Interview with Ellen Meiksins Wood
Democracy & Capitalism: Friends or Foes?

New Socialist Magazine, January 1996

Ellen Meiksins Wood is one of the most important Marxist theorists writing in the English language. She has contributed to many socialist publications including The Socialist Register and the New Left Review. Her books include The Retreat From Class (Verso, 1986) and The Pristine Culture of Capitalism (Verso, 1991). Below she speaks with New Socialist about some of the political implications of her most recent book, Democracy Against Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

The title of your most recent book is Democracy Against Capitalism. This seems to fly in the face of the widespread claim that capitalism has proved to be the only system capable of providing genuine democracy. What are you proposing by counterposing democracy to capitalism in this way?

What is "genuine democracy"? Suppose we just take the literal meaning of the word "democracy" first. "Demos" in ancient Greek means the people --- and not just in some abstract political sense but as a social category, the common people or even the poor.

"Kratos" means strength, power, rule. So demokratia means nothing more nor less than people's power, or even the power of the common people or the poor. One ancient historian I know has even suggested that, in its original meaning (probably coined by enemies of "demokratia"), it meant something analogous to the dictatorship of the proletariat. In other words, to the enemies of democracy, people's power was a form of inverted class rule, the power of the people over the propertied classes, or the subjection of the elite to the mass. In the literal meaning of the term, then, there's not much doubt that capitalism has little to do with democracy.

But there's obviously more to the question than that.

Even the most conventional usages of the word democracy today would at least pay lip-service to the idea of self-government, the idea that people have, or ought to have, some significant measure of control over their own lives, or at least that anyone else who governs them should be accountable to them. So we face a straightforward question: does capitalism increase or diminish our power to govern ourselves, to control our own lives?

Well, on the face of it, the expansion of political rights in the advanced capitalist world to the point of universal adult suffrage would seem to suggest that we have made significant gains, not losses, in self-government. But --and this is one of the main points in my book-- the extension of political rights is less than half the story. Political rights, the rights of citizenship, have certainly become more extensive, more generally available than they have ever been before. But they have at the same time become less important. We may all be citizens now in the advanced capitalist world, but this citizenship has very little to do with how we live our daily lives. Just think of all the spheres of life that remain outside the scope of democratic citizenship, outside the bounds of democratic accountability --for example, our working lives, the allocation of labour and resources, the organization of time itself.

The point is that it's capitalism which puts these spheres out of reach. In precapitalist societies, social production, appropriation, distribution, the allocation of labour and resources -- which we now think of as "economic" functions -- were governed by "extra-economic" means, political, military, and judicial powers exercised either by the community as a whole or by certain privileged people or classes.

But capitalism has taken these functions out of communal control, and it has created new forms of class power that don't depend on any direct exercise of political, military, or judicial power. "Economic" compulsions are enough, for instance, to force propertyless workers to sell their labour-power to capital in exchange for a wage. So even if all adults have formally equal political rights, like the right to vote, the exploitative power of capital is pretty much unaffected. In other words, exploitation, like other aspects of material and social life in capitalism, is outside the reach of democratic power, controlled either directly by capital -- inside and outside the workplace -- or through the mechanisms of the market, the compulsions of competition, accumulation, and profit-maximization, which regulate social activity and take precedence over any other human goals.

This is true quite apart from the direct influence that capital and capitalists have on the political process. The point is that even if the system worked ideally, even if money didn't determine who could run for office or how campaigns were conducted, even if economic inequality didn't have such obvious effects on politics, the capitalist system would still leave most of our lives outside the reach of democratic accountability. So that's why it seems to me that capitalism is ultimately incompatible with "genuine democracy" and why, if we really extended democracy into the spheres it doesn't now reach, it would mean the end of capitalism.

How useful is it to talk about democracy as a general concept? Aren't there in fact radically different meanings involved when we talk about liberal or capitalist democracy on the one hand, and socialist democracy on the other? What in fact can we say about the idea of socialist democracy today?

