Why True Democratic Systems Are Incompatible with Class-Based Orders…..Like Capitalism

Yves here. It is not uncommon to see political theorists contend that democracy and capitalism are in conflict. However, that claim is often not well substantiated. Here, Richard Wolff provides a tidy, well reasoned case.

It may be a corollary of Wolff’s argument, that capitalism can deliver more democratic outcomes when class differences are not great and class mobility exists, particularly institutions such as the City College of New York in its heyday, where successful poor students could and did not just become members of the middle class, but not infrequently, positions of greater social/political prominence. When I was a kid, blue collar kids would play with the kids of professionals and well-off business owners. Admittedly, there was a strata of a true elite in big cities that were also power centers, but it was relatively small and its power exercised largely behind the scenes.

By Richard D. Wolff, professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His three recent books with Democracy at Work are The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or Itself, Understanding Socialism, and Understanding Marxism, the latter of which is now available in a newly released 2021 hardcover edition with a new introduction by the author. Produced by Economy for All</a, a project of the Independent Media Institute

Democracy is incompatible with class-divided economic systems. Masters rule in slavery, lords in feudalism, and employers in capitalism. Whatever forms of government (including representative-electoral) coexist with class-divided economic systems, the hard reality is that one class rules the other. The revolutionaries who overthrew other systems to establish capitalism sometimes meant and intended to install a real democracy, but that did not happen. Real democracy—one person, one vote, full participation, and majority rule—would have enabled larger employee classes to rule smaller capitalist classes. Instead, capitalist employers used their economic positions (hiring/firing employees, selling outputs, receiving/distributing profits) to preclude real democracy. What democracy did survive was merely formal. In place of real democracy, capitalists used their wealth and power to secure capitalist class rule. They did that first and foremost inside capitalist enterprises where employers functioned as autocrats unaccountable to the mass of their employees. From that base, employers as a class purchased or otherwise dominated politics via electoral or other systems.

Socialism as a critical movement, before and after the 1917 revolution in Russia, targeted the absence of real democracy in capitalism. Socialism’s remarkable global spread over the last three centuries attests to the wisdom of having stressed that target. Capitalism’s employee class came to harbor deep resentment toward its employer class. Shifting circumstances determined how conscious that resentment became, how explicit its expressions, and how varied its forms.

A certain irony of history made the absence of real democracy in socialist countries an ongoing target of many socialists in those countries. More than a few socialists commented on the shared problem of that absence in both capitalist and socialist countries notwithstanding other differences between them. The question thus arose: why would the otherwise different capitalist and socialist systems of the late 20th and early 21st centuries display quite similar formal democracies (apparatuses of voting) and equally similar absences of real democracy? Socialists developed answers that entailed a significant socialist self-criticism.

Those answers and self-criticism flowed from a recognition that in both capitalist and socialist systems, business enterprises (factories, offices, stores) were organized overwhelmingly around the dichotomy of employer and employee. This was and remains true of private enterprises, whether more or less state-regulated, and likewise of state-owned-and-operated business enterprises. In parallel fashion, much the same was true in slave economic systems: the master-slave organization of productive activities prevailed in both private and state enterprises. Similarly, the lord-serf organization of production prevailed in both state (royal) and private (vassal) feudal enterprises.

Real democracy proved equally incompatible with slave, feudal, capitalist, and socialist systems in so far as the socialist systems retained the prevailing employer-employee structure of their enterprises. In fact, the three kinds of modern socialist systems all display that employer-employee structure. Western European social democracies do so because they leave most production in the hands of private capitalist enterprises that were always built on employer-employee foundations. Moreover, when they established and operated public or state-owned-and-operated enterprises, they copied those employer-employee structures.

Soviet industries—chiefly publicly owned and operated—positioned state officials as employers in relation to employees. Finally, the People’s Republic of China comprises a hybrid form of socialism combining a mix of both of the other forms, a roughly equal split of private and state enterprises. China’s hybrid socialism shares the employer/employee organizational structure in both its state and private enterprises. All three kinds of socialism—social democratic, Soviet, and Chinese—broke in many important ways from the capitalism that preceded them. But they did not break from the basic employer-employee organization of enterprises, that relationship which Marx’s Capital pinpoints as the source of exploitation, that appropriation by employers of the surplus produced by employees.

All three kinds of modern socialism remain crucially incomplete in terms of having not yet gone beyond the employer-employee organization of production. It follows that socialists’ self-criticism—that actually existing socialist systems fell short of their standard of real democracy—may be linked crucially to those systems’ retention of the employer-employee relationship at their economic core.

