Levers and Labyrinths

Is there a progressive path out of the labyrinth of capitalist democracy?

Review of Levers of Power: How the 1% Rule and What the 99% Can Do About It by Tarun Banerjee, Michael Schwartz, and Kevin Young (Verso, 2020) and Inequality and the Labyrinths of Democracy by Göran Therborn (Verso: 2020)

Legend has it that Leon Trotsky, during his brief New York sojourn of early 1917, began a speech with a ringing appeal to the “workers and peasants of the Bronx.” It sounds too good to be true, and it probably is. We don’t have clear evidence whether the soon-to-be-chairman of the Petrograd Soviet actually spoke these words. But even if the story is apocryphal, it encapsulates how socialists have often been tone-deaf to the dynamics of capitalist democracies and, in turn, the political strategies most likely to promote socialist advance.

Many of the most contentious debates on the US left tend to address questions such as the use of Democratic Party ballot lines, or whether “electoralism” undermines “movement building.” Focusing so much time and energy on these sterile debates means that we often lack an adequate understanding of how exactly capitalist democracies operate, why workers and oppressed people tend to accept its limits when they organize at all, and how best to engage with political institutions designed to channel social conflicts into party competition and legislative bargaining.

Capitalist democracy is not a capitalist economy and a democratic polity operating on two separate and parallel tracks. Instead, they exist in an integral and mutually reinforcing relationship. As Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers explain in On Democracy, capitalist democracy is different from capitalism per se because workers possess political rights that can be used to challenge employers and shape state policies. These rights are crucially important, but their existence does not make the system fully democratic either. In capitalist democracies like the US, the exercise of those rights is constrained not just by material inequality, but by the way these systems channel political action toward the satisfaction of narrow material interests. Armed with political rights but subjected to market dependence and material uncertainty, it makes sense that working people tend to seek the best deal possible within capitalist democracy instead of a break with the system itself. “The structure of capitalist democracy,” Cohen and Rogers conclude, “thus effectively encourages the reduction of politics to striving over material gain.” Why take on the risks of revolution when the existing system can, in however partial and limited a fashion, allow you to fight for the goods?

The historical development of capitalist democracy was far from inevitable. Indeed, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries many held capitalism and democracy to be fundamentally incompatible – no less among the bourgeoisie as the proletarian revolutionaries who sought to overthrow them. Early socialists fought for civil liberties and universal suffrage so the overwhelming numerical force of workers’ votes could sweep away the small minority of exploiters at the polls. As Eugene Debs argued in a 1907 pamphlet called Unionism and Socialism, “labor, at last, is waking up to the fact that it has not been using its political arm in the struggle at all; that the ballot which it can wield is strong enough not only to disarm the enemy, but to drive that enemy entirely from the field.”

Capitalism, however, did not merely survive the rising tide of political rights and universal suffrage. Since the Cold War the proposition that only capitalism, and no other economic system, is compatible with democracy has become an article of faith around the world. How did capitalist democracy go from paradox to seemingly self-evident truth?

In his path breaking 1977 essay “The Rule of Capital and the Rise of Democracy,” recently republished in Inequality and the Labyrinths of Democracy, the Swedish social scientist Göran Therborn sought to solve the puzzle of how formally democratic politics became the vehicle of minority rule in the rich capitalist countries. According to Therborn, capitalist development did in fact make the emergence of democracy possible. Unlike feudalism, where political and economic power is institutionally fused, capitalism is characterized by an institutional differentiation of economics and politics. In place of feudalism’s rigid hierarchies, capitalist social relations generate “an internally competing, peacefully disunited ruling class” on one hand and the modern working class on the other – in Therborn’s words, “an exploited class with capacities of organized opposition far superior to those of any previous one.”

The absence of unity within the ruling class makes necessary the development of a representative polity capable of processing conflicts and facilitating political coordination. This kind of polity is not, however, necessarily democratic. At their inception, these regimes tended to be oligarchic and authoritarian, more or less insulated from popular participation and control. In most cases, a measure of democracy was imposed on them through two main vectors: the struggle of the working class and its allies for political rights, and the domestic politics of foreign wars. Democracy therefore emerged not from capitalism itself but its contingencies and contradictions, “often in relationship to external state wars, and under situations of popular pressure making democratic concession appear a lesser evil than popular rebellion or revolution.”

