What is a Democracy?
What is a Democracy?
FOR â€œDEMOCRACYâ€ AND â€œTHE REPUBLICâ€
These are dangerous and confusing times. Letâ€™s take a look at an interesting formulation from an unusually long and dramatic lead editorial in a recent issue of liberal-left weekly "The Nation":
â€œWorld opinion is against the
This ominous paragraph constitutes the cover of the magazineâ€™s â€œFebruary 5thâ€ issue ("The Nation" dates its issues a week in advance of the day you see them on the newsstand or in your mailbox?).
Later in the editorial, "The Nation" says the following:
â€œIt is not only the
After some intelligent reflections on the need to combine efforts to de-fund and end the occupation of Iraq with citizen actions, resolutions, and investigations that could lead to impeachment, The Nation hopes that the American people and Congress can act together to save â€œthe Republicâ€ (â€œFor the Republic,â€ The Nation, February 5, 2007, pp. 3-5 and cover).
KING GEORGE TODAY
It is good to see "The Nationâ€™s" editorsâ€™ say forthrightly something that many of us on the left believe: that the
Bushâ€™s â€œsurgeâ€ (escalation) obviously violates all that. It also violates the concept of a republic. A republic, according to Websters, is â€œa government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to lawâ€ (Websterâ€™s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 1001).
Bushâ€™s decision to escalate his messianic, monumentally illegal and massively unpopular (at home and abroad) war on the Middle East, combined with and linked to his brazen violation of numerous national and international statutes, is obviously out of touch with core principles of democratic and republican governance.
ANNALS OF AMERICAN IMPUNITY
But here we get to some fundamental problems relating to the difference between radical-left and liberal-left analysis and (as we shall see) between a â€œdemocracyâ€ and â€œa constitutional republic.â€ When exactly was the
When the new President Bill Clinton abandoned his campaign commitment to â€œput people firstâ€ and proceeded to follow a business-friendly corporate neoliberal agenda? When he attacked
When the recently departed and (historically whitewashed) Gerald Ford gave Nixon an advance and total pardon, attacked
When John Fitzgerald Kennedy initiated an illegal war of aggression against
When Harry Truman lied about the â€œinternational communist threatâ€ in
When Truman and two key members of his cabinet â€œsystematically deceived Congress and the public into thinking that the
When Franklin Delano Rooseveltâ€™s State Department voiced its approval of European fascism â€“ as (what thery considred) an understandable response to, and check on, the European left (see Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy [New York: Hill and Wang, 1992], pp. 37-42)?
When the Robber Barons ruled over the Billion Dollar Congress? When President McKinley advanced false claims to launch an imperial war for territorial conquest in the
When Andy Jackson smashed the U.S. Bank and announced the rule of "the people" even as the â€œmarket revolutionâ€ concentrated ever more wealth in capitalist hands and reduced millions to poverty and â€œwage slaveryâ€ â€“ all while Native American were being finally cleansed from the eastern and middle sections of the country and literal black cotton slavery expanded across the quasi-feudal South to feed the Satanic mills of Dickensian England?
When the corporate-Jacksonian Reagan administration traded arms for hostages and claimed that the
DEMOCRACY AGAINST CAPITALISM
But then what exactly do we mean when we say â€œdemocracy?â€ Like numerous other loaded terms (â€œfreedom,â€ â€œliberty,â€ â€œthe general welfare,â€ etc.), democracy is a quintessentially contested concept. It is a word for which different and competing definitions can be found, reflecting the intrusion of social power complexities into the supposedly neutral and elementary realms of language and vocabulary.
The definition I gave above (in this articleâ€™s sixth paragraph) carries radical connotations when it taken seriously. Consistently followed and applied, it is incompatible with capitalism.
This is for simple reasons. The capitalist system that western and
Its basic but hidden idea of an efficient and desirable social outcome is the enhancement of private profit at the least possible private expense. It relentlessly pushes the maximum possible externalization of costs onto an ever more overburdened society and ecology.
Itâ€™s fairly absurd to tell people that they are living under democracy because they occasionally pass through narrow-spectrum voting booths when they spend most of their lives under the material dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The publicly disastrous â€œprivateâ€ economy retains enormous autonomy from public interference under the functional rules of capitalism, which impose a deep structural division between the â€œpoliticalâ€ and â€œeconomicâ€ spheres in ways that make merely â€œpolitical democracyâ€ relatively irrelevant (see Ellen Meiksens Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism[Cambridge University Press, 1995]) â€“ a problem deepened by capitalismâ€™s inherent tendency to â€œglobalizeâ€ economic life and decision-making beyond the scope of territorially bound, place based jurisdictions, including even entire nation states.