Employers and employees are, together, defined by a specific class structure. They are its poles, the two possible positions individuals hold in production. They emerged with capitalism out of the disintegrations of previous systems. Such prior systems included (1) feudalism and its economic structure’s two positions of lord and serf, and (2) slavery and its economic structure’s two positions of master and slave. Because masters, lords, and employers are usually few relative to the numbers of slaves, serfs, and employees, and because they live off the surplus extracted from those slaves, serfs, and employees, they cannot allow a real democracy as it would directly threaten their class positions and privileges. In actually existing socialist societies, real democracy’s incompatibility with class-divided economic systems is encountered yet again.

Because this time it is many socialists who make the encounter, they ask why modern socialism, a social movement critical of capitalism’s lack of real democracy, would itself merit a parallel criticism. Why have socialist experiments to date produced a self-criticism focused on their inability to create and maintain authentic democratic systems??

The answer lies in the employer-employee relationship. It always was the key obstacle to real democracy, the cause and literally the definition of those classes whose oppositional existence precludes real democracy. Those socialists who faced the problem of real democracy articulated it as a definition of/demand for “classlessness.” Without classes, no ruling class. If the employees become, collectively, their own employer, the capitalist class opposition disappears. One group or community replaces two. Absent a class-divided economic system, efforts to bring real democracy to a society’s economy and politics could anticipate success.

Socialist self-criticism can enable a solution to real democracy’s absence by advocating for a transition from an employer/employee-based economic system to one based on workers’ self-directed enterprises (or “worker coops” in common language). The incomplete socialisms constructed in the 20th century need to be upgraded by making that transition. That would get those socialisms nearer to completion, nearer to real democracy, and further from capitalist systems whose undying commitment to the employer-employee relationship precludes them from ever getting closer to real democracy.

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  1. Palm & Needle

    Overall, I agree with Richard Wolff, although I think his definition of democracy is missing an important aspect:

    Implicit in his construction are organizational boundaries such as businesses and national borders. A kind of “cellular” separation, if you will. However, one must ask: if a business or nation exploits/oppresses people outside of their borders, are they still democratic?

    The failure to grapple with this question is why many who work with Wolff’s definition struggle to understand, for example, the link between colonialism and the worst forms of fascism.

    Democracy cannot be simpy about decision-making. It must include also a fundamental guarantee of certain rights, which are to be inalienable and universal regardless of any decision-making process. Universal, in the sense that it transcends the boundaries implicit in Wolff’s reasoning.

    1. Vicky Cookies

      Wolff frustrates me, because he claims to be a socialist but is basically a Keynesian. Firms and nations, as you allude to, are incompatible with a socialist politics, as much as wage labor and commodity production. If one wants to advocate for different kinds of wage-earning, commodity-producing, nationally bound life, one might as well join a mainstream political party. I’ll be over here with my copies of Capital.

      1. Palm & Needle

        Thanks for your reply. I don’t think that firms and nations are necessarily incompatible. In any case, we shouldn’t lose sight of what socialism is: an overcoming of capitalism. A historical transition will always require grappling with very concrete realities and finding solutions to problems that demand understanding contradictions and the compromises they entail. One cannot simply get rid of nations or firms in an ideal form, these are very concrete things.

        In any case, my comment goes to a more basic level. A group cannot be called democratic if, by one-person-one-vote, it forms a majority to opress/exploit a minority, or if it opresses/exploits people outside the group (e.g. another nation, as in colonialism). The fact that this is excluded from the definition of democracy is highly problematic, and links directly to the cognitive dissonance built into the liberalism of the so-called enlightenment. For example, liberalism has never existed without some form of racism to undermine the principle of universality and thus permit some of the most brutal and heinous aggressions ever experienced in history.

        There can be no democracy without universal basic rights.

        As for Prof. Wolff: I came across his work about a decade ago, and it catalysed a change in my life with such breadth and depth that I don’t have words to describe. He was my gateway, and I have a profound gratitude for his work in spite of its limitations. I hope he’s reading this :)

        1. Vicky Cookies

          I see liberalism as the ideology of the ruling classes of the past couple hundred years. Because of this, it has never been capable of extending ‘rights’ to all; John Locke, remember, was a charter member of, and the 3rd largest shareholder in the Royal Africa Company, the crown-chartered monopoly on the transatlantic slave trade. So much for ‘freedom’, right?

