The authoritarian turn after the crash: beyond economy and security

This piece is part of a PREPPE/SPERI blog series on ‘Beyond Political Economy and Security Studies’ and was originally posted on the SPERI website.

Neoliberalism is said to have taken an authoritarian or punitive turn since 2008. But political economy tends to underplay how the war on terror has initiated its own authoritarian turn prior to global financial crash.

The fallout of the global financial crisis has prompted political economy to ask big questions. This collective concern has driven my own work on over the last decade on understanding post-crash Britain. The puzzles that have animated me in particular are: how capitalism has evolved and twisted to maintain social order, how a increased scarcity has intensified existing distributional conflicts — and how these processes have manifested in and been legitimated through our everyday lives. There is an entire body of scholarship that is dedicated to working through these concerns, both in the UK and beyond.

One by-product is that 2008 has become a turning point, or “benchmark date”. Political economy likes its turning points. Many accounts of capitalist development depend on them, whether the dates specified are 1929, 1945, 1973, 1979, 1990, or others. To some extent, and not without its drawbacks and limitations, “2008” is becoming cemented as a turning point. In this blog, I am interested in questioning 2008 as a turning point, by introducing 2001 and the start of the war on terror as an additional turning point. This allows us to see what it looks like and means to go beyond economy and security in making sense of how state power is evolving in the twenty first century.

Authoritarian turns

If 2008 is a turning point, then the next move is to identify and analyse the kind of direction that the world is now heading in. There are many different responses here, and one of the busiest has been neoliberalism and what has happened to it, especially in the neoliberal heartlands of the US and UK. The concept of “authoritarian neoliberalism” that was introduced by Ian Bruff has made an important contribution here. The concept brings attention to how the authoritarian governing practices have become more visible since 2008; that is capitalism seems increasingly reliant 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”. Key examples include the imposition of austerity and the suppression of protest movements in Europe, and there also now cases from around the globe.

The concept has evolved since it was first articulated by Ian Bruff in 2014. In a recent overview, Bruff and Burak Tansel suggest that although authoritarian trends have become more visible since the crash, we shouldn’t treat this as a “wholesale break from neoliberal practices prior to 2007”. Either way, the concept picks out a number of important trends and situates them to the global financial crisis and the faltering of capitalism, in the same way that William Davies identifies the rise of a new or “punitive” neoliberalism from 2008 onwards.

As persuasive as these accounts are, I have become irritated by a hunch: if the increasing authoritarian character of the state is the question, then surely the answer should acknowledge the so-called ‘war on terror’ and its authoritarian logic. The war on terror has involved the extension of state powers, an unprecedented increase in state surveillance of its populations, military interventions (and the need to defend military power in society), and an intensified climate of Islamophobia and racialised fear. Although the authoritarian neoliberalism literature includes a study of police, pacification, and commercial security, the intersections of the 2001 and 2008 authoritarian turns are not especially explored. And so I became tempted by a provocative and deceptively simple observation: that the sources of authoritarian neoliberalism can be found just as clearly in the war on terror as it can in aftermath of the 2008 crisis.

This suggests that in some ways 2001 may be as relevant a turning point as 2008, especially when considering the implications of the war on terror for international order. But this is not just about benchmarking for the sake of it, of course, because this observation could alter our analyses and our collective understanding of how the UK state is becoming more authoritarian. It potentially complicates explanations about the maintenance of capitalist order, and possibly could situate these shifts in wider authoritarian state tendencies.

However, political economy does not really have much to say about the war on terror. Most political economists – myself included – seem to be disciplined into maintaining a distinction between (international) political economy and security studies — and their respective topics, concepts, and methods. The expansion of higher education may go hand-in-hand with disciplinary and even sub-disciplinary fragmentation. And there’s only so much knowledge and literature that one person can reasonably be expected to keep up with. Should we look to somehow go beyond economy and security so to conduct this kind of analysis?

Beyond economy and security?

Other than practical and disciplinary barriers, the major impediment to going beyond economy and security are conceptual in character. As we stated in our introduction, the economy and security are typically thought about as two distinct domains, shaping how we see and analyse the world. From the political economy side, it depends on how one defines the purpose and parameters of the field. If one sees political economy as the on-going attempt to analyse the shifting authority of states and markets, then understanding the war on terror may not be a priority. If one sees political economy as about capitalism, the state, and everyday life, then that sort of focus might make more sense.

Naturally, some in the field are already working beyond economy and security, some of which are mentioned in our intro. One of the most compelling that I’ve read recently, and which has clear relevance to authoritarian neoliberalism, is Gargi Bhattacharyya’s recent book on austerity and everyday life. One the threads throughout the book are the ways in which military and economic crises intersect to produce some of the key vulnerabilities and violence of the twentieth century. Bhattacharyya argues that the 2008 crisis and subsequent austerity measures cannot subsequently be regarded as a “unitary narrative” when making sense of shifting state powers.

One part of the war on terror is the way in which entire populations have been constructed as objects of suspicion by the state, often in ways that are racialised, and sometimes to the extent that this can override their otherwise legal rights. Bhattacharyya argues that austerity has intensified these trends. When the nation is declared in danger because of a rising fiscal deficit, politically contentious areas of expenditure become more open to being constructed as threats themselves, and therefore to be dealt with. This can be observed with respect to the welfare state in the UK. These war on terror logics of suspicion and surveillance have “infected the arenas of criminal justice and social policy, in the process further eroding the boundaries between these two areas” (pg. 141).

Charlotte Heath-Kelly’s research on counter-radicalisation and the NHS helps illustrate this. The research shows how national security and care are being brought increasingly together through schemes such as PREVENT. The NHS is a key sector for identifying extremism, and consequently doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals have been effectively incorporated into national security with a responsibility to report suspicious individuals. As Heath-Kelly shows, this surveillance is beginning to take new form: through the introduction of “algorithmic modalities and calculative regimes” to identify risky individuals, the NHS is effectively surveilling the whole of the population.

PREVENT inevitably requires significant resources and intervention. And it is presumably these kinds of trends that leads Bhattacharyya to argue that “we might consider the overlapping moments of the war on terror and austerity as a period of reassessment and rebalancing between the welfare and security aspects of European states” (pg. 19). Resources and state expenditure is protected when it is for the purpose of defending the nation and enhancing its security, which seems to encapsulate broader and broader swathes of life. In other words, we can afford to cut back on actual health care, but we cannot afford to cut back on security.

This kind of analysis might affect how we situate and periodise this authoritarian turn. As Bhattacharyya comments on, the war on terror and the financial crises have separate periodisations that are centred on 2001 and 2008 respectively. Clearly, this matters more date setting. Other than the when, it also intersects with how we understand how and why the liberal state seems to be becoming more illiberal. One of the central challenges to developing these accounts are the disciplinary and conceptual boundaries between economy and security.