Authoritarian Capitalism and 1984: How Freedom Dies

Between the 9th and 15th Centuries, autocratic monarchies and ecclesiastical hierarchies dominated Western society. These systems began to fall away as people increasingly asserted their right to individual liberty. This push for a greater focus on the individual favoured capitalism as an economic system because of the flexibility it allowed for private property rights, personal choice, entrepreneurship and innovation. It also favoured democracy as a governing system for its focus on individual political freedom. The shift toward greater individual liberty changed the social contract. Previously, many resources were provided by those in power (land, food and protection) in exchange for significant contributions from citizens (for instance, from slave labour to hard labour with little pay, high taxes and unquestioning loyalty). With capitalism, people expected less from governing authorities, in exchange for greater civil liberties, including individual, political and economic freedom.

The primary theme of 1984 by George Orwell is to warn readers of the dangers of totalitarianism. The central focus of the book is to convey the extreme level of control and power possible under a truly totalitarian regime. It explores how such a governmental system would impact society and the people who live in it. This includes true horror of totalitarianism, mass surveillance and repressive regimentation of people and behaviours within society. Surveillance is a key part of the novel’s world. Coined phrases outlining manipulation of language as a form of mind control includes: newspeak the method for controlling thought through language; and doublethink the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct. One of Orwell’s most important messages in 1984 is that language is of central importance to human thought because it structures and limits the ideas that individuals are capable of formulating and expressing.

The end of the Cold War supposedly signaled the “end of history” and with it the rise of liberal democracy and the demise of authoritarian regimes worldwide. With the economic and political demise of Soviet-style communism, most of the communist regimes supported by the Soviet Union across the world, like Ethiopia, Afghanistan and South Yemen also collapsed. Communist Cuba is a lone exception to this trend. Basically, you can have capitalism without democracy. Rather than transitioning previously totalitarian states toward democracy and deepening it within perceived established liberal states, globalization has instead been theorized as enhancing despotism and repressive policies. Russia is a prominent example of authoritarian state capitalism: Putin has created a super wealthy and loyal plutocracy that owes its existence to authoritarianism. The reemergence of Russian autocracy under Putin, conversely, has coincided with economic growth but not caused it (high oil prices and recovery from the transition away from communism deserve most of the credit).

In the wake of the 1989 crackdown on prodemocracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the Chinese Communist Party seemed morally bankrupt. Twenty years later, the Chinese Communist Party has built a new popularity by delivering staggering economic growth and cultivating a revived – and potentially dangerous – Han Chinese nationalism. China’s material successes, as seen in its gleaming city skylines and piles of foreign currency holdings, suggest the government’s top priority is economic growth. While growing the economy, it has kept the majority of wealth in the hands of an elite class of business leaders, many of whom have willingly accepted authoritarian rule in exchange for getting rich. Far from forming a middle class that might challenge authority, these groups now have reason to join their rulers in repressing “instability” among the people. Communism has been replaced by authoritarian capitalism, which is the engine of China’s economy. This heralds the return of authoritarian great powers.

A defining characteristic of authoritarian capitalism is the presence of a capitalist economy on one hand along with the absence or erosion of democracy and civil liberties on the other hand. Authoritarian capitalism must be carefully distinguished from public ownership, which is unproblematic insofar as state companies are democratically-controlled and accountable. The contradiction between the freedom of the market and social freedom resulting after the 2008 crash: The inequality in economic status has been turned into inequality in political status. For long time, democracy and free markets were touted as the twin answer to most ills. But while free-market tenets have come under strain in the international financial crisis, with the very countries that espoused the self-regulating power of markets taking the lead to embrace principles of financial socialism to bail out their troubled corporate colossuses, the spread of democracy encounters increasingly strong headwinds. This put democracy in retreat.

Technology and AI are authoritarian capitalism’s largely bloodless methods for extending total control over the population, making sure that every individual toe the party’s line. This compliance is also enabled by the emerging military surveillance industrial complex, which is going to be at the core of successful authoritarian capitalism. Vast databases of citizens’ DNA and irises will make personal identifications impossible to fake, while ubiquitous online, mobile and CCTV monitoring will liquidate privacy and any possibility of organized dissent. In the state’s gaze, each person will stand naked with no choice but to do the autocrat’s bidding or be vanished and die, forgotten by all, out of sight in a “black jail” or in an officially non-existent concentration camp. Unless the world’s democracies come up with attractive and effective solutions to socioeconomic ills such as unemployment, falling living standards and income, and inaccessible medical care, then authoritarian capitalism will win.