It's not very useful to talk about democracy as a general concept. Since its invention, the idea has gone through tremendous changes. In fact, one of the most interesting things about the history of Western culture is the way the concept of democracy has been transformed, and the way this transformation has served the ideological interests of dominant classes.

"Democracy" has gone through a long process of neutralization and domestication, so that today, a concept that used to be a dirty word to ruling classes is the highest word of praise in their political vocabulary, and everyone now claims to be a democrat.

Popular struggles have made it impossible to denounce democracy in the way that ruling classes used to do, but the word now has such a different meaning that it can be embraced even by those most hostile to any idea of "people's power".

I've already talked about the ways in which capitalism has separated out whole huge spheres of human activity and taken them out of the reach of "politics", so that the extension of purely political rights now simply can't have the same effects as it would have had in pre-capitalist societies.

Two other features in the ancient concept of democracy have also effectively disappeared. The first is its social content, its association with a particular class -- rule by the "people" in the sense that I mentioned before. The second is its association with an idea of active citizenship, the active exercise of popular power in government.

Today, the concept of democracy has been emptied of social content and it has replaced active with passive citizenship. The concept now has nothing to do with the distribution of social or economic power among classes. And instead of active power, we tend to think in terms of passive rights, at best the rights of individuals to certain protections against the power of others.

I'm not saying that these passive rights are useless. On the contrary, the establishment of certain checks on arbitrary power and certain "civil liberties" -- freedom of speech, assembly, and so on -- has been a major historic victory, and we socialists should be a lot more sensitive to their importance than some of us have been in the past.

But if these things are essential to democracy, they aren't synonymous with it, and we need to recognize what has been lost in the domestication of democracy.

The process of domestication, as I said, has a long history, and I can't go into it here. But one thing is worth emphasizing. This neutralization of democracy -- or what's sometimes called "formal democracy" -- would not have been possible without capitalism. Just as capitalism has created a new and more or less autonomous "economic" sphere, it's also created a separate "political" sphere, which allows a kind of democracy that doesn't reach into other domains.

It would have been impossible, for instance, for a feudal lord to share his political rights with serfs without losing his economic powers too, so there could never have been a "formal democracy" under feudalism. Capitalism has changed all that.

And, of course, we know that other things have happened to the concept of democracy under capitalism -- for instance, the increasing identification of democracy with capitalism and the market, which we've heard so much about since the collapse of Communism. Or take the way right-wing governments in advanced capitalist societies, especially in Britain and the US (and now, of course, Ontario), talk about democratic reforms when they restrict the rights of unions -- not just when they insist on strike votes by postal ballots, for instance, but even when they restrict the basic right to organize. They claim to be defending the democratic rights of the individual against collective oppression.

For that matter, even not so right-wing parties have bought into this line. I vividly remember, when I was in Britain during the big miners' strike in the mid-eighties, how Labour Party politicians attacked the miners and their leader, Arthur Scargill, as if they were enemies of democracy. It wasn't just that they hadn't had a proper strike ballot but that their actions were too political. Politics, for someone like Neil Kinnock, then the leader of the party, is something that elected representatives do in Parliament. Private individuals engage in politics only when they vote. And workers or trade unions should stick to their own proper sphere, "industrial" struggles in the workplace.

So again, we have here the separation of "political" and "economic" spheres, the idea of passive citizenship, and what you might call the depoliticization of citizens. What I would say about socialist democracy, then, is that -- without giving up the gains of liberal democracy in the form of civil liberties, protections against state power, and so on -- it would reclaim the original meaning of democracy, but adapted to modern conditions. Since there's no way of recovering the social content and the active popular power of democracy within capitalism, since there's no way of extending democratic rights into the spheres cut off by capitalism without destroying capitalism by that very act of democratic expansion, I guess I would say that, in the modern world, democracy has to be synonymous with socialism.

