their relations with other men; it is towards the state that they are increasingly driven to direct their pressure; and it is from the state that they expect the fulfilment of their expectations.
Faced with this pressure, and conscious of the general malaise which produces it, power-holders respond in two ways. First, they proclaim their own will to reform. Never, it is safe to say, has the language of orthodox politics been more generous with words like reform, renewal, even revolution. No politician, however reactionary, is now simply ‘conservative’. We may not all be socialists now: but we are all ardent social reformers…
The trouble does not lie in the wishes and intentions of powerholders, but in the fact that the reformers, with or without inverted commas, are the prisoners, and usually the willing prisoners, of an economic and social framework which necessarily turns their reforming proclamations, however sincerely meant, into verbiage (270)….
Reform, in such circumstances, is, of course, possible… But save in exceptional cases, when popular pressure is unusually strong, it is also stunted, inadequate, incapable of resolving the problems and removing the grievances which gave rise to the pressure for change in the first place. Even this kind of reform may help to mitigate some at least of the worst ‘dysfunctionalities’ of capitalist society; and… this mitigation is indeed one of the most important of the state’s attributions, an intrinsic and dialectical part of its role as the guardian of the social order. Nevertheless, reform always and necessarily falls far short of the promise it was proclaimed to hold: the crusades which were to reach ‘new frontiers’, to create ‘the great society’ , to eliminate poverty, to abolish the class struggle, to assure justice for all, etc., etc. – the crusades regularly grind to a halt and the state comes under renewed and increased pressure.
In order to meet it, the state then exercises a second option, namely repression; or rather, reform and repression are tried simultaneously. These are not alternative options but complementary ones. However, as reform reveals itself incapable of subduing pressure and protest, so does the emphasis shift towards repression, coercion, police power, law and order, the struggle against subversion, etc. Faced as they are with intractable problems, those who control the levers of power find it increasingly necessary further to erode those features of ‘bourgeois democracy’ through which popular pressure is exercised. The power of representative institutions must be further reduced and the executive more effectively insulated against them. The independence of trade unions must be whittled away, and trade union rights, notably the right to strike, must be further surrounded by new and more stringent inhibitions. The state must arm itself with more extensive and more efficient means of repression, seek to define more stringently the area of ‘legitimate’ dissent and opposition, and strike fear in those who seek to go beyond it (271).
This process has strongly cumulative tendencies. For no more than reform does repression achieve its purpose. On the contrary, the more the state seeks to repress, the greater is the opposition it is likely to engender; and the more opposition it engenders, the greater are the powers which it must invoke. It is along that road that lies the transition from ‘bourgeois democracy’ to conservative authoritarianism.
This transition need not assume a dramatic character, or require a violent change in institutions. Neither its progression nor its end result need be identical with the Fascism of the interwar years. It is indeed most unlikely to assume the latter’s particular forms, because of the discredit which has not ceased to be attached to them, and of the loathing which Fascism has not ceased to evoke. In fact, the usage of Fascism as a reference point tends dangerously to obscure the less extreme alternatives to it, which do not require the wholesale dismantling of all democratic institutions, the total subversion of all liberties, nor certainly the abandoment of a democratic rhetoric. It is easily possible to conceive of forms of conservative authoritarianism which would not be ‘Fascist’ , in the old sense, which would be claimed to be ‘democratic’ precisely because they were not ‘Fascist’, and whose establishment would be defended as in the best interests of ‘democracy’ itself. Nor is all this a distant projection into an improbable future: it describes a process which is already in train, and which is also, in the condition of advanced capitalism, more likely to be accentuated than reversed. The gradual transition of capitalism into socialism may be a myth: but the gradual transition of ‘bourgeois democracy’ into more or less pronounced forms of authoritarianism is not.
This view of the evolution of advanced capitalist regimes appears to leave out of account the forces of the Left, working-class movements and parties, and the strength of their ‘countervailing power’ in these societies. Unfortunately, it is precisely the present condition of these forces, the crisis in which they find themselves, which provides an additional element of likelihood to this evolution.
Historically, labour and socialist movements have been (272) the main driving force for the extension of the democratic features of capitalist societies; and it is also they who, from very necessity, have been the strongest defenders of civil and political liberties against infringements primarily directed at them, and at their capacity to act as agencies of counter-pressure. But their performance of this role has been very substantially and very negatively affected by the constantly more pronounced ideological and political integration of social democratic leaders into the framework of capitalism.
Social democratic parties, or rather social democratic leaders, have long ceased to suggest to anyone but their most credulous followers (and the more stupid among their opponents) that they were concerned in any sense whatever with the business of bringing about a socialist society. On the other hand, they – and their counterparts in the Democratic Party in the United States – have continued to proclaim their dedication to reform and radical change and made this the main element of differentiation between themselves and their conservative opponents.
