A number of commentators have recently suggested neo-liberalism is dead, or is in a process of retreat. During the disruption of global commodity chains caused by the Covid 19-pandemic, free-market policies that have dominated the global economy for the past 40 years appear to have less purchase. Here, authors point to a reversion to a national form of capitalism and protectionism, the questioning of globalization and return of state intervention in the economy. A prime example is the Biden regime’s approach to the US economy, which has turned to deficit driven social spending, expansion of union rights and protectionist measures to public procurement. This hasn’t come out of nowhere – with the neo-liberal global economy being zombie-like since the 2008 global financial crisis.
The fracturing of the global economy along national lines may herald conflict and a new cold war between the US and China. However, the retreat of neo-liberalism also seems to offer a possible opening – through a critique of globalization and a return of the state. Here, a rejuvenated politics of the left may be able to avoid the pitfalls of an emergent authoritarian capitalism and launch a new national form of progressive politics around welfare policies such as the Green New Deal and Universal Basic Income in locations such as the UK and US.
Neo-liberalism is in trouble, but missing from these debates about its demise is a discussion of neo-liberalism in the Global South and, thus, the reality of what the crisis of neo-liberalism means for all rather than simply those within the Global North.
This interview was originally published in German in the special issue on financialisation and development policies of the journal Peripherie, September 2021, No. 162/163. Frauke Banse and Anil Shah (both based at Kassel University) spoke with political economist Ilias Alami (Maastricht University) about some of his recent work on the relationship between geopolitics, financial flows for development and emerging forms of ‘state capitalism,’ as well as related new imperialist formations. The interview was conducted via email in May 2021.
The interview covers a series of International Political Economy topics. Ilias first locates the emergence of the Wall Street Consensus in the long and turbulent histories of the relation between finance and development as well as in secular capitalist transformations. He then outlines some of the conceptual tools he’s developed in his work in order to make sense of the contemporary interconnections of money and finance and the reproduction of imperialism and race/coloniality. Next, he situates these interconnections within broader scholarly debates about financialisation and highlights the similarities and differences between ongoing sovereign debt crises in the global South and the so-called 1980s ‘Third World debt crisis.’ Finally, Ilias discusses the recent emergence of new forms of ‘state capitalism’ and their complex relation to the extension and deepening of market-based finance.
In a recent op-ed, Martin Sandbu of the Financial Times argues that “the conversion by the IMF and World Bank to support the activist state would put Saul of Tarsus to shame.” According to him, we may be witnessing the rise of a new Washington Consensus, which embraces deficit spending (by rich countries), “temporary solidarity surtaxes” on the rich and businesses, green public investment, and other forms of government intervention. This is not only to address the short-term effects of the pandemic, but also to stimulate demand across the world economy. Sandbu finds evidence of this new consensus in the benign view that the IMF has taken on Biden’s “rescue package”, and claims that “the new Washington consensus could prove as politically powerful as the old one.” In another op-ed in October 2020,
Sandbu characterised this new consensus as follows:
“After 1945, the guiding assumption was, first, that the state knew best, then that the private sector was best. We are about to transcend both, in favour of an economic worldview based on finding ways in which government intervention can guide the private sector to perform better. In that sense, economic planning and the activist state are back.”
It is indeed striking that the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD, the G20, and other multilaterals, have adapted their discourse on the role and place of the state in development. This predates the COVID-19 pandemic. In an open access paper recently published in Antipode, we document the emergence of this new vision of the state in development and outline its key features. Since the early 2010s, these institutions have produced a remarkable wealth of material explicitly concerned with old and new forms of state ownership and intervention. Witness, for instance, this November 2020 EBRD Transition report titled The State Strikes Back, or this chapter dedicated to state-owned enterprises in the IMF 2020 Fiscal Monitor. Our analysis of such policy documents and others suggests that we are witnessing a gradual yet fundamental reorientation of official agendas and discourses about the state. This emerging vision embraces a fuller role of the state in development (than the post-Washington Consensus), including as promoter, supervisor, and owner of capital. Our analysis expounds the material context in which this vision is emerging. Two interrelated transformations are particularly important.