          Democracy, I think, should be seen more as a means than as and end. When you mention one group oppressing another by means of democracy, that’s what I think of. In a society in which ownership is concentrated in a class, the type of democracy we get, what socialists call ‘bourgeois democracy’ follows.

          To be clear, what I intended to express is that I believe nations and firms are incompatible with socialism, not with one another. Their concreteness is the case for the guillotine.
          The co-op view of socialism Prof. Wolff espouses is, I think, divorced from Marx. Because of his power as a speaker and author, and because he has introduced many to socialism as a concept, I support and admire what he does – some might call it ‘critical support’.

          1. Jams O'Donnell

            A further limitation of ‘democracy’ is that the system generally called by that name nowadays is in fact ‘representative democracy’ of one kind or another, which in Ancient Athens would be seen as a one way ticket to an oligarchy, or rule by an aristocracy.

            What we need to implement is what is now known as ‘sortition’ – where representative committees are elected by lot to deal with either a particular question of governance on a one-off basis, or general questions of governance for a limited (shortish) time, before being disbanded. That is roughly how ‘democracy’ worked and was understood, in Athens.

            There have been contemporary experiments along these lines, which seem to have been successful (provided, probably, that the selection is large enough and random enough).

        2. Hastalavictoria

          Nothing inherent in democracy or a democratic election itself to stop it being tyrannous if the majority decide a course of action which is tyrannous.

          1. eg

            Ironically, the original Greek “tyrants” came into power to free the debtors and slaves from the oligarchs who exploited the masses — it was later in Rome that the oligarchy rewrote history to smear the tyrants and oppose kingship, the latter having originally in the Bronze Age fulfilled a religious duty to the gods to maintain social balance via debt cancellation. It’s all masterfully detailed in Michael Hudson’s most recent two books: And Forgive Them Their Debts and The Collapse of Antiquity

  2. Daniel Raphael

    Another great article/analysis shortly on the heels of the excellent piece about the largely decorative “democracy” in the US. Keep it coming!

  3. Alice X

    >Why have socialist experiments to date produced a self-criticism focused on their inability to create and maintain authentic democratic systems??


    >Socialist self-criticism can enable a solution to real democracy’s absence by advocating for a transition from an employer/employee-based economic system to one based on workers’ self-directed enterprises (or “worker coops” in common language).

    Professor Wolff does not include the Anarcho-Communist revolution of 1936 in Spain, which in my view, came closest to the socialist ideal. In instances it abandoned the money system which is a principle source of the hierarchy which is emblematic of class structure.

    Unfortunately, such an anti-authoritarian system cannot survive confrontation with an authoritarian state, be it capitalist or communist. Unless there is a mass conversion and there’s the rub, I don’t think humanity is evolved sufficiently.

    1. Amfortas the Hippie

      aye…and i’d include the thing in Kurdistan…(and here ima gon mispell everything) Rojalva and Occalan…
      but, as you allude to…there can be no alternative…the authoritarians will unite to stamp out any inkling of another way of being…and indeed, endeavor to prevent the possibility of even thinking of such an alternative.

      this is evident right here on my farm…where the kids…late HS and post HS…i’ve had working for me have such difficulty when i ask their opinion…and appear to value it.
      and, too…the Mindf&ck has been very successful in making sure that no one I know understands what Class is,lol.
      how convenient…or, to quote Hitler(!!!):”what luck for the rulers that men do not think”.
      my Socratic efforts in corrupting the youth have been remarkably successful…Eldest’s Krewe mostly work for the city or county…and they often talk in almost anarchist terms about the boss/serf relations…all the while realising(in a still rather inchoate form) that while it aint right, one must tread carefully if one wants to keep the job.
      Boss must earn respect…rather than simply expect it.
      and so on.
      (and i think this thread should be read along side the other one, about the emerging alternative world order…because as above, so below…and as below, so above.)

      1. Pan

        Thanks, I appreciate your rant that much more.
        There can be no alternative… hmm, well, isn’t really the question how did we get stuck thinking that there is no alternative? Clearly, there are alternatives, but the regimes of truth and the Powers behind them glued the minds into thinking there’s no alternative. Old Thatcher…eh.
        But really, David Graeber’s “the dawn of everything” is a nice read for the discussion of limits of imagination and how we got stuck…

        Have you ever looked into the case of the Shanghai Commune, early Cultural Revolution. The rise of students and workers by the example of paris commune, but reaching the point of subverting the power-holders and anti-climactically being denied a true revolution through Mao’s intervention in installing new apparatchiks and hierarchy… sad story, but I’d like to think that some moments in the “socialist” projects succeeded on the level of the social imaginary to liberate minds not simply to change the dreams but change the mode of dreaming: subverting power simply to replace the power-holder repeats the master-slave dialectic, social imaginary has to go further and subvert one’s struggle for power, knowing consciously that it will fall into the old trap of enslavement.

