Democracy Against Capitalism: Index To Posts

This list will be updated with links to the conclusory post or posts on Democracy Against Capitalism by Ellen Meiksins Wood, and all posts are updated to include a link to this post. As a reminder, I read this book on a Kindle, and it didn’t give page numbers. All citations are to the Kindle location, as best I could tell.

This book turned out to be very difficult going. Part of it was my own unfamiliarity with the vocabulary of Marxist thought, where even the definitions are hard to understand concretely. Part of it is that most of the previous books engage with a history I’m vaguely familiar with, while the primary issues of Marxist thought relate to the transformation of feudalism into capitalism, and from monarchy to liberalism. Wood adds detailed discussions of ancient Greek and Roman history that I didn’t knowabout. Understanding these transformation required a lot of background reading. Another difficulty is that I’m not familiar with any of the work Wood cites. Unlike most writers, Wood only engages with Marxists, with the exception of Karl Polanyi, whose work she mentions briefly.

But mostly it was difficult because it is a criticism of capitalism from outside capitalism. All of the other books I’ve discussed take capitalism as a given, and do not even offer much of a definition. At most, they criticize it from inside the bounds of capitalism. This orientation makes it very difficult for those of us raised to believe that the only option to capitalism was pure evil.

I mention these difficulties because I think this perspective is worth the difficulties of learning a new set of ideas. Even if some of the book is jargon, the value is there, and it’s worth wading through.

I did not write about Chapters 5, 8, or 9. Chapter 5 focuses on Wood’s view of Weber. The latter two chapters concern the social issues on which the left was focused during the late ’80s and early 90s. Wood argues that these issues are important, but that they were diverting leftists from the economic issues that have always been at the center of left theory. Maybe progressives are relearning the political reality that food and shelter are at the forefront of the lives of almost everyone. I generally agree with that view and have written about it repeatedly.

In my introduction, I mentioned a post by Eric Levitz, a writer at New York Magazine. I hope people will take the time to read this excellent discussion of relationship between capitalism and democracy, and the article by Jedidiah Purdy linked in it. As I have said throughout this series, you don’t have to be a Marxist to see the problems capitalism creates, and I think these two pieces illustrate that nicely.

1. Introduction To New Series.

2. Competing Stories About Wages.

3. The Separation Of Politics And Economics.

4. Capital In A Fiat Money World.

5. Base, Superstructure and More Definitions.

6. Neoliberalism.

7. Class.

8. Notes On Class.

9. Markets.

10. Democracy.

11. Liberalism.

Conclusion, Part 1 on Capitalism

12. Democracy Against Capitalism: Conclusion Part 1.

13 Democracy Against CApitalism: Conclusion Part 2.

8 replies
  1. Anon says:

    Thank you very much for this. I’ve read some of the posts but this will let me actually go through the series properly.

  2. skua says:

    “… the political reality that food and shelter are at the forefront of the lives of almost everyone.”

    Round here people are sickening and dying from too much food. And while there are people sleeping rough, they are a small fraction of the population. (0.17% of USA residents are homeless AIUI.)

    Which is to say that for most people in westerns style democracies food and shelter security have been achieved. Continuing concerns in these vital areas are to be expected  given our evolutionary history. The use of food and shelter as expressions of status and identity do keep these concerns at the forefront.

    More broadly, “I think this perspective is worth the difficulties of learning a new set of ideas. Even if some of the book is jargon, the value is there” looks good, and your work in parsing out the contents of this book are appreciated. I’ll get to work and study. Thank you.

    • Eureka says:

      I’m not sure it’s fair to call food and shelter ‘achieved’ by virtue of obesogenic, nutrient-poor, agribusiness/corporate diets and an ostensibly low homeless rate (though I am not familiar with that number or to whom it applies).  Food deserts?  Food insecurity? Safe, affordable housing?  Working to live vs living to work? Working poor?  Diseases of civilization writ large?

      Yes, humans are fundamentally social primates.  And so their lives can be snuffed of some promise and joy while working three jobs to pay the rent and skipping meals to feed their kids, while having little time with them and all that such entails.  Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness?

  3. Eureka says:

    Thank you, Ed, for the index and overview- it helps put things in perspective, beyond navigation. 

    On the ‘norms vs reforms’ tensions in the Levitz and Purdy pieces, I kept thinking how they end up being entwined in theory and in practice.  It seems like normers and reformers are all trying to say, ~ ‘Let’s be what we say we are instead of what we are’- say in terms of different democratic ideals.  Levitz does illustrate well how they can be enjoined in dynamic interplay in practice (e.g. court packing), but I also thought of how reforms tend to require some norms justification.  For example, when the universal college topic came up in force a couple few years ago, one writer had most persuasively defended it against socialism slams by comparing the costs of college subsidy with direct costs to subsidize businesses with various tax code breaks.  The take home being ~ ‘this is normal, we already make these kinds of investments to support America’s future, the costs are even less for college,’ etc.  Anyway, it’s making me think about how often, and at what analytical cost, reforms are traditionally justified by norms, and how much this tradition is or is not grounded in the post- Cold War centrist detante on different ideals.  From Purdy (and the language I used to summarize the college costs example), it would seem a neoliberal province.  But it would seem to be a more deeply historical practice, too.

    • Eureka says:

      Add:  Yeah I am still trying to think of examples with greater historical depth re using norms (as opposed to ideals) to justify reforms, and am stuck.  Perhaps for good reason, lol.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Many thanks, Ed.  The topic is essential to maintaining democracy and civil rights in America, threatened, as they are, by an American form of fascism.  Henry Giroux:

    Any viable notion of change will have to reject the notion that capitalism and democracy are synonymous and that participatory democracy begins and ends with elections. Doing so is crucial to undoing the myth that political power is separate from economic power — a myth that upholds the false assumption that whatever problems currently exist under the Trump administration are endemic to Trump’s alleged mental health, ignorance and other character flaws. In actuality, the fascist politics now shaping the United States have been in the making for decades and are systemic to neoliberal capitalism and deeply entwined with iniquitous relations of power.

  5. Greenhouse says:

    Thanks Ed. I’ve learned so much from this series and all the commentary that I went out and bought Ellen Meiksin Wood’s book. Hey, if I got through Picketty, I figure I can tackle this too. Looking forward.

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