Kevin Young, Tarun Banerjee, and Michael Schwartz (hereafter YBS) analyze these moments of democratic concession in Levers of Power, an incisive work of historical sociology that takes the measure of capitalist democracy in the US. Following the philosopher John Dewey, their analysis is predicated on the idea that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business,” and that “the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.” Through a number of case studies drawn from recent decades, YBS seek to explain how, as their book’s subtitle puts it, the 1% rules and what the 99% can do about it. In their view, elites and non-elites alike can most effectively wield political power through the threat or actuality of socioeconomic disruption. Business interests do this through disinvestment; state agencies through noncompliance with public policy; popular movements through strikes, protests, and other disruptive withdrawals of consent. If elites ultimately derive their power through control of the economy or state institutions, then that power is best confronted directly at its source – not through the shadowboxing of electoral politics.

YBS do not entirely dismiss the salience of elections. For example, they concede that electoral outcomes help to define legislative agendas, and that progressive reform legislation can sometimes arise in the absence of mass disruption. In their view, however, the shape of public policy owes much more to extra-electoral activity by business interests, state managers, and social movements. By disrupting profit making or the smooth operation of government agencies, social movements can alter elites’ cost-benefit calculations and win concessions electoral action or lobbying is not likely to achieve. In essence, YBS attempt to systematize the strategy Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated for the 1963 civil rights campaign in Birmingham: “if you can pull them [business interests] around, you pull the political power structure because really the political power structure listens to the economic power structure.”

Limits of Social Movement Syndicalism

Levers of Power makes a strong case for what we might call “social movement syndicalism.” To make that case, however, YBS often present incomplete readings of key historical events like the 1930s labor upsurge, and don’t address cases that might refute or at least complicate the basic premise of their argument.

Explaining the sources of New Deal labor policy has long been a topic of controversy in the social sciences. Generally speaking, there are two main schools of explanation. The first follows Mike Goldfield’s emphasis on radical organization and worker insurgency, and the second follows Theda Skocpol’s and Kenneth Finegold’s emphasis on state autonomy and the actions of New Deal Democrats in Congress. YBS are decidedly in Goldfield’s camp. They argue that “labor organizers spent far less time trying to get Democrats elected than on organizing their fellow workers to bring their workplaces to a halt,” and that the fight for unionization only succeeded when workers “completely disrupted industry and forced the bosses to concede those rights.” Workers confronted employers directly, which impeded production and profit making, which in turn compelled politicians and employers to make concessions to workers.

It’s not possible to make sense of New Deal labor reform without highlighting the role of workplace insurgency in breaking the resistance of recalcitrant employers. At the same time, however, it cannot be adequately explained by the insurgency alone. There were explosive periods of working-class struggle before the 1930s (e.g. the upheavals of 1877, the 1880s and 1890s, or 1919), but these did not successfully establish labor’s fundamental right to organize. Labor’s big breakthrough was the result of mutually reinforcing workplace and political action, which together made it possible to pass legislation that was previously blocked.

In a footnote, YBS concede that Section 7(a) of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) “unwittingly helped unleash the strikes” that swept the country from 1934-1937, “much to Roosevelt’s chagrin.” The law’s provisions often went unenforced, and the Supreme Court struck it down in 1935. But by then the genie was out of the bottle. Workers and union organizers took Section 7(a) as a license to organize, regardless of what Roosevelt’s intentions were, and they acted on it. Moreover, it’s unlikely that the key breakthroughs of the period, including the Minneapolis Teamster strikes of 1934 or the auto strikes of 1936-1937, would have succeeded without the presence of sympathetic pro-labor politicians in key offices. In Minnesota, Farmer-Labor Party governor Floyd Olson’s various interventions helped to force the reactionary Citizens’ Alliance to end their war on unionization in the city. In Michigan, New Deal governor Frank Murphy, who won office on the strength of workers’ votes, did not use the state’s National Guard to break the epochal auto worker sit-downs of 1936-1937. In these and other conflicts, employers could no longer expect to automatically receive one-sided support from government officials. The new political reality altered the balance of power in the workplace and made it easier for workers to win than ever before.

