“Today, perhaps more than ever, the very meaning of democracy needs to be clarified—its institutional norms and practices, its social and material conditions, its human and political transformative potential.” -Carl Boggs, The Socialist Tradition (1995)
For democratic socialists, the qualifier—”democratic”—is fundamental. It’s not something insouciantly slapped on, but a description of strategy, a core animating principle, and a distinguishing characteristic.
If democratic socialism is to be won—or, more accurately, moved towards— it will be through popular mobilization, persuasion, and the political process. Emancipation will come from below, not be delivered from on high. Indeed, properly conceived, democratic socialism is the expansion and deepening of democracy in all spheres of social, political, and economic life. Democracy not just in terms of procedures, but constitutive principles—equality, agency, self-determination. These are democracy’s radical tenets, blithely discarded by its elite adherents. Reclaiming and trumpeting this richer conception of democracy means returning it to its rightful radical owners, before it was drained of its militancy and potency and claimed by centrist custodians of the status quo.
It’s undemocratic, for example, for a small slice of the population to control the bulk of society’s resources and thus, the destiny of millions. It’s undemocratic to cordon off and deem inadmissible decisions that would “spook the market.” It’s undemocratic for capital to control the material basis for human flourishing. And, if we subscribe to this expansive notion of democracy, undemocratic outcomes that come out of the (procedurally) democratic political process are, paradoxically, still undemocratic.
If you’re perplexed, answer this: Is it democratic for citizens to vote away their own voting rights? Surely the answer is no. It’s similarly absurd to talk of “democratic outcomes”—again, even if these are decided through the democratic process—if they undercut democratic precepts like, say, equality of voice or agency. To cherish democracy is to cherish not just surface-level “rules of the game,” but democracy’s embedded principles.
So say you’re a small-d democrat surveying our society. You come upon this thing called capitalism. And, if you’re thinking clearly, you do a double take because it’s so obviously at odds with the democratic convictions the populace ostensibly holds. In this congenitally hierarchical, authoritarian domain, bosses possess tremendous power over their workers. Capital extracts as much value as it can from labor. Absent a strong countervailing force—a robust welfare state, full employment, effective unionization—workers can 1) toil or 2) experience extreme material hardship. Their choice. (See, it’s voluntary!) The majority of the population at least implicitly supports this economic regime, yet it’s profoundly undemocratic.
The noble aspiration of social democratic incrementalists was to “humanize” capitalism and insulate workers, reform by reform, from the mercurial market that dominated them. (Neoliberalism arrested and reversed this progress decades ago.) But even the social democratic reforms were inadequate: internal relations of the firm must be changed. Sovereignty must be transferred to workers. That’s the genuinely democratic solution, even if crudely democratic measures (the preponderance of people favor capitalism) indicate otherwise.
It’s understandable that non-leftists advance an impoverished conception of democracy. What’s surprising is that leftists let their bloodless espousals go unchallenged, and only haphazardly and sporadically couch their prescriptions and visions in explicitly democratic terms. Jodi Dean even suggests the Left give up on the idea altogether. But this would be an enormous mistake and a victory for the Right. As I said above, the American populace ostensibly believes in democracy. The duty of the Left is to highlight undemocratic realms and assail them accordingly. Call the people to higher ground, if you will.
Democracy can be a stirring, persuasive language to speak in and, at its principled core, it’s radical as hell. Why let our political enemies claim it for their own?
UPDATE: I apologize for my delayed response. I’ve received constructive pushback, both on Twitter (from the fantastic Matt Bruenig) and in the comment section. I’d like to clarify some of my claims.
In my post, I tried to differentiate between a procedural commitment to democracy (accepting the democratic rules of the game) and a robust commitment to democracy (advocating for policies that increase equality and democratize power and, as a result, actively strengthen democracy). The second conception is central to the socialist project. In arguing that majority support for democracy-augmenting policies had no bearing on their status as “democratic” or “undemocratic,” I wasn’t arguing that we should sweep away the traditional democratic process. I was simply asserting that having a robust commitment to democracy necessitates supporting equality-enhancing policies.
What this means in practice is contingent on the extent to which democracy is already present. Help me out, Robert Dahl:
For the nondemocratic countries, the challenge is whether and how they can make the transition to democracy. For the newly democratized countries, the challenge is whether and how the new democratic practices and institutions an be strengthened or, as some political scientists would say, consolidated, so that they will withstand the tests of time, political conflict and crisis. For the older democracies, the challenge is to perfect and deepen their democracy.
Replace “countries” with “areas,” and there you have it. In the political sphere, consolidation and deepening are the orders of the day. In the economic sphere, and in most other spheres of our lives, the transition is inchoate, or yet to begin. This, then, is one of the central tasks for socialists: To sketch out and struggle for a society in which democracy is on the march and domination is beaten back.