I have for some time been looking forward to reading Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Not just because I know both well enough to expect insightful commentary from them, but also because their recent political writing has been an important component in the trend to re-evaluate leftist strategies (back) towards consciously future-oriented, optimistic, technology-friendly and generally ‘modernist’ approach. In these respects, this book did not disappoint. The work consists essentially of two parts. The first few chapters are devoted to a critique of existing strategies and ways of thinking as identified by Srnicek and Williams, approaches they deem to be harmful to the prospects of the left and in need of overcoming. The second part is concerned with developing an alternative proposal for the (radical) left’s political orientation, buttressed by more empirical discussions of political economy and technological change. Although in that sense the book is multi-layered and ambitious in scope, it is throughout an easy read: Srnicek and Williams have found, I think, the right tone for popular political writing that seeks to deal with abstract problems without relying on tedious jargon. If at times it seems a little dry, a bit lacking in the spark one expects of a directly political tract, it makes up for it in combining a light touch of vocabulary with analytical seriousness.
“Liberalism is the only thing that can save civilization from chaos – from a flood of ultra-radicalism that will swamp the world…” These are the words of Woodrow Wilson aboard the SS George Washington in December 1918, reflecting on the tasks confronted by the United States and her allies after their victory in the First World War. It is also the fundamental thesis of Adam Tooze’s The Deluge, the long-awaited followup to his brilliant discussion of the political economy of Nazi Germany (for a discussion of which, see here and following). Applying his profound talent for combining political economy with international relations, Tooze’s central subject is the aftermath of World War I and the challenge of creating a new world order amidst the ruins of the old European powers. This challenge, as he presents it, was a dual one. On the one hand it involved the recognition by all European powers, victors or vanquished, that the United States was now the pre-eminent economic power in the world, with the potential of translating this tremendous advantage into equivalent military and political power on the world stage; and on the other hand it involved the attempts by Woodrow Wilson as American President to effect this transformation of the world balance of powers while simultaneously disentangling the United States from a war alliance that he had never wanted in the first place, and which threatened to perpetually constrain the freedom of action the Americans needed to make this potential a reality.
Does the world really need another Marx biography? As a fan of the man as thinker and (to some extent) as historical figure, normally my answer would always be ‘yes’. However, recent years have seen a spate of new Marx and Engels biographies that have been thorough and substantive on all aspects of their lives. Tristram Hunt’s irreverent but sympathetic biography of Engels (The Frock-Coated Communist, 2009), Francis Wheen’s fine overview of Marx’s life and thought (Karl Marx, 2000), and especially the brilliant study of the intersection of the private lives and public convictions of the whole Marx-Engels clan (including children and domestic servant), Mary Gabriel’s commendable Love and Capital (2011) have provided well-researched 21st century retrospectives on the lives of the great revolutionaries. Add to that the solid biographies I would consider the ‘standard classics’ from the previous generation, David McLellan’s Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (first edition 1973, now on the fourth) and J.D. Hunley’s underappreciated study of Friedrich Engels (The Life and Thought of Friedrich Engels: A Reinterpretation, 1991), and it becomes a truly daunting task to add much new content to our view of either man.(1)
Nonetheless, Jonathan Sperber has persevered, and while the work is not an overall success, it certainly has some merit of originality of approach. Sperber’s speciality is 19th century German history, especially of the various mid-century radical factions and figures around the 1848-1849 revolution, and this shows. The subtitle “A Nineteenth Century Life” puts his cards directly on the table, as does the introduction to the book: Sperber is convinced that Marx was fundamentally a figure of that period, never escaped the limitations of the mid-19th century worldview, and has very little to offer to anyone living in later times. This is the burden of his biography, quite contrary to virtually every other biographer (friendly or hostile), and Sperber throughout portrays all developments with an eye to making this case. Unfortunately, the argument is simply not plausible, and it leads to not just an at times rather contemptuous treatment of the subject, but also to some very odd shifts of emphasis and context.
It’s easy to be against austerity and neoliberalism; it is less easy to say something meaningful about it, and to take stock of the Western situation in a sober and critical way. To do this is the purpose of Against Austerity, the most recent work of the hand of Richard Seymour, blogger at Lenin’s Tomb and (ex-)member of various radical groups in the UK. Although the cover blurbs present it as a strategy for defeating austerity and reviving the left, most of the book by far is actually concerned with analyzing what austerity is, how it relates to neoliberalism, state and class strategies, ideology, and economics. While these topics are by now fairly well-trodden ground in left analysis, there is perhaps a need for a popular synthesis of the various theories and interpretations offered in the literature, and this book helps fill that gap. Combining — as is Seymour’s wont — Poulantzian/Gramscian state and class theory with the economic interpretations of the crisis offered by the school of Panitch & Gindin and Duménil & Levy, this work offers a (brief) political economic reading of the crisis that is fully integrated with a strategic and political conception: neoliberalism as a class offensive of financial capital and its state integration to recompose the state-economy relationship and indeed the very structure of ‘the market’ and its society itself. As Seymour puts it: “what we are witnessing, under the auspices of austerity, is not just spending cuts. It is a shift in the entire civilisational edifice of capitalism, deepening an equivalent shift that began in the 1970s” (3-4).
