Democracies Under Pressure. Authoritarianism, Repression, Struggles

Table of contents

The 1970s and the counteroffensive of authoritarian liberalism versus democracy

Regarding Grégoire Chamayou’s “La société ingouvernable”

Grégoire Chamayou’s work analyzes “authoritarian liberalism” as a counter-attack against the multiple social revolts of the early 1970s, and shows how the democratic ambitions of civil society have been progressively diminished to guarantee corporate economic interests. Contrary to popular belief, the rise of neoliberalism does not correspond to a pure and simple retreat of the State from the economic sphere, but rather to the emergence of a State authoritarianism capable of guaranteeing the capitalist social order without meddling in private affairs. Chamayou gives a bird’s eye view of the genesis of this movement, laying out its concepts and way of understanding problems as found in managerial literature, economic reviews, and other documents produced by the intellectual elite of the liberal right. Thereby he analyzes the new modes of governance advocated within and outside of companies, to counter the era’s spirit of revolt.

Simply put, if rebellion threatens, instilling fear is the key to reversing the power relationship. Within companies, behind the introduction of the notion of “governance,” – which hasn’t ceased to expand since then – lurks the reinforcement of the disciplinary regime challenged by civil society and labor unions in the 1970s. Counter-insurrectional and information-gathering tactics combine to exert pressure on unions, as well as an emerging vocabulary that clearly favors companies: self-regulation (without external intervention), voluntary adoption of rules and codes of conduct (non-binding), individual responsibility (clearing companies from overseeing their own activities)... This new vocabulary depoliticizes governance and favors the refinancialization of corporations, creating (or favoring) a semantic slippage not unlike marketing’s “rebranding.” Meanwhile, the insistence on individual responsibility is an essential stalking horse to impose this change of political paradigm (for instance, rather than addressing polluting corporations, citizens are now blamed for their consumer choices and waste management).

Outside of the corporations, economic and social insecurity is fostered: fear of unemployment forces workers to accept increasingly unfavorable working conditions. The idea arises, also, that democracy itself is a source of instability because it allows criticism and opposition to emerge, provoking a “crisis of governability.” Here the State makes its entrance: its role, according to the theorists of this counterrevolution, is to ensure the permanence of capitalism in the face of its own “self-destructive tendencies,” but without “touching the fundamental economic relationships that determine them.” And if this means dictatorship, like that of Pinochet in Chile, well, so be it.

Thus, beginning in 1970, discipline is the strategy implemented then reinforced, within companies and outside of them, to fight the expansion of unions which, at that time, was on the rise. The liberty of corporate governance (i.e. the non-intervention of the State in managing the corporate world) must be defended, while at the same time the role of the State in managing social upheavals that might threaten the freedom of the market must be reinforced. To do so, it is crucial to depoliticize the terms in which economic and democratic relationships are considered.

As Alexandre Klein concludes in his notes on Chamayou’s work: “with neoliberalism, economics has conclusively dethroned politics.”