        1. Amfortas the Hippie

          thats what actual progress looks like…american revolution begets the french, which begets a whole series of overthrowings, some virtual and some not..some virtuous and some not…but all building upon another.
          ,….hence total information control aspirations PTB…so that we cannot build upon what comes before.
          we, here in the west, were denied a true(ish) history of what happened in russia from 1913 onwards.
          one has had to decidedly hunt for such information for all my life.
          while our purported history(see: Zinn) has been just layin about underfoots to be tripped over, and believed implicitly…and without question.

        2. Hepativore

          I am not optimistic that a “true” democratic system would be stable enough to last more than a few years, as it would be under constant pressure from the power-hungry attempting to seize control and corrupt things in their favor, in addition to the fact that most people do not have the wherewithal or attention-span to notice and thwart said attempts by aspiring authoritarians and any watchdogs you put into place to do just that would be too tempted themselves not to abuse their power.

          I guess you could call me a bit of a reluctant realist in the same vein of Hans Morgenthau. People are inherently selfish and power-seeking and the more ambitious among us are always looking for ways to tilt things in their favor at everybody else’s expense. This is far from a happy realization, but as Kant said, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

          The problem is that we are still saddled with the territorial and hierarchical drives that have been granted to us from our great ape ancestors in our evolutionary history. While people can choose to be rational and fair-minded, most people don’t and won’t because it is difficult to go against millions of years of instinctive behavior.

          Unfortunately, the vast majority of humanity will always take the behavioral path of least resistance of in terms of allowing the most totalitarian or ruthless among us to rise to positions of power.

          1. eg

            There is also the competitive pressure of neighbouring groups — I am almost certain this is why anarchist and libertarian experiments ultimately fail.

          2. Pan

            Well, the narrative that our genes predetermine our conformist as well as violent behaviour kind of lends itself to a social darwinist ontology, no? The strong genes will always win out and so on…
            But throughout history we also had examples of complex communities, which actively resisted the emergence of power-holders within them. They might me more obscure, since most of historiography deals with “great civilizations” but when you dig into it, it is there: mega-sites in modern day Ukraine and Moldova such as Nebelivka, which formed communities of 10.000 plus inhabitants 4000BC or perhaps the early Mesopotamian societies around the same time.

            The history of various North American indigenous communities likewise shows a much more dynamic relationship between systems of power that emerged at certain times (such as Cahokia and the “Mississippi cultures” 1000AD) but were subverted and disbanded as people realised that autocratic rule isn’t particularly pleasant and indigenous self-governing communities can be much freer to determine what sort of social organisation to have.

            Could it be that there something in the cartesian ontology that precludes us from thinking beyond or outside the subject-object divide? Call me optimistic, but I’d say that it is almost ethical to believe that humans are not slaves to genes and that we do have the power and responsibility to change how we imagine/experience the world. Of course, the knowledge-production and circulation systems created by our societies tend to solidify the mind and preclude a more fluid imagination and greater number of ways we could imagine a society that actively rejects the appearance of positions of power rather than simply power-holders.

    2. Henry Moon Pie

      Amen, Alice X. For those who are interested, here’s a little history of that revolution and its context. Here’s what Orwell had to say about Catalonia’s revolution:

      But it (the revolution) lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it. However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word “comrade” stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.

  4. Henry Moon Pie

    “What democracy did survive was merely formal. In place of real democracy, capitalists used their wealth and power to secure capitalist class rule.”

    Good article. Democracy must permeate the culture as a way for people to live together and meet common challenges. Labor unions lost sight of this when they conceded bargaining about anything beyond wages and benefits, but it seems the UAW has caught on to solidarity unionism once again.

    The sentence I pulled from Wolff was something realized long ago by a pretty smart guy:

    Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

    “Why Socialism,” by Albert Einstein in Monthly Review (1949)

  5. Camelotkidd

    “In place of real democracy, capitalists used their wealth and power to secure capitalist class rule. They did that first and foremost inside capitalist enterprises where employers functioned as autocrats unaccountable to the mass of their employees. From that base, employers as a class purchased or otherwise dominated politics via electoral or other systems.”
    In “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy”, Alex Carey shows how big business utilized propaganda to overturn the New Deal reforms that made US capitalism somewhat more egalitarian.