What does this shift consist of, according to him? The author discusses a fairly broad range of phenomena, and the discussion of the crisis and its strategic meaning ranges from economics to class, to state, and to ideology. Let’s take the economics first. The general thesis of the crisis interpretation may be summed up as the Panitch-Gindin-Duménil-Levy school. That is to say, the view that neoliberalism entails an intensification of existing trends towards ‘financialisation’, seen as the dominance of finance capital over other capitals and its stranglehold on the state; an attendant rise in inequality and more open class warfare, as opposed to the welfarist compromises of the boom period when manufacturing capital was in charge; and a shift from consumption to an investment orientation. When it comes to the state analysis of neoliberal economics, however, Seymour (in my view rightly) takes his cue from Philip Mirowski: the neoliberal state presents itself as a ‘small government, free market, individual responsibility’ type liberal regime of familiar sort, but in reality neoliberalism means an enormous increase in the state’s repressive authority and even in its reach over all aspects of life. The difference is that the state is now used to create markets and market dependence where none existed before, or where it was attenuated by welfarist ‘obstacles’. The neoliberal state is a regime of (re)imposing market relations into the fabric of everyday life wherever possible, and it is in this context only that the combination of increasing authoritarianism (at least compared to the 60s-70s) with the new conservatism and the drive to (anew) outsource and commodify all labour can be understood.
Financialization also comes into the class analysis. After all, one of the characteristics of neoliberalism (all agree) has been the increasing indebtedness and financial ‘enmeshing’ of Western workers. Also, the centrality of finance and the finance-state alliance in the United States to the workings of the international economic system since the end of Bretton Woods, as documented by Gindin and Panitch in The Making of Global Capitalism (London/NY 2013: Verso) has generated (or imposed) similar alliances elsewhere in the Western world. The upshot of this is that, on this interpretation, finance has become the central nervous system of capitalism and that financial capital has become the leading sub-class (hegemon) within the ruling class alliance. Unpacking Seymour’s Gramscian-Poulantzian jargon, the social relation that is the state is always in some sense a reflection of the struggle of different classes and class forces. In this particular case the alliance between corporations, banks, political parties, civil servants and so forth that dominates the UK is led by finance capital and its direct or indirect representatives in politics: the often-observed City-Westminster nexus.
Yet in the state analysis, Seymour rightly emphasizes that the neoliberal austerity alliance is not an impregnable unity. On the contrary, neoliberalism is as any movement an alliance of different ideas and forces and has a fragmentary nature. If cohesion is created by the dominance of the particular interest of finance over the whole, even other sectors of capital, the strategies pursued on this basis also entail risks and potentials for division. The wholesale attack on the conditions of social reproduction as they have grown in the postwar era more aggressive and sweeping than even in the Reagan-Thatcher years, and this means that either Marx’s ‘moral’ historical element in the reproduction of labor will be pushed down to a systematically lower living standard for the Western working class; or it could mean sufficient disruption and resistance that this social reproduction itself is threatened and the attack has to be called off. The former appears to be happening now, but the latter was the picture of the earliest wave of neoliberalism in the 1970s, and this shows the importance of organized labor resistance to raising the risks of an austerity strategy for the ruling class.
Similarly, the pursuit of debt reduction, cutting government expenditure, public employment and so forth makes sense from the viewpoint of financial capital — as it strengthens credibility and therefore creditors — but it threatens through the ensuing conflict and contraction the position of weaker elements of capital, such as manufacturers and those dependent on international trade. Such state intervention as exists in the economy is explicitly to defend finance capital at all costs, hence the bailouts, but there are also other elements of the ruling class alliance and global stability to keep in mind, not least politically. Hence Seymour rightly notes that “the divisions among elites over whether to proceed with austerity reflects both the risks of the project and divergences of short-term interests” (94). This solves the riddle of whether austerity is ideological madness or whether we should adopt the ‘rational choice’ view that this ruling class must be right about its own interests: it depends on what segment of the alliance we are talking about.
