Democracy Against Capitalism: Conclusion Part 3

Index to all posts in this series.

In the first two parts of this conclusion, I describe the views of Ellen Meiksins Wood, based on her book, Democracy Against Capitalism, and the friendlier vision of capitalism offered by Bruce Scott. See posts 12 and 13 in the index for links. In this post I examine some of the similarities between the two views.

1. Both Scott and Wood use the principles of historical materialism, the basic idea underlying Marxist scholarship. It holds that the social structures that exist at any point are the result of an evolutionary process, and are contingent on the specific circumstances of each society and the actions of individuals and the society as a whole. Scott does not use the term historical materialism, and he certainly isn’t a Marxist, but doesn’t exactly repudiate Marx either.

Karl Marx supposed that liberal markets would be dominated by capitalists (i.e., powerful economic actors), which would lead to their domination of the political system as well. There was some truth to this at the time that he wrote, and it can certainly still happen today, but it is not a necessary outcome as he supposed. P. 62.

However, Scott does follow the general principles of historical materialism. He compares the evolution of capitalism in the US to its evolution in other societies and to the evolution of the economies of other societies. This gives him an outside vantage point which he fully uses.

2. Wood and Scott agree that the separation of political economy into politics and the economy was central to the evolution of capitalism. Wood opens with a discussion of this separation and its importance. Scott emphasizes the role of human agency in the evolution of capitalism.

This essential human role means that capitalism is a mix of sociology, administration, politics, economics, and law, and that any theory of capitalism must include not only an economic level but also a political level, what I call here the third level of political authority. P. 50.

Scott says that capitalism shifts governance of the economy to the private sector through a three-tier system: a democratically elected political authority, institution/infrastructure intermediaries, and firms, with all three levels acting and interacting. This is close to Wood’s view that the private sector controls the economy subject only to the barest intervention by the state. Scott seems to agree with Wood’s assertion that the private sector controls the lives of the productive sector with little or no democratic oversight. Scott doesn’t address this latter point except indirectly. See, e.g. pp. 128, 448, 455, and others. Wood and Scott agree that democratic control of the economy is crucial to a balanced society. Both would benefit from reading modern scholarship on this issue and its history. For those interested, a good place to start is Michel Foucault, Discipilne and Punish, the subject of this post.

3. Wood relies on Marx’ laws of motion of capitalism and other formal statements of Marxism. She goes to some lengths, as do other Marxists, to define terms. Scott echoes this. He carefully analyzes a number of definitions of capitalism and finds them wanting, before moving on to his own definition.

Scott’s definition is based on his observations of the way capitalism works. Marx also described capitalism as he saw it and Scott says Marx was right to think that capitalism would eventually become a struggle between the capitalists and the proletariat, because government had not begun to intervene at that time. See p. 29.

4. Wood insists that Marxian descriptions of the economy are the most accurate, and her book tries to apply those principles to the way things are today. Her recommendations for change and the road to change are straight out of Marx.

Scott is committed to capitalism as the best way to manage the economy. He recognizes that there are problems, but he sees deviations from his model as something to be corrected, not as the natural working of the system. For example, take cable companies. Government and the cable companies arranged the system from the outset to entrench their monopolies in a process that totally ignored public input. The government doesn’t force any real competition, as it does in France, or intervene in price-setting. Absent competition, it’s hard to call cable a capitalist market, or a market at all. That isn’t a deviation from Scott’s model, it’s the way US capitalism works. At some point the deviations from the model tell us that we should rethink the model. We could, for example, treat the model as an ideal form, and use it to change a system. Or we stare coldly at the real problems we face and come up with a new model.

Wood’s commitment to Marx leads to failure to come to grips with the changes in the organization of society and technology in the century since Marx wrote, and her apparent failure to come to grips with non-Marxist thinkers, including Foucault, the Frankfurt School, and Pierre Bourdieu among those I have read for this project. Scott doesn’t discuss these either, even as he says that to analyze capitalism properly we have to take politics and sociology into account. P. 50. Neither focuses on the actual problems facing our society, especially climate change.

