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Disruption and Democracy

Arup Kumar Baisya

The disruptions in polity are manifolds. But all these disruptions in diverse fields of human activities are the manifestation of the disruption in production and reproduction of capital. When economic crisis manifests itself in the political sphere, the democracy becomes its principal casualty. Are democracy and capitalism compatible? Modern democracy came into vogue with the advent of capitalism in the West. Capitalist America and Europe offered us the modern version of a democratic model. The historical continuation and transformation of democracy date back to ancient times. The transformation of feudal landlord into a capitalist landlord, peasants into wage workers, the use value into exchange value, and the items of consumptions into commodities through the market operation and finally the rise of industrial bourgeoisie truncated the power of feudal lords and dislodged them from power through bourgeois revolution. The peasant masses and the people sided with the bourgeois class in the revolution. But the rise of a new mode of capitalism unleashed an economic power which is dependent on the ownership of the property and the property relation between capitalist and wage earners. This economic power has its own sphere of domination and subjugation of the toiling masses within and outside the jurisdiction of the state. This created the space for pursuing that legacy of ancient democracy which restricted the participation of the producers class as citizens. In the pre-capitalist society, the labour of the producer class as peasants who possessed the means of production was expropriated by the landlord or state by means of coercive power, in the form of juridical, political and military status. The Roman democracy represents such an ancient form. But Athenian democracy breached the barrier between state and village, the village became the constitutive unit of the state, and peasants became citizens.

In practice, Wood Ellen Meiksins writes “Athenian democracy was certainly exclusive, so much so that it may seem odd to call it democracy at all. The majority of the population – women, slaves, and residents aliens (metics) – did not enjoy the privileges of citizenship. But the necessity of working for a living and even the lack of property were not grounds for exclusion from full political rights. In this respect, Athens exceeded the criteria of all but the most visionary democrats thereafter.” ( Wood Ellen Meiksins : 2016: P.236) The Athenian demes were the embodiment of citizen’s rights, practice and political participation of the peasants and property were not the ground for exclusion. The modern democracy has also become inclusive by granting citizenship to all and extending some form of citizen’s rights. But it ensures the property rights, privileges of the owners of the property and the existence of passive labouring masses who only elect their political representative and get some constitutional rights in return. It’s a balance between the political power of active property owners and limited political influence of the passive toiling masses.     

Wood Ellen Meiksins further writes, “Capitalism, by shifting the locus of power from lordship to property, made civic status less salient, as the benefit of political privilege gave way to purely ‘economic’ advantage. This eventually made possible a new form of democracy. Where classical republicanism solved the problem of the propertied elite and labouring multitude by restricting the extent of the citizen body (as Athenian oligarchs would like to do), capitalist or liberal democracy would permit the extension of citizenship by restricting its powers (Romans did). Where one proposed an active but exclusive citizen body, in which the propertied classes ruled the labouring multitude, the other could – eventually – envisage an inclusive but mostly passive citizen body, embracing both elite and multitude, but whose citizenship would be limited in scope.”( Wood Ellen Meiksins : 2016: P.208)  

The modern democracy which was installed in the west is based on the dialectical relation between the propertied class and the toiling masses. The change of social dynamics due to the assertion of toiling masses vis-à-vis people for a change in property relation makes this democracy incompatible and need to adjust itself by being either more inclusive or exclusive. When the capitalist economic power outside the domain of the state is challenged, the state responds by extending its coercive power to safeguard the interest of the propertied class or by extending democracy for co-opting the masses to maintain the balance of force. But the question arises how far capitalism can survive extension of democracy? When the question of democracy crosses the threshold of Schumpeterian notion of politics as a professional career, struggle for political office, quality of the office-holders, extension of the sphere of the state, independent bureaucracy, democratic self-control, tolerance to differences of opinion etc, democracy needs to be extended to allow the active toiling masses to participate in the policy and decision-making process. This can only be ensured by making a new institutional arrangement, through the practice of free speech and by shedding all the coercive apparatuses of the state. The extension of democracy to such an extent will invariably necessitate infringement of economic sphere of capitalism through the collective will of the masses. This argument on the extension of democracy keeps the question of class struggle in its essence. It is unlikely that capitalism becomes compatible with the idea of an extension of democracy from its modern western version. The Russian and Eastern European socialist project which was erroneously envisaged as planned economy thus failed to address the question of democracy which is inherently antithetical to capitalism and ensures empowerment of the toiling masses. The socialist democracy, however, sets in motion after the working class is elevated to the status of ruling class. In that sense, as Marx emphasised, socialist democracy is a real democracy, and bourgeois democracy is no democracy at all.

In the context of ex-colonial and relatively backward countries like India, the introduction of democracy in highly inegalitarian social structure unleashed a diverse pattern of mobilisation. The fragmented polity causes difficulty in installing democratic institution of powers. The political parties fill this vacuum by striving to accommodate diverse social mobilisations and their aspirations. In the backdrop of the freedom struggle, in 1947, when India introduced constitutional democracy with universal franchise, the women of many developed countries were deprived of equal voting rights. In 1993, the introduction of Panchayati Raj system had consolidated the foundations for local democracy. But the institutions of local democracy were introduced to contain the various political mobilisation represented by different political formations. The decentralisation ensured concentration of power in the hands of rural elites who were subservient to the forces of national power centre and political dispensation. Local democracy can directly be an important force toward social change. But that can be achieved by ensuring the participation of socially active rural citizens. “Achieving greater equity in Indian society depends crucially on political action and the practice of democracy. Indeed, a reduction of inequality both contributes to democratic practice and is strengthened by successful practice of democratic freedom. (Amartya Sen, P. 35). But the global capitalist crisis and the neo-liberal onslaught of structural adjustment programme have truncated the efficacy of democratic institutions. The changing dynamics of property relations and withdrawal of State’s writ from the economic sphere in favour of the propertied class have contributed to the sharp rise of inequality and inequity, and thus reduced the efficacy of democratic institutions and constricting the space for democratic practice. This disruption in social polity gives birth to popular unrest. The united struggle of toiling masses for extension of democracy, ceteris paribus, can constrict the space for propertied classes to accumulate wealth and reduce inequality. The class power of toiling masses is established incommensurate with the extension of democracy. In the final analysis, democracy seems to be antithetical to capitalist power and as such extension of democracy is an essential precondition for the elevation of working class to the status of ruling class in a state which has shed its coercive apparatuses. “As long as there are states, there will need to check their power and to safeguard independent powers and organisations outside the state. For that matter, any social power needs to be hedged around with the protection of freedom of association, communication, diversity of opinion, an inviolable private sphere and so on, On this score, any future democracy will continue to have lessons to learn from the liberal tradition in theory and practice. But liberalism – even as an ideal, let alone as a deeply flawed actuality – is not equipped to cope with the realities of power in a capitalist society, and even less to encompass a more inclusive kind of democracy than now exist.” (Wood Ellen Meiksins : 2016: P. 237)

References :
(1)    Wood Ellen Meiksins : 2016: Democracy Against Capitalism Renewing Historical Materialism: Verso Books.
(2)    Schumpeter Joseph A: 2011: Capitalism, Socialism & Democracy: Adarsh Books.
(3)    Kohli Atul: 2014: Democracy and Development in India: Oxford University Press.
(4)    Dreze Jean, Sen Amartya: 2008: India Development and Participation: Oxford University Press.

Nov 30, 2018


Arup Kumar Baisya baisya_arup@rediffmail.com

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