It has been widely, and aptly, noted that neoliberalism has often been productive of, and effected by, authoritarian, despotic, paramilitaristic or corrupt state forms, and that multiple methods, including state violence, have been deployed to sustain it (cf. Brown 2003; Klein 2007; Tansel 2017). Yet, we should not confuse general strategy with particular methods: the latter depend on historical phases, local circumstances, social forces and relations, state power, and so on. This has often implied the brutality of military rule. Equally, fiscal and external debt crises have also been used to justify (neoliberal) 'structural reforms.' Formal democratic regimes have also facilitated accumulation throughout the chequered history of neoliberalism. In neoliberal democracies, the greater legitimacy of the constitutional order, 'electoral seduction' and reconstituted subjectivities, have often helped to mobilise support for neoliberal rule (Dardot and Laval 2013: 6; Konings 2018; Ayers 2018). It is notable that, since at least the mid-1990s, most neoliberal countries are 'democratic', at least in the formal (procedural) sense; most non-democratic countries are not neoliberal; and most transitions to democracy, whether from military dictatorship, single-party rule, autocracy or Soviet-style socialism, have been coeval with transitions to neoliberalism. As such, at least until recently, 'neoliberal democracy' constituted the 'ideal' or 'typical' political form of neoliberalism (Ayers and Saad-Filho 2015).
This approach to the relationship between formal democracy and neoliberalism echoes longstanding critiques of capitalist (bourgeois) democracy as 'the best political shell for capitalism' (Lenin 1917). Briefly, as a mode of exploitation, at its most abstract level, capitalism does not depend on political or legal inequalities. Rather, producing and appropriating classes are formally free and equal under the law, opening the possibility of a common citizenship and universal suffrage. Indeed, formal democracy with its ideology of freedom, equality and classlessness, can be an effective mechanism sustaining capitalist class relations (Wood 2006; Roper 2013; Ayers 2018). However, this highly circumscribed formal or procedural model of democracy constitutes the ideal political form only in times of relatively stable accumulation (Ayers and Saad-Filho 2015). In times of crisis, or when the established order is threatened, nondemocratic modes of power tend to come to the fore:
[O]nce the system begins to disintegrate [...] [the bourgeois] commitment to democracy [...] emerges to be not axiomatic and eternal, but pragmatic and ephemeral. Since it is the economic system itself which is now at stake, all political measures needed to save it, including dictatorship, become legitimate (Knei-Paz 1978: 355).
Accordingly, since the 2007 Great Financial Crisis (GFC), we have witnessed a rising tide of authoritarianism around the world, including proto- and neo-fascist political forms, with the dominant political system in multiple countries increasingly losing its democratic features. Faced with the manifold crises of neoliberal accumulation and sociality, this article contends that the age of neoliberal democracy is coming to a close. Its democratic political shell is being increasingly hollowed out--unable to contain or withstand extant crises, or offer more than a semblance of legitimacy to the system. Significantly, such developments are not external but, rather, internal...
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