This brings us to the question of ideology, which perhaps more than anything else (unless it is the decline of unionism) defines our current era. Here, Seymour is perhaps at his best. As is obvious to all, but often handwaved away in the wishful thinking that passes for much left analysis, the situation ideologically is very grim. In the UK, fewer people now support the old ‘welfare’ set of views than even at the height of the ‘winter of discontent’ in the late 1970s that inaugurated Thatcher’s rule. The new ‘common sense’ imposed by decades of virtually unchallenged neoliberalism and the demise of the Soviet Union — the latter a factor Seymour barely mentions — has quite successfully imbued the current generation of young people with an ethos of individual careerism, of identifying with the discipline of the market. While this generation is much more progressive than the previous on questions of gender, sexuality, race and so forth, it is also much more neoliberal in terms of the relationship of individuals to society and its political economy — a trend visible throughout the Western world. In addition, Richard Seymour gives due attention to the counterpart of this common sense: the increasing violence and authoritarianism against those who resist or transgress the new discipline of the market and its inequalities and exploitation. From forced labor to obtain benefits to the escalation of police tactics, it is especially the women and people of colour of the Western world who make up much of the working class that bear the brunt of this offensive. The rhetoric of ‘scroungers’ and benefit dependence only legitimizes this new ‘liberalism without a human face’, and the more the state and its remaining welfare system present themselves as modes of exercising neoliberal authority, the less they are seen as universal achievements of citizenship in a high-wealth society. Seymour brings out this vicious cycle of our current times quite well.
There is much to like about this book. It is a clear and well-structured read: it starts off rather blocky and posturing in the beginning (for which I am just not the right audience) but improves over time with an at times fairly detailed analysis of the relationship between the rule of finance capital within the neoliberal state and the concrete strategies, alliances, and ideological ‘strong redescriptions’ this entails. Refreshing especially are two important things about this work: firstly, Seymour’s resistance to wishful thinking and hand-waving optimism. He describes the utter weakness of the left’s resistance, the decline in unionism and the small likelihood of its recovery, and the increasing neoliberalization of the Western common sense in no uncertain terms. Secondly, he rightly points out how identifying neoliberalism simply with ‘free marketeers’ and seeking a restoration of the old welfare capitalism and union alliances to combat it is an illegitimate and impossible exercise in old union worker nostalgia and doomed to collapse before it ever gets off the ground. He emphasizes how much unions have now come to rely on public service workers for their base, the last relatively privileged and secure bastion against the labour market, and how the neoliberal offensive on this point is destroying even that base as we speak — without any clear counter-strategy to be seen. The spirit of ’45 is an obscene display of delusional nostalgia, and should be rejected wherever it appears, and Richard Seymour does not indulge it — which is rare among the left in the UK, although such politics of nostalgia is much less evident in the United States. On the whole, this book does what should be the starting point of any Marxist analysis: it describes with sober senses how bad the radical left’s strategic position is, unhindered by the shibboleths or blinders of sect strategy.
Admittedly, I have some disagreements with the analysis as well, both larger and smaller in nature. Although these are all points on which people can reasonably disagree, I’ll mention a few points of difference here. One is that I think Seymour still concedes too much to the existing union structure, despite his justified emphasis on the need for a ‘new unionism’. The Owen Jones argument that unions are still the ‘biggest democratic institutions in the UK’ and the like simply does not convince, and masks the real issues of organized workers in the West. Firstly, if we criticize liberal democracy for being a sham democracy in some respects, being structurally set up to favour the elites and by demobilization and abstention excluding much of the working class, then this goes a fortiori for the unions. Even in the United States general elections will reach a 50% turnout or so, whereas union leadership elections are often decided on a turnout of about 15%. That does not bode well for an argument about their democratic content. Moreover, the dependence of Western unions on public sector workers. While the conditions and makeup of the public sector workforce is increasingly like that of private sector work, the strategic position is different. Public sector workers are more subject to the neoliberal ideological resistance to the state apparatus, making them seem ideal examples of wasteful obstacles and parasites to be cut; they’re often, as state representatives, in ambiguous relationships to workers (think of teachers or social workers); and they depend way more than private sector workers do on a general reserve of public support and solidarity. In Chicago, the CTU managed to triumph on this basis, but in most cases the long-term trend is not good for public sector-heavy unions.
Finally, there is also a certain analogy between the ‘Labour is defined by its members, therefore should be supported’ and the ‘unions are run by workers, therefore democratic’ arguments: both ignore the way the structure of membership is set up to prevent the use of that instrument for any anti-capitalist purpose under current conditions. A new unionism would mean a radical reformation of the existing union structure just as it would require a doing away with Labourism (something Seymour does agree on). It is worth noting that in various polls, from the US to Australia, people systematically indicate that unions are among the least trusted and liked institutions in the West — comparable to big business and parliaments, in fact.
