To save democracy, we must end capitalism
This article is part of Bright Green’s ‘End of capitalism’ series– if you’d be interested in contributing something to this series, drop us a Facebook message or email ‘firstname.lastname@example.org
Politics across much of the globe is currently tumultuous, uncertain and, depending on your persuasion, exciting. Debates have resurfaced that many thought, some hoped, were dead and buried. This has arisen, in part, because of dire economic conditions and the onslaught on communities, welfare and indeed democracy from neoliberal, capitalist policy.
The growth of intellectual property rights in areas such as digital content, certain crops and even genetic material is as rapacious as it is terrifying, centring more and more resources, whose development and discovery were collective endeavours, into less and less hands. The process of privatisation, deregulation and reductions in state support (in areas such as welfare, health and education) both centre what were previously democratic(ish) decisions into the hands of private individuals, and reduce the ability of citizens to act collectively through state institutions and elected representatives. The repression of trade unions, the farming out of much of what’s left of public policy to unelected ‘experts’ and the relentless march of the markets has reduced space for deliberative, collective decisions to direct the economy and the workplace.
The truly staggering levels of inequality we are now witnessing, inevitable, deliberate results of neoliberal policy, are also anathema for democracy. Huge resources are mobilised to lobby, corrupt, bribe, flatter or coerce governments, from the collusion between oil companies and resource-rich developing countries that sees profit go to regime leaders, CEO’s and a handful of brokers and fixers rather than the citizens of that country, to the enormous campaign arsenals corporations marshal in the US. Beyond the resources being hurled at the political system to ensnare it in the interests of a few around the world, inequality has also been shown to be negatively correlated with political engagement, sapping the energy out of democracies.
At it’s root, neoliberal mentality is one in which the market comes to dominate as many spheres of human life and interaction as possible… utilising almost any means possible to achieve this. Aggressive state intervention is wielded like a sword, to both crack open previously uncommodified sectors to the ravages of the market and to foster a deeper culture shift towards individualisation, consumerism and alienation. It abhors centralised, collectivised decision making – democracy is poison to it.
It is patently apparent that neoliberalism cannot coexist with healthy, vibrant, citizen-led democracy. There is no middle ground here – neoliberalism and its underlying logic needs to be destroyed if we to want democracy to prevail in the 21st century. But what of capitalism more broadly? Indeed, did democracy not develop alongside capitalism in western countries?
Whilst throughout the 1800’s there were numerous Acts passed to widen the voting franchise, for a long time they were rooted in the idea of property (albeit smaller amounts each time) being the qualifier for entrance into political decision making. It isn’t until the 1918 Representation of the People Act (passed at a time immediately after a devastating war and many militarily trained young men were returning home, and after the huge contribution of women in the war effort) that we see what can be described as a genuinely democratic spirit in voter legislation (although it would take until 1928 until all property qualifications were removed) – after well over a century of industrial capitalism by the most conservative of estimates, and even longer of capitalism in any form. The propertied classes perpetually feared the impact on government working class votes would have.
E.P Thomson, in his groundbreaking work on the emergence of the working class during the early decades of industrialisation, characterises the introduction of industrial capitalism as a period defined by loss of control for working class communities. Not only was much of early industrial life characterised by intense, dangerous and damaging work, and fiercely controlled by factory bosses compared to the previous cottage-industry life, but it involved strains of deeply undemocratic policy too. Thompson charts the intense oppression of early ‘corresponding societies’, reaching near-manic levels in the wake of The French Revolution across the channel, a fate shared by early trade unions and Chartists too. This is evident throughout capitalism’s history, right up until neoliberalism’s current restriction of labour power: any democratising elements that seek to go beyond strict ‘formal’ political lines have been treated with hostility and repression by capitalism.
Woods, in her work ‘The Origin of Capitalism’, takes the story back even further. She argues that capitalism is not, as it is often mistaken as, just about market systems (other economic forms utilise markets), but market imperatives – far from markets being about choice, as we are often told, Woods argues the defining feature of capitalism is that we are forced to engage in market systems. Woods also highlights that there was fierce resistance to the development of capitalism as it began in rural England, and that it required an invasive state to develop it.
The immediate post-war period was the time when the relationship between capitalism and democracy was least strained. It was a period where labour was able to push for higher wages and inequality fell in the context of strong, sustained economic growth. Wolfgang Streeck questions whether this can be repeated he argues that capitalism’s time is nearly up, due to a number of systemic crises that it is no longer able to overcome; “declining growth, oligarchy, starvation of the public sphere, corruption and international anarchy”. The point is moot, however: even in this unprecedented era, during this ‘unhappy marriage’, as Streeck calls it, democracy was far from complete. The nuptials hinged on the taming of organised labour through close relationships with management and modest wage increases, but did not offer any fundamental democratisation of the economy, and was still characterised, at least amongst working class communities, by a general sense of lack of control over their lives, hard work and toil, and significant inequalities. The post-war period was a brief, shimmering moment where the forces of capital weren’t overtly and viciously supressing democracy and labour, but it was far from a completely democratic society. We’re unlikely to return to that period (in addition to Streeck’s ‘disorders’ we may add; climate change, changing technology, automation, globalisation) but even if we could, it’d be a far shallower, weaker form of democracy than we could have under a different system.
In the West, how we think of and define democracy is inevitably bounded by the fact that such notions have developed under a capitalist system. As we have seen, this system has not exactly encouraged any sort of democracy, but at most learnt to live with a certain, limited kind. When ‘democracy’ is broadened out to mean more than what capitalism itself has shaped it to mean, then the connection between the two becomes even more acute: capitalism, specifically the interests of capital, have deliberately and consistently undermined democratisation of the economy.
Despite proclamations of moving beyond ‘left and right’ politics in recent years, and the mocking, now turned to bitter resentment and fear, of Corbyn’s ‘70’s- style politics of class warfare’ the clash between capital and, well, basically everything else, is what will define politics in the 21st century. I agree with Streeck that capitalism is entering into a terminal crisis, but it won’t be a quick, sudden or easy end. Crafting a better world will require actively fighting for democracy over capital.
The expansive rights and power that has capital has accumulated for itself, particularly in the last forty years, is now in direct conflict with democracy. A project that seeks to equalise wealth and power has to push for democratisation, both of formal political institutions but within the economic sphere too – worker ownership and control, government regulation and nationalisation and a focus on redistribution and equality, rather than rapacious growth. Such a project would spell the end of capitalism.