Towards a Critique of the Democratic Form (Draft) B. York

This text was written for discussion within the Internationalist Perspectives group. Its premise is that the democratic form is structured by the alienated form of value. It origins and its expansion have always been linked to the preservation of private property and later the production of value. Even in its working class variations, democracy is still a technology of power that presupposes the individual defined as an abstract set of rights. Democracy here is conceived as the substrate of all political forms including dictatorships and fascism itself.

Submitted by B.York on August 21, 2013

Towards a Critique of the Democratic Form (DRAFT)

“This is What Democracy Looks Like”


Chanted throughout the recent Occupations, this slogan could have been understood in two ways. The first, ironically, as protesters shouted amidst the pepper-spray, concussion-grenades and general police brutality i.e. “this is what [their] democracy looks like.” Alternatively the slogan could have been understood as an affirmation of the collective action that emerged from the general assemblies where every voice of the protest could be metaphorically heard, i.e. “this is what [our] democracy looks like.” Once again democracy has been forcefully posited as a question.

It seems relatively easy to launch a critique of their democracy, the democracy of the 1%, as it clear to any with eyes to see that it is a democracy in name only with barely a trace of democratic content, where sovereign rights are routinely abused, political participation is effectively denied and a plutocratic elite increasingly rule with impunity, that is to say, it is no democracy at all, or so it would appear.

But what seems to be the universal demand for real democracy, the democracy of the 99%, is in essence a demand for bringing the formal structure of democracy in line with its presumed true content. However, neither the form nor the content of “real” democracy is in any way self-evident. The pre-supposition that drives both the reformist and the radical vision of the democratic demand is that the form of democracy has a relative autonomy independent of the actual content. Democracy in this view is a supra-historical ideal form to which competing social relations can be inserted. The reformist demand is to fill the form with the content of a true majority where every individual voice is equal without the distorting influences of money and class, or the prejudices of race, gender, ethnicity etc. With the assumption of autonomy of form, one can envisage a progressive move towards the real content of democracy as laws are passed to limit influences not derived exclusively from the sovereignty of each individual. By way of the historic struggles to extend rights, the formal or ideal democracies posited by the democratic revolutions of the 18th century, come progressively closer to expressing the actual social content of universal self-rule.

A more radical critique of bourgeois (really existing) democracy asserts that class relationships in the capitalist sphere of production are so powerful and so entrenched in the mechanisms of state power as to preclude a “real” democracy without the simultaneous destruction of those same class relations. That is, democracy is understood as operating within the strict limits of capitalist productive relations and is subsumed by the military and economic power of the ruling class. Such a position, insofar as it posits a more radical critique, further suggest that the essential function of really existing democracy within capitalism is principally an ideological one, to pacify or mobilize the masses to support the capitalist state itself and to foster the illusion of self-rule, the objective content which is to ensure the mass participation in their own subordination and exploitation. Real democratic demands can be met within limits but such limits could never be exceeded without democratic rights being immediately annulled through the use of “emergency” powers, anti-sedition or anti-terrorist laws. In other words, the limits of bourgeois democracy are strictly determined by the mode of production and balance of class forces. There will never be a referendum to eliminate exploitation.

What both of these critiques have in common, the reformist and the radical, is to conceive the form of democracy as an autonomous, supra-historical empty vessel that, in one case will eliminate all class content, and in the other will change the class content according to the present balance of social forces. In the first case, with a gradual and progressive expansion of democratic rights without limits and in the second, with a revolutionary rupture that will take the form of a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat. That is to say that proletarian democracy is not part of a continuum with bourgeois democracy but its total negation. However, the form of democracy, with appropriate modification, remains untouched.

The democratic demand is in fact among the central points of convergence across the entire political spectrum within the movement itself. From insurrectionary anarchists to right leaning populists, each with their own ideology, the demand for “real” democracy is the lingua franca of the movement. This should give us pause when we consider that in addition to this strange and untenable unity that the aggressive extension of democracy is also the poison tip of western imperialism, from the nation building in Iraq to the NAFTA. President Clinton was himself the most ardent in insisting that free trade is the precondition for true freedoms in a democratic society and that democracy is the necessary condition of free trade.

We have many ideal democracies, each filled with a different content: the libertarian democracy of absolute sovereign rights of the individual; the proletarian democracy with exclusive rights of the exploited class; or the neo-liberal democracy of buyers and sellers etc. Democracy, it appears, is the uncontested natural form of all expressions of self-rule. But, such self-rule always has a class content, that is to say that democracy is a subject that always has a predicate that delineates and excludes: bourgeois democracy, proletarian democracy, union democracy etc. The question for both the reformist and the radicals it seems is not for or against democracy, but rather what will be the social content of the universal supra-historical form of self-rule?

However, the question of a “real” democracy is more complex than it first appears. As a political form democracy is posited by discordant ideologies with opposing class interests as the universal pre-supposition for human emancipation. But a revolutionary critique of democracy cannot end with a critique of its social and class content alone, it must question exactly what is pre-supposed, that is, we must ask why emancipation must take the form, if indeed it must, of democracy? Further, we must ask the correlate question, if the democratic form proves to be problematic, even an obstacle, is there a non-democratic praxis that is at the same time non-authoritarian and equally emancipatory?

In exploring the question of the democratic form, we take as our starting point the materialist doctrine that social being conditions consciousness, a consciousness that in turn conditions social being and human praxis. Consciousness is not a gift of the Gods, but something that emerges from the totality of human activity. The relationship between consciousness and praxis is not one of a mono-logical singular determination but rather a complex set of reciprocal determinations that always generate an excess of effects. Specifically, there is always some praxis that escapes consciousness and some consciousness that is beyond or in excess of praxis. The importance of this is to keep before us the mechanism in which social being not only generates concepts but also generates the forms that structure those concepts, yet forms that do not themselves necessarily appear as concepts. 2 Marx and Engels, for example, asserted that the modes (forms) of production condition the legal, political, cultural life of every society, Even if this conditioning does not directly appear in the society’s self-concept, it is a conditioning that can appear through replicating one form of social being into a parallel, but distinctly different form of social being. For example, the form of economic activity can influence the structure of religious practice and the religious practice itself can in turn animate economic activity. One is not conceptually the product of the other, but it is not difficult to find homologous forms or structures in each, as Max Weber did in his discovery of the protestant work ethic. All of this is to state, as a premise, that the democratic form is the product of a specific historical moment from which a specific form of social being made possible its appearance. The democratic form is not neutral but has a distinct class bias.

