Blog post

The Contradictions of Capitalist Democracy

From post-68 militancy to the pandemic disruption of today, sociologist Göran Therborn traces the shifting contexts for the landmark essays collected in his latest book, Inequality and the Labyrinths of Democracy

13 April 2021

The Contradictions of Capitalist Democracy

Born and raised in a democratic country, and an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist since my teens, I have always been intrigued by the workings of actually existing democracies, and how they have sponsored and often perpetrated discrimination, inequality, oppression, violence and injustice. These concerns have drawn me to scholarship – historical and contemporary – and to political demonstrations.

Capital has no interest in democracy; on the contrary, it has good reason to resist having to face masses of workers with political rights, including even the right to elect a workers’ government. Nevertheless, after decades, sometimes more than a century, of resistance, liberal democracy did finally become the norm in capitalist countries. How did this come to pass?

This was the research question of a then young social scientist more than forty years ago. My answer, briefly summed up, was that democracy emerged out of contingent contradictions of capitalism, often in relation to external state wars, and under situations of popular pressure making democratic concession appear a lesser evil than popular rebellion or revolution.

I set out this argument in ‘The Rule of Capital and the Rise of Democracy’, published in New Left Review in 1977, almost half a century ago, when the horizon looked red. It was an empirical exploration, written in the midst of a Marxist theoretical trilogy,[1] of how developed capitalism had come to be governed by democratic politics – a state of affairs that conservative, liberal and socialist opinion in the nineteenth century had all agreed was completely untenable. The essay had a sequel, ‘The Travail of Latin American Democracy’, published in the same journal two years later.

New discoveries

From my Latin American research, the main surprise was the discovery of the importance of a stable state order for democracy as well as for levels of inequality. The protracted (civil) wars of independence and national power in Hispanic America and in Haiti left a legacy not only of devastation, but also of militarized and deeply fractured societies and polities, inhibiting continuous political as well as social and economic development.

Lack of a stable state order has weighed variably on Latin American countries, but its effects are still visible. Between 1950 and 1990, there were forty-four regime changes to and from democracy in Latin America, as compared to seventeen in Sub-Saharan Africa and eleven in Southeast Asia, and the reformist policies embarked upon in the first decade of this century have been abruptly and brutally discontinued in several countries.

‘The Travail of Latin American Democracy’ is not reprinted in Inequality and the Labyrinths of Democracy, because so much has happened to democracy in Latin America since that time that a quite substantial update would have been necessary. The collection therefore jumps ahead in time to ‘The Right to Vote and the Four World Routes to/through Modernity’, an essay dating from the doldrums of progressive politics in the early nineties. It was written for an international, interdisciplinary study, State Theory and State History (1992), edited by Rolf Torstendahl. It is a succinct global history of elective politics, conveying, I think, something of the joy of scholarly source-digging.

My research for the piece uncovered four major and enduring pathways to modernity and the nation-state, and thus to contemporary elective politics: an auto-centred but world-exploiting European pathway; the secession of the New World settler states; the emancipation of the Colonial Zone; and the exceptional survivors of European conquests, the countries of Reactive Modernization, led by Japan.

This global matrix of modern social development I have expanded and deployed in several later works, above all in The World (2011) and Cities of Power (2017).

The present crisis

The opening essay for Inequality and the Labyrinths of Democracy was written specially for it, in the autumn and winter of 2019–20, in the context of the more critical political ambience of the post-2008 period. ‘Dysfunctional Democracies’ looks back on the social forces fighting for democracy – their demands, hopes and dreams – presenting them as a legacy to be reclaimed by people today in their confrontations with the current political caste.

The essay follows up the development over time of the relations between capital and democracy, and surveys the possibilities for future change – which do exist, out of a tangle of contradictions, conflicts, and social and intellectual movements. However, social transformation will most likely require a disruptive democracy, of disruptive social movements, a process different from both the main twentieth-century paradigms of socio-political change: the gradual accumulation of organizational and electoral force, and violent revolution.

The manuscript of this book was handed in just before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. When I added a brief postscript, in late April 2020, the pandemic was raging. It remains unclear whether the novel coronavirus will ultimately hit those continents off the main thoroughfares of globalization – South Asia, Africa, and Latin America – as extensively and possibly even more devastatingly than it has East Asia, Western Europe, and North America.

However, it is already obvious that the pandemic has caused the largest social disruption since World War II. Will the longer-term impact of COVID-19 be of a similar scale to 1939–45? No answers are meaningful yet. Nevertheless, the crucial relevance of the pandemic’s outcome to this book’s concerns, namely social justice and popular power, may legitimate a sketch, however provisional, of lessons, options and scenarios.

The spirit of ’45

A respected voice of the cosmopolitan bourgeoise, the Editorial Board of the Financial Times (3 April 2020), recalls the 1940s dream of a better world to come. ‘To demand collective sacrifice you must offer a social contract that benefits everyone’, it acknowledges.

Radical reforms – reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades – will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda … Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.

The aftermath of World War II gave us the UN, the agenda of human rights, and the welfare state – both in Britain, with its now iconic NHS, and in several other countries. Many humane dreams foundered on the rocks of reshuffled big-power geopolitics. However, 1945 should perhaps above all be remembered as the launch pad for 30 to 40 years of the most profound equalization processes in human history – dismantling institutional colonialism, defying racism and patriarchy, raising life expectancy, and reducing privileges of income and wealth.

This is an excerpt from Inequality and the Labyrinths of Democracy, out now from Verso. Read more: ‘Goodbye to the Middle Class’.

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[1] Science, Class and Society (1976), What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules? (1978), The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology (1980).

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Filed under: inequality, political-economy, political-theory