Democracy Against Capitalism: Democracy

The second half of Ellen Meiksins Wood’s book, Democracy Against Capitalism, is devoted to a discussion of the current state of democracy in the UK and the US. She begins with a discussion of ancient Athenian democracy, which she regards as a real democracy, and a good model for comparison. In Athens, there was a class of peasant farmers and artisans who were juridically free citizens. They owed no duties to tyrants or aristocrats. They possessed their own means of production, lands and tools, and worked as they saw fit with out any regard to the demands of any other class, or tyrant or government. There were slaves, to be sure.

But the free labourer enjoying the status of citizenship in a stratified society, specifically the peasant citizen, with the juridical/ political freedom this implied and the liberation from various forms of exploitation through direct coercion by landlords or states, was certainly a distinctive formation and one that signaled a unique relationship between appropriating and producing classes. Kindle Loc. 3586.

In other pre-capitalist societies, either the state or a group of aristocrats appropriated some or all of the production of the peasant class “… through various mechanisms of juridical and political dependence, by direct coercion – forced labour in the form of debt bondage, serfdom, tributary relations, taxation, corvée and so on.” Kindle Loc. 3700.

In classical Athens, all citizens, including the peasant farmers and artisans, had the right to participate in decision making on all issues. Of course, people generally deferred to experts on technical matters, such as warship design, but all were entitled to hear the presentations of the experts and to choose the one they thought best. In the same way, all participated in other political decisions. It goes without saying that this “all” didn’t include slaves and women. Even so, this is a remarkable advance for the peasant class.

This arrangement was the subject of debate among the Athenians; though it’s fair to say that pretty much everything was a subject of debate there. Wood offers a fascinating discussion of Plato’s dialog Protagoras as an example. Protagoras was perhaps the most famous of the Sophists, a group of teachers of wisdom and virtue. We only have fragments of his work directly (as opposed to the words Plato puts in his mouth), but I especially like this:

Man is the measure of all things; of things that are, that they are; of things that are not, that they are not. P. 239, The Pre-Socratics, ed. John Wainwright.

In the dialog, Socrates defines the issue as whether virtue can be taught. Roughly, Wood claims Plato argues through Socrates that virtue is philosophical form of knowledge available only to those with a privileged access to a higher truth. Obviously to Plato man is not the measure of all things; rather there is some other sphere of understanding and universal truth that eludes most people, but is available to a special few.

In the Dialog, Protagoras argues that virtue is taught from the beginning of life.

Education and admonition commence in the first years of childhood, and last to the very end of life. Mother and nurse and father and tutor are vying with one another about the improvement of the child as soon as ever he is able to understand what is being said to him: he cannot say or do anything without their setting forth to him that this is just and that is unjust; this is honourable, that is dishonourable; this is holy, that is unholy; do this and abstain from that. And if he obeys, well and good; if not, he is straightened by threats and blows, like a piece of bent or warped wood. At a later stage they send him to teachers, and enjoin them to see to his manners even more than to his reading and music; and the teachers do as they are desired. And when the boy has learned his letters and is beginning to understand what is written, as before he understood only what was spoken, they put into his hands the works of great poets, which he reads sitting on a bench at school; in these are contained many admonitions, and many tales, and praises, and encomia of ancient famous men, which he is required to learn by heart, in order that he may imitate or emulate them and desire to become like them.

That sounds like something Pierre Bourdieu might have written. We teach our young how to be virtuous in our own societies, using the social understandings we learned in the same way, and through our own experience of our culture, including our own study of the texts available to us. This argument leads to the conclusion that every citizen partakes in virtue, and that this civic virtue is the indispensable tool of democracy. Socrates takes the view that only some have access to the higher, universal virtue, and those ought to rule. Wood adds that the producers should be required to enrich and feed the chosen few.

Wainwright says that the Sophists primarily taught people how to win arguments. Those arguments might or might not be best for the community, or even virtuous or moral. Wainwright seems to favor Plato’s position. This argument is ongoing; for example, it’s a big part of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

Two thoughts.