Another point concerns the economic analysis. While I do not want to go into too much technical detail that will likely bore or confuse a general left audience, it is at least worth noting that some of the economic reasoning that underpins the book is disputable. While I readily agree with Seymour’s analysis of neoliberalism in the Mirowskian style, i.e. as the imposition of markets by a stronger (and even sometimes bigger) state rather than a classic free market offensive, I am less enamoured than he is of the Gindin-Panitch-Duménil-Levy approach to the crisis. Everyone can agree that the proximate cause of the crisis lay in the financial system and its particular overexposure to bad debt, and that this bad debt in turn has its roots in the stagnation (though not necessarily decline) of worker compensation. But it does not follow from this that long-term financial trends are the dominant ones in explaining global capitalism since the neoliberal turn of the 1970s. The argument that opponents of this school do not take finance to be a ‘real’ part of capitalism is misplaced; while indeed the populist narrative sometimes leans towards seeing finance as merely parasitical on capitalism, none of the Marxist economic literature on the crisis does this. It is clear that the credit system and finance are central to capitalism, as one can find in Capital volumes 2 and 3. But it is also clear that if finance is essential to capitalism, it is equally incapable of generating new value in the system, and this — rather than its circulation or the imposition of competition and productivity increases for their own sake — is the lifeblood of capitalism at a global level. This does not make finance irrelevant, fictitious, or parasitical, but it means that a purely financial explanation of longer term trends in capitalism is less plausible within a Marxist economic analysis, because less ‘microfounded’ (as the neoclassical economists would put it). Perhaps, of course, such Marxist analysis is wrong — post-Keynesian theory, for example, does indeed give good reasons to support a wholly financial explanation of long-term crisis tendencies, relying on the interaction of expectations and demand, and this is something we find repeatedly in Seymour’s book next to the Marxist literature.
This points to some of the inconsistency of the economic analysis proposed by some of Seymour’s narrative. He attacks those who see declining rates of profit (identified by Marx himself as one of capitalism’s most important crisis tendencies) as central to the long-term analysis of crisis trends in capitalism by using two arguments: 1) that profits have been at a record high before and after the crisis; and 2) that such an argument is teleological and implies there is a ‘final crisis of capitalism’. Neither of these is convincing. The first is a common reply to the ‘rate of profit’ literature on the crisis, as in Andrew Kliman and Michael Roberts, but it rests on a conceptual misunderstanding. The historically high profit rates Seymour cites are, besides being uncorrected for inflation (!), stocks of profit. What determines investment in Marx’s theory, however, are rates of profit — returns on investment. Not absolute amounts, but returns as a percentage of a capital invested. If capitalist A invests $1000 and gets $100 back, and capitalist B invests $100 and gets $50 back, then it is A who will be outcompeted, not B. A should have invested in B’s production process (or finance, or trade, or whatever) and made $500 instead of $100 on his capital, and it is precisely the role of finance to make such distributions of investments happen, and thereby to equalize (and maximize) the rate of profit. It is precisely these rates of return that are advertised in all the financial literature and that play the same role for capital as the ’200 or 500 a year’ in rents (or interest) did for the Mister Darcy types in the Austen and Brontë novels. In fact, Seymour himself notes that “what matters to capital is the rate of profit on investment” (69)!
Why does this matter? Because whether or not Kliman and Roberts are right in their statistical analysis, it seems evident that a rate of profit analysis can explain why despite all the neoliberal offensives and despite 500 billion bailouts and the governments more or less begging capital to invest (as Seymour notes in his book), no investment is forthcoming. The left is no serious opposition; the unions are moribund; the government gives capital all it wants; and it does not invest. This baffles the Obamas and the Osbornes, who have only neoclassical economics to go by. The high-profit view also has no explanation of this, but the low rate of profit view does. There lies the relevance of this debate among Marxists.
The second counterargument should also be addressed, because it applies to the broadly SYRIZA-type strategies proposed by Seymour. While I think he is probably right that this kind of Eurocommunist ‘broad alliances’ and ideological offensives are about the best we can achieve at the moment, I think we should recognize that this is a position of weakness. The liberals are winning, and while a long-term offensive of ideology may hit the neoliberals where they are weakest, it is not likely to reverse the arrangement of forces in the short or even medium term. It is therefore very nefarious when nostalgic analysis substitutes for sober senses in this regard, as Seymour observes. But this applies also to the strategic implications of the inconsistency mentioned above, between emphasizing the need for investment and accumulation on capital’s part on the one hand, and simultaneously insisting this requires more consumer demand on the other. This is a fundamental mistake. Contrary to the Keynesian analysis underpinning this argument, according to Marx’s economics it is not the case that capital accumulation requires high worker consumer demand, nor therefore does it require the state to intervene on this basis to guarantee it.
