Citizens and the Neoliberal Assault:
Constructing a Radical Democratic Politics
- by Mark Austen Whipple
One latent and dangerous consequence of the left's constant denunciation of the Bush Administration and its destructive foreign and domestic agenda, is that Bush and his decision-makers are often made out to be anomalies of an otherwise decent system. To be sure, the left is justified in its criticism of the Bush agenda - from its redistribution of wealth upward in the name of tax-cuts, to its neo-con foreign policy of imperialist war and occupation, the Bush Team must be named and vigorously opposed. But as we name Bush and hold him accountable we must also remain vigilant in our condemnation of the military-capitalist system from which he obtains his power. While understanding the pronounced threat to the globe that the Bush Team represents, we cannot engage in a politics that divorces this threat from its structural foundation - the necessary military and economic imperialism of U.S. hegemony. To go back but one president, we cannot forget Clinton's Rwanda and Sudan, his continued support of the Isreali occupation, not to mention his assault on American citizens in the name of welfare reform. Indeed, as radical as it is, the Bush Administration merely represents the latest, certainly most egregious, embodiment of an imperialist, anti-democratic American political and economic system.
Thus it is essential we strike a balance: we must continue to actively resist and oppose the agenda of the Bush Administration, but as importantly we need to step up our efforts of envisioning and constructing radical and possible alternatives to the current political and economic order. When we challenge the system, and not just its players, we cannot go far without confronting the central conservative force in the world today: neoliberalism. Writing in the January 2004 Monthly Review, Minqi Li describes neoliberal policies as including "monetarist policies to lower inflation and maintain fiscal balance . . . [the removal of] labor market regulations and cutting of social welfare, trade and financial liberalization, and privatization." As a result,
Global inequality in income and wealth has reached unprecedented levels. In much of the world, working people have suffered pauperization. Entire countries have been reduced to misery. . . . [And] the world's richest 1 percent receive as much income as the poorest 57 percent.
How should we combat this oppressive neoliberal force? Li argues that we should return to state socialism, this time with democratic principles sprinkled in. I think he is close, but has it backwards: it is my intention in this paper to discuss why a political strategy of radical democracy - including a socialist redistribution of production and wealth -presents the best opportunity to successfully confront neoliberalism and build a world anchored in peace, justice, and personal fulfillment.
In presenting radical democracy as an adversary of capitalism and the possible framework for our resistance to neoliberalism, we must acknowledge that democracy has generally been seen as a close companion of capitalist development. In fact, academic discourse often contends that capitalism, or property rights, are social requisites of democracy. Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, argued that capitalist forms of exchange could not help but lead to a more democratic process of social interaction. "No one who buys bread knows whether the wheat from which it is made was grown by a Communist or a Republican, by a Constitutionalist or a Fascist, or, for that matter, by a Negro or a white." 1 A similar claim was made by Louis Hartz in his influential argument that America, due to its non-feudal history, would represent the purist form of liberal capitalism, and that this "capitalism, with its spirit disseminated widely, is bound to be democratic." 2 The expansion of property rights, in other words, is harmonious with a smoothly functioning democratic order. Seymour Martin Lipset, a preeminent sociologist, took this argument one step further, claiming that even popular belief in the responsibility of the state to provide any social services puts in jeopardy the success of democracy in newly democratized societies. He remarked that democracy might depend on a nations' citizens being "willing to accept the cyclical nature of the free-market system." 3
But what these market-oriented, or neoliberal, democrats, advocate is a particular top-down form of "democratic elitism." In fact, these democrats fear the possible consequences of democracy unless in the hands of a ruling elite - they want democracy, but only up to a point. Examples abound. Lipset, for one, once claimed that a high level of citizen participation in the democratic process can sometimes undermine the democratic ideal. 4 Friedman, for another, feared that the continued expansion of democratic citizen rights might come to compromise the rights of property, thus subverting the capitalist system. 5 Finally, the famous political scientist Samuel Huntington once concluded that the "crisis" of democracy in the United States was a result of too much democracy - the political system had become overloaded with demands and had grown vulnerable to collapse as a result. 6 He subsequently prescribed the re-legitimation of democracy's elite-level leadership. This willingness to compromise democracy reveals that these scholars' belief that capitalism and democracy mutually reinforce one another is due to their hope that a narrow, elite-ruled democratic order will act as a stabilizer of capitalist social relations.
Why Not Marxism?
The intimate relationship between capitalism and democracy often leads Marxists and other radicals to conclude that democratic reforms are either, at best, moderate and ineffective, or, at worst, acts that only rationalize and strengthen the capitalist system. Revolutionary Marxism, this line of thinking goes, represents the only true opposition to the existing order. I argue instead that while Marxist theory is an indispensable element of any radical politics, it is ultimately insufficient as a positive alternative vision to contemporary capitalism for at least two reasons. First, Marxism offers a view of power and conflict in which both are reduced to the level of economic relations; domination becomes merely class domination. But we know that not all forms of domination - whether racial exploitation, violence against women, or state negation of civic freedoms - are class-based or even economic in nature. In their book Democracy and Capitalism, the economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis argue just this point:
Although the Marxian analysis of exploitation and other forms of domination has immeasurably advanced democratic understanding, we remain deeply skeptical of the proposition that exploitation, particularly class exploitation, provides a sufficient conceptual foundation for a rigorous and critical treatment of the variety of forms of political domination and cultural supremacy commonly observed in social life. 7
A second inadequacy of Marxism as our foundation is less theoretical and more empirical. The domination inherent in capitalism does not just present itself in vast inequalities of wealth and power, but also in the oppressive and mind-numbing processes of labor. As the Marxist sociologist Michael Burawoy points out, "there is little indication that the labor process in so-called socialist countries is all that different [from capitalist countries]." 8 While one can argue that these socialist countries do not represent the socialist ideal, the point is that regardless of the label the objective should be a more democratic workplace (and university, family, political party) in which all participants are empowered to seek personal and collective fulfillment.
