Maverick Citizen

Op-ed Destroying Democracy Part One

The crisis of democracy: The importance of reclaiming democracy from neoliberal capitalism and creeping authoritarianism

Democracy is essential for any transformative politics that seek social, ecological, economic and political justice. How democracy’s crisis is resolved is linked to the capacity of society and the state to push for new forms of organising our social world and to limit the economy’s power over these other realms.  

The crisis of democracy is undeniable. What is less obvious is that democracy’s destruction is not simply a problem of politics requiring political solutions. Fixing politics, restoring democratic sensibilities (including fact-based decision-making), enhancing democratic publics, and overcoming a politics of hate are extremely important — but are not enough to save democracy. 

They will not save democracy because the sources of democracy’s destruction lay in a systemic, intersecting crisis combining four strands of crises in the economy, ecology, social reproduction, and politics.  

Democracy’s destruction, thus, is one manifestation of the broader crisis created by neoliberal capitalism. By neoliberal capitalism, I refer not only to economic liberalisation including privatising state assets, liberalising markets (including labour markets), deregulating financial institutions, the ascendancy of transnational regulatory agencies, and dismantling state welfare support systems.  

I also refer to neoliberal rationality that assigns economic metrics to all aspects of life, including non-human life, where the state, non-human nature, society and social reproduction are valued in terms of their contribution to economic interests.

History shows that capitalism generates periodic crises through the way in which it organises economic activity (contradictions within production) but also in the way the economy intersects with three other arenas: non-human nature, the necessary conditions of social reproduction, and political power and the state. 

When crises occur simultaneously in all these realms, they combine into a systemic crisis. As history has shown, capitalism is vulnerable to structural transformations that result in new ways of organising production and in the economy’s relation to nature, polities, and social reproduction.  

We are living in such a time of systemic crisis. Democracy’s fate is, then, tethered to the larger social matrix that includes the organisation of social relations in the economy and the inter-realm spaces between the economy and nature, the economy and social reproduction, and the economy and polities. 

Yet, the crisis of democracy demands our attention because democratic political power is essential to resolving the crises in the other realms. In fact, democracy is essential for any transformative politics that seek social, ecological, economic and political justice. How democracy’s crisis is resolved is linked to the capacity of society and the state to push for new forms of organising our social world and to limit the economy’s power over these other realms.  

Yet democracy has come under fierce criticism for failing to deliver on its promises. To clarify these muddied waters, I show below that democracy’s contested meanings have allowed it to be hollowed out, and the way to re-democratise democracy is through creative initiatives reconstituting democratic power by building anti-capitalist social relations in the interstitial spaces within capitalism and beyond capitalism.  

Contestation within and over democracy

The bifurcated politics coursing through polities across the world are in essence struggles over the very nature and content of democracy. We see the growth of neo-fascist, populist political leaders and movements in places such as the United States, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Brazil, India, Germany, Italy, and in South Africa in the Economic Freedom Fighters, all of which raise exclusionary appeals that resonate with large numbers of precarious people abandoned by traditional political parties. The rise of these movements through electoral democratic systems raises questions about the merits of democracy. 

At the same time, we also see unprecedented pro-democracy protests in terms of scale, issues, breadth and intensity across the world, which share a resistance to the rise of authoritarian politics. These countervailing forces are simultaneously articulating narrow and exclusionary understandings of democracy as well as more expansive and inclusive notions of democracy. 

Both the rise of authoritarian politics and the robust defence of democratic spaces are responses to capitalism’s multiple crises unravelling societies’ capacities to sustain life and flourish. 

How can such opposing forms of political practices, visions and understandings make claims to democracy? 

The contestation over democracy stems in part from the fact that it is an ideal that allows for many permutations emphasising different principles, values, procedures and institutional arrangements. 

Democracy is in essence rule by the people, and not rule by others. It is the only form of rule that seeks people collectively ruling themselves. In this way, it is fundamentally different from all other forms of rule such as plutocracy (rule by and for the rich), aristocracy, monarchy, dictatorship, fascism, vanguardism (rule by an elite within a political party), or “corporatocracy” (rule by corporations).  

Equality and liberty

When we speak of democracy we implicitly refer to necessary components for practising democracy and aspirational principles of democracy. 

Democracy has at least two essential components –administrative capacity and public legitimacy — and two primary principles: equality and liberty. On the institutional side, democracy requires states to have administrative capacity and the ability to implement public policy in the public interest. 

A capable state is able to develop and implement laws and public policy that reflect the broader interests of the public, including steering economic activity in the interests of society, protecting the natural world, supporting social reproduction, and ensuring democratic public institutions for people’s participation. 

The state must have the capacity to ensure that private interests, such as large corporations and the economic and political elite, comply with state regulation in the interest of the public as well as financial accountability of public funds. Without strong, efficacious and accountable administrative capacity within all levels of the state, democracy is undermined and eroded.  

Democracy also requires arenas and mechanisms for civil society and publics to engage the state around public interest and to voice public opinions about the state’s regulations to which the governed are subjected. State legitimacy is secured through public engagement around what constitutes the public interest and translating these interests into state policy and action. A robust, organised, engaged and informed citizenry is essential to ensuring efficacious public engagement as democracy is realised through practising democracy around concrete issues. 