1. Philosophy. Plato draws a distinction between appearance and reality, a dualism that survives today. Appearance is the aspect of reality that comes to the human mind mediated through our senses. Reality is something else, a deeper unchanging universal existence which only some precious few of us can grasp. One analogy is Plato’s cave, where we humans can perceive only the shadows that real things cast on the wall, not the things themselves. It’s as St. Paul says, 1 Corinthians 12.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

Reading this, it’s easy to see how St. Thomas Aquinas might have been influenced by Plato, if he had those texts, and at least by the Neo-Platonists, which he did have.

Protagoras’ view that man is the measure of all things rings true to me. I will resist the temptation to write about this in depth, but I more or less agree with the ideas Richard Rorty, the American pragmatist, discusses in his accessible collection of essays, Philosophy And Social Hope. It’s worth noting that Rorty really despises Marxism, at least dogmatic Marxism, for reasons that are baffling after reading Democracy Against Capitalism, and which are hard to square with his appreciation of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, a book praised by Wood.

2. Democracy. I think Protagoras has the better argument on this point. Decisions about how society ought to operate should be made with the participation of as large a number of citizens, the people most affected, as possible. Wood agrees. She thinks that socialism comes from decisions made by a large majority of us or not at all. In our current system, we assume that it’s enough that we are represented in those decisions through our elected officials. But what does that even mean in our current version of democracy?

16 replies
  1. Tom says:

    Another participatory aspect of civil life in the ancient Greek city-states that no longer operates in the same manner today was warfare. The Greek armies were composed largely of independent land-owning citizen farmers who took up their swords, shields, spears, and helmets to muster as the famous hoplite infantry. They were fighting for their own property and families and sought quick, decisive engagements in order to bring their wars to a close so that they could get back to their homes and families. The Greeks understood that you had to know how to eat and how to fight before you could have the leisure to philosophize. “The soldier and the farmer may be forgotten or even despised in our own culture, but in the Greek mind agriculture and warfare were central to a workable society … ” From “The Wars of the Ancient Greeks” by Victor Davis Hanson

  2. oldoilfieldhand says:

    Paraphrasing retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy:
    The more money expended in an election, the more Democratic the process.

    “independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption.”

  3. new-radical says:

    ‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’

    Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947

    This quotation has been missed out!

    No democracy in the world has Athenian democracy. It didn’t work for them either. Socrates was not a democrat. He was put to death by order from a vote of the Athenian democracy, a completely corrupted democracy. And don’t down play slavery. Athens was a slave state, its prosperity was founded on slavery as has every empire known to man including the American empire.

    Wake up world, we do not have democracy. The USA does not have democracy, even the more gentle form from Churchill has been corrupted by gerrymandering and voter suppression. Everytime George W. said democracy he meant capitalism.

    We have returned to Aristocracy. How many members of Congress are from hereditary ruling families? And if your’e not an aristocrat, you will be from the class of power elites. From the ‘best’ schools and the ‘elite’ universities.

    Just ask Bart O’Kavanaugh and his high school class mates about that one.

  4. Eureka says:

    Thank you for this well-woven piece , Ed. 

    The (neo) platonic essentialist dualisms, are, I think, not just barriers to participatory democracy but to progress  (sensu merely even ‘unstuckness’) in many aspects of social life, as they are ramified through other institutions and daily habits of speech.    I’m writing about how certain variants of these dualisms in medicine and science impede actual ‘solutions’ to disease.  I use some Peirce* and Whorf and others.  And of course that one’s audience is dependent upon the frames you are trying to break makes for lots of author burden.  We need more writing like this today. 

    Your natural move towards the pragmatists makes me think of this and also John Dewey, of course.  (I think of him every time I see Betsey DeVos’ name as well, for their very different intentions for our educational systems.)