  6. Carolinian

    Perhaps hierarchy doesn’t have anything to do with capitalism at all but more to do with the way humans think and act. When Orwell wrote Animal Farm it was about the Soviet Union after all and not some factory floor. Here’s suggesting this “conservative” argument against pure socialism is not entirely wrong. The depiction of all previous systems as simply the product of bad thinking in need of utopian correction has arguably always been the weakness of the socialist movement and the reason we have to continuously fight to revive it.

    All of which is to suggest the problem may be less bosses and workers than bad bosses and and powerless workers.It’s not the hierarchy that is corrupt but the power that hierarchy conveys and so the problem becomes controlling power and not pretending that true equality–now it’s called “equity”–will save us. We all want freedom but we also want to survive and that latter trumps the former if the discussion is about history as it exists. Power must be controlled by some greater power within the system.

    My two cents.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      Have you ever read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia? ;) I think it’s tough to make the case that humans are essentially hierarchical given our hunter-gatherer past.

      1. cfraenkel

        You can argue that hunter-gatherer humans might not be hierarchical. Jumping from there to argue that a civilization that can feed 8 billion mouths, keep the internet running and not fall into a mad max nightmare can be non-hierarchical needs a bit more support.

        1. i just don't like the gravy

          This. Humanity has profound, well, humanity – when we are in small groups and can know each other intimately.

          Expecting the same when you tell people on one side of the globe they can’t have nice things while people elsewhere have them… well, that’s a different story.

          1. Amfortas the Hippie

            ding ding ding.
            perhaps we’re not ready as a species to have a global civilisation…given as we are to so many thoroughly individualistic and provincial persnikketies.
            let alone certain of some of our universalising tendencies.
            global civ necessarily would rely on having a global perspective…and we aint gonna get there with all this my way or the highway or the dod or wto or imf is gonna come get you-nonsense.
            usa is akin to the conquistadors, but with moloch instead of the spanish empire’s universalist christiandom.

            1. John

              As I read through the comments, one thought persisted: democracy is most possible in smaller and more dispersed groups. A corollary to that might be that achieving perfect democracy is impossible. You can approach it, but must constantly tinker with it to keep from slipping through your fingers. Huck Finn could light out for the territories …we are pretty much stuck where we are.

            2. Henry Moon Pie

              I think limits on the size of human groups like Dunbar’s number make sense in a larger context. The Earth doesn’t have one global ecosystem. It has thousands (millions?) of local ecosystems, and when we humans think it’s cool to ship stuff all over the world, I get spotted lanternflies from China on my grapes here in Cleveland.

              Life is local in Nature. Balanced ecosystems are limited in size. Since we’re just two-legged mammals, we fit best within ecosystems when we’re local and limited in number.

              The whole impetus to “global” is another example of our worst trait, hubris, and it’s time to get local and back to the land.

              Kind of like you, amfortas.

    2. LifelongLib

      Here in the U.S., every time we refer to members of government as “leaders” it shows we don’t understand the Declaration of Independence. They’re supposed to be people who’ve been temporarily delegated limited authority to deal with issues that are too complicated for us ordinary citizens to handle on our own, securing our natural rights. But of course in reality government has always been imposed from above.

  7. Oldtimer

    Inherent in all types of socialism lies the seed of violence and coercion.
    Because when all is said and done, it involves at its essence giving a part of your labor to some other unknown person on the other side of the country.
    When you see how difficult it is to get help within a family of siblings, the idea that people will do that voluntarily for some unknown shmuck is pure ideology.
    There can be no democracy in nation states or empires because democracy is incompatible with size.
    City states was the most democratic system ever devised because democracy can only be local.
    In such a case, helping and giving is possible because you get to know all the people in the community and true solidarity bonds can be created whereas in states and empires you need to create abstract notions and values to federate the people which aren’t based on reality but strive to create their own not always in harmony with the aspirations of the people.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      “City states was the most democratic system ever devised because democracy can only be local.”

      Here’s a guy who agrees with you and wrote a book about it. (Don’t let the “libertarian” throw you. Bookchin never conceded that word to the Randians. For him “libertarian” equals “anarchist.”

    2. Jams O'Donnell

      “Because when all is said and done, it involves at its essence giving a part of your labor to some other unknown person on the other side of the country.”

      Funny how that seems to work ok under capitalism.

      1. Oldtimer

        It’s within my prerogative to stop working for anyone but not to stop paying taxes. First is a taste of capitalism, second of socialism.

