Capitalism X Democracy

One of the reasons for the success of capitalism in liberal democracies (i.e. ‘successful’ from the point of view of capitalists) was the protection to property and entrepreneurialism that liberal democracies afforded. Let us not forget that one of the feats of liberal democratic states was to protect individuals FROM THE STATE, especially if these individuals belonged to the emerging bourgeoisie and were worried about the protection of their assets and their persons. Previous political systems had been notoriously bad at protecting people’s rights (and indeed, people had access to an uneven and fluctuating rights and duties).

The problem is that now democracy is becoming an obstacle to business.

First, a true liberal democratic state gives a voice to all its citizens. This is all very well for business, but when these citizens demand dignified salaries, protection against abuse from employers, pensions, etc, democracy is suddenly not that good for business anymore.

Things get “worse” when citizens demand accountability from business and demand the state really acts to create public goods and, significantly, to prevent businesses from creating negative externalities. Public goods are free at the point of consumption, so not really the best business model. For example: public health is a public good in many countries, but in the US it is a commodity. Free health care is seen with horror by those who see public health as a source of profit.

Most economic activity (such as car production or oil extraction) produces negative externalities, which, as we know, are shared by the whole society. One of the most crucial negative externalities issued from fossil fuel use (thus not only related to production, but also to consumption) is climate change. A citizen’s movement demanding their governments fight climate change is especially bad for business. 

But right now, we are at a crossroad in which our democracies are being eroded by big business in favour of flexibilisation and a very radical version of neoliberalism. But big businesses are not happy fighting for the preservation of their business models: they are fighting the very foundations of the system that challenges their business models. They do that by influencing politicians and, most crucially, by financing anti-democratic political parties. Major political parties are not so keen on liberal democracy anymore, or are simply not defending democracy: the Republican Party in the US, the Tories in the UK, major parties in Brazil, the Law and Justice party in Poland, Fidezs in Hungary, the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, all are claiming for a reduced form of democracy that does not extend to all members of society but only to those who “conform” to certain rules these parties see as “essential” for citizenship. 

An example is the abandonment of Muslim citizens by the current Indian state: India is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country and it has citizens from all major religions. The Bharatiya Janata Party declares that only Hindus are “true citizens” and have full rights. These political parties are in fact radical political forces using a discourse of us versus them, often translated in fear of immigration, other times translated by a fear of communism, in order to impose neoliberalism by force of ideology and real or imagined “culture wars”. The attacks on the LGBT community in Poland, for example, are just an excuse to reduce democracy, mobilise the masses and desensitise them from the fact the State is NOT addressing the real issues at hand (depletion of our planet’s resources, climate change, etc). These countries aim to distract citizens from the fact their rights are being eroded, and they are losing their rights in favour of Uberization and other forms of “flexible” work  (i.e. work without any guarantees or protections, free to produce profit without the constraints of citizens’ rights.

I would say neoliberalism is the most radical ideology to come along in a very long time, because it is able to convince citizens to hand their hard-fought rights to political movements that do not have any promise of shared collective prosperity, but only foresee the dominance of the market in all human exchanges.

Neoliberalism is right now trying to convince us that democracy is disposable: that democracies don’t work so well after all, and that we need to move towards illiberal democracy, in which the space of rights is very reduced.

This is a tragedy for all of us, but also a tragedy for the environment, because we can only address issues like climate change collectively, in societies where there is public accountability.

Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple not only don’t pay taxes where they should, they are also undermining faith in mechanisms that would put their power and business models in check.

So, suddenly, liberal democracies are not good for business anymore, and they have to go. Naomi Klein explores part of this process in her brilliant “The shock doctrine” in which she tries to explain how governments use crises, and fake crises most of all, to curtail the rights of citizens, to cut their benefits and to shrink the public sphere.

The problem is:  our planet cannot afford us to ditch democracy. I reiterate, only democracy provide us the tools to tackle climate change collectively, with socio-spatial justice as a cornerstone of sustainability.


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