Capitalism and democracy

Achin Vanaik
29 April 2009

The missing term in the dominant discourse on democracy is capitalism. Even on the left, current realism apparently demands that we refuse to think beyond capitalism, that we do not seriously interrogate the substantial but never complete separation it brings between the realms of the economic and the political. Thus inadvertently or otherwise we further legitimise the view that the liberal and proceduralist form of democracy, which combines civil liberties with universal suffrage/periodic elections, is the only viable model of popular empowerment. On the contrary, what is most needed today - especially since the world recession has raised older and newer doubts about the nature and value of capitalism - is greater recognition of how capitalism both permits and restricts such empowerment.  Achin Vanaik is professor in the department of political science at Delhi University

Also by Achin Vanaik in openDemocracy:

"The World Social Forum 2003: a personal impression (26 February 2003)

The changing character of capitalism - the shift from Keynesianism and developmentalism to a globalising neo-liberalism - necessarily diminishes both the substantive content of contemporary democracies as well as the very nature of the "democracy vision" that is to be universalised in thought and practice. Nor should it be forgotten that capitalism emerged in a world of multiple states and has ever since operated through and in a system of national states. That is to say, for some time past and for a long time to come, the fundamental political unit in which democratic or authoritarian forms of rule will be practiced will remain the nation-state. Nationally specific dynamics then do shape, for better and worse, the character of political rule thereby also lending considerable variety to democratic beliefs and practices. The advanced industrialised democracies of Europe and north America can learn lessons from such variations were they inclined to look for them instead of self-servingly assuming that such dispersion of lessons is unidirectional from west to east, north to south. 

Furthermore, capitalism is inseparable from an imperialism that regularises exploitation between classes and nations. In its latest phase - the era of so-called globalisation - the growing cross-country integration of elites and much of their middle-class social bases has constrained inter-state hostilities; but it can never fully eliminate such tensions. A globalising capitalism-imperialism in fact can only become reasonably stable through the use of the system of states as its principal managing or coordinating mechanism. The stabilisation of such a system of states then becomes an even more onerous task to be carried out by either a single hegemon - the United States, supported by a network of regional alliances directed against actual or potential recalcitrants - or by a collective hegemon trying to resolve the much more difficult problem of successfully institutionalising stable cooperation amongst a wider array of major powers in which the US would have to settle for being merely the "first among equals". 

How does this connect to the debate about democracy-promotion and democracy-support? Simply this: liberal-proceduralist democracy where stabilised is the best "political shell" for the sustenance of elite power and interests. A globalising world where different country elites (despite competition) develop a stronger common interest in maintaining an iniquitous world capitalist order against their own subordinate classes can see real value in the "spread of democracy". The key issue here is stability of dominant class rule. Where possible transitions to democracy are seen as too risky, they will be resisted from the top. Whether internal pro-democracy forces will be encouraged from outside by western democracies depends how those authoritarian governments fit into the overall scheme of the currently US-led global imperialism. Who in the foreign-policy establishments of the US, Israel or the European Union wants a democratic upheaval in Saudi Arabia? Is it at all surprising that all three have united in denying the legitimate authority of a Hamas government thrown up by free elections in the Palestinian occupied territories? 

The trick 

The trick here is to try and undermine the pursuit of democracy all the while claiming to defend and promote democracy. At the level of intellectual-theoretical discourse this is done by presenting a restrictive and limited form of representative capitalist democracy as the only sensible ideal to strive for. If in the era of Keynesianism in the advanced countries there was a discourse of promoting a more social democracy by talking about extending control by and accountability to those below in the workplace, in neighbourhoods and communities; in institutions ranging from the factory to the office to hospitals to schools and colleges, to local governments; in the development of a much more pluralist and regulated media made more immune to centralisation and concentration of ownership and power - then this has now all but disappeared. At the level of ideology serving practice, "democracy talk" is for covering up and justifying post-cold-war invasions carried out for imperial purposes - Panama, Haiti, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq. A variety of "democracy banners" such as "humanitarian intervention", "regime change", and "war on terror" are now waved more vigorously than ever before. 

Receding from memory is the fact that the single greatest, indeed world-historic, democratic achievement since the middle of the 20th century has been decolonisation and the emergence of a huge number of countries treated formally at least as equal sovereign states. For all its faults, the cold-war face-off provided an important measure of protection for weaker emergent states from the pressures of the more powerful ones. That was not a period in which either superpower could have used today's banners of "military humanism" with any serious hope of success.

Does this mean that we must today reject a universalism of human rights, settling instead for different cultural relativisms such as "Asian values" or faith-based political and juridical structures? No it doesn't. But it does mean we have to be careful about how we promote and support democracy. It also means that we must reject the view that a universalism of a far more substantivist democracy than what exists today is at all compatible with a capitalist universalism. The pursuit of this latter kind of democratic universalism, which is also far more sensitive to national and cultural variations, is very much a longer-term project. For the moment we can at least take heart from some selective perspectives and experiences in the global south. 

