Inorganic democracy

by Rob Horning

10 July 2007


One more post about Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Retreat From Class. Wood spends a chapter casting doubt on the idea that socialism might evolve naturally out of bourgeois democracy without the need for a revolution. She sees this as arguing that there can be socialism without having to redefine the economic organization of society, which wouldn’t amount to socialism at all. Instead, she argues that the claim that politics and economics are independent of each other is one of capitalism’s main lines of defense—this separation allows the exploitative prerogatives of private property to coexist with a discourse of rights in the political sphere. The point at which political rights are used to question exploitation, the political system becomes a battlefield, and the privileged classes will use their concealed leverage, and the barriers inherent to limited representation, to protect their interests.

Wood then raises the point that it’s dangerous to become enamored of democracy as an abstract end unto itself. It is a good, as far as socialists are concerned, to the extent that it allows for collective social action, but is there an inherent, organic human desire for democracy, that human nature demands democracy as an expression of its essence? Doesn’t seem like it when you look at history. Here’s what Wood writes about such advocates of democracy for its own sake:

We are given little guidance as to who in particular might want or need democracy, whether some people might want or need more—or different aspects—than others, how a social force capable of bringing it about might come into being—or indeed why there should be any difficulty or conflict about it at all. If, on the other hand, the democratic drive is not universal, or not immediately so, and yet at the same time is not constituted by material conditions and class relations but is constructed by ideology and politics more or less “autonomously,” then are we not again thrown back upon the old utopian elitism which Marx himself denounced? Must we not look to some privileged producers of “discourse” to implant the democratic impulse from without, giving a collective identity to an otherwise shapeless mass, creating the “people” and then imparting to them a socialist or democratic spirit which they cannot bring forth out of their own resources?

This not only sheds light on the hubris of the American project of exporting democracy to the Middle East as if the shapeless masses there were just waiting to be shaped into pseudo-Americans, but it’s a reminder of the problem of classes requiring “organic intellectuals”  to harness a group’s potential power and direct it toward a goal that will continue to motivate and unify them. Because of this, the temptation is always there for those shut out from participating in the revolution to revise that requirement, and come up with ways in which the working class can be told what is in their best interests by those who don’t necessary share them, or to argue (a la Laclau and Mouffe) that the working class is not necessarily pertinent to socialism. But there’s no way of knowing where the class struggle is headed once the fellow travelers take the wheel.

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