Can America afford democracy?

In an article The Silenced Majority: Can America still afford democracy? in the December 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Rana Dasgupta argues that democracy is a luxury whose existence depends on inequality between nations that enables the rich in the wealthy societies to accommodate the democratic aspirations of its own citizens.

In the past, power was in the hands of those who had property. With the rise of organized labor as a force in the rich nations, that power was reduced but as long as the people of the poorer nations could be used to subsidize the elevated living standards of those in the richer ones, then democracy could be tolerated. But when that difference between nations begins to disappear, as is happening currently, then so does democracy. He argues that the ultimate death of democracy in the US will come at the hands of the big tech companies.

The defeat of Great Power fascism established democracy as the dominant political technology in the capitalist world and relegated totalitarian economic organization to the other side of the Iron Curtain. Western democracy then flourished during the postwar era of fast-growing national economies, when Western populations were much wealthier than those of other countries. But these conditions have changed. One of the most significant processes of our own moment is the re-exclusion of the Western masses from the center of world affairs—a position they occupied for less than two centuries.

Democracy—in its twentieth-century Western guise—is not compatible with just any economic arrangement. Eighteenth-century Europe could neither afford nor tolerate it, and democratic talk was sternly forbidden. A delicate and unusual set of circumstances brought democratic change. But those circumstances did not occur much outside the West. And now they are disappearing here too.

Once again, global supremacy was useful for quelling residual working-class ill will. The American empire was even more effective at concentrating global wealth than Britain had been: economic inequality among the world’s regions, which had risen consistently from the 1820s, reached its peak in the 1970s—precisely when inequality within the United States was at its lowest. There was status in the mere fact of being American. But white inclusion was the priority: it was crucial for administrators that white working-class activists, who had brought business to its knees in the 1930s, should not join forces with their black counterparts. Even Lyndon Johnson made clear how much the American democratic balance depended on such manipulation: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Though disenfranchisement of African Americans was officially outlawed in 1965, the Supreme Court soon endorsed felony disenfranchisement, which by the time of the 2016 election barred more than six million mostly non-white Americans from voting. If there was ever a heyday of American democracy, it was recent and short-lived.

Many mid-level jobs have already been rendered obsolete in sectors such as architecture, law, accountancy, teaching, and medicine (and many more salaries, therefore, have been absorbed as corporate wealth). This is a stunning volte-face for the middle classes, who are still inclined to believe that the system exists to serve them, and so entertain the hope that it will create the same number of high-paying jobs as were destroyed. But there is no basis for such hope. The prospect of large corporations run by owner-strategists without human management is not far off and, as state subsidies are simultaneously withdrawn, the middle classes will be unable to pass their savings, property, and status on to their children. Their erstwhile social and political standing will follow that of the West’s steelworkers, shipbuilders, and coal miners. The coming evacuation may cause American capitalism to collapse. But that will not discourage the catastrophe elite, which is fascinated by its own death drive (working out how to survive death is a notorious Silicon Valley hobby).

Silicon Valley will not simply destroy the jobs on which the industrious society was built. It will corrode and negate the principle of labor. It will do this in part by establishing unpaid, uncontracted labor as a social norm.

Eighteenth-century Britain could not afford democracy. Today, as the economy reverts to a similar structure, America is encountering the same problem. It is difficult to carry out a mass economic expulsion, after all, while everyone has a vote. And it will not be possible indefinitely to suppress those left-wing voices demanding that the state abandon its raison d’être and serve, not property and empire, but American citizens themselves. The stakes, in other words, could not be higher: if the present order is to continue, an almighty war must take place in U.S. politics. While eighteenth-century Britain also did not need democracy, America is very far from reaching that stage.

But the defeat of democracy is difficult to accomplish from the Oval Office. And Trump, in the broad scheme of things, is insignificant. He was never a man of vision. He was just a political thug, which was what the moment required. The assault on American democracy will outlast him, and it will be engineered—even if unintentionally—by the oligarchs of Silicon Valley

We have long envisioned the end of democracy as something out of a Hollywood dystopia; it will not be starkly militaristic, however, but cool and convenient in the Silicon Valley style.

The neoliberal revolution aimed to restore the supremacy of capital after its twentieth-century subjugation by nation-states, and it has succeeded to an astonishing degree. As states compete and collude with gargantuan new private powers, a new political world arises. The principle of labor, which dominated the twentieth century—producing the industrious, democratic society we have come to regard, erroneously, as the norm—is once again being supplanted by a principle of property, the implications and consequences of which we know only too well from our history books.

The real political battle in America today is not between a “liberal” left and a “fascist” right. It is between the people and a grandiose private system of social, economic, and political management that has the power to bring to an end the democratic certainties on which Americans have come to rely. If we wish to preserve those certainties, we will have to do a lot more than remove Donald Trump.

It makes for grim reading, I’m afraid.


  1. Marja Erwin says

    A society which can afford plutocracy can afford most other systems, if it can just get rid of the plutocracy.

  2. mnb0 says

    It’s not grim enough. The transition to “the supremacy of capital” is well under way, something this analysis doesn’t address.

