Some second thoughts after this and this. The system of private ownership of the means of production (factories, natural resources etc.) that characterizes the capitalist economies of all developed and many developing countries has proven to be very resilient and very successful economically speaking. Marxism and communism traditionally criticize this system, for many different reasons, the most important one being the alleged exploitation of the workers employed by the owners of these means of production.
However, in this blogpost, I want to focus on another, less well-known criticism. Marxism claims that the private ownership of the means of production yields not only an unfair share of economic power, but also of political power, especially when, as is more and more the case, the means of production also include information production (news, TV, movies etc.).
From the point of view of the defenders of democracy (such as we), that’s a highly relevant criticism, and its relevance hasn’t decreased during the century and a half since it was first expressed. It’s relatively uncontroversial to state that in all democracies the owners of the means of production influence democratic processes with
- financial means (lobbying, campaign finances or outright corruption),
- ideological means – as was already known to Marx
- but also with information technology.
They use these means in order to further their own interests. Well-developed democracies have systems to detect and correct this (a free press for example) but these systems can themselves be “infected”.
Disparities in economic power tend to distort the democratic process. This process is based on the ideal of equal influence and the equal importance of everyone’s interests. But that’s an ideal. Existing democracy, as opposed to ideal democracy, often serves the interests of a particular part of the population (e.g. what marxism called “the ruling class”) rather than the interests of the people, in which case it is perverted or imperfect.
The purely formal abolition of the difference between rich and poor in a democracy – every citizen has one vote and as many rights as the next citizen – cannot hide the reality that some citizens can influence policies and public opinion much more than others and hence have more power. The difference is only abolished formally; in reality, democracy may serve to widen it given the fact that relatively powerful individuals or groups can use democracy to become even more powerful.
The communist theory that politics, including democratic politics, is a capitalist tool or that the state is a “capitalist machine”, has had an enormous success, even with people who are not communists or even anti-communists. Who is not convinced that the numerous military or covert interventions of the United States elsewhere in the world served the interests of American companies and American economic supremacy in general? Or that the elections in democracies are heavily biased by big business which wants politics to serve certain interests and therefore funds candidates, lobbies officials, indoctrinates the public through grossly biased television channels etc.?
The reason for this success is that the theory is based on reality. Politics is to some degree influenced by the economy and communism is still relevant to us today because it reminds us of this and because it was the first theory to systematically expose this. Also relevant and significant today is the theory that oppression is not only a power thing but is also based on ideology, persuasion, information etc.
What we have to reject is the communist insistence on determination. Politics and narratives are influenced but not completely determined by economics. According to communism, the superstructure of consciousness, religion, morality, politics and law is a mere product of the substructure of productive forces and class relations. However, we must accept that politics can be much more than violent oppression, ideological indoctrination or perversion of democracy for the purpose of maintaining class and property relations.
In a democracy especially, we see that politics can be a powerful tool for people to determine and control their common destinies and to expose and undo economic injustices. Consciousness and thinking are obviously much more than ideological shadows of the light of economic reality. (And religion is of course much more than opium for the people. It has many beneficial effects which we need not mention here. Even if it is a bag of illusions, which no one and not even Marx can prove, it is still a fact that religious illusions can have morally beneficial effects and can make life easier to bear. So why try to strip people of their illusions – which has proven very difficult anyway – for the sake of a better yet uncertain future?)
It is wrong to claim, as communism often does, that the economic perversion of democracy is a necessity. Communism sometimes acknowledges that improvements in the situation of the workers can be the product of democratic politics (no room to include citations here). However, these are mere footnotes in communist theory. In most cases, communism demands revolution and an entire change of system, based no longer on the private ownership of the means of production. Private ownership softened by economic and social human rights, social-democracy, legally enforced improvements for the workers etc. is not enough. It doesn’t have to be softened but replaced by the community of the means of production, or communism.
Communism therefore fails to acknowledge the importance of legality, and particularly of democratic participation in legislation and of the use of human rights (especially economic rights) to improve the situation of those who are worst of. Human rights are more than the right to private property. They include economic rights and the participation in democracy by workers’ representatives. The effective exercise of these rights can lead to some kind of redistribution of property, better working conditions, corporate participation and less poverty.
No matter how strong the influence, the economy and economic power do not completely determine politics and law. Human rights and democratic participation for example can and do change the economy. Human rights are more than purely formal, and certainly more than false consciousness, convincing the people that they are equal when they are not, and thereby deflating any pressure for change and maintaining the status quo. They can give power to those who want to change the economy. This is insufficiently acknowledged by communism. It is even likely that communism’s rejection of rights and democracy as bourgeois exploitation tools has facilitated human rights violations of totalitarian communist regimes.