In his critique of democracy, Jacque Camatte asserted that democracy was a form of political domination and social organization that emerged only after “social groups had lost their organic unity with community.” 3 Its appearance coincided with the moment that men were separated from the ancient communal bonds as a means of uniting what had been divided, moreover as a specific form of class rule that necessarily included an authoritarian state to maintain its power. Athenian democracy ruled a relatively stable state for nearly one hundred and fifty years in the fourth century BCE and, by any standards; its history is a rather astonishing social and political phenomenon. It is important to take a look at the Greek experience if we are not to fetishize democracy as a supra-historical –naturalized-- form of self-rule common to all social formations that seek to reinforce egalitarian communal bonds. That is, if we are to understand that democracy, like all expressions of culture, is a specific expression of a particular historical moment.

Greeks, Property and Silver Coins

Etymologically democracy combines the ancient Greek dêmos, commonly translated as “people,” with krátos meaning “force” or “power” and arche meaning “rule,” “leading,” or “being first.” However, dêmos had a different meaning than commonly understood today. Dêmos referred originally to a region or subdivision of Attica that was later to become the basis of citizenship that enabled one to participate in the democracy. In other words, Democracy was founded on a particular form of inclusion defined by what was excluded, those outside of the dêmos. Athenian democracy was the rule of a small percentage of the populous, never including more than 20% of the total, excluding slaves, freed slaves, women and foreign born. Later the definition was restricted to include only males of pure Athenian lineage, over 20 years of age, who had served in the military. Citizenship in ancient Athens was based on very specific identity of blood, geography, and state service. It was not, as the modern translation of dêmos would imply, derived from the universal rights of the sovereign individual. The common criticism of Greek democracy was of course its limited participation but the system that developed to insure the full participation of this identitarian minority was truly astounding and worth understanding.

Historical accounts and documents of Athenian democracy presents us with the spectacle of a general assembly or ecclesis where all Athenian citizens were eligible to participate, typically with 6,000 participants or more. A quorum for important votes was 6001! All were eligible to speak and decisions, including the decision to go to war, were made by a show of hands and carried by majority rule. In theory this could include from 30,000 to 60,000 voting participants! The complex structure of Athenian democracy was designed to minimize the functioning of a permanent executive branch and to safeguard against the constant threat of political corruption. The courts were equally democratic and were composed of magistrates drawn by lots with a jury of at least 501 members. Again, votes were by a show of hands and majority rule. It was an impressive organization and by most accounts, seemed to function with relative stability. In principle, the ecclesis had absolute power over all political decisions without restrictions, and could have, had they chosen to, redistributed all wealth and eliminated the class divisions within the citizenry. Yet, they never did, nor is there evidence that such ideas were even proposed within the ecclesis. But the Athenian concern with potential corruption was equally balanced with a concern to maintain social divisions based on wealth. We would certainly not call this a bourgeois democracy, as there was no recognizable bourgeoisie, yet it is clearly an anti-aristocratic form of self-rule where wealth of a particular kind, not family lineage, is the basis of political right. Here we will begin to understand Camatte’s reference to the loss of organic community, where wealth as private property was the first level of abstraction in the citizen’s identity.

The Athenian citizenry was divided into four classes according to clearly defined quantities of wealth: pentakosiomedimnoi, hippeis, zeugitae, and the thetes. The lowest order—thetes-- was a class of property-less manual laborers or craftsmen. The zeugitae, to which the hopelite farmer belonged, was a new class that made its appearance for the first time as small independent property owners who may have owned a few slaves and produced a surplus that was exchanged on the market. The hippeis and the pentakosiomedimnoi were the wealthier classes ranging from moderate to extreme wealth. The specific measure of wealth was a quantity based on an annual income of bushels of dry or wet goods (grain, wine, olive oil) or its equivalent in drachmas: over 500 for the pentakosiomedimnoi, between 300-500 for the hippeis and 200-300 for the Zeugitae. While all four classes could participate in the Ecclesia, only the two upper classes were eligible to participate in the Boule, a council of 500 that acted as a steering committee for the Ecclesis. There were numerous other structural strategies that were designed to protect the division of wealth similar to the restrictions on Boule participation. Magistrates, chosen from the upper classes, had to swear upon taking office, “that whatever anyone owns before I enter this office he will have and hold the same until I leave it.” The jurors themselves had to swear, “I will not allow private debts to be cancelled, nor lands or houses belonging to Athenian citizens to be redistributed.” There were many such organizational safeguards throughout the entire existence of ancient democracy, safeguards that guaranteed the continued division of the citizens into distinct classes on the basis of a measureable quantity of wealth.

It appears at every turn that the rich Athenians acted in exactly the same way as the rich today in manipulating democratic forms so that there would be little to no threat to the social structure and its division of wealth. But manipulation of the structure of democracy cannot explain why the lower two classes never threatened the social order of Athenian society in the age of direct democracy. Formally they had the rights and the power to do so. Arguments that the lower class Athenian citizens were essentially “bought-off” in much the same way that poor Southern whites were “bought-off” by the honor of “whiteness” are certainly useful in explaining the loyalty of the lowest class of thetes to the polis, but what such arguments cannot explain is why such inclusion/exclusion takes the democratic form. The privileging of one section of the population over another can appear in virtually any form of governance. The explanation for the appearance of the democratic form lies elsewhere, it is to be found in the emergence of two unique historic phenomena: the hopelite farmer/warrior whose identity was inseparable from his private property and silver coinage as This is the principle medium of exchange, i.e. specifically in the appearance of a new mode of production and distribution. not to assert a mechanistic causality between base and superstructure as in certain expression of orthodox Marxism, but to assert the materialist linkage between forms of social being and forms of consciousness. Many factors were involved in the formation of Greek social organization; it is our intention to highlight only two of them that seem fundamental for understanding both the origins of the democratic form and more importantly the limitations of that form.

The ancient Greeks are known for many innovations that set the stage for the unique development of the West: urban concentrations as autonomous city states or poleis, philosophy, theatre, geometry, advances in architecture, an advanced system of writing, and of course democracy and the democratic ideal, indeed the very concept of the political itself was a Greek invention. What are seldom mentioned among the Greek innovations are, the new concept of private property centered on the hoplite farm and the subsequent invention of coinage and its wide usage.

