The Fetishization of Democracy Stops on the Clock

By Doctor Comrade

The Cold War rhetoric about the supremacy of democracy remains a central tenet of contemporary American political babble. Politicians from both major political parties are quick to cite the will of the people, the demands of their constituents, and the requirements of a democratic country whenever they propose something. From claims about the Moral Majority from Republicans or civic equality from Democrats, democracy and its attendant discourses endure as our guiding motif. We can also criticize the hypocrisy of both political parties on these grounds: voter suppression in voter ID laws, religious liberty claims, convicted felons losing their voting rights, Election Day isn’t a national holiday, judicial activism by unelected judges, unconstitutional laws being passed every year, etc. We already know that democracy as a spoken value is often violated by the actions of democratically chosen legislators.

But what about those leaders who are not democratically elected, yet whose decisions affect our daily lives? Why are CEOs, regents, trustees, shareholders, and every kind of boss free from the strictures of democracy in the putative world’s greatest democracy?

And why, if democracy is such a central value to American society, do some of its most steadfast rhetorical apologists repudiate democracy in the workplace (examples: Trump, Walker, Paul, Carson, Fiorina)? Consider Lenin’s analysis in State and Revolution:

In capitalist society, providing it develops under the most favourable conditions, we have a more or less complete democracy in the democratic republic. But this democracy is always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in effect, a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich. Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slave-owners. Owing to the conditions of capitalist exploitation, the modern wage slaves are so crushed by want and poverty that ‘they cannot be bothered with democracy’, ‘cannot be bothered with politics’; in the ordinary, peaceful course of events, the majority of the population is debarred from participation in public and political life….

Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich—that is the democracy of capitalist society. If we look more closely into the machinery of capitalist democracy, we see everywhere, in the ‘petty’—supposedly petty—details of the suffrage (residential qualifications, exclusion of women, etc.), in the technique of the representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for ‘paupers’!), in the purely capitalist organization of the daily press, etc., etc.,—we see restriction after restriction upon democracy. These restrictions, exceptions, exclusions, obstacles for the poor seem slight, especially in the eyes of one who has never known want himself and has never been in close contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life (and nine out of 10, if not 99 out of 100, bourgeois publicists and politicians come under this category); but in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy.

Lenin is specifically referring to parliamentary democracy, the denial of voting rights for various groups, and the absence of true political democracy in the world’s republics. Not only were Lenin’s observations prescient about twenty-first century America, but they can also be easily applied to the lack of democracy in American workplaces. For American workplaces, democracy is limited to a board of directors or a set of shareholders, the “insignificant minority, democracy for the rich,” where the workforce, those whose daily lives are affected by the decisions made by this arrangement, “the majority of the population is debarred from participation.”

The question that must always be asked when examining the material conditions in a society is: who benefits from the current alignment of historical, political, and economic circumstances? If we observe the decline of unions, the lack of working class cohesion, growing wealth inequality, and the undemocratic nature of the workplace, we must conclude that the capitalist class benefits from, and systematically arranged, the material conditions under which we currently exist.

democracy undermines capitalism

What becomes evident is that democracy is only a rhetorical device, deployed when convenient in order to appear patriotic. Bracketing, for a moment, the intentional vote suppression carried out by Republicans (Florida in 2000, attacks against the Voting Rights Act, voter ID laws, etc.), we know that democracy-as-rhetoric is a fundamental aspect of American political discourse. We also know that democracy, as a stated value, has been strictly delimited as a political value, a civic value, as something that should be completely separated from all other realms of social interaction.

Specifically, American culture fetishizes democracy, but purposefully limits its application when it undermines free-market capitalism. Anti-union policies, stretching as far back as the mid-nineteenth century, have sought to limit the strength of unions by either dismantling them or limiting their ability to bargain collectively. State and federal military forces, and private armies, like Pinkertons and the Coal and Iron Police, have been used to break union actions, like the Great Coalfield War in 1914, the Molly Maguires, and the Pullman Strike in 1894. When unions, representatives of workers, assert democratic action against the market, the government and capitalist class push back. These actions help delimit American democracy: democracy is strictly political, limited, and circumspect.

Democracy purports to be a system of equality in which every citizen is entitled to an equal, rational decision-making ability. It is the classic result of Enlightenment philosophy. But when democracy is strictly political, it is inherently limited, elitist, and unegalitarian, which violates the philosophical precepts that support it. The ruptures of democracy occur in the workplace; American workplaces are almost uniformly hierarchical and autocratic, with power flowing downwards from the top of the corporate pyramid, which is overseen by a group of appointed officials (CEOs, CFOs, etc.).The main body of the workplace, the workforce, does not decide the corporate structure, its leaders, or even its most minor bosses.

Elected officials are expected to represent the will of their constituents. Obviously, this is not always the case, but that is the stated goal of having a representative democracy. In the economic sphere, where income inequality actually dwarfs Americans’ understandings of the gulf between rich and everyone else, the undemocratic nature of our social hierarchy pays immense dividends to the wealthy at the expense of American workers. The wealthy have increased their earnings while everyone else has seen wages stagnate. It should also come as no shock that union membership has consistently declined for fifty years.

The problem arises from the disconnect between the laborer and the boss. In classic Marxian theory, the laborer produces a commodity, which the capitalist sells for profit. The capitalist does not represent the interests or the needs of the worker because the capitalist is not beholden to the worker’s interests. We shouldn’t be surprised when CEOs work tirelessly for the betterment of shareholders rather than (and at the expense of) workers. Shareholders elect CEOs, not workers. This point plays out in two important ways: shareholders choose CEOs which best represent their interests, and CEOs work for the benefits of their electors. To borrow a term from political science and selectorate theory, CEOs represent the will of their winning coalition, the people whose support guarantees that the CEO will remain in power. Because workers have no role in choosing a CEO, they are not part of the winning coalition, and therefore can be safely ignored. However, to maintain their winning coalition, the CEO must provide tangible goods to remain in power, and that’s why we observe CEOs focusing on shareholder desires rather than workforce needs. That is why collective bargaining is so threatening: it seeks to undermine the absolute control that CEOs and shareholders have over the products of labor.

Democracy threatens capitalism because a democratized workforce represents itself; it represents its own interests rather than the interest of the boss. In a system where every employee counts the same, the boss’ interests are overtaken by the interests of the workforce.

We elect city council members, state legislators, senators, congresspeople, Presidents, and dogcatchers. But we don’t elect our bosses.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina blames unions for gender inequality, but the gender wage gap is 40% smaller for unionized workers, and it’s shrinking. The real question is who was to blame when Carly Fiorina laid off 30,000 workers at HP? Would those same 30,000 people have voted to terminate themselves, or would they have favored policies that didn’t funnel $4 billion into stock buybacks? (Incidentally, $4 billion is enough to pay 30,000 people an annual salary of $133,333. Or, going strictly by the number cited in the Daily Beast article [14,500], you could pay that many people $68,965 per year for four years.)

Democracy in the workplace is a class-consciousness issue. The capitalist class is completely conscious of its class interests, and it has subjected the American workforce to these demands for centuries. American workers, whether they support or resist a democratized workplace, suffer under the ideological burden that democracy is a political value, not an economic necessity. This bourgeois notion must be dismantled—ideologically, consciously, and then politically—in order to guarantee workers the freedom to which they are entitled: self-determination, creativity, fairness, and fulfillment of basic needs.