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Before Trump: the neoliberal–illiberal alliance of the IMF and WTO with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

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Western commentators scratch their heads over the new phenomenon of illiberalism that has recently gained ground in Europe and North America. This trend toward illiberalism has been identified as a particular feature of developmental progress of states without sufficient constitutional safeguards to offer institutional defenses against illiberal tendencies (Zakaria 1997). Yet we now can see that even fully developed constitutional democracies, most prominently the US, have taken this turn. This paper hypothesizes that neoliberalism, specifically in the form promoted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, forms an ideological and practical alliance with illiberal developmental trends in Eurasia characterized by the Shanghai Cooperative Organisation.

While Western institutions tend to at least pay lip service to democratic governance, in fact the IMF and WTO sponsor policies that do not recognize the value of grass roots participation in the organization of politics and civil society. Whereas the WTO and IMF stand in opposing spheres of interest from the SCO , none of these organizations sponsors the celebrated twentieth-century marriage of free markets under the duly constituted rule of law sustained by democratic politics. Thus, perhaps the global trend towards illiberal regimes with various forms of authoritarian rule should not be surprising given the lack of contemporary robust practical and theoretical defense of open and democratic institutions. This paper closes with a preliminary exploration of modes of institutional organization that may support collective socio-technical imaginaries conducive to legitimate participatory governance. It hypothesizes that the price paid for neglecting inclusive public will formation may be deference to authoritarian forms of leadership that resonate with traditional imaginaries of collective purpose and meaning.

[Fareed Zakaria, (1997) ‘The Rise of Illiberal Democracy’, Foreign Affairs, 76(6), 22–43.]

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