  3. mediagoras says

    I’ve often thought that the standard of living many enjoy in the US was largely built on the backs of the poor and powerless in other countries (here, too), contrary to the rugged individualist and “I built it” myths. Apparently it’s worked so well that we are importing this model for broader use domestically.

  4. jenorafeuer says

    When I saw the title, I thought this article was going to be about the fact that most of the problems in any U.S. election can be traced back to the fact that the election operation is criminally underfunded, usually deliberately so in order to make it difficult for people in certain areas to vote. Especially when compared with the obscene budgets candidates raise to advertise themselves. This has long been one of those things that boggles anybody in a country that actually has a properly budgeted non-partisan organization with the explicit purpose of running the elections.

    Marja Erwin@#1 has a point, though. The question isn’t really ‘Can America afford democracy’. The question is ‘will the people who draw up the budget sheets allow America to afford democracy’, and so far the answer has been ‘no’ for multiple reasons. Not the least of which has been an attitude that would be very familiar to the British: “I’m all right, Jack!”

  5. bmiller says

    I am a subscriber to Harpers, and this was truly one of the grimmest essays I have read this year w/r/t broader economic and social forces.

    But the grimmer question is: Can the current ECOSYSTEM afford the western lifestyle? Especially with, say, two billion consumers (assuming there will always be billions of truly poor).

  6. bmiller says

    mnbo: Not sure I understand your reading of the article or this post. The whole POINT of the essay was indeed the “transition to the supremacy of capital”.

  7. consciousness razor says

    Do we have democracy though? It’s not clear in what sense we do, or in what sense we’d lose whatever it is, according to Dasgupta. Is it only about what happens in elections, whether or not those empower people in the limited set of ways that elections are able to do that? Or does it have to do with democratic socialism of some kind, as the article seems to suggest at various points? If it is the latter, then obviously we can’t lose what we don’t actually have or “rely on” right now, because it’s something that we’d need to make before we could try to “preserve” it.

    The question is supposed to be something like “can we (still) afford it?” Like I said, it’s pretty vague what “it” is, and maybe it’s not literally about “can” either. But who is supposed to be the subject? Is it really supposed to be all of the people (or “America”)? Or is it more like “the middle class,” the political establishment, or something else? Once it’s decided who “we” are, since when did “we” have this thing, which may or may not be affordable anymore?

    And what is supposed to be the cost which would be “paid” by whoever it is? Why even talk about it like it has anything to do with a cost (or automation, gig workers, or anything of the sort)? I just don’t think another form of government has any legitimacy, and nothing is being paid for it in any kind of transaction. It’s hard to guess to whom would it be paid, if that metaphor were going to make any sense. Also, I don’t think it stands in contrast only to “fascism” — and on that note, Hitler came into power when a bunch of Nazis were elected, in case anyone needs a reminder. And I just don’t get all of the blithe acceptance of the last several centuries of British imperialism, or the concern for property (and those with it) as opposed to people (with or without property) from classical liberals who considered themselves radicals, and so forth….

    All of that makes for a very weird discussion about “democracy,” which doesn’t seem to have much to do with the ordinary meaning of the term as I understand it. If there’s not a single word that I can take literally in the question at issue, then maybe there’s a better question to ask (or several) somewhere in the vicinity of it. But it’s hard for me to tell what Dasgupta is really aiming for in the essay.

  8. Steve Cameron says

    While it makes a strong rhetorical argument, it doesn’t seem to present any real evidence in support of its premise, in the excerpt you quote at any rate, just a lot of assertions. It’s an interesting take but there are many other ways to interpret these events, especially the relative rise in the standard of the living enjoyed in Western nations in the mid-20th century. And besides, “democracy” is such a fuzzy concept that it can mean a lot of different things, even “its twentieth-century Western guise” is a broad category. This seems like the kind of article that many Harper’s readers will quote to make themselves feel okay about not really trying to do anything to make the world better.

  9. mnb0 says

    @Bmiller: I refer to Consciousness Razor. In addition:

    @SteveC: ““democracy” is such a fuzzy concept”
    I use Karl Popper’s definition (I paraphraze:): a system that allows its citiziens to get rid of its authorities. When we realize that almost all political authorities on a federal level come from a limited pool of candidates (even Bernie Sanders is rich) American citizens only can replace their national authorities by ones who are very, very similar -- who almost invariably serve the interests of the members of said pool. The result has become “supremacy of capital” to a great extent and that extent is increasing, so it seems to me.
    Nothing fuzzy here.

  10. KG says

    I use Karl Popper’s definition (I paraphraze:): a system that allows its citiziens to get rid of its authorities. -- mnb0@10

    By that definition, since the citizens of the USA have just voted to get rid of the most important of their authorities, and it appears this will actually happen despite the efforts of that authority to prevent it, the USA is a democracy. The definition, despite your subsequent points, says nothing at all about the pool of possible replacements. So you need to either aver that the USA is a democracy, or find a different definition. Myself, I’d say democracy is not an all-or-none matter, and that the USA has both democratic and undemocratic aspects. It just escaped a huge shift in the undemocratic direction, although I know you like to pretend otherwise.

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