what's left

The Dung Heap of Procedural Democracy

August 18, 2015
Updated August 23, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman

In one of his twice-weekly New York Times columns, the Nobel Prize-winning liberal economist Paul Krugman attempted to discredit Republican Party politicians by portraying them as creatures of a money-driven political system. He unfairly and dishonestly excluded Democratic Party politicians, as if they somehow lived in a different world, free from the influence of money. But if we correct Krugman’s partisan bias—he’s a Democrat—the economist produces a creditable critique of why the procedural democracies that almost everyone deeply genuflects to are nothing but fronts for the pursuit of plutocratic interests:

Wealthy individuals have long played a disproportionate role in politics…You often see political analyses pointing out, rightly, that voting in actual primaries is preceded by an ‘invisible primary’ in which candidates compete for the support of crucial elites…a stark competition for the affections and, of course, the money of a few dozen plutocrats. What that means, in turn, is that … (elected politicians) will be committed … to a broader plutocratic agenda (and will have) won over the big money by promising government by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent. [1]

Thomas Ferguson elaborated this view into an investment theory of party competition in his Golden Rule, a reflection on the logic of money-driven political systems (those who have the gold, rule). [2]

But Krugman and Ferguson are late to the party. Those inspired by the communist tradition longed ago recognized the anti-democratic character of procedural democracies, contrasting them with authentic democracies in which outcome, not procedures, matter. A system of regular, multiparty elections, which reliably produces anti-popular policy favoring the interests of the one percent is hardly democratic, but such a procedural system, embedded in a larger society dominated by the logic of capitalism, will inevitably produce this outcome, elections and civil society notwithstanding.

Not long ago Krugman publicized a study that re-discovers the view that the wealthy owners of productive property dominate policy-formation and the political process. It’s a study by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University that appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue of Perspectives in Politics. [3] Gilens and Page examined over 1,700 policy issues, concluding that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial impacts on government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interests groups have little or no independent influence.” In other words, they produced data consistent with what Marxists, and others, including Adam Smith [4], had long maintained: that the economy’s owners have extraordinary influence over the state and everyone else has virtually none—the Golden Rule, as Ferguson succinctly put it.

Warranted contempt for the falsity of procedural democracy is evidenced in the indictment of German Communist Party leader Hugo Urbahns in 1923. “We will rather burn in the fire of revolution,” he promised, “than perish on the dung heap of democracy.” [5]



Much earlier, Marx and Engels, in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, defined democracy, not as a set of procedures for electing representatives, but as the rule of the working class, or in today’s parlance, of the 99 percent. Elections may happen, and politicians may vie (or say they’re vying) for the “middle-class” vote, but that doesn’t mean the interests of the 99 percent will be translated into public policy. As Ferguson explains, the key question is: Who do elected representatives represent? The answer is not the electorate, but the class that has the resources to invest in the political system—resources politicians need to get elected. This is none other than the class of capitalists.

Still, despite the glaring disparity between the promise of procedural democracy and its outcomes, most everyone celebrates it, or talks about democracy as if it had only recently been negated, as if the domination of capitalist society by capitalists is a recent phenomenon and not a necessity by definition.

Governments that emerged in the 20th century from the fires of revolution turned out to be a good deal more democratic, in any meaningful sense of the word, than the dung heaps of government by the one percent for the one percent. Consider the Soviet Union under Stalin—in the dogma of capitalist societies, the very antithesis of democracy, but which may have, in fact, been the very first expression of authentic democracy.

In the mid-1930s, the USSR had the most inclusive and equal political democracy in the world. Adult suffrage was universal. Discrimination on the basis of race, sex and property had been eliminated. By comparison, Britain had an unelected second chamber and unelected head of state (abominations against authentic democracy that persist to this day, not only in Britain [6], but in some inheritors of the British system, including Canada [7].) Only 70 million of 500 million inhabitants of the British Commonwealth lived in procedural democracies. The vast majority of British subjects were ruled by colonial administrators. South Africa denied suffrage to its black majority and Canada and Australia did the same to their aboriginal populations. [8]

Meanwhile, in the United States, a “democracy” founded on the extermination of Native Americans and slavery of Africans—the framers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were slave-owners, as were the first presidents—practiced racial segregation and truncated its black (second-class) citizens’ civil and political liberties. “Herrenvolk” democracies, procedural democracies for a master race, have largely jettisoned their racist features since, likely under the pressure of the counterexample provided by states that followed the antiracist communist tradition, but continue to produce policy outcomes that favor a parasitic elite of productive-property owners at the top.

Not too long ago, the dung heaps were called “capitalist democracies” to distinguish them from “socialist democracies”. Use of the phrase “capitalist democracy” reveals an absent understanding of either capitalism or democracy or both, since the two are mutually inimical, and their pairing produces an oxymoron, or, worse, a political deception, namely, the transformation of capitalism as a type of society at odds with democracy into democracy itself.

Capitalism, a system supporting owners of capital through the parasitism of wage labour, can hardly be democratic. Equally, democracy, a type of society in which the interests of the bulk of people prevail (historically, the rabble, an exploited class or oppressed people) can hardly coexist with capitalism. Either a society is capitalist, in which case it’s not democratic, or it’s democratic, in which case it’s not capitalist. And it’s clear to many, including Nobel Prize winning economists, in which direction the contradiction resolves itself on the dung heap.

Clarity of language aids analysis. If we acknowledge that we live in capitalist societies, the discovery that our politics favors capitalists hardly seems extraordinary or radical—just obvious, if not axiomatic.

1. Paul Krugman, “Republicans against retirement,” The New York Times, August 17, 2015.

2. Thomas Ferguson. The Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems. The University of Chicago Press. 1995.

3. http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf

4. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote, “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.” (Book 5, Chapter 1, Part 2.)

5. Arthur Rosenberg. Democracy and Socialism: A Contribution to the Political History of the Past 150 Years. Beacon Press. 1938, p. 9.

6. The British House of Lords consists of 781 unelected members who collectively have the authority to amend and delay legislation. It is the world’s largest legislative chamber outside of China. British Prime Minister David Cameron intends to expand the chamber further, with scores of appointments in the works. How extraordinary that the largest legislative chamber outside the world’s most populous country, is unelected, and exists in a country that celebrates its ‘democracy’. An August 22, 2015 New York Times article, (“A British house overflowing with Lords draws scorn”) critiques the House of Lords for its demographic imbalance, disproportionately elderly and male, but not its undemocratic character. We’re left to believe that if only the chamber’s demographic failings were redressed, all would be fine. On a dung heap, an unelected legislative chamber is wholly acceptable so long as it’s demographically representative.

7. In Canada, the abomination against authentic democracy is even greater since the country’s head of state was neither born in, nor resides in, Canada. However, the head of state has only nominal authority, making this a largely academic concern. Canada’s unelected Senate is a more problematic affair. It’s bad enough that the elected representatives that sit in Canada’s House of Commons represent a capitalist class and not the electorate, but that an unelected and non-popular body has any input into public policy is an intolerable scandal, but one the Canadian public nevertheless passively accepts under the onslaught of blanket propaganda that astonishingly holds up their country as a shining light of democracy. That Canadians are able to believe Canada is even much of a procedural democracy, let alone an authentic one, is testament to the efficacy of the propaganda system to befuddle the public on issues of the greatest political significance.

8. Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation. Longmans, Green and Co., Third Edition. 1947. pp xxi-xxii.

Written by what's left

August 18, 2015 at 11:16 pm

Posted in Democracy

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