Legitimacy is achieved through democratic means such as active political participation by a wide range of constituents through civil society organisations, local governmental institutions, participatory forums, and open, free and fair media, and who ensure financial accountability and transparent and participatory budgeting, policy-making and implementation processes. 

Thus, democracy requires both state capacity as well as state legitimacy.   

Fundamental to the contestation within democracy are two foundational principles — equality and liberty (i.e. freedom) — that contain varied meanings depending on emphases. The concept of liberty ranges from simple non-interference to a more robust notion of independence from arbitrary power and non-domination by others. 

On the one side, the emphasis on liberty as non-interference sets the basis for free markets as the state should not interfere to regulate markets, and lays the basis for minimal state support in social welfare as individuals are responsible for their own development. 

Liberalism promotes significant universal rights such as universal suffrage, universal education, human rights, civil rights, and freedom of association, speech and press. However, when married to liberty as non-interference, these rights are interpreted through the lens of possessive individualism elevating individuals above the common good.  

On the other side — usually associated with social justice, egalitarian liberals and republicans — law and policy can enhance freedom by curtailing the arbitrary power of others and thus a “liberty-protecting state” ensures that no institution (including the state, corporations or markets), person or other entity has arbitrary power over others.  

State intervention for protection

For a more expansive notion of democracy, this second notion of liberty and freedom is central as it allows state intervention to ameliorate and protect against inequalities of power and wealth, and protects citizens from arbitrary power and domination. 

This also implies that democratic decision-making is not limited to the political sphere as a liberty-protecting state regulates the economy and redefines the inter-realm boundaries between the economy and social reproduction and non-human nature. While it too promotes universal rights, it emphasises the relativity of rights in relation to others and the collective good. Thus, the importance of a liberty-protecting state for a robust and expensive democracy cannot be overstated. 

The other contested notion is equality. 

Liberal democracy foregrounds equality of opportunity, which assumes everyone starts from the same conditions and ignores pre-existing inequalities. Equality of opportunity together with liberty as non-interference limits state involvement in protecting the population and the natural world from the market and minimises state-supported social welfare. In this framework, individuals are free to compete equally to achieve their life choices. 

A more expansive notion of democracy, by contrast, defines equality in terms of equality of outcomes and recognises the necessity for state intervention in achieving equality. The creation of high-quality democratic public goods — such as public transportation, public schools, public health systems, public spaces for recreation and enjoyment — and the social wage — both income distribution and the distribution of goods and services including forms of government support such as grants, subsidised housing, subsidised food systems — are central to achieving equality of outcomes. Thus, redistributive programmes seeking equality of outcomes by a liberty-enhancing state are essential for achieving social justice. To do this requires state administrative capacity and active citizens engaging the state. 

If these are the necessary components and principles of democracy, why do we not live in such a democracy? 

Why do we not have a liberty-enhancing state pursuing equality of outcomes through efficacious democratic state institutions in cooperation with active and engaged citizens? 

The answers to these questions essentially lie in the way in which democracy has been eroded and hollowed out by the ascendancy of economic interests and the weakening of democratic state capacity.  

Nevertheless, the more expansive form of democracy continues to find its mooring in local communities, social movements and popular struggles for a more egalitarian world. There are democratic experiments happening around the world in cooperative forms of production, consumption and finance, participatory budgeting, local community-owned energy grids, alternative currencies, transition towns, and local food movements.  

Taken together these experiments are developing prefigurative practices involving new forms of power, the reproduction of the commons, and democratic self-management. They are recalibrating the inter-realm boundaries between the economy and social reproduction, the natural world, and public power in order to retool economic activity in the service of society. They represent crucial experiments in robust and expansive democracy and they are growing in numbers and sophistication around the world.

The history of democracy makes clear that it is an ongoing process, an ongoing struggle. It is time to reclaim democracy to become genuinely people-centred, to create a better, more just, more egalitarian world.  Democracy is not perfect, but it remains the only form of government where people collectively govern themselves. DM/MC

Michelle Williams is Professor of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She is chairperson of its Global Labour University Programme and has published widely on democracy, development, gender and South-South comparisons.

This is the first in a series of ten essays by authors of chapters in Destroying Democracy, neoliberal capitalism and the rise of authoritarian politics, Volume 6 in the Democratic Marxism series recently published by Wits University Press and edited by Michelle Williams and Vishwas Satgar. The sixth Volume centres on how the global democratic project is being eroded by decades of neoliberal capitalism and how authoritarian politics are gaining ground. The essays focus on four country cases — India, Brazil, South Africa and the United States of America — in which the Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled the pre-existing crisis. They interrogate issues of politics, ecology, state security, media, access to information and political parties, and affirm the need to reclaim and rebuild an expansive and inclusive democracy.

Destroying Democracy is an invaluable resource for the general public, activists, scholars and students who are interested in understanding the threats to democracy and the rising tide of authoritarianism in the global south and global north. It is freely available as open access at


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