Organizing campaigns often could not succeed without neutralizing the police, and that could not be achieved through workplace insurgency alone. Historian Eric Leif Davin’s detailed study of the “political revolution” in 1930s Pennsylvania highlights the importance of political action in achieving this goal. The state’s New Deal governor appointed a United Mine Workers official commander of the state police, and the Pennsylvania National Guard was not used to break strikes as it had in the past. In western Pennsylvania steel towns like Aliquippa and Duquesne, workers and their allies ousted pro-company mayors, sheriffs, and police chiefs. As one of Davin’s interview subjects recalled, “If you’re going to fight the company on a union basis, the cops in town are going to harass you to stop you from organizing. They’ll raid your house and plant moonshine in your house, something of that nature. So, we had to go into politics.” More often than not, they did so as “CIO Democrats” or “True Roosevelt Democrats” opposed to pro-company Republicans and old-line Democrats alike.

In Duquesne, the local Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) leader ran for mayor and won. Then he appointed his brother to be police chief and disarmed the company’s vicious Coal and Iron Police. “In Allegheny County,” he recalled in an interview, “they used to deputize all the mill police…when there was labor trouble, so you didn’t have a chance, see? When I became mayor, I took away all their guns, made them leave them in the plant. They weren’t allowed to go out of the plant without a gun permit. The only one who could give it to them was me…and I just refused to permit them to have a gun.” From then on, local political power in CIO towns was used to support workplace organizing, not combat it, which not only allowed for unionization but the desegregation of public facilities in a number of worker-controlled steel towns. The combined strength of political and industrial organizing powered labor’s victories and made the legislative breakthroughs of the 1930s possible.

YBS’s tendency to reduce politics to a shadow of socioeconomic power also mars their analysis of the Southern civil rights movement. They argue that mass disruption caused by civil rights militancy ”was a prerequisite for the effective implementation of desegregation.” As in their analysis of the 1930s labor upsurge, political actors are portrayed as secondary, essentially passive figures who follow the lead of business elites. Of course, it is not possible to explain the destruction of Jim Crow without thorough consideration of the impact of black protest, or the role business interests played in shaping the official response to that protest. At the same time, we can’t adequately comprehend the nature of that process, which varied from state to state across the South, by relegating politics and political authorities to a lesser role in the story.

Some of the first major blows against Jim Crow, for example, came not from mass resistance but the courts and party politics. The Supreme Court’s 1944 Smith v. Allwright decision abolished the Democratic Party’s white primary, which cracked open the door to black political participation in the South. Four years later, northern New Dealers pushed the national Democratic Party to adopt a pro-civil rights platform that signaled the beginning of the end of Southern Democratic autonomy, the keystone of authoritarian rule in the region. These developments helped to embolden black activists fighting to democratize the region and lessen their debilitating political marginality.

Contemporary cases that do not appear in Levers of Power further complicate the book’s central argument. The Fight for $15 campaign succeeded in putting the demand for a minimum wage increase on the national agenda without the kind of mass disruption YBS cast as essential for progressive political victories. Low-wage workers have staged walkouts and protests around the country, but these have tended to be one-day actions that do not shut down business operations or have a significant impact on corporate profits. Fight for $15 has been waged primarily as a political campaign, and whatever its flaws it has succeeded in raising wages in a number of states and making a federal minimum wage increase a realistic possibility.

In New York, tenant organizers won a major victory in 2019 when the state legislature passed a suite of new rent regulations and tenant protections. While this could not have been achieved without years of dogged tenant organizing, the campaign did not succeed because of mass rent strikes or other forms of disruptive direct action. New York housing activist Sam Stein identifies three main sources of success: long-term organizing by established tenants’ groups and nonprofits; the emergence of political organizations like Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) outside the existing movement infrastructure; and successful primary challenges against Democrats who were blocking progressive legislation. While all three vectors worked together to generate a breakthrough, the third was the vital missing ingredient in earlier, unsuccessful housing fights. As Stein concludes, “this legislative victory could not be achieved without a change in the legislature” that replaced establishment Democrats linked to the real estate industry with insurgents linked to the housing justice and tenants’ movements.