But social democratic leaders in government illustrate particularly clearly the limits of reform. For while they raise great hopes among their followers and many others when in opposition, the constrictions under which they labour when in government, allied to the ideological dispositions which lead them to submit to these constrictions, leave them with little room to implement their promises. This, however, is only one half of the story. The other half consists in the fact that, confronted with demands they cannot fulfil, and with pressures they cannot subdue by reform, they too turn themselves into the protagonists of the reinforced state. Like their conservative opponents, they too seek to undermine the strength of the defence organisations of the working class…. Wherever they have been given the chance, social-democratic leaders have eagerly bent themselves to the administration of the capitalist state: but that administration increasingly requires (273) the strengthening of the capitalist state, to which purpose, from a conservative point of view, these leaders have made a valuable contribution….
Social democratic failures and derelictions also produce, and more commonly, a marked movement away from the Left, and an increased vulnerability to the blandishments of the Right. The failure of social-democracy implicates not only those responsible for it, but all the forces of the Left. Because of it, the path is made smoother for would-be popular saviours, whose extreme conservatism is carefully concealed beneath a demagogic rhetoric of national renewal and social redemption, garnished, wherever suitable, with an appeal to racial and any other kind of profitable prejudice.
The failure of social democracy would present much less sombre perspectives if the traditional alternatives to social democratic parties, namely Communist ones, were not themselves, with hardly any exception, afflicted by certain profound weaknesses, of which the gravest is their lack of genuine internal democracy.
A serious revolutionary party, in the circumstances of advanced capitalism, has to be the kind of ‘hegemonic’ party of which Gramsci spoke, which means that it must be capable of ‘creating a unity, not only of economic and political aims, but an intellectual and moral unity, posing all the issues which arise, not on the corporative level but on the “universal” level’, (274) and ‘coordinated concretely with the general interests of subordinate groups’. But the creation of such a party is only possible in conditions of free discussion and internal democracy, of flexible and responsive structures.
Nor is this essential only as a means of obviating ideological anaemia and political sclerosis. It is equally essential as a demonstration of the kind of social and political order which such a party seeks to bring into being. It is in its own present structures, in its own present modes of behaviour, attitudes, and habits that it must prefigure the society to which it aspires. For it is only by so doing that it can convince the vast majority of the population whose support it requires that its purpose is not to replace one system of domination by another, conceivably worse. If socialist democracy is its aspiration for tomorrow, so must internal socialist democracy be its rule today. Mere proclamations of future intentions are not enough…..
The events of May-June 1968 in France showed well enough the yearning for fundamental change which simmers beneath a seemingly placid political surface, and to use Regis Debray’s phrase, the degree to which the ‘small motor’ of a student movement may activate the ‘big motor’ of the working class. But these events showed equally well that, in the absence (275) of appropriate political organisation, what is possible is turmoil and pressure but not revolution.
It is the absence, for the present and for a long time to come, of such appropriate political agencies, paralleled by the existence of deep troubles and discontents, which makes the movement of ‘bourgeois democracy’ towards authoritarianism more rather than less likely. A common belief about the propensities of capitalist regimes in that direction is that they come to the surface at the point where dominant interests and the power-holders which protect them are faced with a revolutionary movement which appears to be on the way to the achievement of power. Faced with such a threat, it is often said on the Left, these interests opt for the authoritarian response to it, and accept or support the destruction of the constitutional framework in order to save themselves from revolution.
This is a possible scenario. But reflection suggests that whatever dominant classes, economic elites and conservative forces in general may wish, such a moment is one of the least likely to make this kind of response viable. For by the time a socialist movement has reached such a commanding position, which means, in the conditions of advanced capitalism, that it has become a vast popular movement, extending well beyond the working classes, it may be too late for the forces of conservatism to take up the authoritarian option with any real chance of success. It is when labour movements and socialist parties are divided and unsure of themselves and of their purpose that the realisation of that option becomes possible. Historical antecedent would seem to confirm this view. For in practically all cases where conservative authoritarianism, and Fascism, have replaced ‘bourgeois democracy’, the labour and socialist movements, far from constituting a genuine threat to the capitalist order, were in fact bitterly divided and deeply confused. This is surely what Marx meant when, writing about the Bonapartist regime in France, he said that ‘it was the only form of government possible at the time when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation’.
Sooner or later, and despite all the immense obstacles on the way (276), the working class and its allies in other classes will acquire that faculty. When they do, the socialist society they will create will not require the establishment of an all-powerful state on the ruins of the old. On the contrary, their ‘faculty of ruling the nation’ will, for the first time in history, enable them to bring into being an authentically democratic social order, a truly free society of self-governing men and women, in which, as Marx also put it, the state will be converted ‘from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinated to it’.” (Miliband 1969: 277)

Miliband, Ralph. 2009. The State in Capitalist SocietyMerlin Press

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