    *If anyone is interested, these wikis look good at a glance and have ample external links:

    Charles Sanders Peirce – Wikipedia

    Benjamin Lee Whorf – Wikipedia

    John Dewey – Wikipedia

    • Ed Walker says:

      As Rorty points out, we can’t think without separating things into groups, generally A and not-A, but we don’t have to used the dualisms that we inherited from our Ancestors, especially those like appearance and reality that take us away from tangible differences and into invented differences.

      A good example of this problem today is race. Our ancestors invented racial differences to justify slavery, and developed a whole metaphysics of racial differences that persist today in all of us to some extent. See Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, which I discussed here.

      We do better when we stick to differences that we can use to make life better for all of us than with outdated dualisms that thugs can use to divide us.

      • Eureka says:

        Thank you for this, I haven’t read Kendi, and I appreciate how you weave things through to a new way in your writing. 

        Responding to both your comment here and your linked post, re:  race:  I am a biological anthropologist, and one of our primary roles has been to teach that the concept of race has no basis in biology.  This can be very tricky for people to ‘get,’ given that they see race and hear about, say, racial health disparities.  It can be hard to reconcile that social categories of convenience – especially categories which are acted upon by others and can have grave consequences in daily life- aren’t some fixed real thing.  Studies showed that even biology graduate students didn’t understand populational variation (clinal, gradated, non-categorical). 

        And at the molecular level, as you write, the Human Genome Project (HGP) and aftermath really busted up the notion of discrete “genes for” this and “genes for” that.  It is harder to talk about how such traits are emergent and contingent rather than pre-made.

        Among other strategies, I used to use Jonathan Marks’ essay*, “Black White, Other,” and books like Evelyn Fox Keller’s _The Century of the Gene_, and Susan Oyama’s _Evolution’s Eye:  A Systems View of the Biology-Culture Divide_. 

        Speaking of propaganda and division:  as the HGP was unfolding, I was (then naively) shocked to find the latest book by a known scientific racist in my mailbox.  Turns out he’d sent ‘free’ copies to all or most of a professional group.  I would bet he makes appearances in Kendi’s text and Mercer-ilks’ payroll.

         *I haven’t found a link for this essay.  Here is a related piece by Marks:
        The Realities of Races

  5. gmoke says:

    Election by lot, which the Athenians seemed to have used, might be a good alternative to at least some of our elected offices.

    The Athenian democratic definition of  IDIOT, someone who has no concern for the polis or others but only themselves, is extremely pertinent in these days of Trmp who most certainly meets that definition, whatever his putative IQ may be.

    • Watson says:

      Gmoke’s comment reminds me of the phrase ‘the idiocy of rural life’, which always struck me as both impolitic and mean-spirited, particularly coming from someone who was an accomplished wordsmith and who was supposed to have been a pretty decent guy.

      It turns out that it was a mistranslation. Marx did not mean that people in rural areas are idiots; he was saying that they are isolated:

      “This oft-quoted expression is a mistranslation. The German word idiotismus did not, and does not, mean “idiocy” (Idiotie); it usually means idiom, like its French cognate idiotisme. But here [in paragraph 28 of The Communist Manifesto] it means neither. In the nineteenth century, German still retained the original Greek meaning of forms based on the word idiotes: a private person, withdrawn from public (communal) concerns, apolitical in the original sense of isolation from the larger community. In the Manifesto, it was being used by a scholar [Marx] who had recently written his doctoral dissertation on Greek philosophy and liked to read Aeschylus in the original.”

  6. Tommy D Cosmology says:

    An answer to the question about our current version of democracy: the representatives should represent the demographics, or something is wrong.


    One should learn in the sandbox that the world functions better when we work collectively to solve real-world problems, practicality and through democratic processes. Those who don’t learn are either bullies, brats, or the easily badgered—there are many stories from Plato that illustrate. The cave analogy has been interpreted to say that the enlightened can leave the cave-dwellers behind, the educated need not be compassionate. I disagree.