India and South America 

If secularism is the necessary but not sufficient condition for the existence of political democracy; and if in the era of growing diversity of national societies more respect and attention has to be paid to group rights of a cultural and religious kind, then the way India has handled its incomparable diversity - cultural, linguistic, religious, racial, ethnic, social - does hold some useful lessons. There is much to be learned from both the debate on "secularism in India" and the "Indian debate on secularism" with which it overlaps (carried out mostly by intellectuals of Indian origin but having theoretical resonances beyond India itself). Take, for example, the ban on hijabs and turbans in French educational institutions defended by French secularists and feminists. This is absurd. The secularising of education pertains to matters of curriculum, to admission and employment policies, to provision of facilities. That it should pertain to matters of dress is incomprehensible to virtually all Indians; indeed it is seen as insensitive, intolerant and disrespectful of religious and civil freedoms. 

Interestingly, the test of universality comes in here. If French secularists and feminists insist that not having the hijab is to undermine secularism and therefore democracy, then they must insist that the ban be applied everywhere in the name of fundamental democratic principles (including fundamental secular principles); in the same way that we can endorse a universal ban on genital mutilation of women or on child marriage regardless of the prevalence of relativist cultural arguments and justifications. Is France going to demand that Muslim girls and Sikh boys in India must not be allowed to go to school without shedding headscarves and turbans? Or is there a sense here that to demand this would be nationally arrogant, culturally chauvinist and perhaps even racist? 

Similarly, the Indian experiment with caste-reservation quotas as the strongest form of affirmative action carries real lessons for promoting social equality even as its inadequacies, dangers and limitations must also be recognised. That the Indian constitution does not debar any citizen of even foreign birth (Sonia Gandhi) from holding the highest political office, showing that democratic values have been given priority over nationalist sentiments, could hold a lesson for a United States where this is not yet possible and where lived intolerances would never have allowed Barack Obama to become president if he had retained the Muslim religion of his father.

In India, as elsewhere, governmental policy overwhelmingly favours the elite and middle class. From its ranks come most of the personnel that controls and shapes the corporate sector, the bureaucracies, educational and media institutions. But unlike in the western democracies, voter participation becomes progressively greater as one goes down the social scale. Moreover, voter participation - already high at the national level - becomes even greater as one goes down to state/provincial and then municipal/panchayat elections. This is testimony to the fact that in India, the political process is less dominated by the upper and middle classes and castes, and that the capacity to occasionally effect policy changes that have a positive impact on the downtrodden is somewhat greater than in the "flourishing democracies of the advanced world". 

It is South America, however, that provides the most interesting lessons in the development of grassroots and participatory democracy, in the emergence of forms of more direct democracy. These bear the closest watching. In some cases, they are works-in-progress whose ultimate evaluation of value and potential remains to be seen. In other cases their worth has been proven. In yet others the projects have subsided but they could be revived in changed circumstances. These varied experiences have ranged from the constitutional courts, the middle-class debtors' movement, the peoples' militias against drug mafias, the communities of peace in Colombia to the community councils of Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, the participatory budgets of some cities in Brazil, to the promising initiatives of the indigenous movement in Bolivia.

It is not a coincidence that these efforts in the direction of institutionalising the virtues of popular mobilisation have been widest and deepest in South America. This, after all, is the continent that has borne the ravages of neo-liberalism the longest and where the resistance to its claims and attempted seductions at both the popular and governmental levels is greater than anywhere else in the south. Anti-capitalist stirrings and the search for more substantivist forms of democracy can and do go together.



Also in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)

Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009)

Ingrid Wetterqvist, Raul Cordenillo, Halfdan L Ottosen, Susanne Lindahl & Therese Arnewing, "The European Union and democracy-building" (10 February 2009)

Daniel Archibugi, "Democracy for export: principles, practices, lessons" (5 March 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Democracy and the Muslim world: the post-Islamist turn" (6 March 2009)

openDemocracy, "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009) - a document hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)

Rodrigo de Almeida, "The inspectors of democracy" (16 March 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009)

Christopher Hobson & Milja Kurki, "Democracy and democracy-support: a new era" (20 March 2009)

Shadi Hamid, "Democracy's time: a reply to Tarek Osman" (6 April 2009)

Rumbidzai Kandawasvika-Nhundu, "The gender of democracy matters" (7 April 2009)

Vessela Tcherneva, "Moldova: time to choose" (9 April 2009)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The partnership principle: Europe, democracy, and the east" (22 April 2009)

Winluck Wahiu & Paulos Tesfagiorgis, "Africa: constitution-building vs coup-making" (28 April 2009)

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