Skip to content

Some thoughts on liberal democracy as a deceptive term

June 30, 2018

It’s impossible to understand today’s political dynamic without beginning with the core fact that we live in a class society. For the entire 5,000 year history of civilization, the propertied few have possessed nearly all material power and have thereby ruled over the propertyless majority.  So it was thousands of years ago and, crucially, so it remains today.

While this massive asymmetry is a simple indisputable fact that flies directly in the face of commonly accepted notions of democracy, populations have shown themselves easily conned into accepting it as natural and legitimate. The ruling ideology has become part of us.

One of the ways this has been accomplished is the misuse of key terms. A good example is in the name we give our socioeconomic system. We live not in an oligarchy of concentrated material power that the facts show to be the case, but rather in a benign ‘liberal democracy’. The ruse is exposed if we step back and examine what exactly it is that we’re being directed to accept with this term. I submit it is this patently false proposition:

Possessing nothing, the people rule.

Given the stark truth that by possessing nothing the people are inescapably subservient to the material power of a tiny minority and therefore can’t possibly rule, ‘liberal democracy’ is exposed as a deceptive term; deceptive because it misleads us into thinking things are other than what they actually are.

The problem is with the meaning of ‘liberalism’ so let’s examine it a little closer. An entire literature has been written on it and now is certainly not the place for an extended treatment. What I’d like to do, though, is to briefly highlight some insights from Ishay Landa’s thoughtful 2010 book The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism for it helps illuminate what’s going on behind the scene.

Liberalism, Landa reminds us, was the socioeconomic doctrine used by the budding European bourgeoisie in the 17th through 19th centuries against the nobility. The bourgeoisie won that battle but upon taking hold of power, they predictably had to defend it against its ultimate existential opponent, the propertyless majority. “It must be borne in mind that the whole purpose of liberal civil society from a Lockean point of view was to shore up nascent capitalist property and production. The political aspect of liberalism, namely parliamentary and constitutional rule, far from being an autonomous sphere alongside the economic one, was entirely a function of capitalism, conceived at all times as fully subservient to it”. “Parliamentarism and the rule of law were thus from the very beginning not the liberal end itself, to be defined, say, in terms of guaranteeing political pluralism; rather, they were mere means to an end, that of protecting capitalism”.

“Political liberalism splits apart from economic liberalism and effectively undermines it, since the logical economic upshot of democracy is not capitalism but its antithesis, communism”. Landa draws an important link between economic liberalism and fascism, observing that “the bulk of Hitler’s anti-liberalism is underpinned by the conviction that political liberalism is incompatible with capitalism”. “To examine the ideology of the British imperialists is to find in it many parallels to the basic tenets of fascist and Nazi ideology”. “Fascists were socioeconomic liberals exasperated by the implications of political liberalism”. “This basic dictatorial instinct, putting capitalism above the law, or making it interchangeable with it, pertains to the very DNA of liberalism”.

Landa concludes that “an ideological scrutiny of liberalism cannot become truly radical if it merely promotes a collectivist stance to counter liberal individualism. What it actually calls for is a defense of the individual FROM liberalism”.

A crucial aspect of that defense is to dump ‘liberal democracy’ from our vocabulary. This is especially important today given the incessant misleading discourse contrasting so-called populism with liberal democracy. Landa and many philosophers across the political spectrum identify economic liberalism with capitalism and correctly note its incompatibility with democracy. But popular culture doesn’t incorporate this crucial insight and instead tends to treat capitalism and democracy as inseparably linked and almost identical. Successfully exposing capitalism and economic liberalism to the popular mind as the antithesis of democracy is a subversionary act that would expose the entire system to collapse.

But Landa and the left need to go further for liberalism isn’t the only problematic term in this debate. Capitalism itself is highly deceptive for it inappropriately evokes images of investment, finance, the protestant work ethic, and so on. The system, plain and simple, isn’t ‘liberal democracy’ and it isn’t ‘capitalism’ either. It’s oligarchy­–the civilization spanning material power of a tiny minority against the great majority.

From → Uncategorized

  1. The story of how we got here is also the story of the harnessing of power. When human power was required for almost everything, chattel slavery and later wage slavery was practiced (required, in fact) for the completion of large endeavors. With the evolution of war by slave-soldiers, to war by mercenaries, to war by professionals, to war by conscripts, the powerful needed more and more human power. And, obviously, until the 20th century slaves enabled mass-farming of cash crops like tobacco, sugar and cotton. The demand for human power may have peaked in 1945, however. Since then, with the harnessing of every kind of non-human power, with technology like robots and machine learning and drones, we have moved in the opposite direction. Less and less direct human labor is needed. When masses of people are unnecessary for big endeavors, the powerful feel less obligation toward them. (Like the sense of obligation behind the GI Bill in the 1950s.) A big part of our current discontent may be that fewer and fewer people feel needed. People who feel unneeded can easily that they have no power, no value, no worth. When all sense of self-worth (and of a future) evaporates, an individual is capable of suicide or, rarely but more terribly, mass murder.
    PS. Jim, In your book you said that labor is always free. What exactly did you mean by that?

  2. Some thoughtful reflections Kerry. Thanks.

    One of the central arguments of the book is that populations under oligarchy can never be free. I believe you are referring to the introduction to modern oligarchy on page 7 in which I state: “Modern oligarchy is a phase of historical oligarchy which, like all past ones, has a few nuances. The most important for our purposes are that wealth is held collectively through ownership claims on a small number of giant oligopolistic firms, there’s a tight identity between power and money, productive capacity is immense, and workers are generally free to labor for whomever they choose.” My intent here is to contrast wage labor with slavery. Within limits, most workers, unlike slaves, can choose which oligarchic firm to labor for. This isn’t real freedom, though, since they can’t escape the power of the oligarchic class as a whole.

    • Jim, See top of page 8 and elsewhere. “Workers are always costless.” This topic reappears on page 90. It seemed important, but I wasn’t sure what you meant by costless labor or “diversion must be monetarily costless”? Did you mean that labor costs are always passed through to customer? Kerry

      • Oligarchy is a system of power and not exchange and so it’s not helpful to think in terms of cost. Slaves, for example, in a slave society aren’t a cost at the macro scale to the slaveholder class. They simply do the work as commanded, producing survival goods for themselves and whatever goods and services are desired by the owners (what I call diversion).

        It’s the same in modern oligarchy. The oligarchy as a class pays wages out to workers which is a cost, but then receives the wages right back again as revenue, the net being zero. Workers spend what they are paid and are therefore costless. They are costless diversion producers.

        This is reflected in Kalecki’s profit equation. The simplified version is Profit = Capitalist Spending. Wages aren’t even in the equation which, given standard interpretations of ‘capitalism’, is quite a surprise. It makes sense, though, once we remind ourselves that the net wage cost is zero. This is the essence, though there are some additional details which I cover in chapters 7 through 11.

      • Got it, thanks. Kerry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: