Authoritarian Neoliberalism, Civil Society and the Future of Democracy

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 18:30
Oral Presentation
Mathias JESSEN, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
The end of the 1980s and the triumph of liberal, parliamentary democracy as the only viable governmental form signaled a bright future for the peaceful and prosperous coexistence of democracy and capitalism. It signaled a bright future for the possibility of critique, contestation and transformation of the given order by the organizations, individuals and social movements of civil society. The existence of an independent and strong civil society was seen as the hallmark of a well-functioning democracy.

However, the reality has been somewhat different. With globalization, neoliberal policies and the dismantling of the Western welfare states, civil society has increasingly been mobilized for securing governmental and social aims that the states could or would no longer provide. The freedom, autonomy and critical role of civil society organizations and actors is becoming more and more precarious, originally in the periphery of the West, but now also increasingly in the core Western countries with increasing suppression – or at least defunding and delegitimization – of civil society associations and NGOs critical of the dominant neoliberal order. In this sense, we are moving more and more from what Nancy Fraser has called ‘progressive neoliberalism’ to what Ian Bruff has called ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’. Those actors and organizations in civil society espousing a vision of a different society and a transformation of capitalism are increasingly delegitimized, if not outright suppressed.

This paper argues that despite the political and democratic promises of civil society – and thereby of alternatives to the given order - we have witnessed the political content of civil society being emptied. Civil society has become increasingly marketized and/or neutralized with regards to political critique and contestation and increasingly mobilized in order to neutrally and uncritically provide social services for a dismantled welfare state. This poses serious problems for the future of democracy.