The state does indeed often, since the Great Depression, intervene to prop up — in various ways, according to the class configurations in charge — the consumption levels of the working class. But this is for political reasons, and defended as such: Roosevelt and LBJ alike were worried about riots, uprisings, and revolutions, not about ‘multipliers’ (in fact Roosevelt famously campaigned on an austerity agenda). If this seems implausible, remember that capitalism accumulated quite fine in the Victorian age, even if regularly wracked by crises, despite the subsistence level (or lower) consumption of the workers, and the same thing is true for capital outside the West — a dimension Seymour barely mentions at all in his discussion of the political economy of the crisis. (I could here go into the relevance of the global dimension for the strategic problem of whether we should prioritize the living standards of Western workers in the face of globalized value flows, and also the absence of a discussion of the transnational capitalist class in this work. But arguably that would go too far for a review of a popular book mainly concerned with domestic strategy.) The importance of this argument rests in this: 1) that it would be wrong to think that the liberal state cannot go beyond a small bandwidth of austerity and repression; 2) that it would be wrong to think that any form of ‘demand side’ politics would do better than austerity at overcoming the crisis from the standpoint of capital.
The mistake here is a common one, and by no means limited to Seymour, but it entails confusing the needs of capital accumulation with the needs of the working class. It is precisely Marx’s point that the two are disjoined under capitalism. The conditions of capital accumulation are determined by the rate of profit and the variables that constitute it; whereas Marx pointed out that saying a crisis consists of insufficient demand is a tautology. (It must be noted this is recognized by some post-Keynesian literature as well.) The upshot then is that we must resist the urge to promote Keynesian solutions as an alternative to austerity ones for growth, i.e. capitalist accumulation, although of course we can and should defend the welfare state, good public services etc. on other grounds. It also means that we should not think that austerity is irrational or a mistake on the part of the ruling class compared to the possibility of a Keynesian alternative, as most of the center-left suggests. Not to suggest Seymour is one of them, but there is perhaps an unexamined tension between his interpretation of the economics and the most important observation in the book: that “if we attempt to ground our criteria in terms of the dominant criteria of what is good for capitalism, we cannot win” (159, emphasis omitted).
If I seem to spend exaggerated attention to the economic discussion in this book — which is only a part of the whole — I apologize; this just happens to be my main subject of interest at the moment. But the relevance of economic analysis of the crisis remains important to any strategy as well, as I’ve hopefully shown, and that is a major concern of this book. That said, I think on the whole this is a readable and useful guide to the interrelationship between austerity, neoliberalism, and the state at the level of strategy and ideology, and these are perhaps the book’s main foci in any case. It will disappoint the more ‘left communist’ skeptics, in its Eurocommunist-Gramscian approach, but this is itself a product of the limitations of our times. Aside from the usual minor errors — Alex Andreou is not called ‘Alex Alexandreou’ (102n56); Krugman is not ‘marginal within his profession’ (126) — the book has much to offer in terms of a sober and nuanced analysis. This goes especially in the UK where the trend towards nostalgia, wishful thinking, and resisting empirical and strategic reconsideration is so strong. As Richard Seymour puts it in the conclusion: “if this book has been intended to do anything, it has been to find a way to drop those fetishes… assimilate the reality of our present situation, and soberly assess the challenge posed by austerity, without losing sight of the objective — which is to navigate our way out of this impasse” (152). To that aim this book is certainly a worthwhile contribution.
This is a repost of my review of Luciano Canfora and Amadeo Bordiga’s concepts of democracy, first posted on The North Star.
In The North Star, and the left more widely, the question of democracy is one avidly debated. While many of the classical distinctions within the radical left remain valid, such as about whether or not one should participate in parliamentary elections and what the attitude towards voting should be, this is only part of a larger problem. One of the biggest issues that distinguishes the different ‘strands’ or ‘tendencies’ of the left is precisely the underlying question of what each mode of socialist thought thinks democracy is, and whether this is a good thing — in short, what does it mean for something to be democratic? Are the ‘liberal democracies’ of our time simply stunted democracies, or are they not democratic at all and should they become so? And what of the left communist critique of democracy, as found in the works of Amadeo Bordiga and similar writers?
Luciano Canfora’s book Democracy in Europe1 is essentially a history of the concept of democracy within European political thought and practice, and therefore gives a good opportunity to explore this question a bit further. Written with much wit and a certain historical flair, befitting an iconoclastic scholar of Greek history as Canfora is, the book identifies as the central problem for any left discussion of democracy the question of what is actually meant by that term. Indeed, more often than not socialists tend to proclaim their support for democracy, the need for more democracy in society (especially economic democracy), and criticize the inadequate democracies of our time. Especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, adherence to ‘democratic socialism’ (or sometimes ‘socialism from below’) has become something of a watchword for entry into the ranks of the homines bonae voluntatis. But what does this ‘democratic’ mean, and what should it mean for us?