If Fight for $15 and the New York State rent laws exemplify gains without mass disruption, last year’s Black Lives Matter protests illustrate disruptive action with limited gains. An historic wave of protest swept American cities and towns, and brought demands to defund or abolish police departments into the political mainstream. So far, however, policy changes have been minimal, and focused mostly on addressing harm after it’s already been done. Research suggests that police killings declined in places where protests occurred, which is excellent news. But how long will this last in the absence of permanent structural changes to American law enforcement agencies? In Minneapolis, where a police station was torched during protests against George Floyd’s murder, commitments to disband the force have been abandoned. In New York, where large disruptive protests lasted for about a month, the upshot so far has been a bill making it easier to sue police officers and budget gimmickry passed off as a $1 billion “cut” in police funding. The current mayoral campaign, whether warranted or not, is being fought to a significant extent on crime and public safety. It’s likely that the next mayor will be an explicit opponent of the movement to defund the police department. One of the leading candidates, Eric Adams, is a Black ex-cop who routinely argues that the movement is led not by working-class people of color but “young white affluent people.” As of this writing, he is first or second in nearly every publicly available poll, and has been endorsed by many of the city’s most heavily Black and Latino labor unions.

It is far from clear that more disruptive protest would have resulted in more concrete steps toward defunding or abolition; if anything, the ambivalence concerning police defunding that exists in many working-class communities of color suggests otherwise. In this case, a long-term campaign of popular education, political organizing, and alternative policy development may result in bigger and more durable gains than a primary reliance on mass disruptive protest.

Out of the Labyrinth

Levers of Power is mainly concerned with identifying the best strategies for winning concessions within the bounds of capitalist democracy. But YBS also recognize the need to do away with the capitalist limitations on democracy and build a new social order that actually meets the needs of the vast majority. Unfortunately, however, their sketches of how to lay the basis for that kind of systemic transformation are not convincing.

In brief, YBS propose that mass protest disruption can potentially spill over into revolutionary struggles. “Once people become accustomed to confronting oppressive institutions and winning reforms, they will become more aware of the inherent limitations of reforming those institutions, and will push for more radical transformation.” This formulation bears a resemblance to the politics of “socialism from below,” certain strands of anarchism, and various forms of direct action radicalism. Simply put, its conception of radical transformation, in which mass struggles for material demands grow over into an insurrectionary general strike or dual power situation, has never seemed plausible to anyone in rich capitalist democracies besides the most ideologically motivated.

The fight for reforms is crucial to any anti-capitalist project, but it is very difficult to translate these fights into a revolutionary movement. This is precisely because, as observed above, capitalist democracy allows people to organize for the partial satisfaction of material interests. Since it’s possible to win these concessions, even if they entail conflict with powerful elites, why not seek them out? By the same token, why risk revolutionary action against the vast repressive capacities of a wealthy, technologically and militarily advanced capitalist state? Faced with these choices and incentives, it’s no wonder that the exploited and oppressed, in those moments when they have engaged in collective political action, have not turned to revolutionary politics to achieve their goals.

Is there any way out of capitalist democracy’s labyrinth? In his essay “Dysfunctional Democracies,” Therborn gives us the sobering reminder that in “the liaison between capitalism and democracy, capitalism has transformed democracy more than democracy has transformed capitalism.” Even so, he is far from resigned to the status quo, and his concept of “disruptive democracy” gives us some useful starting points of a path out of the present impasse.

Because the original social underpinnings of democratic politics have come undone, the shape of contemporary democratic politics will necessarily be different. As Therborn observes, in the wake of the labor movement’s decline “popular egalitarianism has not disappeared…but it has become more latent than organized, with sporadic outbursts rather than a continuous accumulation of strength.” It’s quite possible that post-industrial capitalism has undermined the structural power of subordinate groups, making new gains relatively more dependent on political mobilization than leveraging the position of workers in the economic system.

Like YBS, Therborn recognizes the need for “popular movements, popular protests, popular riots” in the fight for a new social order, but he does not necessarily prioritize these over participation in elections, political parties, and legislative institutions. While YBS accept Robert Brenner’s claim that it is “rarely if ever conceivable” that political mobilization can facilitate the development of mass struggle, Therborn leaves this possibility open. Rightly so, considering the fruitful interaction between electoral and extra-electoral action that is unfolding here in the US today.

If there is a progressive path out of capitalist democracy, it may echo, if not duplicate, the course of events that led to the destruction of slavery. In such a scenario, a political party with an ambitious reform program and allied with a dynamic social movement would be elected to national office and, in turn, face the capitalist equivalent of a slaveholders’ rebellion. Faced with a crisis, the reformers would be forced to make a choice: renege on their commitments, or use the combined power of state and movement to see them through – even if that entails going further than originally intended. The process would culminate with roles reversed, the radicals now defenders of the legitimate democratic government against its opponents, poised to complete the project of Reconstruction that began 150 years ago.