Fox News tells viewers they are the only reliable source of political information – re-enforcing the alt-right propaganda in social media. This opens the door to gaslighting – a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.  In post-truth politics social media assists political actors who mobilize voters through a crude blend of outlandish conspiracy theories and suggestive half-truths, barely concealed hate-speech, as well as outright lies. These “populist” voters now live in a media bubble, getting their news from sources that play to their identity-politics desires, which means that even if you offer them a better deal, they won’t hear about it, or believe it if told. We now realize the need to control how social media is manipulated by big money. Friedrich Nietzsche claimed there was no objective fact about what has value in itself – culture consisted of beliefs developed to perpetuate a particular power structure.

Disinformation can be dangerous on social media because, the sheer amount of information there and the length of readers’ attention spans can allow it to go unchecked. Social media platform algorithms are designed for optimized user retention and engagement, and are not looking for misinformation or disinformation. A combination of lies and religion are used to control the people. There is no difference between the fake news, misinformation, disinformation of today – such lies have been churned out for years, but today it is designed to support the plutocracy. Trump’s victim politics is a complete fraud, an old trick used by economic elite to keep working-class Americans fighting each other rather than focusing on processes to counter the plutocrats who are ripping them off. The truth is that present capitalism creates enormous wealth, but it concentrates into oligopolies and monopolies, to the extent the economic elite creates and normalizes a culture of lying to itself leading to its inherent instability.

The Republican Party with its full-throated support of small government and minimal regulations of neoliberalism, embrace the uncertain populist policies of division and misinformation. The trick neoliberals employ is to maintain the myth of democracy through regular elections, but to separate any real power from the hands of those elected. The rise of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is a clear symptom of the catastrophic normalization of authoritarian capitalism: based the belief in the need for top-down leadership; nationalism; the friend/enemy scheme; and militant patriarchy (law and order policies; idealization of warfare and soldiers; repression of constructed enemies; conservative gender relations). Trump stands for what can be characterized as authoritarian capitalism. He blames Mexico and China for deindustrialization and social decline without ever mentioning that US capital exploits workers both in the US and in destinations of outsourced capital, including in Chinese sweatshops and Mexican maquiladoras.

Many consider ‘authoritarian capitalism’ to designate any capitalist system where the state plays a more prominent role than has been considered ‘optimal’ since the 1980s. The efforts to repatriate industries creates such a climate. For example, the United States and Europe are providing huge monetary incentives as they try to acquire the building blocks of electric vehicle manufacturing to avoid becoming dependent on China. This includes the construction of battery factories and plants to process lithium and other materials on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Volkswagen is also building a factory in Ontario, but the company made the decision to do so only after the Canadian government matched U.S. incentives. These incentives are all consistent with authoritarian capitalism where the state plays a conspicuous role, as the next stage of capitalism – in which a capitalist market economy exists alongside an authoritarian government.

The true value of Nineteen Eighty-four is it teaches us that power and tyranny are made possible through the use of words and how they are mediated. The theme of lies in 1984 is: lying, deception and false appearance is usually connected with the want for power and control, the belief that no one will find out, and avoiding punishment, which are evident in 1984. George Orwell observes: “The further a society drifts from the truth the more it will hate those who speak it.” Orwell demonstrates how a government’s manipulation of technology, language, media, and history can oppress and degrade its citizens. The book was written as a warning of what could happen if people allowed their governments to obtain too much power after Orwell saw what happened to the people in Nazi Germany. Orwell concludes “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

One reason the authoritarianism of the present system has been easy to ignore is that its abuses largely took place out of sight, inflicted on those least able to resist. The dark underbelly of globalization has been the increasingly violent tactics used by states to control and suppress the movement of people across their borders. Authoritarian capitalism is not new, but the use of force is becoming more overt, which is why it is all the more important that progressives expose and resist the appalling treatment of the most marginalized. Authoritarian capitalism is rapidly evolving, intensifying and spreading across the globe. In the process, democracy is being destroyed. This is a crisis that expresses itself in the rising authoritarianism visible in divisive and exclusionary politics, populist political parties and movements, increased distrust in fact-based information and news, and the withering accountability of state institutions.

The fusion of autocratic politics and state-guided capitalism has emerged in the 21st century as leading challenge to international spread of democratic ideas. Blaming citizens for their alleged populist or anti-democratic turn is misleading. Without the active involvement of the economic elite, both foreign and domestic, authoritarian capitalism could not have emerged in Hungary. To satisfy the needs of the economic elite, Orbán not only dismantled crucial democratic institutions, but also silenced those who could get in the way, such as trade unions and NGOs, as enriching this new elite necessarily creates losers. When elites turn neoliberalism into crony capitalism instead of well-functioning free markets, they doom democracies and stabilize authoritarian politics. Recent GOP activities in the US result in resurgence of reactionary nationalist, religious, racist, and antifeminist ideologies and movements. In addition, there are efforts to make voting more difficult. With the possible election of Donald Trump in 2024, the specter of authoritarian capitalism haunts America.

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