State capital has increasingly taken on marketized forms. From state enterprises to sovereign wealth funds, it is increasingly difficult to find much difference at the operational level with cognate organizations in the private sector. Manager cadres have become professionalized, with many having spent significant time honing their skills in the private sector before taking up their positions in state entities. Business practices and corporate governance standards typical of private capital and the syllabi of elite business schools have become the norm. This includes, as to be expected, an embrace of a shareholder value logic. State entities in doing so are becoming increasingly financialized, not dissimilarly to their peers in the private sector.
China, Vietnam and Laos have for three decades been among the fastest growing economies in the world. In other words, three of the best growth performers in global capitalism are authoritarian states led by communist parties with socialism as the official development goal. This fact has received surprisingly little attention, especially when considering their strong performance on a wide range of development indicators. Many claim China and Vietnam indeed represent some of the most impressive “development success stories” the world has seen in recent decades. The three countries claim to have found their own model of development combining a market economy with socialism – ‘the socialist market economy’. According to official definitions, this is not capitalism, but a more sustainable and socially just way of making a market economy work for national development and the improvement of living standards. In “The Socialist Market Economy in Asia: Development in China, Vietnam and Laos”, an edited volume newly published by Palgrave Macmillan, we engage with the coherence, achievements and failures of this particular development model.
Chinese labour workers and their team manager laying the tracks on the Belgrade-Stara Pazova section of the Belgrade-Budapest railway. Source: author’s own.
The Belgrade-Budapest Railway has been lauded as the flagship Belt and Road project of the wider Central and Eastern European (CEE) region, and as such is promoted by Beijing as a successful template for Sino-CEE cooperation concluded via the 17+1 initiative, established in 2012 to foster relations between China and 17 CEE countries. In its host context of Hungary and Serbia, the investment has been politicised from the get-go, wherein criticism has largely focused on the project’s violation of EU public procurement rules, which require competitive dialogue and open-tender processes for projects of substantial size.
We would expect the Belgrade-Budapest Railway to be subject to greater scrutiny in both Hungary, as an EU member state, and Serbia, where external legitimacy of the EU is an important cornerstone of regime legitimacy, stemming from broad-based support for EU integration and cooperation. While this has played out in Hungary where there have been protests and where the EU launched infringement proceedings against the construction for non-compliance, the Serbian section has proceeded relatively unhindered.
Following the 2016 failed coup attempt, and in the context of increasing mistrust towards the West, Turkey’s president Erdogan reflected his discontent with the EU and argued that Turkey should instead join the Shanghai Five, namely the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) led primarily by China and Russia. Soon after, despite being a NATO member, Turkey signed a deal with Russia to buy the S-400 air defence missile system. Taken together with Turkey’s other ‘adventures’ in its region, these developments were perceived as manifestations of a changing political economy of Turkey, and were deeply disturbing to Western powers. After all, since the end of the Second World War, Turkey had been a close ally of the US-led Western capitalist bloc, it continued to be one during the Cold War; and had remained very close to US and EU interests following the end of the Cold War in 1991.
For some accounts[i], these developments are related to the changing world order and global power shifts following the 2008 crisis, as the decline of the ‘liberal international order’ and the rise of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) marked transformations of the global political economy. Hence, there is a tendency to explain Turkey’s late political economy in this context. It is argued that, in this ‘post-liberal international order’ where two competing political economies come to the fore, Turkey is moving towards the ‘East’ or ‘non-West’ – mainly China and Russia. As such, Turkey’s engagement with non-Western ‘great powers’ (which are generally characterised by ‘authoritarian state capitalism’ as opposed to the ‘neoliberal political economy’/liberal democracy/’democratic capitalism’ of the West), shapes Turkey’s political economy and paves the way for ‘authoritarianism’, ‘illiberal democracy’ and ‘state capitalism’. Put differently, as the legitimacy crisis of ‘Western neoliberalism’ makes it less desirable for countries like Turkey, Turkey is regarded to have deviated from neoliberalism and liberal democracy and moved to state capitalism and authoritarianism.