The Radical Democratic Vision
These two critiques of Marxist theory - first, that the political nature of social life extends far beyond the economic order and, second, that a personally fulfilling workplace or other group experience is not the natural outcome of socialism - will form the basis of the radical democratic vision that I will present here. I critique Marxist theory as insufficient with some trepidation, however, for I do not intend my argument in this article to be fully sufficient in itself, either. Rather, I put my ideas forth here to spark some constructive debate about radical alternative visions of the future.
1. If we understand "political" to mean something like the struggle between groups over power, then we must conclude that politics cannot be reduced to any singular realm. Relations of power exist within families, schools, parties, and clubs, to name just a few, as well as in capitalist workplaces. A radical democratic politics is well suited to transforming the nature of numerous political relations wherever they exist in society, not just in the economic order.
2. A vision of radical democracy must adopt the socialist critique of the oppressive nature of capitalist production. Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau make the point that "radical democracy implies a socialist dimension, as it is necessary to put an end to capitalist relations of production . . . but socialism is one of the components of a project for radical democracy, not vice versa." 9 Indeed, in these neoliberal times it is vital as ever to include an honest assessment of capitalism's devastating social consequences, and to offer a compelling and practical alternative.
3. While Mouffe and Laclau are correct, we must not uncritically assume that socialism alone provides the construction of a sufficiently empowering and fulfilling workplace environment for the individuals in its labor force. Rather, we must vigilantly and reflectively act so that all workers engage in creative and life-enhancing jobs, as well as participate in the act of decision-making within the industrial enterprise.
4. While much of Marxist theory contends that the only truly revolutionary class is the working class, and that citizen rights are but moderate steps in the rationalization of bourgeois society, radical democracy holds that citizens - as workers, mothers, teenagers, students, intellectuals - can be revolutionary, and the rapid increase in the level of personal and group rights will only hasten the construction of a genuinely democratic society and the empowerment of all citizens.
5. A vision of radical democracy is obligated to contend with the problem of decision-making. That is, citizens must be empowered to participate in their own self-governance. Decisions must not be left to a centralized body of elites, no matter how egalitarian their policies. Radical democracy should recognize that the revolutionary habits of creativity, reflection, and critical thoughtfulness will grow as a result of increasing the level of citizen autonomy and self-governance. Insofar as experts must be called on at certain times in matters of great complexity, citizens must possess the intelligent faculties necessary to challenge these experts and hold them accountable for their actions.
6. Finally, a politics of radical democracy will understand that there is no utopian, or division-less, society coming on the horizon. Political relations, in other words, are not going away, and radical democracy does not seek to eliminate social conflict so much as it relies on social conflict. Unlike Marxism and its effective end of politics - where workers comprise one universal class and hold identical interests - radical democracy is an adversarial politics in which a plurality of citizens hold a plurality of interests.
I began this paper by articulating a balancing act that the contemporary left must successfully negotiate - namely, we must forcefully name and denounce the egregious agenda of the Bush Administration while simultaneously bearing witness and offering alternatives to the very system that produced the current president and continues to push neoliberal ideologies across the globe. I interpret this current balancing act as similar to the one that confronted intellectuals and citizens of the Cold War. In those days, the challenge was to develop a politics of peace and justice that criticized the racist and sexist American system of monopoly capitalism, while engaging in an equally forceful denunciation of Stalinist Russia. In the face of the hideous crimes of Stalin, too many intellectuals retreated to a position of deference for the American system, pronouncing its perfection and the "end of ideology."
Committed as we all are to not go down the path of these Cold War apologists, it might do all of us who are engaged in a balancing act of our own a world of good to return to the works of two prominent New Left intellectuals of the Cold War era - Ralph Miliband and C. Wright Mills. Milliband and Mills, in different ways, each were committed to political projects that critiqued both American capitalism and communist Russia. Milliband, a more committed socialist than Mills, nevertheless always kept civil liberties and individual freedom at the center of his political work. Mills, too, diligently sought a theoretical alternative to both liberalism and Marxism. He received death threats near the end of his life because of his unwavering support for the autonomy of the Cuban Revolution and their attempt to find this alternative. Dying soon after, Mills might today be disappointed in the direction the Revolution has gone since his time. But that would not dampen, I think, his devotion to constructing a democratic alternative to the capitalist and communist realities of his time. Today we face a similar political and intellectual task - the construction of a radical and democratic alternative to the current neoliberal assault.
Mark Austen Whipple, 26 is a Sociology graduate student at University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached here: email@example.com .
1. Friedman, Milton. 1962. Capitalism and Freedom. University of Chicago Press, p. 21.
2.Hartz, Louis. 1955. The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, p. 89.
3.Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1994. "The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited: 1993 Presidential Address." American Sociological Review, 59, Feb, p. 13.
4.Lipset, Seymour Marin. 1963. Political Man. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, p. 13.
5.Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom.
6.Crozier, Michel, Samuel Huntington, and Joji Watanuki. 1975. The Crisis of Democracy. New York University Press.
7.Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. 1987. Democracy and Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, p. 19.
8.Burawoy, Michael. 1979. Manufacturing Consent. University of Chicago Press, p. 20.
9.Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe. 2001. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. New York: Verso, p. 178.