The hopelite was a class of small independent farmers who had total property rights over their own farms, who were usually wealthy enough to own a few slaves and could supply their own armor as a member of the Athenian infantry. While we normally think of democracy as an urban phenomenon, some historians have argued that the democratic polis had its true origins in the productive units of the rural hopelite.4 By the end of the so-called dark-ages (1200-800 BCE) in Attica, following the complete collapse of Mycenaean palace economy, an economy that once depended on the subordination of masses of landless peasants, it is estimated that 2/3 of the land was divided into small farms privately owned by the hoplite. These farms, called klêros, were autonomous and highly productive economic units, engaged in intensive agriculture, owned by a single family with the help of a few slaves who typically worked side-by-side with the head of household. The majority of the klêros were modest in size, averaging around ten acres, and, up to the founding of the democratic polis, never exceeded seventy-five acres. In other words, the hoplite was a socially egalitarian class, autonomously producing a surplus of agricultural goods (particularly olive oil) in a decentralized system that increasingly relied on fluid markets for exchange and accumulation. They jealously defended their klêros and were by nature anti-aristocratic, and anti-monarchal and always keen to avoid the accumulation of power by a non-agricultural class. The defense of their own social position was militarily expressed in the creation of the famous hoplite phalanx that was to become the dreaded backbone of Greek infantry. Membership in the phalanx was reserved for hoplite farmers who were wealthy enough to provide their own amour. It is important to note that the phalanx excluded the lower class Greek citizens or thetes who were only allowed ancillary military support and who later became the oarsmen for the powerful Athenian navy.

What begins to emerge is a very different vision of Greek culture from the common image of an urban class of slave owners who indulged in the world of pleasure, war and philosophical speculation entirely divorced from the world of work. The democratic polis did not emerge from the rational speculation of the perfect society but grew out of the determination of the hoplite to defend his property and productive autonomy. In fact, at the time of Solon’s reforms (594 BCE) Athens was not a democracy but a timocracy (rule of landed property) with clear political criteria based on land ownership. This form of land ownership was virtually unique in the ancient world, where absolute property rights and productive autonomy put each in direct competition with every other. The agrarian poet Hesiod urged farmers to strive against one another ensuring through hard work that “you may purchase someone else’s land and not have another purchase yours.” This system of private land ownership created an intense sense of competition between citizens as Hesiod continues, “the potter is at odds with the potter, the craftsman with the craftsman, the beggar is jealous of the beggar and the singer of the singer.”5 The hard work and proper management required of the household farm was understood as the veritable foundation of Greek culture and we might add the origins of word economy from the Greek oikonomia meaning household (farm) management. But, the fiercely individualistic hoplite understood that the only protection of their small family farm from both external and internal threat was the protection of all family farms, moreover they understood that the freedom guaranteed by the rights of private property and autonomous economic units was antithetical to a communal ethos. It was out of the essential need to create an ethos capable of defending to the death the private holding of each, that the Athenian polis was formed and along with it a whole separate sphere of human interaction called the political.

The very source of western political thought as well as the political as a separate sphere of social activity has its specific origins in the effort to counteract the centrifugal tendencies of private property with the centripetal force of political organizations based on conceptual abstractions, i.e. the universal and equal rights of the citizen. The evolution from timocracy to democracy occurred as Athenian society developed into a more commercial culture – money wealth rather than landed property-- had the effect of reinforcing the definition of each citizen as the separate and singular possessor of rights unified by the abstract definition of those rights. That is, irrespective of the actual ownership of property or the actual wealth of any, each had the right to own property potentially. Without this right, all property would be under threat. It is significant, even decisive, that in Solon’s reforms, he specifically forbid the ancient practice of placing ones self as collateral for a loan, a practice that had resulted in thousands of Athenian citizens falling into debt slavery; henceforth, only property could stand as collateral for loans. The citizen could never again be enslaved without first losing his political right to citizenship. At this moment the very essence of Athenian identity –landed property—is separated from the political sphere to the purely economic sphere and becomes universally commensurable, that is to say, commercially exchangeable, forever free to float through the social body in exactly the same way (form)--though decisively separated--as an autonomous and universal right. One can lose ones property but never the abstract right to own property. To use Sismondi’s metaphor, “commerce separated the shadow from the body, and introduced the possibility of owning them separately.”6 Henceforth, the divided self will be defined as a citizen and “ divested of his real individual life and filled with an unreal universal.”7 The individual will be identified as part of an abstract community quite independent of the organic (material) ground upon which real life depends. The political becomes an autonomous sphere of power while the economy does its work in the shadows. The foundation of democracy requires just such a separation allowing each individual to be the owner of an abstract right: the right to citizenship, the equal right to own property and equal right to vote. It is for this reason it would not be incorrect to place democracy at the very threshold of the original division between the state and civil society, a relationship which Marx compares heaven to earth.

"When the political state has attained its true development, man leads a double life, a heavenly and an earthly one, not only in thought and consciousness, but in reality, in life: one life in the political community where he considers himself a communal being, and one life in the civil society where he functions as a private person, regards other people as a means, degrades himself to a means and becomes the plaything of alien powers. The political state is spiritually related to civil society in the same way as heaven is to earth."8

In nearly two-thousand years the bond between private property and universal rights has never actually broken, it appears everywhere because the subsumption of the individual into a universal abstraction, separated from the actuality of property ownership or, more generally, the concrete conditions of his real life, is the essence of right. This relationship appears either in formal division of rights or self-consciously as when the enlightened Rousseau could write on the very threshold of democracy’s rebirth, “the right of private property is the most sacred of all rights of citizenship and even more important in some respects than liberty itself.” The right to own property is the fundamental right that gives form to all rights-- the right to own rights—and is the absolute pre-requisite of all democracy.

But, the ownership of private property and the division between the state and civil society is but one part of the story of democracy’s appearance in ancient Greece. The other was the wide spread usage of silver coinage for commercial exchange. While ancient coinage was developed in several places in the world, only in Greece did it coincide with absolute property rights, thus giving those essential rights the form of a real abstraction in everyday commodity exchange. The social bond formed by the circulation of silver coin was to become the ugly birthmark of western civilization. The linkage of the circulation of coinage to the formation and stability of democracy is not a theoretical leap made by modern analyses, it was indeed recognized as such by the Athenians themselves.

The drachm was the principle denomination of the Greek coin and literally means “handful” in reference to a handful of grain to which it was originally equated. Preserved in the nomenclature is the evolution of political power in the Athenian polis, first based on land ownership, then the quantity of produce from the land and finally the wealth from any source expressed in drachm equivalent. This not only represents a move away from the organic expression of power but the evolution of power increasingly expressed as a pure abstraction, from land, to grain, to its symbolic equivalent in money.