5. Both Wood and Scott reject neoliberal doctrine without exactly acknowledging it. Wood thinks that neoliberalism is just the name of the ideology developed to support the form of capitalism Marx predicted. See this article, which I took up in post 6 in the linked index. Scott is equally dismissive. See, e.g. p. 62; here’s a brief taste:

Followers of Friedman tend to not only overlook but also actively reject this role of government in the capitalist system. According to them, informed, voluntary, and bilateral transactions are the essence of a self-regulating capitalist system and therefore that system can and must be free from governmental coercion. But in reality, coercion is to be found in most capitalist markets; large firms coerce those that are smaller, a patent holder enjoys market power, an employer typically authorizes only one employee to make a job offer to a prospective employee, and employees may or may not organize to bargain in a similar format.

As I have said repeatedly in this series, you don’t have to be a Marxist to reject neoliberal capitalism. All it takes is a clear head and a willingness to stare at reality.

20 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Many thanks, again, Ed.

    Historical materialism is a long way of saying history.  Society is as subject to contingency and material processes as is geology or biological evolution.  It would seem to be a truism.

    Scott’s remark, in referring to the economy and politics being dominated by those with the greatest wealth, that “it can certainly still happen today, but it is not a necessary outcome,” is naive or cynically obtuse.

    So, too, is the notion that the private sector controls the economy with only “the barest” intervention by the state.  The state creates the very market the private sector claims is central to its view of economics.  It creates and determines conflicts over property rights and civil rights, and it bolsters capital and inhibits labor.  The state creates and determines the reach of state-granted monopolies, such as the patents Scott mentions.  Monopoly power, for example, does not exist in isolation: the state either tolerates or prohibits it, as it does monopsony and other concentrations of power.

    As you say, the greatest lapse is in ignoring the gaps between theory and lived capitalism, which would require thoroughly revising their theories about the economy and capitalism.  Scott, in particular, seems blithely accepting of the many ways that power coerces cooperation, without feeling a need to revise his theory.  Friedman’s version of economics might be laughable, for example, but it continues to be held by powerful actors, and violent coercion is fundamental to it, and not just in Chile or Argentina.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Wood has a problem similar to the problem you describe for Scott: she is committed to the idea that the change comes from the proletariat, from the working class, and can’t work out how that happens. The Frankfurt School decided that change wouldn’t come from the working class, and they moved away from Marx. I don’t think change comes from intellectuals either, as Marcuse suggested.

      I worry that the real source of change is paid hacks like Frank Luntz and idiots like Milton Friedman and Tyler Cowan whose perhaps sincere voices are magnified by Luntz fueled with dollars from the Kochs.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      The courts are not overly eager to judicially recognize lived facts either.  The Lochner era courts were famous for it.  Bakers, for example, voluntarily agreed to work long hours in dangerously hot and unsafe conditions, they weren’t coerced into doing it on pain of losing their employment.

      The failure to recognize false assumptions is often put down to that being someone else’s responsibility.  In fact, it is often owing to being in agreement with the consequences of permitting the status quo to remain unchallenged.

      Take the recent court decisions regarding North Dakota’s voter address law.  The Supreme Court declined to intervene to reject a state law requiring that IDs include a street address, in a state where hundreds of thousands of residents do not possess them.  A clear case of voter suppression, under the guise of protecting the vote – or at least Republican dominance of it.

      It was too close to the election, the Court appeared to say. Intervention would cause more chaos than allowing the law to remain in place. That virtually gives the Right a roadmap for how to do it next time.  But what chaos follows from disenfranchising so many voters, thereby corrupting the election and the resulting government and the policies it enforces?

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Or the recent court decision that “100% grated Parmesan cheese” does not mean 100% cheese, but could legally include non-trivial amounts of cellulose – wood pulp – because, the court said, it was neither clear nor obvious that a consumer would believe the labeling.

        The court dreamt up the notion that the large-letter description of the package contents was ambiguous: it could mean 100% of the contents were grated, that the cheese content was 100%, or – and least likely, according to the court – it was 100% grated Parmesan cheese, with no filler.

        That’s a court inventing a standard to protect a manufacturer and seller, because Roy Cohn that’s who needs protecting from the consumer.

        Neoliberalism was far from dead.  And Trump and McConnell’s court packing has given it a new lease on life.

          • earlofhuntingdon says:

            What’s not obvious to Feinerman – who clerked for Kennedy and was nominated to the federal bench by Clinton, after having worked in his DoJ (and after having made partner at Mayer Brown in a Kavanaughesque manner) – is that consumers are entitled to rely on a manufacturer’s labeling.