Canfora approaches this question through a kind of reasoned history, a rough chronology of political forms that, in each case, posited the question of democracy in a new way. One must of course begin with classical antiquity, for it is there that ideologically the notion of democracy began: even now, many ‘Western Civ’ textbooks and the like promote the idea that democracy is a quintessentially Western invention, and that it originates in ancient Greece, more specifically in classical and archaic Athens. This view has been criticized by a good deal of classical historians, and Canfora is of course no exception. As we know, the ‘democracy’ of the Athenians was based on mass slavery (four or five slaves to every freeman) and on the exclusion of foreigners and women citizens from the political process. Moreover, what Canfora does not mention as much, the Athenian community was constituted in religious and tribal terms in the same way that the Roman was and its medieval European heirs, and therefore democracy as a secular sovereignty of the people was wholly absent. The frequent use of sortition by lot for the most important positions, including the executive power, had a strong religious significance. It presupposes the equality of citizens; but for the ancient Athenians it followed that therefore the candidates among them were chosen by the gods, not by men.
More important and useful perhaps than this familiar critique is Canfora’s main approach, which is to examine the uses of the concept of democracy in these times. As Canfora shows, democracy (demokratia) was almost always used negatively, by the opponents of the Athenian system during the period between the Tyrants and the defeat in the Peloponnesian War: a term to describe something akin to our concept of ‘mob rule’. Even some of its defenders, such as the commander Pericles, are hesitant about using the term too readily — for the opposition between democracy and liberty was the argument of the classical aristocracy, and to accept the former appeared to concede the latter. Equally, the concept of democracy in Athens and in the classical world generally was predicated on a narrowness of citizenship, and any attempt to actually extend it — such as in the emergency of the impending defeat by the Macedonians — to slaves, outsiders, and so forth, was immediately rejected by the Athenian assembly precisely in the name of democracy: it could only exist by sustaining a wider elite than the oligarchy, but not by abolishing it.
It is these oppositions and meanings of democracy, Canfora argues, that have structured the concept up to the period of the rise of socialism. Democracy was for most reform-minded philosophers and intellectuals a negative term, so that even as Enlightened a figure as Kant rejects it in his Perpetual Peace, and De Tocqueville’s analysis of democracy is predicated on the concept that the slow victory of democracy is the death of liberty. There is here, as Canfora shows, a kind of double irony. One is the opposition between democracy and liberty, whereas in the modern West these are generally concepts claimed to go together. But there is also the vigorous opposition by aristocracies and elites, Enlightened or reactionary, against the ‘democratic’ movements of their time, when these democratic movements themselves could only be democratic in the Athenian sense: that is to say, democratic in the sense of extending oligarchy to a wider (middle) range of people. Yet often there were also people who sought a democracy in a different sense, one not based on oligarchic rule at all, with a totally new formulation of citizenship — democrats against the democracy. This is the central conflict of Canfora’s history.
The opposition between popular-democratic movements and the aristocratic-oligarchic movements in the early modern period then appears as something like the struggle between the Roman populares and optimates, where both were essentially factions of elites fighting over the control of a captured Roman plebeian clientele. The real secret of the Roman ‘proletariat’ was that it ultimately could play its client role and act due to its reliance on the exploitation of slave labor and the conquered territories abroad (especially Egypt) — and the same is true for the revival of this democracy in the early modern age. The victory of the Parliamentarian party in the English Civil War was a defeat for the old oligarchic faction, but was a victory of the oppressors of Ireland and the gentry class, not a victory of those who took democracy in our modern earnestness, like Diggers or Levellers. The Puritan and Parliamentarian notion of democracy is again one of the Bible, and of the equal but limited citizenship of those in the ‘English nation’ that were not dependent on others for their income — whatever Rainsborough and others tried to argue.
A similar phenomenon holds for the revival of classical democracy and its virtues in the garb of the French Revolution, as Canfora shows. Rightly, he pays much attention to the often too easily overlooked significance of the Jacobin faction’s view of democracy: namely, that despite their adaptation of classical garb, they understood it radically differently from the traditional view of what democracy meant. Indeed, as Canfora suggests, their reading of the classical period was worse compared to their counter-revolutionary colleagues, the more they moved beyond the classical meaning of ‘democracy’ — especially in their firm conviction that liberty and the equality of democracy could and should co-exist.
This is shown by the great events of the 18 Pluviôse, when Danton, Robespierre and others got the Convention to pass a decree abolishing slavery not just on French soil, but in the colonies — something unimaginable in Britain or the United States, the bulwarks of ‘liberty’. For the Jacobin speakers at the Convention, it was impossible that slavery should continue in the colonies, for this would mean they had failed to “raise themselves to the standard of liberty and equality”. For the Jacobins, maintaining slavery was the policy of l’aristocratie. Canfora suggests it was this, more than anything else, that aroused wide hostility towards the Jacobin wing of the revolutionaries and precipitated their downfall.