In the Greek polis there was a commonly understood association with the word coinage, nomisma, and the concept of fair distribution between citizens and between citizens and the state. Nomisma (coinage) and nomos (law) indeed have the same root. There was in fact a link between the growing circulation of silver coinage and the anti-aristocratic, anti-elitist tendency in Athens. To have an idea of just how close this association actually was we quote a passage in Demosthenes’ speech Against Timocrates:

"I want to narrate to you that also, which they say Solon once said when he was prosecuting someone who had proposed a bad law. For it is said that he said to the jurors, when he had presented the rest of the prosecution, that the law exists for virtually all cities, if anyone debases the currency, that the penalty is death. And having asked if the law appeared to them also to be just and good, when the jurors assented, he said that he himself considered silver coinage to have been invented by private individuals for the sake of private exchange, while he considered laws to be the currency of the city (nomisma tês pelôs). And indeed it was much more necessary for the jurors to hate and punish any man who debased the currency of the city and introduced counterfeit than if some did that to the currency of private individuals. And he added as proof that the wrongdoing of the one who debases the laws is much greater than that of the one who debases the silver currency, the fact that many cities though they openly use silver currency mixed with bronze or lead, are safe and suffer no harm from this, but men who use wicked laws or allow the existing laws to be debased have never yet survived. "

This lengthy quote is simply to demonstrate just how closely associated were the concepts of currency and law, coinage and right in the Greek mind, “good laws and pure silver coinage manifested a good citizen body.” Silver coinage in many ways, though not explored here, offered a model for life in the polis, indeed one historian suggests that, “pure silver coinage helped to constitute the imaginary community of citizens who use it.” Man himself could be distinctly defined by his relationship to silver. The Greek word for slave, for example, is argurôrêtoi and literally means, “bought by silver.” The slave could be actually and conceptually substituted by a quantity of silver just as the citizen could be conceived as a set of rights. That the commercial world and circulation of silver was coming to mediate all human relationships in Athenian society was well expressed by title character in Meanander’s comedy The Malcontent when he laments, “I had watched how friendship had become no more than a commodity with a calculated profit margin.”

Moreover, the wide spread use of coinage is itself indicative of an economy bound together by the constant flow of commodities through the social body, a society largely defined by the complex movement of goods, both internally and externally, a society governed by the perpetual buying and selling by private individuals. Silver mines near Athens made the coinage plentiful, meaning that everything a private individual could exchange could be made through the mediation of coin, the symbolic and universally commensurable quantity of value. Marx referred to this mode of exchange as a “real abstraction,” that is, an abstraction that does not arise from thought but rather through social action. Understanding the concept of a real abstraction is a crucial moment in understanding the materialist assertion that social being determines consciousness, specifically how forms of social being can determine forms of consciousness. Alfred Sohn-Rethel, in his under appreciated analysis in Intellectual and Manual Labor: A Critique of Epistemology, explains the relationship between the abstract and concrete in the act of exchange.

Commodity exchange is abstract because it excludes use; that is to say, the action of exchange excludes the action of the use. But while exchange banishes use from the action of people, it does not banish it from their minds…. Therefore while it is necessary that their action of exchange should be abstract from use, there is also necessity that their minds should not be. The action alone is abstract. The abstractness of their action will, as a consequence, escape the minds of the people performing it. In exchange, the action is social the minds are private. Thus, this action and the thinking of people part company in exchange and go different ways.

For Sohn-Rethel, the emergence in ancient Greece of this relationship was the historic moment that the labor of the intellect could be socially experienced as being independent of the material praxis of labor. The money-commodity as a value "exists nowhere other than in the human mind but it does not spring from it. Rather it is purely social in character, arising in the spatio-temporal sphere of human interrelations. It is not people who originate these abstractions but their actions” As a universal measure of value and a symbolic token of exchange, value is experienced as an abstract universal that is real. Though entirely dependent on the social act of exchange, it now appears that value itself has an autonomous existence that emerges from its own being. Every single day, every time a commodity is bought or sold, the reproduction of this abstraction takes place with the immediate transference of the concrete specificities of the commodity to the universally commensurable form of value in the silver coin.

Sohn-Rethel begins his analysis by accepting the seminal insight of Kant “in his belief that the basic constituents of our forms of cognition are preformed and issue from a priori origin, but he was wrong in attributing this pre-formation to the mind itself engaged in the phantasmagorical performance of transcendental synthesis a priori locatable in neither time nor in place…. Kant’s transcendental subject shows features of striking likeness to the exchange abstraction in its distillation as money” He emphasizes further that “our theory is directly concerned only with questions of form, forms of consciousness and forms of social being.” Social being in Athens was gradually coming to be characterized by the private selling and buying of commodities, a praxis that was socially centrifugal in nature (each to his own advantage) yet centripetally held together by the universality of value expressed in the actual exchange of silver coins. Value, as a universal abstraction, held the same position in social reproduction as law held in the democratic definition of the citizen who possessed the universal right to own property potentially, irrespective of the actual conditions of life, of his “real individuality.”

What we are asserting, following Sohn-Rethel, is that the social praxis of commodity exchange generates a transcendental surplus that shapes the basic form of cognition and the subsequent deployment of power relationships structured by those forms, the principle feature of which is the radical separation of consciousness from its natural grounding in praxis and poïesis, doing and making. Consciousness henceforth becomes the ontological ground of truth, a truth that is discovered through the autonomous play of concepts that has the power to impose form on the perception of experience itself. Sohn-Rethel goes so far as to assert, “that the real abstraction operating in exchange engenders the ideal abstraction basic to Greek philosophy and to modern science.” Reality now exits only in its (abstract) essence and can only be revealed/produced in cognition or the logos not in the concrete singularities of nature, of creation or of social intercourse. From this trajectory one finds in the actual moments of social or natural phenomena only epiphenomena, thus the rich multiplicity of being is necessarily extinguished in order to subsume all existence beneath the concept; all singular objects of use express their reality in the universal essence of exchange value; all human individuality extinguished beneath the universal essence of a right, a value or an identity.

