The Crisis of Democracy is a Crisis of the Left


Thank you, your comment will be visible after it has been approved.


November 13, 2018

The Crisis of Democracy is a Crisis of the Left

A capitalism transformed by a strong version of social democracy should be our political goal

By Michael Walzer

  • Capitalism
  • Democracy
  • Economics
  • Identity Politics
  • Politics
  • United States

This symposium contains essays by Michael Walzer, Sheri Berman, Leo Casey, and Jeffrey C. Isaac that reflect on the principles and possibilities of social democracy and liberal democracy in our current political times. The pieces constitute extensions of the authors’ presentations in the “Crisis of Democracy” panel that took place at the American Political Science Association 2018 Annual Meeting, organized by Leo Casey and originally convened to respond to pieces published in a special issue of Dissent magazine.

It is a crisis for democracy when the left is weak and unable to mobilize its natural constituency. All I want to do today is to unpack that sentence.

Why is this a crisis? Democracy requires some degree of equality, but capitalism and neo-liberal economic policies produce inequality: a steady pressure toward hierarchical relations and a greater and greater gap between the top and bottom of the hierarchy.

That pressure has to be resisted if democracy is to flourish, maybe if democracy is to survive, and the strongest and most consistent resistance will come from those who suffer the most from inequality, the unequals, those at the lower end of the hierarchy.

That is the natural constituency of the left, and it is only when that constituency is mobilized by the left, on the left, that inequality can be resisted and reduced — as it was in the 1930s and again in the 1960s.

When that constituency is repressed, disenfranchised, its organizations broken, its members divided by demagogic politicians and turned against one another, and when the left loses contact with a significant number of its members, and isn’t able to organize them for political action, then inequality grows, and democracy is in crisis.

How to describe the left’s constituency? African-Americans, Hispanics, women, and gay men and women are all part of it — and not only those of their members living precariously, at or near the bottom of the hierarchy. Because of historical patterns of oppression and discrimination, all of their members are part of the left’s constituency. Victories for these groups, conceived separately as so-called “identity groups,” serve to reduce particular forms of inequality, but they don’t reduce, or at least they haven’t reduced, inequality generally. All the victories are, of course, only partial, radically incomplete; still, so far they appear to be fully consistent with growing inequality. That’s the story of the last 50 years.

The civil rights movement had its partial successes, feminism has had greater success, gay rights are increasingly recognized and acknowledged — and inequality has been growing all this time.

I don’t mean to endorse the current critique of “identity politics.” These partial victories are very important; they have improved the lives of many people, and it is necessary to continue to fight as best we can to complete them. But that’s not a sufficient politics. Inequality also has to be addressed in its most general form, its economic form, because this inequality affects all parts of the left’s constituency. It isn’t particular to any of them; it is experienced collectively, and it is the only basis for a general mobilization.

If the crisis of democracy is produced by radical inequality, then we have to address inequality where its effects are most widespread. Yes, we have to continue fighting racial and gender inequalities because they are unjust and because they are part of the larger story. But it is a fact, though one denied by many on the left, that capitalism can accommodate proportionate numbers of blacks, and women, and Hispanics, and gay men and women at every level of its hierarchy, including the upper levels — and still be capitalism. The hierarchy will, no doubt, be significantly different; it will certainly look different, but it won’t necessarily be any less hierarchical or any less oppressive for those at the bottom.

So it is capitalist inequality that we have to address and address directly — through regulation and taxation, through the expansion of welfare programs, and also, perhaps most importantly, by reviving the countervailing power of the labor movement. I don’t know if a political program of this sort would bring back those parts of the left’s constituency that it has lost, but it would be a program aimed at doing that — and so a necessary program.

NB: I am not arguing for the old left position that when we overthrow the capitalist system, we will solve all other social problems. First, capitalism is not, I’m afraid, ripe for overthrow. Second, I don’t believe that the left right now has a plausible replacement for the productive power of capitalism (which Marx extolled in the Manifesto) and, third, we have learned that state-administered five year plans are not in fact better than a regulated and pluralized market economy. So, a capitalism tamed and transformed by a strong version of social democracy — that should be our political goal. That would address, I think it would resolve, the crisis of democracy because it would significantly reduce the steepness of the hierarchy, and it would open new opportunities for political action by what would still be the natural constituency of the left, revived and strengthened.

Whether any of this is possible given the longterm transformation of the workforce and of working life generally in the US, I don’t know. Maybe the precariat will turn out to be nothing like the old proletariat, too vulnerable, too fearful, too disorganized for cooperative and sustained political activity. But for the moment we need an “as if” politics: we have to act as if it is still possible to mobilize the bottom of the hierarchy against the top.

Michael Walzer is Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, School of Social Science in Princeton. His latest book is A Foreign Policy for the Left (2018) and he is currently working on a collaborative project focused on the history of Jewish political thought.


Leave a reaction with this article