The Thermidorean counter-revolutionaries, who would eventually culminate in the dictatorship of Napoleon I, were imbued with the classical view of liberty, and therefore saw a democracy that would go beyond its sense of ‘extended oligarchy’ as insupportable. It is equally no coincidence that the revival of the aristocracy after Thermidor also sees a revival of slavery and a revival of the religious basis of citizenship, which the Jacobins had sought to destroy. When the celebrated philosopher Benjamin Constant then inaugurates the modern view of liberalism, its Whiggish history, in his Comparison of the Liberty of the Ancients with that of the Moderns, he praises the liberty and peace that exists in that time — the year 1819, after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, a year before the alliance of absolutist powers in the Congress of Vienna! Such is liberty against democracy.
Of course, the traditional Western view then depicts all these as tragic moments in our distant past, but democracy as a system ‘returning’ in the 19th century, with the extensions of the franchise. However, Canfora gives us much material — if very ambivalently argued — to undermine this depiction. For the victory of democracy in the 19th century is much exaggerated, and has much more in common with the oligarchic notion of democracy than with the positive. The late 19th century certainly sees the rise of mass politics, in particular with the formations of the first political parties in the modern style, integrated organizations with political and electoral strategies inherent in their programme, rather than loose alliances between elite individuals and ‘notables’ following their own sense of liberty or their moral compass. These arise especially there were universal suffrage became a real potential, the first sense of a democracy that would go beyond the classical form: in the German Empire after its founding, with the rise of the social-democratic party (SPD), and briefly in mid-19th century France, around the person of Napoleon III in his use of referenda against the oligarchic, ‘constitutional’ democracy of the 1848 revolution. Of course, in the latter case this false universality did not last, for Napoleon III immediately got rid of it.
But in none of these cases was a form of democracy found that would go beyond the oligarchic structure underlying its historical concept. What’s more, this remained true even into the 20th century. This manifested itself in two ways. One was the restrictions on the basis of wealth or education that prevailed within the widening scope of suffrage, such as in the UK, despite its two Great Reform Acts. When the great imperial powers went to war in WWI, a war Michael Gove assures us was a fight for democracy, the only country among all the combatants with universal male suffrage was Germany. In Italy, France, the USA and the UK, the suffrage was limited by either wealth or race. (In Russia and Japan, there was only a derisory imitation of elections.) Over time, however, these restrictions proved exceedingly vulnerable to attack, because they made explicit the oligarchic restrictions on a now increasingly positively depicted concept of ‘democracy’. They were of course justified in each nation according to the self-evident needs of the national interest, of liberty, or of the Germanic need for leadership, but after the carnage of the war and the revolution in Russia, this proved difficult to maintain.
Therefore, Canfora argues, a different approach was taken in response. The vote and the conception of citizenship was extended much more widely, now finally incorporating also the full half of citizens that are women — although it is no coincidence that this took the most ‘bourgeois republican’ nations and thus defenders of the classical legacy, France and Switzerland, the longest to do. This made ‘mass politics’ an inevitability, and meant the death of the old loose associations of notables constituting the friends of liberty. These mass politics then increasingly incorporated also the socialist parties, whether split into their Communist and social-democratic halves or not.
But, as early critics such as Bordiga noted, this sense of democracy as mass politics was by no means the overcoming of its oligarchic nature in effect. It would never have been possible without revolution if that were the case. Rather, what happened according to Canfora is that the major powers increasingly sought other ways to restrict the meaning of universal suffrage. Here Canfora’s own analysis becomes increasingly superficial, but we can attempt to extend its implications. One was by the genesis of mass media and the usage of it by economic and political oligarchies to influence public opinion, especially in the form of limiting the ‘range of the possible’, known as the ‘Overton window’. More importantly, and often underappreciated by the left (and here I think Canfora is quite right to give it a central role) is the use of electoral systems that are inherently oligarchic in nature. The replacement of proportional representation systems with one or two round majority vote systems guarantees wild distortions of the actual distribution of opinion, generally at the expense of ‘radical’ parties and of political or social minorities widely distributed. Gerrymandering, the reinvention of the ‘rotten borough’, which especially in the United States is a widespread and accepted practice, should be added to this.
The left has traditionally ignored these issues or minimized them, seeing them as minor problems of liberal practice or simply part of the scam that is voting anyway — but they mistake here the real nature of such restrictions. It is no coincidence that the most oligarchic countries, the one with their revolutionary content dating furthest back, are the most wedded to single district systems. The nature of such restrictions is precisely equivalent to those of ‘direct’ restrictions on voting by wealth, race, and so forth. In the United States, white conservative (or liberal) supermajorities are manufactured by aggregating all the black voters into one or two districts. In the UK and other countries with first-past-the-post voting, often a majority of the votes cast never has any effect on the outcome: a result no different than that of the ‘elections’ in the Roman Republic, where the aristocracy had so many votes that there was little point for most of the lower ranked citizens in even showing up. The ever-increasing rates of nonvoting are a clear sign of the nature of such voting systems. Add to this the constant threats of intervention or repression, whether McCarthyism or the American plan of invasion and sabotage if the PCI won the elections, or even De Gaulle’s quasi-coup and the West German ban on the KPD. If the form of democracy cannot be restricted outright, it will be restricted in other ways.
