Democracy against capitalism

The ascension of self-styled technocrats to political power is the latest proof that capitalism is antithetical to democracy, argues James Turley

The most remarkable feature of the current coverage of the new governments in Italy and Greece is the unashamedness of the terminology.

For years, ‘technocrat’ has been an insult. Those people for whom Tony Blair was just too much of a card-carrying lefty would routinely refer to the New Labour approach to government as technocratic - indeed, they were quite correct to do so, and if it was not quite so true of the Thatcher administrations, it was because the latter were governments rather of truly bloodthirsty ruling class warriors.

Now that ‘Super’ Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos have become rulers of Italy and Greece respectively, effectively appointed over the heads of the local population by the European financial system, ‘technocrat’ is suddenly a buzz-word. These grey men, surely, are what is needed to reassure the increasingly unhinged markets; as the rightwing commentator Christopher Caldwell notes in the Financial Times, “the present crises - of inequality, growth, debt and currencies - demand a degree of economic predictability that liberal democracy is having trouble providing”.[1]

It has become commonplace to describe the austerity-mad regimes that increasingly cover the Earth as governments of the bankers. Indeed, it is true enough, after a fashion. In the case of Monti and Papademos, it is quite literally a fact. Both are experienced banking bureaucrats. So we face a situation whereby a debt crisis initiated by bank bailouts is to be fixed by ... direct agents of the banking system.

Indeed, things are even more bitterly ironic than that. Both these esteemed premiers have a history of working for Goldman Sachs, the great vampire squid of high finance, which conspired with the Greek government of the day to sufficiently fiddle its finances to ensure entry into the euro. Now, its tentacles extend directly into the heart of government.

Negation of democracy

It barely needs saying that this arrangement is a direct snub to any conceivable interpretation of democracy. What does need renewed emphasis is that this is merely a peculiarly naked instance of a quite timeless truth - capitalism despises democracy.

The bourgeoisie is a minority class. It can by definition only maintain its dominant role in society by rigging the political game; it has developed inordinate resources to do so in its 300-year ascendancy. The English revolution of 1640-88 did not usher in mass political freedom; rather, the old aristocracy transformed itself into a class of rentier capitalists and proceeded to rule over a very minimally constitutional democracy. Even the rest of the bourgeoisie had to fight tooth and nail to get the vote in 1832.

The French Revolution became a beacon to democratic revolutionaries; but the chaotic early political history of the republic ultimately issued in the ascendancy of Napoleon. Only with the autocratic rule of Louis Napoleon and large-scale state subsidy and credit did capitalism truly achieve dominance in France. Likewise, it was the initiative of the Prussian Junkers which firmly and finally established industrial capitalism in Germany.

If democracy cannot be crushed, it can be smothered. The authentically democratic spirit of the American revolutionaries of 1776 was choked off in the first instance through the separation of powers, which diluted the force of the popular will, and also by the maintenance of the slave system in the south.

None of this should surprise any Marxist. Capitalism is distinguished from previous class societies fundamentally by the generalisation of the wage relation. Under feudalism, for example, the direct application of coercion and force was necessary to exploit the peasantry. Capitalism, on the other hand, extracts surplus in the form of surplus value - that is, an element of the labour performed by the worker which is not reimbursed in wages. This does not negate the need for the state, contrary to various foolish ‘anarcho-capitalists’ - force, or the threat of force, is necessary to enforce contracts and debts (among other things).

The dynamic, then, is towards the separation of the bourgeoisie as such from the direct exercise of political power. This is, in fact, necessary for capital to speak with one voice - different forms of capital (financial, industrial, etc), different sizes of capital (small, medium and big monopoly capital) and different branches of industry might have very different immediate interests, which then need to be resolved into a strategy for administering the state.

The ‘ideal’ result is the representation of different capitals according to their relative mass; it is visible in microcosm in the City of London Corporation, which accepts block votes from companies based on the number of employees they have. There is also the necessity for some level of political freedom among the capitalists themselves.

