The development of a body of philosophical work, in my experience, is not a linear progression from insight to insight but a constantly circling back and going further/deeper into a set of problems. Hence, in the course of my own philosophical development I have found my thinking drawn back to certain books that continue to help make sense of structural problems as they manifest themselves in changing contexts. One on those books is Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Democracy Against Capitalism. 2015 is its twentieth anniversary. Far from being dated, it is essential reading for anyone trying to understand the current conflict between Greece and the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Despite its unsurpassed insights into the limits that capitalism poses for democratic self-governance, Wood’s book, I feel, has never received the attention that it its due.
When it was published, it significantly advanced the state of Marxist political philosophy, replacing the unenlightening blanket rejection of “bourgeois democracy” with an historically rich and philosophically astute critique of liberalism. Against received wisdom in both Marxist and liberal camps, Wood demonstrated the undemocratic origins of liberal democracy. Drawing out the hitherto overlooked sophistication of Marx’s own critique of liberal democracy, Wood revealed that the essence of liberalism was a formal distinction between public and private realms, a distinction which allows the social forces generated in the ‘private’ economic sphere to undermine the democratic decisions made in the formally ‘public’ sphere. The briliiance of the argument– and what should have made it more widely discussed in liberal circles- is that Wood substantiates her claims not through rote citation of Marx, but from an historical comparison between the practice of Athenian democracy and the pains English and American liberals took (following their respective revolutions) to normalise the identification of democracy with voting, and then only on those issues which had no bearing on socio-economic life. “In Athens, there was no …clear distinction between ‘state’ and ‘civil society,’ no distinct and autonomous ‘economy.’ … Political and economic powers and rights, in other words, were not as easily separated in Athens as in the US, where property was already achieving a purely ‘economic’ definition, detached from juridical privilege or political power, and where the ‘economy’ was acquiring a life of its own. Large segments of human experience and activity, and many varieties of oppression and indignity, were left untouched by political equality.” (p. 224). Political equality and voting rights might be necessary conditions of free social life, but they are by no means sufficient. The current crisis in Greece illustrates clearly why not.
That which so alarmed European and global finance capitalists about the Greek referendum is that it forced open the normally closed circuits of money-capital to democratic power. Under normal circumstances, as Wood notes, economic forces are treated as if they were powers independent of human social activity to which that activity must conform in order to be rational. “Freedom” including democratic freedom, is thus identified with its opposite– compliance to external and unchallengeable forces.
To understand my point, consider any of a number of official response to the Greek referendum. They all end up sounding the same alarm: the Greeks have defied the power of “markets” and will now suffer even worse consequences than had they complied with finance capital’s demands. Here is one example amongst many that could have been chosen. Simon Smith, an analyst at FxPro concludes: “If Europe isn’t prepared to relax the terms it was offering Greece just last weekend, and there’s no indication it will, Greece will have to start printing its own currency so . On the other hand, if Europe compromises and agrees to write off some of Greece’s huge debt, the credibility of the currency will suffer. “Whatever the outcome of the next few days, there is no way that the eurozone or the single currency can come out stronger as a result.” The point to pay attention to is the hidden framework within which Smith’s “no way” comment is made. He assumes, not only as given (as is the case) the ways in which financial markets operate today, but also that they are obligatory for all time and unchangeable by collective social decision. It may well be the case that tomorrow a revived drachma will be weak or the Euro will decline, but that is not equivalent to the implication (which Smith wants us to draw) that Greek society will be weaker, over the long term if it rejects the demands of its creditors.
Smith thus excludes the possibility (of which human history is the living proof) of fundamental social change– change in the ruling value system and the purposes of major social institutions. He cannot imagine that the Greek crisis could be the begining of transformational changes in the advanced capitalist West, changes which reconnect economies to their real purpose: the production of life-capital: “the life wealth that produces more life wealth without loss and with cumulative gain.” Life capital is not a fictitious or a utopian idea– it is the food you eat, the water you drink (processed for safety) the education you have enjoyed, the health care that is available for you when you need it, the roof over your head. If you live in a society in which these life-goods are not available, then you live in a society that is failing, regardless of what financial markets “think.” Greek society is failing, precisely because governments before Syriza have obeyed the dictates of financial capital to convert their shared life-resources into money-capital for bankers to appropriate for themselves. Even mainstream business papers now recognise that the loans being given to Greece are part of a shell game in which money is advanced to pay back money that is owed– Greek society starves, goes deeper into debt, and the banks receive back only that money they have already leant. Money is certainly not being extended to the Greek people so that they can survive (the crisis has created a massive public health crisis that is killing people. (see Stuckler and Basu, The Body Economic, pp. 77-96).
By voting “no,” not only have Greeks magnificently refused to give into blackmail and intimidation, they have also exposed the fundamentally undemocratic character of capitalist society and the traditional parties, including social democratic parties, that support it. (If anyone needed more proof than Tony Blair that social democracy is fully incorporated into the capitalist mainstream, Francois Hollande and German Finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble are it). What was so alarming about the referendum was that it gave Greeks an explicit say in the macro-economic policy their government would pursue. Of course, part of the strategy here is brinksmanship of a thoroughly ordinary sort– Tsirpas trying to give himself some leverage in future talks. But principles matter in politics– and the principle instantiated by the referendum is dangerous to the ruling financial oligarchy and orthodoxy: if democracy is a formally legitimate political system, indeed, the one that capitalism is naturally supposed to lead to, and citizens begin to democratically reject cornerstone elements of capitalist society, capitalism will not be able to legitimate itself by its traditional means– that it is the only democratic society. The contradiction between capitalism and democracy will be exposed again, and the capitalists will have to choose to re-impose their will by force (as they have never been shy to do, when pushed) or they will have to yield: in the short term, substantive concessions to Greece, and in the longer term, an opening into which more systematic transformational projects in democratic economic organization in the shared life-interest can be set up.
The no vote clearly does not solve all of Greece’s problems. Nor can they be solved simply by reciting slogans about worker’s control. While it is indeed time, as John Milios and Dimitris P. Sotiropoulos argued back in March, is for Syriza to mobilise the Greek people, not just against the bankers, but for concrete steps towards mobilising Greek labour to rebuild Greek society, not so that the surplus can be pumped out of the country as money-capital for the financial oligarchy to consume, but to satisfy the life-requirements of Greek citizens. But in taking this step caution is required: nothing will spell doom for Syriza more quickly than failed experiments in socialising key sectors of the economy. That is what must be done, but it must be done with care and intelligence, and it will require international solidarity to succeed. That solidarity may be taking shape. In May, Podemos and its allies swept the municipal elections in Spain and are poised to win parliamentary elections in the fall. Should that occur, and the powerful social movements unleashed by resistance to authoritarian austerity in Spain keep a Podemos government pushing to the left, a period of serious challenge, not only to neo-liberal orthodoxy, but to capitalist misrule might really be emerging.