(Following is my contribution to the Long Sunday symposium.)
Seeing as how the contributors so far to the democracy symposium have addressed the current conjuncture, the problems, failures, and relevance of democracy, using more or less contemporary philosophers as their springboards, I feel like a bit of a cornball using a 150-year-old economic text. Anyway, a warning, I guess.
The first dozen pages of the part of Grundrisse now known as the Chapter on Capital–but which Marx himself, significantly or not, called the Chapter on Money as Capital–represent Marx’s most extended, albeit obscure, commentary on the relation between capital and democracy that I’m aware of. The long second paragraph of the section begins
[I]t is in the character of the money relation…that all inherent contradictions of bourgeois society appear extinguished in money relations as conceived in a simple form; and bourgeois democracy even more than the bourgeois economists takes refuge in this aspect (the latter are at least consistent enough to regress to even simpler aspects of exchange value and exchange) in order to construct apologetics for the existing economic relations.
Enter the leftist stressing of ideology and propaganda.
The next line:
Indeed, in so far as the commodity or labour is conceived of only as exchange value, and the relation in which the various commodities are brought into connection with one another is conceived as the exchange of these exchange values with one another, as their equation, then the individuals, the subjects between whom this process goes on, are simply and only conceived of as exchangers.
Enter the romantic revolutionary notion of a natural subjectivity that needs to be recovered from capital’s debasement.
In short, these two sentences would seem to give justification for the two dominant leftist accounts of democracy over the last century or so. The first account, which can go under the not-entirely-accurate rubric of Leninism, gives great weight to the more vituperative phrases in the first example: inherent contradictions, takes refuge, apologetics. The idea is that actually existing democracy’s function is to obscure the inner workings, fundamental inequalities, and potentially explosive antagonisms that necessarily constitute relations in capitalist society. The second variant, which in Marx’s time included the Proudhonists and today could be said to include European socialism, Latin American populists, and various green parties, sees democracy as the agent that can best approximate a return to pure (simple) exchange relations, before capital’s oppositions (capitalist-worker, etc.) took hold. What they share is a view of democracy as more or less neutral–either as yet another superstructure protecting the base or as a disinterested liaison of redistribution–empty, and impotent.
Now that I’m finished with the name-calling and the Leftism 101 lecture, I should point out that everyone seems to have forgotten to read the rest of the paragraph (with good reason, since it does go on for five more pages). Marx’s interest is not in determining the determinative or showing the democratic state to be a empty space between capital and labor, but instead in describing how capitalist exchange relations require the services of two great principles established by liberal democracy: equality and freedom. In commodity production, “the individual has an existence only as a producer of exchange value, hence the whole negation of his natural existence is already implied.” For exchangers in capitalism, simple exchange relations are based on equality: Social distinctions that held in the past are erased and objects of exchange are always equivalent in value. So just as in the marketplace $1 will buy one pound of sugar, in the bazaar of democracy one person will fetch one vote. Similarly, each subject enjoys a freedom from compulsion; one can choose to be an active or passive citizen just as one can choose to save or invest one’s money or spend it as one sees fit. Either way, the action appears to be of the subject’s “own free will and does not in any way arise from the economic relation, the economic connection.”
Marx goes on to say that all of this is, of course, “merely” the appearance, “the surface process, beneath which, however, in the depths, entirely different processes go on, in which this apparent individual equality and liberty disappear. It is forgotten, on one side, that the presupposition of exchange value, as the objective basis of the whole of the system of production, already in itself implies compulsion over the individual.” What Marx makes clear, however, is that these “deeper” dynamics of the economic are not being masked by some great political obfuscation or distraction. Democracy does not merely provide a ideological smokescreen for the inequalities and compulsions inherent to capitalism, and neither is it simply the agent of enforcement for those inequalities and compulsions. Instead, (liberal) democracy and capital are the same process and utilize the same relations, state, nation, citizens, workers, etc., in their functionings. Is it possible, then, to extract some rational moment from the democratic process that is not at the same time a moment in the capitalist process? My provisional answer is no.