        1. Grebo

          Capitalists allow you to stop working for any one, but make it very difficult to stop working for anyone, unless you manage to become one.

          Kings used to levy taxes. Is there a Capitalist country that does not? What do they use for money?

          Taxes and work are the pre-requisites for civilization of any kind.

        2. turtle

          Lucky people can stop working for anyone. Anyone who is not so lucky, can’t.

          Also, anyone can definitely stop paying taxes, legally. They just need to make little enough money to not be taxed.

        3. eg

          Sorry, Oldtimer — no taxes means no money. States spend first and then tax back later (though the imposition of a tax liability drives public acceptance of the state currency).

        4. Pan

          The question though is whether the prerogative to stop working is also not a part of the bourgeoisie values… I’d say that it is, but it can also be a reasonable value in itself. Why want more production?

          Concerning your point on labour for others, in many “socialist” countries people experienced a sense of enthusiasm and joy in “not working for money but for the good of the people” — of course many bourgeois intellectuals argue that such slogans were merely propaganda — and truly they often were, a different kind of brainwashing than we have now — but that doesn’t preclude the people experiencing very much positive emotions in working for the good of the community. Forced labour? Well, check out this Yoris Ivens’ masterful documentary (12hours) on labour during Cultural Revolution: https://youtu.be/2MRejhXtm-A?feature=shared

          1. Oldtimer

            Sorry Pan, but I don’t need to check it.
            I lived for 26 years in USSR and with all due respect your views are wrong beyond belief.
            Anyone with nostalgia for those times is clueless or was member of the party.

        5. Dick Swenson

          Paying taxes is mostly an unsigned contractual obligation of having some nations’ citizenship (e.g,. the US).

  8. David B Harrison

    When I read essays like this I’m amazed at the similarities between what the author is calling for and Agrarian societies. In rural south central Kentucky (where I was raised) the last vestiges of the Anglo-American version of Agrarianism were dying out. The hyper mobility afforded by the automobile, popular culture (the greatest propaganda machine ever devised), educational systems, the mainstream media,corporate/government collusion,etc. destroyed the Anglo-American Agrarians. Their culture was based not on materialism and excess but frugality, modesty, and moderation. They built their world with their hands. Their kids left for the world of status seeking and money grubbing. The closest cultures to these Agrarians today are the Mennonites and Amish.

    1. Amfortas the Hippie

      “in the world, not of it”
      not a bad guiding philosophy, and not so different from my own.

  9. Rob Urie

    Dr. Wolff’s idea for worker collectives is solid as far as it goes. But why would existing economic power sit on the sidelines while workers figure this new scheme out?

    Anticipating push back for the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin wrote The State and Revolution as a broad framework for hanging new economic relations on top of the residual of the Russian state.

    But this residual, the persistence of history through deeply embedded economic relationships, was close to impossible to dislodge in the limited time that the Soviets had to get their new economy running.

    Many of the charges of crimes by the Bolsheviks emerged from this tension between revolutionary ambitions and the persistence of resistant and / or hostile forces inside the USSR.

    It’s hard to see how the same wouldn’t be true of ad hoc worker collectives. Many worker-heavy industries have high barriers to entry.

    What is required for worker collectives to replace capitalist employment is a clean slate that does not exist. American corporations have spent the last century making sure that just such a threat can’t arise.

    From this, 1) reforms won’t work for the reasons given and 2) the people running the US would see these collectives as a commie plot, and undo them, outside of a very deep revolution.

    Link: Lenin’s The State and Revolution.


    The goal here is to figure this out, not to throw up obstacles to implementing not just good, but essential, political programs.

    1. JonnyJames

      I guess I am too cynical, but humans that have accumulated wealth/power, and social advantage, will only share that if threatened with violence, or with direct violence. Not to sound overly doom, this all may be a moot point as environmental collapse, socioeconomic collapse, and the ever-increasing likelihood of global nuclear confrontation may well kill off 100s of millions (or billions). Then when the “Mad Max” phase kicks in, it will be violence reduced to base levels.

