In his intriguing, if overly verbose, article on “Capitalist democracy: elective affinity or beguiling illusion” (Daedalus, Summer 2007, pp. 5-13), John Dunn states:
“This much is clear: while in America, Tom Paine and James Madison both imagined that that a commercial society could coexist happily with a representative republic, others elsewhere, from Filippo Buonarroti and the first Duke of Wellington in the 1830s to the Guild Socialist G.D.H. Cole in the 1920s, were just as certain that the inequalities generated by the market economy were incompatible with a truly democratic republic. (p. 5)
To this latter position I would add not only generated but sustained for the benefit of some over others. In the article, John Dunn mentions aristocracy and monarchy as counterpoints to democracy, but fails to follow up on oligarchy, the far more relevant (in my opinion) form of aristocratic “ruling” behavior in a capitalist democracy, and a problem in Greek and Roman times as well. Can a group of leaders so constituted as to view their interests (esp. economic) as either constitutive of or superior to the general public be entrusted with power in a democracy?
John Dunn again:
“Until we learn to distinguish better the elements in our understanding of democracy that do and should sustain us… our political approach to the challenge of fostering our collective survival will remain (a) shambles.” (p. 6)
An interesting and central feature about capitalist democracy in America in terms of its impact on the average citizen is its unstated prompting that we can all be kings! We can democratize lordship through the marketplace that allows each of us (ostensibly) to purchase a castle (i.e. a suburban home) and pursue the benighted American Dream (with all its conveniences and conveyances of “power”, i.e. riding power mower, kitchen gadgets that ‘do your work for you’).
This brings up a subject very tied to discussion on democracy: What is the good life? It is obviously a broad question, but when applied to capitalist democracy specifically, it could lead to challenges of some of capitalism’s tropes, i.e. money/property = fulfillment.
I am struck by Dunn’s assertion later in the article that there are essentially two orders: “egoism” (self-interest) and “equality” (communal interest) (p. 6) and his conclusion that there hasn’t been (nor does he foresee) a practical wide-scale successful demonstration of the latter.
Certainly consumer culture follows the first (and is heir to its weaknesses). This includes the current desire to avoid taxes devoted toward creating and maintaining communal goods so one has more to spend on one’s own goods. At the same time consumerism espouses a certain variant notion of “equality” as “everyone is allowed to buy.” Especially with cheap imports, even the relatively poor can purchase new things at Wal-Mart.
Just as certainly, communist experiments espousing “equality” have fallen into political apparatchikism and despotism. However, I differ somewhat with Dunn’s observation: The problem, from my vantage point, appears not to lie in the presence of the former (egoism) and the absence of the latter (equality), but rather the conflation of the two, which tends toward egoism - consumerism in the case of American “democracy” and authoritarianism in the case of Soviet communism.
However, unlike Dunn, I think there is a budding and promising practical wide-scale demonstration of an egalitarianism which is not reductive to egoism—progressive grassroots and “netroots” democratic discourse. Here, people are becoming informed and informing each other as to the public interest as primary to social well-being and notably constitutive of and beneficial to (vs. adversarial to) their own interest.
This is especially true as more and more people become aware of global environmental problems and other aspects of individual survival linked to social well-being. Not only is this notion of egalitarianism irreducible to mere egoism, but progressives are actually addressing some of the other loopholes of democracy, including the recurrent creation and exploitation of “base” public sentiment (i.e. fear, greed, ignorance, and stupidity) that militates against its own interest, the non-participation of citizens in policy discussion and political representation (running for office, etc.), and so forth.
Jim Webb (D-VA) and Jon Tester (D-MT), upset winners in the U.S. Senate, came to be elected not through the party machinery. In fact they were either opposed or unsupported by the Democratic establishment in their primaries. Rather, they were elected through an engaged citizenry wanting to support and elect political leaders with courage who would represent of the broader public rather than engage in crass careerism and prostrate themselves to special interests.
Contrary to the conflation between “egoism” and leadership evidenced in the “L’etat c’est moi” (I am the State) of old French monarchical regimes, or the more recent “People elected me to do what I believe” of the George W. Bush regime, and to the to “I am the world, controlling the world”, grassroots mentality appears to embody the recognition that democracy and decision-making is an interactive product of “me in and engaging the world.”
This can be seen in some of the arguments to get out of Iraq. Most grassroots participants are interested in a truly democratic “democracy” in the Middle East as much as they are at home, but reject the notion of “democracy” which attempts to conflate egoistic oligarchic interest (oil profiteering and colonial control of foreign resources, for instance) with the national interest and the will of the people.
This leads to Dunn’s excellent question: “Is modern capitalist democracy simply a system of political authorization, or does it offer, as it certainly purports to, a definite and prospectively coherent approach to formatting political deliberation on all major issues of public choice?” (p. 10). I think this WAAGNFNP project, much of the blogosphere, and indeed the very organization I work for, Interactivity Foundation, is a partial attempt to answer this question in a way that is developmental, practical, effective, and both morally and organizationally compelling.
There is a tremendous need for an awakened, informed, and participating citizenry (both in political representation and the policy process among other important civic areas) if egalitarian democracy is to go beyond in-name-only. This citizenry needs to be able to form its own “thinking” (generation, creation of ideals) and practical know-how, not just “opinion” (consumerism and recycling of ideas handed to them) to be manipulated by the “powers that be.” Where ought the power of decision reside publicly, especially over what democracy is and how it ought to operate? It is clear that American oligarchs have an answer: they believe that capitalism (in particular, wealth-concentrating “crony capitalism”) is democracy, and democracy is capitalism. What is our answer (you who are not oligarchs)?
With the departure of Karl Rove, there seems to be an opening, a recognition that the idealistic but cynical (yes, there is such a combo) neo-conservative manipulation of mass sentiment may have lost much of its legitimacy. Not only has it been exposed as essentially incompetent and elitist (except for achieving narrow and short-term political and economic goals). It has also been recognized as shallow and contradictory to what democracy ostensibly aspires to—transparency, accessibility, substantive and not merely procedural or token justice, real choice and not simply selection between the “lesser of two evils”. I suspect, in the post-Rove “recovery” increasing deliberation and involvement of citizens in policy-making will be a key.
To finish with a quote by Dunn:
“There is one tie between the idea of democracy and the structuring of political deliberation: that each citizen should have not merely an equal formal right to contribute to it, but a real substantive opportunity to do so. (p. 12)”
Our task is before us, and no amount of critique of the “system” will automatically show us the way toward replacing it. I like this challenge. It isn’t every day that a citizen really has to step up and be a citizen in order to help his or her society both survive and thrive.
Responses to “Is Capitalism Compatible With Democracy?”