29 September 2011

Democracy vs. Democratization: is there a difference?

The October 2011 issue of Monthly Review celebrates the 80th birthday of Egyptian Marxist scholar Samir Amin by publishing two new articles from him. The second of these, "The Democratic Fraud and the Universalist Alternative," is a typical Marxist attack on liberal (or "electoral") democracy. Amin argues that Karl Marx himself was wrong to believe that electoral democracy, based on universal suffrage, would become a "peaceful path to socialism." Instead, "Elections by universal suffrage under these conditions are guaranteed to produce a sure victory for conservatism, albeit sometimes a 'reformist' conservatism." That's because the "concentration of the state's powers on behalf of the ruling class" effectively puts true social change out of reach, resulting in a "relative depoliticization/disacculturation of very large segments of society."Amir is convinced that electoral majorities in an "honestly elected, multi-party assembly" cannot accomplish real social change. The best they can manage is to ratify revolutions carried out by "what, in electoral terms, may appear to be 'minorities'" after the fact. This is a defense of the essential "vanguardist" principle of Bolshevism, even as Amin criticizes aspects of the Bolshevik legacy, and an attack on a "democratic fraud" or pseudo-democracy Amin attributes to the American Founders.

The stage scenery was invented by the Founding Fathers of the United States,with the very clearly expressed intention of keeping electoral democracy from becoming an instrument that could be used by the people to call in question the social order based on private property (and slavery!). With that in mind, their Constitution was based on (indirect) election of a president (a sort of "elective monarch") holding in his hands some essential powers. Presidential election campaigns under these conditions naturally gravitate to "bipartisanism," which tends progressively to become what it is now: the expression of a "single party." Of course, ever since the end of the nineteenth century this has represented the interest of monopoly capital, addressing itself to "clienteles" that view themselves as having different interests.

That's a mostly fair summary of Bipolarchy, though Amin may go to far to describe the Framing as a conspiracy to suppress an agitation against private property that hardly existed outside the Framers' imaginations at their most feverish. There's a certain ideological bias in Amin's protest against this system's exclusion of "a real alternative," since he doesn't really conceive of socialism as an alternative but as an imperative, but the system's exclusionary tendencies should be obvious enough to any objective observer. His Marxist bias muddles Amin's analysis. It's unclear whether the American "democratic fraud" systematically excludes radical change or simply expresses a cultural bias against it. In any event, "democracy" as practised in the U.S. and allied developed countries is simply too individualist for Amin. He prefers a state of perpetual "democratization" that can (and perhaps must) be initiated by vanguard minorities -- an "intelligentsia" as opposed to a mere (albeit demonized) "elite" like that of the U.S. Democratization as Amin means it may best be understood as democracy without constitutional constraints.

Democratization ... considered as full and complete -- that is, democratization involving all aspects of social life including, of course, economic management -- can only be an unending and unbounded process, the result of popular struggles and popular inventiveness. Democratization has no meaning, no reality, unless it mobilizes those inventive powers in the perspective of building a more advanced stage of human civilization. Thus, it can never be clothed in a rigid, formulaic, ready-to-wear outfit.

Democratization entails revolution, the seizing and use of political power. Amin thus has no use, but plenty of scorn, for those radicals who renounce "power" as an evil unto itself -- Antonio Negri is singled out for insult frequently. Democratization can also encompass a period of decentralization, though the thought may seem to go against the Marxist grain, if it means carving out a zone for revolutionary action. For instance, "There is no need to wait for permission from the actual laws to start setting up institutionalized systems (informal, maybe 'illegal'), by permanent and de facto compulsory employer/employee negotiation, for example, to impose equality between men and women, or to subject all important public or private investment decisions to thorough environmental review." In such settings, "truly meaningful elections can take place," but "only after victory, not before." Throughout, we may presume, the vanguard minority will inform us if democratization is actually happening, or if the masses are perpetrating another fraud upon themselves.

I don't propose to dispute Amin's notion that democratization may require coercion, that it may require that "the capitalist monopolies are to be expropriated, nationalized in order to be socialized." But I do worry about the heavy implication that democratization can't be a democratic process in the moral sense of the term, that the people in a capitalist economy or bourgeois culture can't be trusted to democratize themselves without guidance from a minority gifted with definitive and exclusive knowledge of what democracy looks like. Amin himself acknowledges that vanguardism is problematic, that "maintenance of centralized power in the hands of these 'vanguards' was far from uninvolved in the subsequent derailment of the 'socialist' systems that they claimed to have established." But if we can't even begin democratization without a vanguard initiative, how are we ever to know when we won't need the vanguard anymore? If democratization is "unending and unbounded," who's to say it'll ever be time for the vanguard to stand down? But before I end up looking too much like a liberal, let me close with the suggestion that we won't have to wait for a dictatorship of the proletariat to test these premises. History arguably never does without vanguards, and the democratic farce Amin deplores may well be just another case of a vanguard not knowing, even after centuries, when to step aside.


d.eris said...

At the same time, Amin's position may also be relying on an outmoded notion of capitalism. One might argue, for example, that we have progressed from monopoly capitalism to duopoly capitalism.

Anonymous said...

What I'm not understanding here is if the ultimate goal of a socialist system is to ensure complete equality for every single individual (assumably by eliminating class structures and employer/employee hierarchies) how does establishing a vanguard party accomplish this? In such a system, only party members have direct input into the government and that seems to me to be the antithesis of equality.

Really, I think the basis of the problem, is that the average person wants changes, but wants to give up nothing and do no work to achieve it. He/she wants a "government" to just hand them down the "perfect" system in which they may flourish and THAT is simply ridiculous. But to advocate the necessity of a vanguard party to achieve real and lasting change calls into question the motives and motivation of the individuals who rule the vanguard party.

The ONLY way to achieve a "perfect" system is for every single individual to understand that he/she must put equally in to the system in order to equally take from the system. AND he/she must be willing to put the time and effort in to adding he/her voice in to the system (preferably by direct vote). Any other system is destined to promote inequality.