What do you make of the claim that a new "post-modern" conception of democracy is emerging today, one based upon multiple, fragmented identities rather than on some sense of a unifying citizenship?

I won't now go into everything I think is wrong with postmodernism. Let me just present its best political face and see where we are. Old conceptions of democracy, postmodernists would say, were based on certain simple conceptions of human nature, certain simple distinctions between public and private, certain simple assumptions about social identity. But the world, according to this view, isn't so simple any more. People have many and shifting identities, which are shaped by a complex, unstable and fragmented social world. For example, class is only one of many identities, and maybe the least important.

The postmodernist emphasis is on "difference" and fragmentation. People are divided by their separate identities, and even the individual seems to have no unified, stable identity. There is no basis for a political project based on some larger solidarity, like class solidarity.

Now, we certainly have something to learn from the emphasis on various forms of oppression besides class exploitation. And whatever else you might say about postmodern conceptions of democracy, they don't seem to be talking just about passive rights. They tend to talk a lot about empowerment. They refuse to accept the separation of public and private, or, apparently, the confinement of politics to a special, separate sphere. The personal is political, maybe everything is political.

But that's not all that's involved in postmodernism. When postmodernists insist on fragmentation and "difference", they also mean, among other things, that there is no such thing as a "totalizing" system like capitalism, a system that imposes a unified logic, its laws of motion, on the whole of society. So what are the implications of this? It seems to mean that there is no overarching system of domination like the power of capital or the systemic coercions of the capitalist market, and that there are only a lot of separate and disconnected power relations.

So where does this leave us? How is this, in the end, fundamentally different from those old forms of liberal pluralism that used to deny that there were any concentrations of state or class power in modern capitalist democracies, those ideologies that used to insist that capitalist democracy was perfectly capable of articulating and balancing the interests of diverse interest groups, with no one enjoying a permanent advantage?

People may now talk about identities instead of interest groups, but postmodernist pluralism, just like the old variety, obscures the realities of power in capitalist societies. It also disarms and disintegrates the opposition to capitalism. At the very least, even if some postmodernists admit that there is such a thing as capitalism, they would insist that we can't understand or oppose it, and they would deny that there could ever be a political subject, a unified political force, capable of resisting and subverting it.

Or take the idea that everything is political. If you look at it closely, it turns out that, by making everything political, it depoliticizes everything. Or maybe you could say that, in postmodernist views of the world, everything is political except the political. Postmodernists certainly know oppressive language when they see it, but they seem to have a hard time recognizing the power of classes and states. Anyway, postmodernism can't seem to recognize any connections between various kinds of power, or any form of overarching power that emanates from some kind of social system, an all-embracing system like capitalism.

So I guess we've come full circle. Postmodernism brings us back to the old and uncritical forms of capitalist ideology, which leave the system fundamentally unchallenged.

How do you think Marxism can continue to develop in a climate in which we're told that socialism is dead, that there is no alternative to the market, and that the working class is no longer a force for social change?

I just have a couple of very simple things to say. If there's no alternative to capitalism, we're in very big trouble. I don't think that what we're seeing today -- nowhere more clearly than in Ontario -- is just a mistake or a temporary blip. I think that this is the capitalist system: the sacrifice of people and nature to profit. What's more, I don't think the system has the kind of room for manoeuvre that it had in the relatively short period of post-war prosperity, the ability to cushion and compensate for its destructive effects. In fact, it's likely to become more viscious -- not to mention self-destructive, as the system destroys the very people it depends on for its profits.

This doesn't mean that it can't go on for a long time; but more and more people -- like those who marched in London, Ontario, or in France -- are acknowledging the new reality. In circumstances like this, would you want to put your money on the triumph of capitalism and the death of socialism, or on the end of class politics? As for Marxism, until someone shows me a better way of understanding capitalism, I'll continue to believe that historical materialism is the best foundation for an understanding of the society in which we live and therefore also the best guide in our search for a better one.