During the 1830s and 1840s, the
The ugly fact that millions of adult white females and black chattel (not to mention First Nations people) lacked voting rights was not the only anomaly for the eraâ€™s popular-democratic pretensions. Equally significant was the market and early industrial revolutionsâ€™ roles in concentrating more and more material power into private bourgeois hands, rendering the public sector less relevant than ever in the management of economic life and the distribution of material rewards and power. The state and politics were opening up to an unprecedented level of popular contestation and (perhaps) input at a time when the stateâ€™s power to shape real-life circumstances and social relations was receding in the face of â€œfree marketâ€ advance. The market's glorious â€œprogressâ€ included the ruthless, unremitting and socioeconomically authoritarian proletarianization of millions of â€œfreeâ€ white males (see David Montgomery, Citizen Worker: The Experience of Workers in the United States With Democracy and the Free Market During the Nineteenth Century [Cambridge, 1993]).
At the same time, the holders of capitalist wealth are never content to restrict the wielding of their vastly disproportionate economic power to the private and economic sphere. Reflecting the business communityâ€™s natural desire to cover all bases in their quest for wealth and security, the considerable utility of the state as an arm of capital and capitalistsâ€™ fear that government could be used for and by popular and social democrats, leading private wealth-holders make sure to invest heavily in politics, policy, and the bribery and indoctrination of the public and its supposed representatives. This regular and ongoing investment has yielded a rich historical windfall of governmental labor repression, radical suppression (Haymarket, Red Scares, McCarthyism and COINTELPRO, etc), state subsidy (e.g. the granting of public airwaves to concentrated private media) and protection, natural resource appropriation, imperial defense for overseas investment, and much more. The windfall is generally supplied by policymakers who have been trained and conditioned to see the world through the eyes of the â€œeconomic eliteâ€ and thus to reject the popular definition of democracy (see for example Barack Obamaâ€™s book The Audacity of Hope: thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream ).
That definition is â€œtraceable,â€ the left sociologist William I. Robinson notes, â€œto the literal, classical Greek definition of democracy as the rule, of power (cratos), of the people (demos).â€ It â€œposit[s] a dispersal throughout society of political power through the participation of broad majorities in decision-making. [It] conjoins representative government to forms of participatory democracy that hold states accountable beyond the indirect mechanisms of periodic electionsâ€ and pursues â€œthe construction of a democratic social order.â€
In order to be relevant, the popular-democratic model holds, â€œdemocracyâ€ must be â€œa tool for changing unjust economic structures, national as well as international.â€ It is strongly concerned, therefore, with the substantive outcome of social equality, and not only or simply with the outwardly democratic process of elections and the existence of (not-so) â€œpopularlyâ€ selected office-holders. The meaningful pursuit of that outcome â€œentails a dispersal of political power formerly concentrated in the hands of elite minorities, the redistribution of wealth, the breaking down of structures of highly concentrated property ownership, and the democratizing of access to social and cultural opportunities by severing the link between access and the possession of wealthâ€ (William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony [Cambridge, 1996], pp. 57-58]).
THE REPUBLICAN VISION: â€œTHE PEOPLE...ARE NOT FIT TO GOVERN THEMSELVESâ€
Robinsonâ€™s characterization of classic popular democracy is a good description of the historical project of the radical-democratic left. It is well to the left of the republican thinking that guided the construction of â€œthe Republicâ€ in the late 18th century.
The Founders included some brilliant individuals, but their brilliance was harnessed largely to the cause of antidemocracy. Drawn from the elite propertied segments of a deeply stratified society, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention shared their compatriots John Jayâ€™s and John Adamâ€™s view that â€œthe people who own the country ought to govern it.â€ They may have diverged on numerous questions, but they agreed on a basic principle: the common people, with little or no property, must not have too much power. â€œIn their minds,â€ historian Richard Hofstader noted in his classic study The American Political Tradition (1948), â€œliberty was linked not to democracy but to propertyâ€ and democracy was a dangerous concept â€œsure to bring arbitrary redistribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty.â€
Consistent with these sentiments, widely evident in Hamilton and Madisonâ€™s Federalist Papers (see Paul Street, â€œBy All Means, Study the Founders: Notes From the Democratic Left,â€ The Review of Education, Pedagogy & Cultural Studies [volume 24, no.4, October-December 2003]: 281-302), the nationâ€™s rich white fathers crafted a government marvelously designed to keep the nonwealthy masses distant from the levers of power and to preserve and expand existing inequalities of wealth and power. The Constitution divided the government into three parts, with just one-half one of those three sections (the House of Representatives) elected directly by â€œthe peopleâ€ â€“ a category that naturally excluded blacks, women, Native Americans and propertyless white males at the time. It set up elaborate checks and balances to prevent the possibility of the common people making policy in a direct fashion. It omitted any mechanism of direct popular accountability between elections and introduced a system of intermittent and purposefully staggered elections to discourage focused electoral rebellions by the majority. It create an aristocratic Supreme Court appointed for life with ultimate de facto veto power over legislation that might too clearly bear the plebian input of the popular masses. The Electoral College was installed to guarantee that the popular majority would not select the President even on the limited basis of one vote for each propertied white make person.