As an initial conclusion we want to assert that the democratic form has its origins in no other place than private property and the circulation of the money-commodity. In addition, this form of social being generates a surplus that in its turn gives shape to the ontological ground of western civilization. The Greeks initiated a radical separation in which the world becomes object to the human subject, henceforth thinking the world through categories that Heidegger identifies as mathêmata, or that which can be known in advance of its appearance. Nature appears to modern science as a set of mathematical relationships because the mathematical is the fundamental presupposition of all entities. Heidegger reminds us of the words above Plato’s academy, Ageometrêtos mêdeis eisito! “Let no one who has not grasped the mathematical enter here.” Though only embryonically developed, this originary trajectory sets in motion what Heidegger was to conceive as a productivist metaphysics that was responsible for both the remarkable achievements of the West along with the its nightmarish course towards technological self-destruction and we might add the totalitarian political systems which did not seem problematic for Heidegger. Of course we do not want to suggest that the application of the mathêmata is wrong. It has demonstrated itself as an extraordinary tool, but rather that it is radically incomplete, and preemptively degrades other forms of knowing that are essential to a radical reformulation of human praxis, without which man himself becomes the “standing reserve” or raw material for technological proliferation. (This will be the subject of another text). We do want to insist however that there is a profound link between the technological worldview--in which today we can anticipate only its nightmare-- and the abstractions of political theory upon which the democratic form is based. A crude rendering of this idea is to define democracy in purely quantitative terms or simple arithmetic: the total number of rights baring citizens, divided by two plus one equals absolute power over life and death. Worse still is the necessity of reducing all democratic decisions to singular propositions that can only allow affirmation or negation, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Although ancient Greek democracy was the first and perhaps the best example of direct democracy ever practiced, it was nevertheless limited both in its actuality and in its theory. It never reached beyond a highly restricted minority nor did it ever posit itself as a universal system of self-rule, that is to say, it never attained universality. Democracy had to wait another two thousand years before it remerged in its more abstract and universal form. We will argue that its universality is directly linked to the birth of capitalism and in particular with the evolution of labor as wage labor. However, modern democracy did not emerge as a mode of emancipation from the horrors of capitalist expansion but a political mode of first dominating labor and then absorbing labor into the machinery of production to satisfy the demands of capital. While the Greeks sought a positive community that was capable of overcoming the possessive individualism by willfully creating a political ethos, the modern world has driven the individual into isolation and existential despair while subsuming him into the totalizing structures of late capitalism. Modern democracy is less an ethos than a specific technology of power that weakens rather than strengthens, that entraps rather than liberates, that divides rather than unifies.

This assertion will of course offend the professional teleologists who see in every popular revolt the seeds of a future democracy. But, it is important--even essential--to distinguish those moments in which the oppressed masses posit democracy directly out of their own struggles from those moments that the democratic ideology imposes its logic onto communitarian struggles that may have nothing necessarily democratic about them. Here we want to oppose communitarian to democratic, one seeks to establish or defend the organic bonds of community and the other seeks political domination with the assistance of an ideology that has it roots in class division and ultimately in the capitalist value-form itself.

Capital, Commodities and Labor

The rebirth of the democratic project two thousand years after the fall of Athenian democracy was the result of a long, complex and at times tortuous process. This complex story will not be fully explored here, however, we want to assert the following: First, that the rebirth of democracy functionally served to liberate capital from feudal constraints and later to subjectively integrate labor into capitalist reproduction in what Marx refers to as labor’s real subsumption to capital. Secondly, that bourgeois (representative) democracy is not a “lower form” of democracy awaiting the higher form of worker’s democracy or real democracy as many Marxist theoreticians would assert, but rather the political expression of the value-form that reinforces the subjective transfer of value, in particular the valorization of labor power itself. Thirdly, that when proletarian or popular struggles takes the democratic form as its mode and its political objective, it reinforces the divisions between the abstract individual and his social being, or man “divested of his real individual life and filled with an unreal universality.” And finally, we want to show that democracy is NOT a defense against various forms of totalitarianism but is its very substrate, whether of a dictatorial personality or one structured by technological control.

It is important to make a crucial distinction between the democratic subject as he appeared in Athens in the fifth centre BCE and the emerging modern subject as he appeared at the end of the feudal period. The modern individual subject found its clearest formulations in the seventeenth century theoretical works Grotius, Pufendorf and Hobbes cumulating perhaps with John Locke. These thinkers were opposing divine rights theory with a resurrection and elaboration of natural rights theory. The Greek citizen’s identity was inseparable from his being as a member of the polis. It was in the polis or the political community that the individual found meaning and definition. The very idea of a solitary life was unthinkable even theoretically for the Athenian citizen. Without the polis, man would have no purpose and no identity beyond that of a barbarian. To be separated from the polis was a living death. In fact the word idiot comes from the Greek word idiota meaning one who does not participate in the polis. Contrary to this, the seventeenth century concept of the political subject is radically transformed and bares little resemblance to his Athenian ancestor. The new and emerging concept of the sovereign subject was based on a radical individualism where man was understood as the possessor of a set of natural rights that were bequeathed by nature itself to each individual. The concern was to organize society in such a way as not to infringe upon these individual rights but to protect them from unnatural, i.e. social, interference. In other words, the starting point for the Athenian was the integrity of the polis, which alone gave meaning to the individual. Contrarily, for the modern subject the starting point was the sovereign individual in a state of nature that owned his own person and needed to be protected from any and all encroachments on his rights.

We can see in these theoretical developments the continued importance of private property as grounding for the new ideas of sovereignty. However, there is a new element that appears in the works of Locke and others of this period; it is the crucial element of labor. The importance of labor will become evident if we look at Locke more closely. John Locke (1632-1704) is widely known, as the father of liberalism and some would say the modern conception of the self. His most important works are his Two Treatises of Government, A Letter Concerning Toleration and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He wrote against slavery, for religious toleration, a new attitude towards the education, an uncompromising defense of the sovereign rights of the individual, and that governing can only rest on the consent of the governed. It was perhaps Locke who was the most important theoretical influence in the drafting of the American Declaration of Independence and the framing of the American Constitution.

It is interesting to note that while Locke was championing individual sovereign freedoms and toleration he served as Secretary of the Board of Trades and Plantations as well as Secretary of the Lords and Proprietors of the Carolinas. He was one of six men who drafted the Fundamental Constitution of the Carolinas, which established a feudal aristocracy that had absolute rights over their slaves. In addition he was a major investor in the slave trades through the Royal African Company, a defender of English enclosures and an advocate of the displacement of Native Americans from their lands.

What seem to be appalling contradictions at first glance will be easily explained if we understand his labor theory of private property and the importance of labor in his, and others of his age, definition of the sovereign subject. Locke is perhaps the best example of the schizophrenic morality of the emerging bourgeoisie, a schizophrenia that was eventually invade the whole of modern capitalist society. We can begin by reproducing an oft-quoted section of the Second Treatise.