    Solutions to societal issues are measured for success in terms of how well the greater good benefits, although this is anathema to the greedy. Empathy is a strength that requires exercise, lest it atrophy.

    It is natural to look out for number one when the shit hits the fan, and we all are informed by our prejudices, this is also related to our “fight or flight” instinct; however, we have evolved an ability to care for other members of our species, other species, and even the planet, if we use that ability.

    Now we are in a real battle, testing those abilities, and I know I come off as sophomoric, but we do have to name the enemies and they are bigotry and greed so hateful that they knowingly hurt others for their own personal, political, or profitable gain. They can go fuck themselves to death in a bucket to hell. Sadly, they are 35% of our fellow humans. The other 10% (that make up the total 45% that have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party as of today) are our conservative friends and family who are otherwise decent human beings except for their membership in this cult-like fraternity of TEA-banging bigots. What do we say to or ask them, Socrates?

    It doesn’t go down well, let me tell you that. Who am I to question someone’s intentions for voting Republican? Why is my value, empathy, more important than their value, ____.

    Small government? What a shitty value.

    Personal responsibility? I guess that means you have no responsibility to others.

    Help, Socrates. I’m losing friends and Thanksgiving is getting to be a many-years long epic battle.

  7. oldoilfieldhand says:

    Pssst…please watch for typos during login — you now have a new user account because of a typo in your email address. Thanks. /~Rayne

    Not sure how to deal with this. I can’t use the reply function (Mac user) but in order to reply in any capacity I have to enter my username and password, the same one I have used since replying to Marcy’s and Jane Hamsher’s comments on Firedoglake. Please delete any additional user account (if you can) other than the one used on this comment. Please accept my immense gratitude for monitoring my favorite blog.

  8. chuckallied says:

    Direct democracy is a lot more attainable than when the US was founded. And if the US hits a reset, hopefully it would upgrade to that afterwards.

    What we have now is not a functional democracy. We’ve repeatedly had minority elected presidents in the last few decades, the SCOTUS is close to a minority lead majority, and in poll after poll the laws that are passed are contrary to the opinions or outlook of the majority. It’s a republic lead by self-interested representatives.

    Direct democracy would make the oligarchs’ buy out unattainable–or at least much more difficult. Yet who talks about mandatory voting and direct democracy as ideals when they say the US leads the free world?

    • Rayne says:

      It’s attainable, but how do we prevent the gaming of direct democracy? See Brexit as an example, the outcome manipulated by forces paying Cambridge Analytica/SCL to do so illegally. Or by hacking at scale, which we’ve seen with Equifax and Facebook as just two examples.

      BTW, you have two screen names now — please stick with one so that community members get to know you. Thanks!

      • chuck says:

        Oops! Sorry about that Rayne. Is there a way to edit that entry back to chuck?

        Estonia handles hacking and authentication pretty well with their physical ID card + PIN to verify individuals digitally. A face capture could add a third layer at time of vote with all three being papered to match vote cast and receipt of vote by third party verifiers. Google has concluded the same for it’s internal systems:

        ATMs could become voting booths as well with rolling date ranges for yay, nay, or delay on votes, again printing the same receipt of record to check against what is cast digitally.

        The lack of prevention of hacking at scale isn’t because Equifax and Facebook were in the data security business. They’re in the data sales business. An entity that is structured to be secure and accountable has a much better chance of staying that way. Ones trying to please any and all advertisers, do not.

        Agreed there will always be pitfalls to any path–like large scale psy-ops and social engineering–but right now those chances feel better than consistently seeing the worst, and least voted for, advanced.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Both you and Rayne make good points. I think we need a bit more context for the generation of  our social structures before we try to identify solutions, and I’ll be adding some of that in future posts.

      • chuck says:

        Agreed. It’s just now the strains between horse and buggy beauracratic beginnings are so easily felt in our fiber optic fueled world that finding solutions seem all the more necessary.

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