When I was a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Maine, a student once informed me that she “cares about capitalism more than democracy.”
I found this frank admission rather striking. Perhaps even more unnerving was the fact that none of the other students in the class challenged her view. But then, sadly, my students’ political views generally ranged from right-wing to indifferent with nothing in-between. (This was in Maine’s notoriously conservative second district, mind you.)
Many people assume the words “capitalism” and “democracy” are synonymous. Indeed, this was the central thesis of Milton Friedman, the architect of free-market fundamentalism, in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom.
But those who assume capitalism and democracy are one and the same —and, furthermore, are compatible with one another — would be sadly mistaken. There is in fact nothing remotely democratic about capitalism.
And this is not even a “radical” interpretation of the term. Just consider the following dictionary definition of “capitalism” from Merriam-Webster:
An economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decisions, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.
Wikipedia goes on to enumerate the characteristics of capitalism as including “private property, capital accumulation, wage labor, voluntary exchange, a price system and competitive markets.”
Neither definition includes anything at all about popular rule or majoritarian decision-making. And this is no accident or mere oversight. It is, indeed, largely by design. The U.S. was never intended to be a democracy. The revered “Founding Fathers” were the reigning — and slave-owning — bourgeoisie of their time. They despised the concept of democracy and popular-rule.
Thus the constitution they drafted, despite its much-touted system of “checks and balances,” actually does more to hinder popular democracy than to facilitate it. They enshrined a series of barriers (the Electoral College, the Senate, the institution of slavery, the mass disenfranchisement of women and the poor from voting, etc.) to protect their wealth, property, and privilege from the “masses.”
As historian, Richard Hofstader, observed in his 1948 book, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, in the minds’ of the Founding Fathers, “liberty was linked not to democracy but to property.” They feared democracy would confer “unchecked rule by the masses,” which was “sure to bring arbitrary redistribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty.”
Things remain largely unchanged in modern times. As political scientists Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens conclude in an influential 2014 article, genuine democracy remains elusive for working-class Americans.
Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination … but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy.
Page and Gilens recently turned their findings into a book with the apt title, Democracy in America?
But one need not be an academic to understand that the U.S. is not — and never has been — a democracy. Just consider the one place the vast majority of us spend most of our waking lives: Our jobs.
The capitalist workplace is a benevolent dictatorship — at best. And believe me, I have had plenty of jobs where even the pretense of benevolence was in short supply.
Workers have no control over the nature of the work they perform, the conditions of that work, the hours or schedule they work, or the products or services they produce or provide. And, at the end of the day, workers cannot claim any ownership of the fruits of their labor. The products workers create belong exclusively to the boss or company. As a result, workers become completely alienated from the work they do.
This is the essence of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ concept of class struggle.
Furthermore, none of the First Amendment rights apply to the private sphere of the workplace. Workers must spend the day obeying orders and carrying out degrading tasks (cleaning the store bathroom, for instance) or risk getting fired.
Workers are routinely subjected to round-the-clock surveillance, video monitoring, and drug-testing. They are often strictly forbidden from discussing certain topics with their coworkers (politics, chief among them). Poultry workers are forbidden from using the bathroom during their shift. As a result, many have resorted to wearing diapers on the job. Keep that in mind the next time you are scarfing down a bucket of KFC.
And while it seems like highly draconian working conditions like these should be patently illegal, the unfortunate truth is the worker protection laws in this country are weak and rarely enforced.
It’s not just you. Your job really does suck.
Immigrant workers (approximately 17.1 percent of the U.S. labor force) find themselves in an especially precarious position. Those who are in the country “illegally” are less likely to speak up about cruel working conditions or illegal practices such as wage-theft, for fear of being deported.
To make matters worse, workers’ exploitation does not end when they clock out for the day. Employers have become increasingly scrupulous of workers’ personal lives, hobbies, and political activities outside of work. They can monitor employees’ social media posts or political donations. Many corporate employers coerce (or outright threaten) their staff with termination if they do not vote a certain way.
And those who are self-employed or who work from home have not managed to escape the tyranny of the capitalist workplace. They have merely brought that tyranny and conformist rigidity into their own homes.
“At-will” employment means an employer can legally fire an employee for any reason at all. For that matter, the boss does not even need a reason.
Sure, a worker is “free” to quit her job if she really hates it. This is the typical libertarian response to socialist critiques of the capitalist workplace.
But this argument overlooks the fact that the worker would still need to find employment somewhere else — in another capitalist workplace just as bereft of democracy as the previous one.
And therein lies the crux of the dilemma: Working-class people are not free so long as they face the prospect of “work-or-starve.” No valid conception of freedom can justify such a power imbalance between one small segment of society that produces nothing over the majority who produce most of society’s wealth.
As Marx understood, there is nothing natural about such a system of inequality.
“Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities,” Marx wrote in volume one of his three-part economic treatise, Capital, “and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one that is common to all historical periods.”
Naturally, most Americans want more democratic rights and freedoms. Programs of social uplift like universal health care, a living wage, the Green New Deal, fully-funded childcare, free college tuition and expanded voting rights are incredibly popular among voters. This, no doubt, accounts for the popularity of democratic socialists like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But, as left-wing columnist, Paul Street observes in his latest contribution for CounterPunch, “Public opinion on numerous key issues is largely irrelevant under American capitalism.”
Sure, we can vote once every two to four years for politicians from one of two capitalist parties. (Indeed, the U.S. is unique among industrial democracies for its complete lack of a labor party.)
But the simple act of voting is a considerably low barometer for determining the degree of popular democracy present in a country.
As Marx once noted on the efficacy of elections, “The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.”
And even if one were to focus solely on elections as a signifier of participatory democracy, the U.S. still lags significantly behind most other democratic nations. Our elections do not take place on a weekend or holiday; prisoners and felons are barred from voting; onerous voter ID laws make voting inaccessible to elderly and poor citizens; and the GOP’s decades-long campaign of selectively re-drawing congressional district lines has made it all but impossible to unseat many representatives–most of them Republicans.
To top it off, the Constitution does not even guarantee every citizen the right to vote.
In other words, we cannot merely vote our way to socialism — a fact even Sanders acknowledges. Only a massive, organized working-class movement oriented around overthrowing capitalism can bring about a real systemic shift in making America a true democracy.
No doubt, the history of working-class struggle has resulted in considerable victories which have broadened the scope of constitutional freedoms to include more people (women, African Americans, LGBT people, people with disabilities).
But, as Erik Olin Wright observes in his contribution to the essay collection, The ABCs of Socialism, “[I]f freedom and democracy are to be fully realized, capitalism must not merely be tamed. It must be overcome.”