Rescuing democracy from history


Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism
By Ellen Meiksins Wood
Cambridge University Press, 1995. 300 pp., $29.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Neville Spencer
The relative quiescence of working-class movements in the advanced capitalist world over the last few decades, coupled with the collapse of the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe, has inspired a retreat from Marxist theory by much of the left. Against this trend, Ellen Meiksins Wood argues, "One might think, among other things, that in a period of capitalist triumphalism there is more scope than ever for the pursuit of Marxism's principle project, the critique of capitalism". Democracy Against Capitalism both reasserts the value of Marxist theory and sharpens its critical tools. It discusses two broad and interrelated themes. Its first section covers issues involved in debate around the Marxist theory of history, historical materialism, while the second is a historical discussion of democracy. Although historical materialism is in some respects the centrepiece of Marxist theory, Marx never produced any comprehensive account of this theory, instead concentrating his efforts on his critique of the political economy of capitalism. Exactly what a Marxist theory of history should be has become the subject of debates, especially in recent years, sparked by theorists as varied as Louis Althusser, G.A. Cohen and Robert Brenner.

Forces of production

One common interpretation of historical materialism centres on the conflict between the development of the forces of production and the various modes of production which have existed throughout history. This proposes that as the forces of production develop and become more advanced, they begin to outgrow the mode of production in which they are being utilised, eventually causing the mode of production to collapse and be replaced by another. This is seen as the law of history which accounts for the march from pre-class societies to slavery to feudalism and then to capitalism. An interpretation along such lines has been quite institutionalised for some time, especially through the influence of Soviet Marxism. There are certainly sections of Marx's work which could support such an interpretation, but as Meiksins Wood correctly points out, there is much that would also tell against it. Either way, the argument of Democracy Against Capitalism is that in this form it is unsustainable as a law of history. One key problem is that for so much of history, the forces of production have stagnated or developed at an extremely slow rate. Not all modes of production have involved an incentive to their further development. This has meant that the tendency for the forces of production to outgrow their mode of production has often been extremely weak. The transition from Roman slavery to Western European feudalism in particular does not fit this theory. The fall of the Roman Empire cannot be credibly explained in terms of a conflict with developing forces of production. In fact, production in the centuries which followed it seemed notable for the de-development of the forces of production. Meiksins Wood argues that, as a law of history, explaining epochal changes as conflicts between the forces and mode of production is "so general as to be vacuous". Though she is correct to reject attempts to explain all epochal changes with a single historical law, such a formulation is a bit extreme. Even if, in many instances, such a law operates only over extremely long periods of time, it can still be maintained, albeit as a very "coarse-grained" tendency operating alongside other more local "fine-grained" tendencies. In the collapse of slave-based production, for instance, tendencies specific to slave-based production brought on collapse more rapidly than the onset of this more general historical tendency. In this way, the general tendency remains, even if in many instances more specific tendencies may have greater explanatory importance. A general theme running through the book is an emphasis on the specific nature of capitalism. In this respect, Meiksins Wood argues that the correct place to posit this historical tendency is as a law specific to capitalism. Unlike previous modes of production, capitalism does necessitate a continuous drive to develop the forces of production. Its impact on technological development and on labour has been unprecedented. If incorrect to completely deny the usefulness of the general law of history, she is certainly correct to emphasise the greater importance it assumes in a critical analysis of capitalism.

Novel approach

The second section of the book continues this emphasis on the specificities of capitalism with a discussion of democracy under capitalism. Her novel approach to this is via a comparison with democracy as it existed in slave-based societies and especially in comparison with Athenian democracy. Although the word democracy has its origins in ancient Greece, its content was somewhat different from its use under capitalism. In Athens there existed, apart from slaves, a large free labouring class. This class had democratic rights which, unlike capitalist democracy, included the right to participate in the making of decisions rather than simply to elect others to make decisions on their behalf. More importantly, the decisions they could participate in included ones which could affect their own economic status. This protected them from exploitative exactions such as taxation or feudal obligations to which other labouring classes have been subject. The growth of regimes based on suffrage and even universal suffrage in the last few centuries is a result of the particular nature of capitalism. This is not to say that democracy naturally arises out of capitalism, but that capitalism does allow the possibility of it by virtue of its unique feature — separation of the economic and political spheres. For feudalism and slavery, political domination and economic exploitation were necessarily combined. Extraction of the produce of the labouring classes was dependent upon forms of political coercion which were not direct reflexes of the economic systems. The status of the exploited classes generally needed to be legally entrenched. Allowing serfs to participate in political decision making, for instance, would have been incompatible with feudalism, since few serfs would have endorsed a law of serfdom. For capitalism, political coercion is not usually necessary (though it is often useful) to maintain class relations. Workers are forced to labour for capitalists simply by virtue of the fact that they do not own the means of production and so must work for the benefit of capitalists in order to live.

Limited rights

Because politics does not control class economic relations, capitalism can allow labouring classes to participate in politics without this jeopardising their economic exploitation. Voting does not include the right to decide on what corporations should do, who they employ or who gets the profits. Capitalist democracy compares poorly to that enjoyed by Athenian free labourers. Whilst capitalism has allowed the opening up of the political sphere to democracy, it has done so by virtue of the fact that it has at the same time impoverished it, removing its influence over economic exploitation. As Meiksins Wood points out, this also makes the nature of exploitation in capitalist societies much more mystified. In societies where economic and political domination were intertwined much more closely, exploitation was consequently much more transparent. Democracy Against Capitalism uses this analysis to demonstrate some of the flaws in much popular left social theory. The mystified nature of capitalist exploitation has played a key role in sustaining ideas such as "the politics of identity" and the championing of the confused concept of "civil society" as a means of liberation. These ideas fail to analyse the special nature of capitalism or even have difficulty in maintaining that there is such a specific thing as capitalism, and thus are recipes for passive adaptation to it. From her critical analysis of capitalism, Meiksins Wood concludes, "... democracy needs to be reconceived not simply as a political category but as an economic one. What I mean is not simply 'economic democracy' as a greater equality of distribution. I have in mind democracy as an economic regulator, the driving mechanism of the economy."