Some late thoughts on democracy

Published online 2 October 2009.

This is a thought-piece about whether democracy is worth anything at all in this era.  I start with reflection upon a short paragraph from Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Democracy Against Capitalism, which suggests that elites both before and after capitalism have had a social basis for their assertions of privilege.  The current assertion of privilege is substantiated by “money,” “property,” and “capitalism,” all of which are said to limit the sphere of democratic decisionmaking.  But since “money,” “property,” and “capitalism” are the business of society, one must then question whether or not there is really anything left for democracy to decide, and whether people will actually get enough power to make democracy decide anything of substance.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

This thought about democracy began as a reflection upon a paragraph I read in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Democracy Against Capitalism:

Capitalism, by shifting the locus of power from lordship to property, made civic status less salient, as the benefits of political privilege gave way to purely ‘economic’ advantage.  This eventually made possible a new form of democracy.  Where classical republicanism had solved the problem of propertied elite and labouring multitude by restricting the extent of the citizen body (as Athenian oligarchs would have liked to do), capitalist or liberal democracy would permit the extension of citizenship by restricting its powers (as the Romans did).  Where one proposed an active but an exclusive citizen body, in which the propertied classes ruled the labouring multitude, the other could — eventually — envisage an inclusive but largely passive citizen-body, embracing both elite and multitude, but whose citizenship would be limited in scope.  (208)

Contextual discussion should make Wood’s passage here seem profound and interesting to the reader.  Wood’s book is about how the capitalist system created, and sustains, an institutional division between the “political” and the “economic.”  So this is an ongoing discussion about the history of the capitalist system.

The history of power (as it has been written in settled agricultural societies) reveals a persistent tendency of human society to “separate out” into social classes, into classes of elites who rule and underclasses who merely work.  To be brief: in hierarchical societies you have your rulers and your ruled.  In Rome you had your honestiores and your humiliores; in feudal Europe you had your nobles and your peasants.  In pre-capitalist, hierarchical societies, the distinction between rulers and ruled was largely political.  The manorial system of feudal Europe worked this way: there was a nobility, which appropriated a portion of the wealth produced by the peasantry.  Each peasant produced three units of grain, perhaps, of which one was for the nobility.  And that was the way it worked.

Capitalism introduced the element of “economy” into the formation of hierarchy in the societies under its sway.  With “economy,” the rulers either are, or work for, an owning class — and the ruled belong to a “working class.”  The main distinction between the two classes is that of property — the owning class “invests” its property in businesses, which hire (and exploit) members of the working class.  The owning class does not merely appropriate the wealth of the working class; rather, the working class is paid a wage for its labor, and the owning class is obliged to realize the surplus produced by that labor in the form of financial profit.

Okay.  Having established all that, Wood then proceeds to discuss the matter of democracy.  Democracy, as a principle, doesn’t admit of hierarchy, as befits its Greek origins as a word — “Demos” = the people, “-cracy” = rule.  With democracy, in some sense, the people rule.

The question, then, becomes one of how you can have both hierarchy and democracy in the same society.  Remember, the history of power, from the invention of agriculture onward, reveals a separation into powerful and powerless, rulers and ruled.  In Athenian democracy, power was based on citizenship — if you weren’t a citizen, you didn’t get to participate in power.

The Romans, on the other hand, preserved hierarchy by restricting the power of citizenship — and this, points out Wood, is what happens in capitalist democracy does too.  Only capitalist democracy is more discreet than Roman society was about putting decisions beyond the power of democratic decisionmaking.  The Romans limited citizenship by law.  Under capitalist democracy, on the other hand, there are two separate spheres, the “economic,” and the “political,” and the “political” is where you vote for the politician of your choice.  Oh, sure, they will all get together and decide policy as a group — that’s what “bipartisanship” is about — but at least you get to vote for them.  The “economic,” on the other hand, is none of your business.  It’s “private.”  If you have money, then you can participate.  If you don’t, too bad.

So what Wood is trying to suggest is that from century to century the elites have found ways of preserving their privileges, against the implication, within the idea of democracy (and within Christian ideas of the equality of humankind), that we have an equal right to decide the affairs of the nation-state.  In classical Athens, it was “citizenship.”  Under feudalism, it was “lordship.”  Now, it’s “property.”

What should have been obvious to all upon hearing about “the bailout” is that this is precisely what “property” is — a pretext for privilege.  Now, in this sense I don’t mean “property” in terms of personal possessions, since I’ve got my share of those, but rather “property” in terms of private ownership of the means of production, which brings us back to dictionary definitions of the word “capitalism.”  Remember from our reading of McNamee and Miller’s book “The Meritocracy Myth” that we can’t regard the capitalist system as a meritocracy either, unless we are to imagine the inheritance of money as a measure of hereditary “merit.”  Mostly, as McNamee and Miller point out, the flow money follows the old cliche that “it takes money to make money.”  We can see this in a simple statistic: the richest 1% of American families owns half of all non-home capital assets.  Do they really merit it that much more than everyone else?  So property and privilege do not really follow some higher moral principle inherent in capitalist society so much as they are self-perpetuating out of the continual exercise of their power.

Property as a pretext for privilege seems to be deciding our health care debate as well.  Do you really think that any of these “swing” Senators and Congressmembers will choose to reject the money they are receiving from the insurance corporations, and vote for a public option?

The sort of paid-for democracy that leads from the popularity of a single-payer reform to the probable triumph of mandates with a public option for 10% of the public and available only in 2013 is typically regarded as a form of “political corruption.”  Our politicians are corrupt, the argument goes; they won’t bend to the will of the public.  Perhaps, though, it is better if we look at such “corruption” as evidence of how circumscribed, and how rapidly shrinking, the sphere of democratic operations has become.  The question is not one of whether our democracy is “corrupt,” but rather of what it is actually allowed to decide.  For “health insurance reform,” for instance, democracy is allowed to decide what crumbs (of dubious nutritional value) are to be placed on the table for the public in exchange for a non-negotiable demand that the uninsured be mandated to buy private health insurance.  Here I suppose I agree with Michael Moore: “health insurance reform” has nothing to do with solving the problem.

How can democracy be “corrupt” if democratic power is not allowed to decide anything of importance?  What does our democracy decide these days?  Does it decide which wars to fight to preserve the military industrial complex and its claim upon your tax moneys?  Serbia for Clinton, Iraq for the Bushes, Afghanistan for Obama?  Does it decide the legality of gay marriage?  In state after state the fundamentalists have floated successful ballot propositions: “A marriage is between a man and a woman” (and so also, in nearly half of all cases, is a divorce).  And these propositions have won!  What are we to make of a public whose most powerful deed is a renunciation of its own rights?  So much for democracy.

This truth apparently applies in Europe too.  Kees van der Pijl pointed this out back in ’98; Diana Johnstone talks today about European governance as follows:

Whatever they say during election campaigns, center left and center right parties alternatively adopt roughly the same economic policy. This is called “liberalism” or “neoliberalism” in Europe.  It has one guiding principle: the task of government is to coddle and cajole finance capital into investing in the national economy.  This means not only enacting measures called “reforms” designed to increase profits at the expense of labor and social costs.  It also entails privatizing well-functioning public services in order to give investment capital a crack at skimming off profits that might otherwise go to benefit employees and the public.

So democracy is indeed rather limited today, more a matter of showbiz than of the popular will.  But mostly I wish to highlight, here, the whole agenda of “saving capitalism” which has gotten some discussion in the White House and in the pages of the financial press.  Is it really the proper role of a properly-constituted, democratically elected government to make sure that the financial sphere stay out of the hands of the public?

Occasionally during the bailout there were calls for nationalization of the banks.  If the government were to pledge $12.8 trillion to saving the banks, then maybe it should have some role in determining how they are run.  But Obama was uninterested.

Going against the trend of government as an accessory to economic power is the idea of economic democracy.  The proponents of economic democracy would argue that economic rights are not mere commodities, and so the people must seize control of democratic government to make sure economic rights are assured.  But what power do they have?



Former Supreme Court beneficiary George W. Bush made a big deal out of “spreading democracy” amidst the ongoing US occupation of Iraq.  Of course, Iraq didn’t have any real sovereignty with 150,000 occupying US troops and 14 lavish US military bases on its soil.  Here we must ask: do we have any sovereignty?  We know that there is this showbiz spectacle called “democracy”: they announce an election date, the candidates list is manipulated until all of the candidates can be made to pledge allegiance to the existing order, everyone votes, and then the “leaders” go off and do their business while the public is deceived by further bread-and-circus media broadcasts.  This has nothing to do with popular rule, however.

If popular rule is to make its presence known, then, it must stage an entry into what I’ve been calling the history of power.  So far, the recent history of power has been dominated by spectacular acts of domination; four centuries (1500-1914) of imperial conquest, the national struggles of two world wars, four stages of capitalist development leading up to the dominant neoliberalism of the present day.  As I’ve pointed out in previous diaries, there IS such a thing as people-power; the question is one of whether it can be strong enough to make its mark upon the history of power.


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