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has the property of his own person. This no body has any right to but himself. The labor of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of a state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature placed in it, it hath by his labor something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men. For his labor being the unquestionable property of the laborer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough and as good left in common for others.

Locke’s sovereign subject is now defined by the laws of nature and most importantly includes the body and the potential force of the body or labor power. A closer look at Locke’s theory however does not necessarily conclude that this labor is exclusively the labor of ones own body, it can also include setting to work the labor of others through the purchase of labor power in the form of wages, or under certain conditions, slavery itself. Locke was acutely aware of these relationships, so much so that he understood the new form of labor as the veritable definition of man. After once touring the Lancashire district in England he wrote, “the children of the laboring people are an ordinary burden to the parish and usually maintained in idleness so that their labor is also lost to the public till they are 12 or 14 years old.” He concluded that children should be put to work at the age of three with a belly full of bread supplemented in cold weather by “a little warm water-gruel.” Not surprisingly, Daniel Defoe, after touring the same district sometime later, reported that he was delighted to see four-year-olds working in the cotton industry and finding useful employment! Neither Defoe nor Locke saw children in these observations, but rather “idleness, burdens, and lost labor” or rather we should say quite simply, they could see only labor which is in their view the essence of the human subject. In Defoe’s Robinson Caruso, considered among the first modern novels, the protagonist carries civilization within himself, (in radical contrast to the Athenian subject) which is expressed through the proper organization of his own labors and the labor of others, therefore activating the highest calling of the sovereign subject and the very foundations of bourgeois society.

Bourgeois political theorists are wont to dismiss Locke’s comments on child labor, his investments in human trafficking or his other commercial interest as the residues of his age entirely independent of his higher philosophy. But Locke lived in the period of one of the greatest social dislocations in history, what Marxist’s typically refer to as the age of “primitive accumulation.” We won’t catalog the degree of suffering that early capitalism caused, but it was characterized by a radical disciplining of labor, through destruction of productive autonomy, first by the enclosures of common lands--the veritable basis of community cohesion and material security--the increased subordination of women to the social patriarchy expressed most violently in the witch-hunts, the implementation of Poor Laws that forced the impoverished into a wage-labor relationship including crippling child labor and of course commerce in human trafficking and the aggressive confiscation of native lands. Locke and his ilk were not only observers but also active participants in all of this. Their emerging democratic philosophies are direct expressions of the need for absolute security of private property, of accumulated capital and above all the need for free-labor. The sovereign subject who is the irrevocable owner of his own person (including his own labor) was NOT a step in the direction of freedom and liberty, but rather the philosophic weapon used to justify the confiscation of the common’s and native lands. Locke’s hands were soiled in this bloody story.

The democratic premise is in fact based on the concept of the self as the “private property” of the self. Even among the more radical and egalitarian of the age, this axiomatic idea was foundational to the promotion of a more just society. Richard Overton, English Leveller and pamphleteer wrote “To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature, not to be invaded or usurped by any: for everyone as he is himself, so he hath a self property, else could not be himself.” Bourgeoisie theoreticians would of course tell us that these ideas emerged to protect the individual against the tyranny of the absolute power of kings and aristocrats, but what is rarely mentioned is that these same ideas were used to “protect” the individual against the tyranny of the commons! Locke himself supported the enclosures and justified the confiscation of native lands in America by claiming even the poorest English farmer is better off then the Native American due specifically to his rational deployment of labor, and of course it is the deployment of labor that is Locke’s justification of private property.

Private property, free-labor and democratic ideologies are inseparable as they emerged together to reinforce one another, each replicating the other’s form. The new free worker possesses his own body and his own labor power, however he is unable to activate his sovereign body until he first alienates its power in return for a wage, much like the democratic subject who possesses a sovereign self and a sovereign right to which he must alienate in the form of a vote (in essence a contract that the subject agrees to abide by the majority decision) in order to secure his body’s continued sovereignty.

The essential difference between the ideology of Athenian democracy and the post-feudal democratic ideology is, in a word, labor. It is in the new social relations formed by the expansion of abstract labor, eventually imposed on the whole of society, that we can locate the structure of social being which in turn replicates its form in the political ideology. And, it is just such a definition that enables men to be conceived as a universal subject in which all men, properly understood, are in private possession of their own potential power of labor. The bourgeois horizon is endless, homogenous, and one-dimensional. The cry for the “rights of man” is little more than the universal command to buy and sell. Capital depends upon the free circulation of money, commodities and labor in order to reproduce itself. Restriction based on privilege or on common ownership cannot exist in the extra economic realm without threatening this free flow in the economic realm. The individual capitalist relates to his worker as a tyrant would—to exploit him to the maximum—the worker’s deepening impoverishment, his shame and his insecurity are directly translated into profits, success and triumphs of the capitalist. But the same capitalist has a different relationship to all other workers, they are possessors of exchange values in the form of money for which the capitalist must subordinate himself, woo their success and fawn their favors. This is the foundation of the colossal schizophrenia and moral bankruptcy of the status quo; it is also the veritable basis of the rights of man. We can easily understand that what is normally dismissed, as bourgeois hypocrisy—donating to Amnesty International for example, with profits from child labor in Bangladesh followed by a dreamless sleep---is merely the bourgeois image of freedom.

What we have tried to show up to this point is the intractable link between democratic ideology, private property, money and wage labor. Gradually man comes to be dominated by abstract universals through the dissolution of organic community bonds and the division of the self into the solitary concrete subject (body) on the one hand and the universal citizen or owner of abstract rights as well as the owner of labor power that can only be activated through the exchange on the other. But these tendencies do not come fully formed; capitalism begins the long process of radically reshaping social relationships in the sixteenth century but against tremendous resistance both from above and below.

Democracy and the Subsumption of Labor

In the struggle for capitalist domination, democratic ideology played (as it continues to play) a pivotal role in clearing the ground for commercial development and securing its own political power through the democratic form, however limited it may have been. In broad strokes we would propose two phases for the development of modern democracy. The first phase was to secure the power of capital against all feudal residues: rights, obligations, privileges and commons. This corresponds to what Marx refers to as the formal domination of capital over labor in which the labor process itself is unaltered by the capitalist social relations. In this phase capitalist exploitation is characterized by the extraction of absolute surplus value: intensifying work, pushing wages down to subsistence levels, extending the working day, employing child labor, etc. In addition, the expansion of capitalism in this period is dependent upon the absorption of new labor from outside the capitalist circuit incorporating craftsmen and peasants into the wage relationship. In this phase we can place the English Civil War, the American and French Revolutions, the Latin American revolutions, the unifications of Germany, Italy and Japan as the principle moments of “democratic” ascendance.

