This is an excerpt from Astra Taylor’s book ‘Democracy Doesn’t Exist, but We’ll Miss it When it’s Gone’, which was Published by Verso in October 2019.
Typically, democracy is considered to consist of one person, one vote, exercised in periodic elections; constitutional rights; and a market economy. On paper at least, there is no shortage of states that conform to this rather limited conception -- by some estimates, 81 countries moved from authoritarianism to democracy between 1980 and 2002. Yet recent studies reveal that democracy, defined by the preceding attributes, has weakened worldwide over the last decade or so. According to one well-respected annual report, 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017, leading to an overall decrease in political freedom. In early 2018, the Economist warned, “Democracy Continues its Disturbing Retreat” -- this not long after the magazine’s yearly Democracy Index officially downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed” one.
Yet democracy doesn’t retreat either of its own accord or by some organic, immutable process. It is eroded, undermined, attacked, or allowed to wither. It falls into disrepair and disrepute thanks to the actions or inaction of human beings who have lost touch with or, in some cases, sabotaged the responsibilities and possibilities that a system of self-government entails. While today it’s common to blame extremists for jeopardizing democracy, studies show that across Europe and the United States it is middle-of-the-road centrists who tend to hold the most hostile attitudes toward democratic practices, preferring strong and effective centralized decision making to messier, more inclusive processes. Less than half of Americans who identify with the political centre view elections as “an essential feature of democracy” and only half of them, or 25 percent of centrists, agree that civil rights are crucial. Apathy, or even antipathy, toward self-government and the difficult daily work it requires is one of the stones that help pave the way to a more authoritarian society. That apathy is helped by the fact that the American system was never designed to be democratic to begin with.
As with many other liberalizing nations of the late eighteenth century, the republic did not consider the majority of its residents to be members of the polity. Enslaved and indigenous people, all women, poor white men, certain immigrants, and some religious groups were denied rights, including the most basic right of citizenship, the right to cast a ballot. These founding inequities, only fitfully and incompletely redressed, continue to shape our present. As numerous academic studies show, the national agenda is set by plutocrats and well-represented interests, while the preferences of the broad population have virtually no impact on public policy. The inequalities that plague us today are not an aberration nor the result of whichever party happens to be in power, but a plausible result of the political system’s very design, which in crucial ways was devised by a restricted and privileged class of men.
In fifth century BC, the celebrated statesman Pericles famously praised the political structure of Athens: “It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few.” Given the existence of slavery and the exclusion of women, Athens failed to meet the bar by modern standards. Yet as Plato and Aristotle noted, the overwhelming majority of people who made up the Athenian demos were not wealthy. Rule of the people, they observed, by definition means rule of the poor, since citizens of modest means are bound to vastly outnumber the rich.
This basic insight has been negated in our time as neoliberal capitalism and the massive financial inequities it creates dismantle hard-won democratic gains. Under a legal order where money qualifies as speech in the context of campaign spending and lobbying, the richest are able to purchase influence while everyone else struggles to be heard; in a system where the affluent can pass their assets to their offspring untaxed, inherited wealth ensures the creation of an aristocratic class. If the last fifty years has demonstrated anything, it is that formal political equality, exemplified by the right to vote, is not enough to ensure democracy, as the wealthy have many avenues to ensure disproportionate power. While earlier generations focused on expanding suffrage, today we face an arguably more formidable task: saving democracy from capitalism. Extending democracy from the political to the economic sphere is the great challenge of our age, and also the only way to protect political equality from the concentrated financial power that is proving to be its undoing.
A mere eight men -- six of them American -- hold the same amount of wealth as half the people on earth, their private fortunes built on mass penury. The United States, perhaps unsurprisingly, is more an oligarchy than a democracy. Year upon year, the vast majority of the income generated globally flows into the pockets of the top one percent of the world’s population, while incomes of ordinary citizens have stagnated over the last four decades. Whereas an American born in the 1940s had a 92 percent chance of out-earning his or her parents by age of thirty, for those born in the 1980s, that likelihood has fallen to 50 percent; in some places in the Midwest, the odds are worse. A recent Federal Reserve survey revealed that almost half of Americans are too broke to cover a four-hundred-dollar emergency expense, and they would have to sell possessions or borrow money to do so.
Even more shocking, given the veneration of the achievements of the civil rights movement, is that there has been no progress for black Americans with regard to unemployment, homeownership, and incarceration since the push for racial equality reached its peak 50 years ago. As the Economic Policy Institute reports, “In 2017 the black unemployment rate was 7.5 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 1988, and is still roughly twice the white unemployment rate. In 2015, the black homeownership rate was just over 40 percent, virtually unchanged since 1968. And trailing a full 30 points behind the white ownership rate, which saw modest gains over the same period. And the share of African Americans in prison or jail almost tripled between 1968 and 2016 and is currently more than six times the white incarceration rate”. The financial crisis of 2008, which wiped out half of the wealth of black households, contributed to this grim state of affairs. Yet, today, one of the few bipartisan issues uniting Democrats and Republicans in Washington involves repealing meager Wall Street reforms passed following the crash. There may be elections and some safeguards of civil liberties, and we should be grateful for this, but the state is hardly run by or for the people it purports to service.
The forces of oligarchy have been enabled, in part, by our tendency to accept a highly proscribed notion of democracy, one that limits popular power to the field of electoral politics, ignoring the other institutions and structures (workplace, prisons, schools, hospitals, the environment, and the economy itself) that shapes people’s lives. This is a mistake. The be substantive and strong, democracy cannot be something that happens only in capitol buildings; self-rule has to be far more widespread. If we believe that democracy should serve all of society, how can we call ourselves democratic when workers juggle multiple jobs as record-breaking profits flow to owners and investors? When millions of people, disproportionately poor and people of colour, are locked behind bars? When access to learning and lifesaving treatments are denied to those who can’t pay? When the planet may be rendered uninhabitable so that a small number of companies can maximise revenues from fossil fuels? When the global one percent are on track to control two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030? We can view these issues as distinct and unrelated, or we can understand them as fundamentally interconnected, as joint symptoms of the fact that those with money, not “the many,” rule.