      Or: on the bright side, the drastically-reduced population may decide to form small groups based on reciprocity and cooperation, as in prehistoric tribal groups. We’ll need input from social psychologists, historians, sociologists and anthropologists for that. (I’ll start by revisiting prof. Richard Wilkinson’s work)

    2. Amfortas the Hippie

      “But why would existing economic power sit on the sidelines while workers figure this new scheme out?”
      they erm…wouldnt have a say if we ate them…
      “clean slate”, year zero and all…for when “there is no alternative”…and yet, an alternative is badly needed.
      frelling unabomber was right about a lot of things, it turns out.
      what does that say about our current arrangement?
      the problem…laid out exquisitely in the first Matrix film….is that our PTB cling to late 90’s like it will never end.
      except that it has ended,lol….
      but they’re still some how in charge, and haven’t been eaten.
      so, we’re in an interregnum…whether the pmc and their bosses get eaten is still up in the air.
      should be interestin to watch, regardless.

  10. Darthbobber

    I’ve been rereading Istvan Meszaros lately, and see I should have read him more thoroughly the first time.
    From his perspective, capitalism has the capital-labor relation at the core of its metabolism, and the associated problems are unavoidable as long as the subordinate position of labor power to the requirements of capital is maintained.

    Whether it is individual capitalists or a political class claiming socialist goals who act as “capital personified ” makes little difference, as long as the mandate for further capital accumulation remains the driving force of the system as a whole.

    Contemporary “social democracy” he dismisses as openly accepting integration within capitalism, when the whole point of the Marxist critique was to posit a path to a comprehensive alternative with a different metabolism

  11. JonnyJames

    This is huge topic but here is my twenty bucks worth (two cents, adjusted for inflation ;-)

    As Michael Hudson would say, all societies have a mixed economy. The question is what should be in the public domain, what should be a public utility?

    When we have natural monopolies and utilities in public hands, with true public oversight, that produces the most efficient and even distribution of the goods/services. When these are privatized, basic human needs are monopolized and used to extort people (unearned income, economic rent).

    In the US, the Health Care Extortion system is a case in point. Since health “insurance” is private, and linked to a job, if you lose the job, you lose health insurance. One medical emergency can bankrupt even moderate income families. Therefore, for that reason alone, the US is a nation of extorted, traumatized workers, scared to death of losing their “health care”. There are many other reasons why the US has no functioning democracy, but I don’t want to repeat myself.

    Another example: I heard an interview with a State Dept. official who resigned over Israel policy. He said many of his colleagues want to resign as well, but they have families and can’t afford to lose their “healthcare”. I have personally heard many anecdotal accounts of the same thing, from people in a variety of jobs.

    As Wolff covers in the article, the Soviet (Stalinist) brand of socialism was authoritarian socialism. If we want to combine significant levels of democracy (where the public directly determine policy) and freedom, we need to have libertarian socialism (sometimes called anarcho-socialism), not right-wing libertarian, nor right-wing authoritarian. (see two-dimensional x/y political spectrum)

    The worker co-ops that Wolff has written about for many years, are a good example of a small-scale libertarian socialism. I agree with other commenters: in order to have accountability and a degree of fairness, the scale must be kept relatively small.

    In addition to the problem of boss/worker relations, in our highly financialized society and culture, we have the problem of widespread Debt Peonage. Aggregate private debt is back at record levels. Steve Keen and Michael Hudson have covered this very well.

    As Alan Greenspan noted years ago, when (Traumatized Worker Syndrome) workers are mired in debt and have little job security, they aren’t as likely to ask for higher wages, or go on strike. A nation of debt peons can hardly be called a democracy. Lose your job, lose your house, health care, your car, and probably die much younger.

    To be crude, in the US, you do as you are told and STFU, or you lose everything. That’s what’s called “freedom and democracy”.

  12. Gulag

    The issue of employee-employer relations, while important, is largely singing to the choir.

    Until socialist self-criticism dissects another largely undiscussed hierarchy, the role of the professional managerial class and the new petite bourgeoisie ( primarily downwardly mobile college graduates in the private and public sectors) in modern left politics, it is unlikely to understand important reasons for its catastrophic decline.

    Who would want to join a political movement in which one wrong step, one slip-up leads to denunciation or cancelation. Such moralizing, scolding or worse always leads to organizational disaster.

    Linked to this kind of class discussion is also the issue of the state itself, which tends to be idealized by the professional types who naturally see themselves as leaders of any emerging socialist movement.

  13. Gil Schaeffer

    How can anyone talk about democracy in the US without mentioning our Constitution, the most undemocratic structure of electoral representation in the advanced industrial world. Democracy means one person, one equal vote for everyone. The Senate and its upper legislative committee, the Supreme Court; the Electoral College; and gerrymandered House districts don’t add up to democracy. What would our capitalism look like if we actually had a democracy? Maybe we should try to get a democracy first before speculating about what socialism would look like.