The second phase would correspond to what Marx refers to as the real domination of capital over labor or the real subsumption of labor in which the actual labor process is transformed by the technical reorganization of the work place and the commensurate increase in productivity. This phase is characterized by the extraction of relative surplus value. The increase in productivity associated with relative surplus value essentially decreased the value of consumption goods for the proletariat thus cheapening the cost of labor itself. Henceforth, wages become a variable or relative quantity in the reproduction and accumulation of capital. From this point forward capitalism establishes a systemic linkage between the reproduction of the proletariat within the capitalist circuit and the reproduction of capital itself. With the real subsumption of labor all elements of social life are eventually integrated into capitalism and given shape by the value-form. This includes the political forms of workers’ representation, the integration into the credit system, the creation of a world market, the subordination of education, science and social welfare as well as the colonization the leisure time and psychic life of the proletariat through the relentless search for value. In this phase—roughly from the 1880’s to the third decade of the 20th century—we see democracy as one of the principle tools to integrate the proletariat into the capitalist cycle of accumulation. Through the gradual and cautious expansion of the voting franchise, universal suffrage becomes a reality only in the immediate aftermath of the First World War or later. This represents, not a victory for worker’s rights, but the total integration of the working class into the state apparatus and thus the “closure” of an alternative horizon for human emancipation outside of the “democratic/political” framework, a framework that has its raison d’etre in the preservation of property and the free flow of commodity exchange.

In the formal phase of capitalist domination—the era of the democratic revolutions and the capture of political power by the bourgeoisie—the principle task of the constitutional state was to liberate the economy from the plethora of archaic encumbrances, and reconfigure the bonds that hold society together through individual rights and constitutional law. As Marx writes,

"The establishment of the political state and the dissolution of civil society into independent individuals—whose relations with one another depend on law, just as the relations of men into the system of estates and guilds depended on privilege—is accomplished by one and the same act. "

However, what may appear to be step in the direction of emancipation ushers in a new form of abstract domination. In the transition from the feudal to the new political state dominated by the system of exchange,

"…the ties of personal dependence, of distinctions of blood, education, etc. are in fact exploded and ripped up or as members of an estates etc. In the money relation, in the development system of exchange … individuals seem independent (this is an independence which is at bottom merely an illusion, and it is more correctly called indifference), free to collide with one another and to engage in exchange within this freedom; but they appear thus only for someone who abstracts from the conditions, the conditions of existence within which these individuals enter into contact …The definedness of individuals, which in the former case appears as a personal restriction of the individual by another, appears in the later case as developed into an objective restriction of the individual by relations independent of him and sufficient unto themselves. …. These external relations are very far from being an abolition of ‘relations of dependence’; they are rather the dissolution of these relations into a general form; they are merely the elaboration and emergence of the general foundation of the relations of personal dependence. Here also individuals come into connection with one another only in determined ways. These objective dependency relations also appear, in antithesis to those of personal dependence … in such a way that individuals are now ruled by abstractions, where as earlier they depended on one another. The abstraction, or idea, however, is nothing more than the theoretical expression of those material relations, which are their lord and master"

What is crucial about this lengthy excerpt from the Grundrisse, is as follows. The “rule of abstraction” is nothing more than the ideological appearance of the real abstraction of free exchange between autonomous individuals, which Marx calls the actual “conditions of existence.” The essence of this abstraction is the separation (“dissolution”) of civil society--where every individual meets every other as buyers and sellers under the form of a generalized dependence--from the collective political identity and political power itself. The separation is made possible by the generalization of capitalist market relations. Just as the money abstraction casts a shadowy veil over the real conditions of production and the extraction of surplus value, the political abstraction of democratic rights of the individual subject casts its veil upon the real conditions of life in civil society. It is important that we see that the general expression of the abstraction emerges from the actual conditions of life and not from the eternal and progressive movement towards ideal freedom. Nor is it the case that hard won freedoms are perverted by the external rule of the bourgeoisie but rather that the form of these freedoms are themselves the necessary condition of capitalist social relations. That is, they grow from inside of the emerging form of class domination. This leads to Marx’s summary judgment that “The real content of “bourgeois” freedom is therefore at the same time the most complete suspension of all individual freedom, and the most complete subjugation of individuality. Bourgeois freedom has historically meant only one thing, the freedom of capital. (original emphasis)

It is important to note that throughout the period of primitive capital accumulation the elaboration of classical political theory and classical economic theory developed hand in hand, if not the same writers, then within same intellectual milieu. One of the principle features of both political and economic theory was the conviction that society was moving in a progressive direction towards higher and higher levels of enlightenment and material well-being. In the economic world this was envisaged as a move from the country to the city, rural to urban, from handcraft to manufacture, from barter to commerce and so on. This same evolutionary scheme was imposed onto political theory as the transition from tyranny and slavery, to aristocratic domination and serfdom, and finally to the rule of law and individual rights. Moreover, these two evolutionary schemes were irrevocably linked, i.e. rural small handicraft production was associated with the lower stage of political development and vice versa. It is not to deny that there are strong correlations that can be identified, but the assertion of a necessary evolution and progressive directionality was an ideological weapon of the first order on the part of capital itself. Inevitably, such a weapon privileged the abstract concept of rights over the organic social anchoring of community, the real conditions of life. Therefore, when popular resistance to the revolutionary bourgeois ideology emerged, it was only the political ideology itself that was considered in the evaluation of their reactionary nature and not the actual lived experience of those who resisted.

As an example of the kind of opposition that emerged in the period of formal domination, i.e. before the whole of social being is subsumed into capitalist social relations, one could point to the virtual civil war in southern Italy after Italian unification, where opposition drew its sustenance form pre-capitalist social relations. Referred to as the Brigands War, for over a decade tens of thousands even hundreds of thousands of peasants and villagers waged a tenacious struggle against the new constitutional state in the name of the old Bourbon monarchy. It was easy to dismiss this resistance as the reactionary residues of a less developed stage of culture and economy. The “brigands” themselves cared little for the abstract promises of freedoms and rights now guaranteed by the constitutional state if it could not protect their lands. It meant only the destruction of a way of life, of their communities. They saw only an enemy that was armed with bayonets and the Piemontese tax code. The enlightened armies of the bourgeois state exterminated whole villages of peasants to ensure they could enjoy the freedoms guaranteed by law. But classical political theory would assert that this was the reaction of a doomed class destine to be dragged into the modern world by the natural forces necessity. But, historically, peasants in a state of resistance will grab whatever ideology enables them to stand against the centralization of power, and the forcible integration into a commercial and moneyed economy. Whether it is behind the banners of the Virgin or Bakunin it is not the ideology alone that is important but the reproduction of life itself.