However, is all this to say then that the problem with liberal democracy is that we do not have enough of it? Canfora is unclear on this issue; for him, the legacy of the USSR and Eastern Europe is no more indication of the direction of democracy in the modern age than is the Western experience. But this is in some sense, as I indicated in the beginning, perhaps thecentral question dividing the left organizationally. Indeed, Canfora at least clarifies, through his historical analysis, two things. First, that democracy has always meant an extension of citizenship beyond the elite, but still on the basis of the oppression of others; and that liberalism, in the sense of the defenders of liberty as the highest value, has historically been hostile even to this. (A modern confirmation of this can be found in the hostility of neoliberal thinkers as well as the Austrian School economists to anything but the most superficial democratic forms.) Against both of these options, the third historical strand, the radicalism of ‘substantive democracy’ with a new formula of citizenship, also always makes an appearance wherever it can, but is generally defeated.
How then to solve this riddle? Even for Bordiga, it is clear that the first opposition, between the narrow oligarchs and the equalizers, and the opposition of both these factions to the third one, the radical democracy, cannot be conflated. “In its statements of principle, Marxist communism presents itself as a critique and a negation of democracy; yet communists often defend the democratic character of proletarian organizations… There is certainly no contradiction in this, and no objection can be made to the use of the dilemma, ‘either bourgeois democracy or proletarian democracy” as a perfect equivalent to the formula “bourgeois democracy or proletarian dictatorship’”, says Bordiga in The Democratic Principle. But the confusion between democracy in Canfora’s classical sense, and democracy as a critique of this democracy, has often led the left astray:
In order to avoid creating ambiguities, and dignifying the concept of democracy, so entrenched in the prevailing ideology which we strive relentlessly to demolish, it would be desirable to use a different term in each of the two cases. Even if we do not do this, it is nonetheless useful to look a little further into the very content of the democratic principle, both in general and in its application to homogeneous class organs. This is necessary to eliminate the danger of again raising the democratic principle to an absolute principle of truth and justice. Such a relapse into apriorism would introduce an element foreign to our entire theoretical framework at the very moment when we are trying, by means of our critique, to sweep away the deceptive and arbitrary content of “liberal” theories.
Our task, then, is to defend democracy against The Democracy, including the alliance of liberals and bourgeois Radicals (in the technical sense as referring to people like J.S. Mill or the left of the French Republicans — hence the capital letter) that until 1848 appeared to be willing allies of the democrats in the radical sense. It is in the split of bourgeois Radical liberalism from the socialist movement, as the embodiment of the radical democracy against the classical democracy, that the problem of left politics presents itself. In the West, where this split is complete, Bordiga’s critique is fully applicable — which does not solve more exact questions of electoral participation, etc., which can only be decided in each specific case and conjuncture. Outside the West, this alliance still exists to some extent, insofar as the conquest of democracy in the classical sense is — as both supporters and opponents of the subaltern project agree — itself a project that is either incomplete or has failed to get off the ground entirely.
Completely in conformity with Chibber’s critique of the subalternists, it is true both in the West and outside it that, as Bordiga says, “the socialist critique of democracy was in essence a critique of the democratic critique of the old political philosophies. Marxism denies their alleged universal opposition and demonstrates that in reality they are theoretically similar, just as in practise the proletariat did not have much reason to celebrate when the direction of society passed from the hands of the feudal, monarchical and religious nobility into the hands of the young commercial and industrial bourgeoisie.” However, the form of democracy has changed rapidly since he wrote this in 1922 (just as fascism was coming to power in Italy), and ‘liberal democracy’, as a carefully balanced mixture of real democratic elements and of oligarchic democracy, has become a completely dominant political form in the West where it has not in the rest of the world. Where we have the indirect oligarchy of district systems, Potemkin parties and the buying of votes, much of the world has these as well as the traditional impositions of the opponents of democracy altogether, the narrow oligarchy rather than the wide oligarchy — this changes the nature of their struggle compared to ours.
For us, then, a more ‘left communist’ posture is permissible in our strategy towards democracy than people in much of the world can afford. But ultimately, as Canfora and Bordiga both make clear in their own way, the form of democracy is less important than its content. The use of ‘democracy’ as a single concept has too often historically hidden that — through its many different forms — there have been two kinds of it: democracy as the equality of limited citizenship based on exclusion, and democracy as a radically new foundation of citizenship. Liberalism has been forced to make itself, against its will, compatible with the former, but only socialism is compatible with the latter.
1. Luciano Canfora, Democracy in Europe: A History (tr. Simon Jones). Oxford 2006: Blackwell.↩