As the openly authoritarian state -capitalist Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist no. 35, the common people were incapable of serving in Congress and found their proper political representatives among the wealthy merchant class. â€œThe weight and superior accomplishments of the merchants,â€ Hamilton explained, â€œrender them more equalâ€ than â€œthe other classes of the community,â€ including the â€œmechanicsâ€ (artisans), whose â€œhabits in life have not been such as to give them those acquired endowmentsâ€ required for meaningful participation in â€œa deliberative assemblyâ€ and thereby made â€œuselessâ€ to â€œrepresentative democracy.â€
The Foundersâ€™ philosophy of what they called â€œpopular governmentâ€ was not simply one of partial, limited, or â€œwatered-downâ€ democracy. British authorities charged that the American independence movement would breed mass rebellions against property and authority in
Reflecting the disproportionate influence of the wealthy capitalist few in the industrialized worldâ€™s most unequal state, it should hardly be surprising that leading
What do these authorities mean when they proclaim their faith in American â€œdemocracy?â€
Putting that unpleasant fact further aside than may be appropriate, we can identify four basic and limited (from a popular-democratic perspective) constituent elements of what passes for â€œdemocracyâ€ in ruling U.S. doctrine: :
(i) The periodic holding of staggered and heavily corporate crafted, money-driven and personality-centered elections in which an only periodically and partially mobilized and semi-participatory â€œpeopleâ€ get to intermittently choose their merely political rulers from a generally narrow spectrum of capital-vetted business candidates whose fealty to core capitalist values is enforced by numerous mechanisms. The mechanisms include (but are not restricted to) the giving (or withholding) of large-scale political funds (required to mount serious campaigns by purchasing and developing expensive advertisements on corporate media), the seductive lobbyist-industrial-complex, the offering (or withholding) of lucrative employment opportunities to former politicians and public officials, and the public relations liquidation of candidates and public officials daring (and/or foolish) enough to question corporate rule and policy. Itâ€™s about elite governance purportedly â€œfor the people,â€ and never actually â€œby the people.â€ Itâ€™s called â€œdollar democracyâ€ â€“ the â€œbest democracy than money can buyâ€ or, more bluntly, â€œplutocracy.â€
(ii) The existence of a bourgeois constitutional order in which the legislative and judicial branches of government are empowered to exercise some reasonable restraint on the power of the executive and in which the â€œrule of lawâ€ is sufficiently entrenched for the accumulation of capital to proceed without too much profit-disrupting interruption.
(iii) The restriction of this so-called â€œdemocracyâ€ to the political sphere. There is no effort to exercise any measure of popular input, or check upon, the tyrannical powers that be in the private economic sector. Never mind that ordinary citizens experience most of their material existence in this sector or that the masters of this sector exercise massive and disproportionate influence (so great that mainstream commentators like William Pfaff are not ashamed to proclaim the U.S. political system â€œa plutocracyâ€) over public policy and politics â€“ even while insisting on keeping a strict firewall against the intrusion of public concerns and democracy into the â€œhidden abodeâ€ (Karl Marx on the capitalist workplace) of their private tyrannies.
(iv) A strong emphasis on semi-representative and constitutional processes without concern for social and economic outcomes. The relevant U.S. constitutional authorities have ruled repeatedly against permitting the emergence of viable third (and fourth and more) parties that might challenge the corporate political duopoly (with the Democrats representing the left wing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Party), attack the aforementioned firewall and advance democratic socioeconomic outcomes.
Calling this pseudo-democracy â€œpolyarchyâ€ (a term coined by the post-WWII
FOR THE REVOLUTION
If "The Nation" wants to talks simultaneously about the death of democracy and the need to save â€œthe Republicâ€ in the
If "The Nation" equates democracy with republicanism, then â€“problematic as leftists find that identification (the Republic was formed largely to keep the threat of [popular] democracy at bay) â€“ it is on firmer ground insofar as it equates the reigning-in of Bush with the restoration of "democracy." Bushâ€™s actions on
The current Messianic Militarist in-Chief and his overlord Darth Cheney are out of control in ways that understandably concern many among their super-privileged capitalist comrades. Responsible corporate republicanism may well require getting some kind of rational, ruling class butterfly-net over â€œThe Deciderâ€ between now and the next presidential-selection extravaganza, when a less provocative and more balanced agent of elite class rule â€“ one who is less messianic and obsessed with being the sole Decider â€“ can be safely installed in the White House in (what will still be) the false name of democracy.
Maybe the ruling class will get its shit together enough to repair â€œthe constitutional republicâ€ (and the polyarchy). Donâ€™t hold your breath. Whatever, we should not look for the in-power elite to introduce anything like substantive and popular democracy. That is something that only we can do for and by ourselves and will mean challenging the underlying system and structures of capitalist and imperial rule.
The Empire and Inequality Report is a semi-weekly news and commentary letter produced by veteran radical historian, journalist, and activist Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org), an anti-centrist political commentator located in Iowa City, IA.