            If the manufacturer/seller makes contradictory claims in its labeling, through the use of infamous small print, then any inconsistency or ambiguity should be interpreted against the manufacturer. Feinerman’s decision rejects that standard.

            Here, the manufacturer attempted to obtain a marketing benefit from claiming that its product was made from 100% cheese, the way bmaz makes it at home.  The large letters on the package front making that claim were negated by the fine print elsewhere on the package, which disclosed the presence of cellulose.

            Feinerman believes that consumers should be held to the same level of knowledge and cynicism that he possesses.  According to him, consumers should expect adulterants to be present, prominent contrary claims on the packaging notwithstanding.  (No coinkydink that he sits in Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, once home to famous meatpackers and to Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle.)

            • Trip says:

              I remember the reporting on the cheese. Like bmaz, I only buy blocks now. (I wonder if blocks can contain the cellulose as well.) There was also reporting on Extra Virgin Olive oil from Italy. It isn’t always only olive oil. Both of these circumstances have something to do with the Italian Mafia, if I recall correctly, mixing in veg oil (cheaper), for greater profit. It’s getting really difficult to discern the difference between organized crime, businesses and government; they’re working hand in hand.

  2. David Dorsey says:

    Wheeler, You cease to amaze me, with your broad, and diverse interest, and commentary Go head sister

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Or capitalism against democracy.  I hadn’t remembered that Heidi Heitkamp’s surprise Senate victory in North Dakota six years ago was by 2994 votes.  Her vote margin in predominantly Native American counties, where she garnered 80% of the vote, was 4500.

    The state’s Republican legislature, following the party’s national strategy (e,g., Georgia, North Carolina), therefore, had both specific and general reasons to disenfranchise Native Americans. 

    Searching for ways to do it with apparent objectivity, they settled at the last minute on the “must have a street address” idea, which guaranteed that the law would disproportionately disenfranchise Native American, Democratic-leaning voters, the ones who had helped put Democrat Heitkamp in office.

    The late adoption of the measure meant that legal challenges to the move’s discriminatory impact would come close to the election.  That would give a reluctant court an excuse not to act “this time around” (and the next, and the next).  That’s what happened when the legal challenge ended at the Supreme Court.

    All politics is local.  But these attempts by the GOP to maintain control in the face of becoming a permanent minority party are also national and programmatic.  Please get out and vote.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      And this and this from the excellent Richard L. Hasen.  The first is on the national voter disenfranchisement moves by Republicans.

      The second is about Georgia SoS Kemp’s vicious, evidence-free allegations against his state’s Democratic Party.  He accuses it of hacking the state’s electoral systems computers.  Not coincidentally, Kemp is responsible for those systems.  They are the most easily hackable in the United States.  Days ago, he was gavel-whipped by a federal judge for having his head in the sand and doing so little to secure those computer systems.

      Most egregiously, Kemp refuses to recuse himself, as SoS, from officiating over his own campaign for Georgia governor.  Gives me an idea for new movie and computer game franchises: Grand Theft Election.  Plus, a table board game, Electoral Horror. I wonder if the Rock would be available to star in it.

    • orionATL says:

      this is an interesting analysis of vote suppression:

      the republican efforts at “legitimate” (as opposed to the blatant racial that was georgia’s history) vote suppression in georgia began in 2006 with thepassage of avbill requiring setting up one of the most stringent voter id laws in the nation. handel moved on in 2017 to a seat in the house of reps.

      • orionATL says:


        karen handel became the georgia secretary of state in jan, 2007 and implemented several vote suppression efforts thru 2009. in 2017 handel moved on to a seat in the u.s. house of reps. she is opposed in 2018 by democrat lucy mcbath.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      A good stab at a summary of capitalism from an unexpected source.  Suffers from too many assumptions and too much use of the passive voice.  But it offers more criticism of capitalism than is usual in a school-age periodical.  Those more often follow the Texas model of indoctrinate first, and allow only the elite to question.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    A mug shot of the deplorables seeking to enter the once and future United States of America, from Cordoba, Mexico.

    The three items in the foreground of that picture would have been provided through contributions by more than the number of people in that picture.

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