The working class

Capitalism has performed two immense services to the cause of democracy, however. In the first instance, it throws up its own gravedigger, the working class upon whose labour it is parasitic.

The crucial feature of the working class is its separation from the means of production, and with it the central means by which power can be exercised in capitalist society on an individual level. All the power possessed by the working class consists in its ability to act in an organised, collective and disciplined manner. The more organised an action, the more deeply it penetrates into the mass of the class around it, the more it will achieve.

All restrictions on democracy and political freedom are inimical to the interests of the working class - which puts them very much in the interests of the bourgeoisie. The fight for what elements of democracy we have - broadly universal suffrage; de facto freedom of collective association and, to a more limited extent, of the press (not, it should be stressed, de jure); comprehensive education - all are the result of the most determined struggle by the mass of the working class and its allies.

Not coincidentally, now that the workers’ movement is as weak as it has been for over a century, all these gains are being rolled back. The result of the great struggles of the 1980s was, in part, enormous restrictions on trade union activity. Today, one can barely go out on a demonstration without the intimidation of massed ranks of police, armed with truncheons, riot shields and the Serious Organised Crime Prevention Act.

Even universal suffrage, supposedly the hallmark of liberal ‘democracy’, is rendered more than a little ridiculous in the age of Mario Monti. It is not difficult to imagine the direct rule of Mervyn King in Britain, should the markets tire of David Cameron, or any potential successor.

Even in ‘normal times’, the bourgeoisie fights back with every means at its disposal. The ‘rule of law’ assigns enormous power to an utterly unaccountable caste of lawyers and judges. The maintenance of standing armies and police forces concentrates armed force in the hands of the bourgeois state, which are then duly used to put down popular dissent at home and abroad. Any and all forms of reactionary ideology - patriarchal, racist, national chauvinist and whatever else is to hand - will be picked up and given the material basis they need to survive and thrive. Press freedom is perverted by the concentration of media power in a cartel of moguls and advertisers; freedom of working class organisation by the cultivation of a parasitic labour bureaucracy; and so on, ad infinitum.

The struggle for democracy is itself a class struggle of the exploited and oppressed against the exploiters. It is a shame, then, that it has become such a commonplace on the left to consider democracy in some sense a historical task of the bourgeois revolution. The direct blame for this misunderstanding lies with Karl Kautsky, who argues in The social revolution that the democratic tasks of the proletarian revolution amount to adoption of the “democratic programme for which the bourgeoisie once stood”.[2] This became Second International orthodoxy, crystallised in the formula of the ‘uncompleted tasks of the bourgeois revolution’.

Lenin and the Comintern did not in fact break with this understanding, but rather modified it - with the emergence of the soviets, there was now such a thing as ‘proletarian democracy’, to be rigorously distinguished from ‘bourgeois democracy’. The problem with this distinction is that it simply does not work - democracy is the rule of the majority, and bourgeois society is by definition rule of a minority. In the hands of today’s orthodox Trotskyists, it becomes a faintly ridiculous piece of scholasticism, which is used both to distinguish themselves from supposed Kautskyite centrists (ironically enough) and to provide justification for economistic political projects.

As for the original Kautskyite version, its closest modern analogue would be the excuse used by, for instance, the Communist Party of South Africa for its participation in bourgeois governments - that is, the need to complete the ‘national democratic revolution’ that toppled apartheid. In the name of democracy, it rubber-stamps the likes of the new secrecy bill that imposes draconian punishments on whistleblowers and journalists who report proscribed stories.

The second great favour bestowed on democracy by the bourgeoisie is, oddly enough, embodied in the persons of Mario Monti and Lucas Papademos - periodically, it renders it abundantly clear to the world just how shallow its commitment to democracy really is. A strong, organised workers’ movement armed with a revolutionary and democratic programme would be able to topple these desiccated bankers with little difficulty. Until the left starts to take its democratic responsibilities seriously, however, that is a most unlikely outcome.


  1. Financial Times November 18.
  2. marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1902/socrev/pt2-1.htm