    1. JBird4049

      To be fair, American political philosophy has always been more concerned with protecting people from others, particularly from the government, while also giving even the proles some sort of representation. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights all reflect this as does the concept of the Rule of Law. The is also the problem that even today, the country is not only very large, it has very different regions. There is just no way that California would want Texas to have any direct say in its affairs. It is the reason why we have “states” and not provinces. Different states could do mostly as they pleased, but with some restrictions. To be more fair, the current corrupt system is something that the Founders including the majority of Americans back when would be horrified by.

      Generally, a decentralized Republic with a mixed economy with with a focus on small farms and towns and with almost no national military. See anything remotely close to this now? I certainly don’t. IIRC, permanent corporations did not become a thing until after the American Civil War.

      This militarized, corporate controlled, financialized, deindustrialized, thoroughly corrupt, and increasingly centralized country would not be even the majority of the elites’ idea of a good thing until after the end of the Cold War. Most of what we today think of as the United States only arose since the the end of Second World War.

  14. Kouros

    When Bush tries very hard to convince everyone that democracy = capitalism, you know something is very fishy.

    employee / employer dichotomy in any political system can be attenuated by legalizing unions as a bastion of democracy.

  15. tiebie66

    The real question, to me, is why class structures emerge – masters, lords, employers. I’d think them to be manifestations of dominance hierarchies and these are common in many animal species, inclusive of humans. Thus, one should ask whether a democracy is even possible in a population where individuals are not identical, thus clones, and a dominance hierarchy cannot easily arise or perhaps be established at all. Humans value competence and those more competent than others along some dimension will come to dominate along that dimension. Once this stratification occurs, other complexities emerge related to dominance persistence across generations (i.e., historical effects much like infinite impulse response filters) and social restructuring within the dominance hierarchy (i.e., alliances and other groupings that form).

    “The answer lies in the employer-employee relationship.” No, it does not, it lies in the dominant – subordinate relationship which arises from the uneven distribution of abilities and the environment wherein some abilities have greater purchase on survival and fitness than others. Focusing on employer-employee relationships focuses on a surface phenomenon – on a symptom in a manner of speaking – and not an underlying dynamic.

    It might be asserted that a democracy can be artificially imposed by ignoring individual differences and it can be structured so as to prevent dominance hierarches from arising. But I’d imagine that much human ability cannot be effectively utilized in such a system and that such a society will be in the aggregate poorer off than one where some form of structure is permitted. If competence is not acknowledged and rewarded, why exercise it? Rawls (A Theory of Justice) at least *tried* to address this reality by allowing competence in the service of a greater good.
    —Two principles of justice would be agreed to under the veil of ignorance:
    (i) The most extensive equal liberties mutually compatible should be given to all. Inequalities must strengthen all liberties and must be acceptable to those with lesser liberties.
    (ii) Social and economic opportunities to attain institutional offices and positions must be equally fair and open to all. Inequalities that arise must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged.—

    In my view, a real democracy is not possible unless all individuals are clones and an imposed or synthetic democracy on real individuals will be a disappointment and thus unsuccessful.

    1. eg

      This makes the perfect the enemy of the good, whereas state organizations only have to be “good enough” to outcompete their rivals.

  16. Karl

    Perhaps democracy– in government and the workplace — will advance significantly with Artificial Intelligence serving as neutral goal-optimizing decision makers in place of corrupt humans? Then we won’t need shareholders or elections. We can stop obsessing about stupid politicians and greedy oligarchs, and let computers run things. I think AI is advancing to the point where this will soon be achievable.

    With optimizing AI governance, will there be wars, obscene inequality, bad health outcomes, mass shootings, etc.?

    One problem: the computers may tell us to give up fossil fuels, guns, and other things we like. So, AI will need other computers to make the bad humans obey.

    Of course, this is science fiction today; but maybe not in a few decades.

  17. Fred

    There definitely was real democracy – or at least something quite close to it – in the Sovietunion for quite a short period – during the period leading up to the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917 and shortly thereafter with the strong impact of the then established Soviets – Councils of workers, peasants and soldiers. This was abolished for strategic and tactical reasons in the face of the political and military threat from practically all other (european) nations to overthrow the Bolshevik Government and the ensuing civil war. The rest is history -Soviet based and led democracy never recovered in the USSR. Pre civil war Soviet democracy in the USSR and the political and institutional set up of the Paris Commune of 1871 were the two instances that came closest to what is called ‘real democracy’ in the article.

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