Many examples of this kind could be cited. It is a complex territory and each case is unique but the important lesson to take from these moments is the role that the rule of law and the democratic form plays in flattening the resistance of people who place the real experience of life, with all its complexity, ahead of abstract theories of social evolution, of mobilizing one segment of the exploited population against another by creating political and even teleo/metaphysical identities. The teleological vision of political progress towards universal rights and the democratic state reflects perfectly well the necessary evolution of the capitalist economy whose very survival depends on continual progress in productivity and accumulation. The autonomy of ideology was forced upon all who resisted. Specifically political identities were imposed on entire populations with disastrous consequences that eventually came to include the formation of totalitarian regimes and genocide. The resistance to the constitutional state has its origins in the refusal to divide life, to alienate oneself from community and indeed from nature itself.

If we can in fact distinguish the real basis for resistance from its ideological substitute it leaves us with the question that Marx posed,

"But do not all revolts without exception break out from isolation of men from the community? Does not every revolt necessarily presuppose this isolation? Would the Revolution of 1789 have taken place without the isolation of French citizens from the community? Its aim, in fact, was to end this isolation."

"But the community from which the worker is isolated is of a quite different nature from and quite different dimensions than the political community. This community, from which his own labor separates him, is life itself, physical and intellectual life, human morality, human activity, human enjoyment, the human community."

"Human life is the real community of men. Just as the isolation from this body is more complete, more painful more to be feared, more contradictory than is isolation from the political community, so too is the removal of this isolation, and even a partial reaction, a revolt against the same, are tasks all the more infinite as man is more infinite than the citizen, and human life then political life. However painful the industrial revolt may be, it conceals within itself the universal soul: political revolt may be never so universal but it hides a narrow-minded spirit under the most colossal form. "

"We have seen that a social revolution maybe considered to be from the standpoint of the whole because even if it only occurs in a factory district, it is a protest of men against degraded life, because it proceeds from the standpoint of the real individual, because the community against whose separation from himself the individual reacts, is the real community of man, the civic community."

"The political soul of a revolution, on the other hand consists in the endeavor of the classes without political influence to abolish this isolation from the community and from the government. Their standpoint is that of the State, an abstract whole, which exists only in and through its separations from real life, which is unthinkable without the organized antagonism between the general idea and the individual existence of man. Consequently a revolution of political souls organizes a ruling clique in society, in accordance with the limited and doubly-cleft nature of these souls, at the cost of society"

Pointing out the dangers and inadequacies of the political revolution, Marx acknowledges the absolute necessity of such a revolution due to the form that capitalism itself takes, but it aim is not to reproduce a better political form but to cast it off, its goal is destruction of the form.

"…without a revolution, socialism cannot be enforced. It requires this political act so far as it has need of the process of destruction and dissolution. But where its organizing activity begins, where its proper aim, its soul, emerges, there socialism casts away the political hull. "

Before Capitalism fully subsumes labor into its system of reproduction, its struggle for domination takes on a primarily political military complexion; this is to say its domination is exogenous. But, gradually, it succeeds in political domination and henceforth seeks to dominate through absorption into the productive mechanism of the value form itself. This means on the economic level that the labor process is transformed through the destruction of all forms of autonomy, the total separation of work from nature and the complete subordination of labor to both the machine and abstract time units. In the political sense, this subordination is expressed in the total sublimation of the concrete lived existence into abstract political categories: political parties, unions, associations, demands for rights and recognitions that can only be ensured by the state itself. This is not to say that the demands of workers were not specific and concrete to their actual conditions but that they do not exist as demands until they are transformed into levels of abstraction that can be formulated within the democratic form. All of the political categories are categories that take on the complexion of law which are exclusively guaranteed by the state.

Since the moment the bourgeoisie attained political dominance, varying from country to country, democratic ideology was one of the principle tools used to pull the working classes into a position of containment. If we trace the gradual expansion of the voting franchise in the constitutional states we will see that the expansion of the franchise follows the course of capitalist expansion and the generalized subsumption of labor to capital. This is to say that expanded democracy poses no danger for capital as long as the working class posits it principle struggle over the proportion of relative surplus value. Of course the use of such tool requires a degree of political artistry. But, it was a tool that was understood quite well and early on. Speaking in 1831 at a parliamentary debate on extending suffrage, Prime Minister Charles Grey said, “The principle of my reform is to prevent the necessity of revolution… I am reforming to preserve not to overthrow.” The 1832 reform bill extended the franchise from 450,000 to 650,000 out of a population of 14,000,000. The story of progressive enfranchisement continued well into the 20th century until the integration of the working classes was so total as to pose virtually no obstacle to capital. It s principle function was to ensure that the resistance was always posited in a political form that presupposed the preeminence of an enforcing and legally binding state apparatus.

The chairman of the British Labour Party, J. McGurik, expressed the logic perfectly in 1919 when he wrote in opposition to immediate industrial action, “We are either constitutionalist or we are not constitutionalists. If we are constitutionalists, if we believe in the efficacy of the political weapon (and we are or why do we have a Labour Party?) then it is both unwise and undemocratic because we fail to get a majority at the polls to turn around and demand that we should substitute industrial action.” It is at this stage the that the transition becomes complete insofar as the struggles no longer take the form of resistance to capital as an outside force that seek to impose its domination from above. The working class now struggles entirely within the mechanism of capitalist reproduction. Its own advance is understood as dependent on the continual advance of capitalist productivity, its struggles are entirely subordinated to the struggle for relative surplus value and the principle form it takes is political action. In positing the democratic form, in any of its manifestation, the working class posits the state itself whose raison d’être is the preservation of class domination by defining each individual as a legal subject endowed with political rights.

The Value-Form and Law

Following Marx, we have tried to show that the division between the political subject and the civil subject is not a move towards human liberation but one that ushers in a new form of domination through the atomization of the individual within civil society, well hidden beneath the homogeneity of political identity. The formation of the political subject is the alienation of identity into abstract categories that in fact replicates the value form of capitalist production. It was this recognition that was the basis of Soviet legal scholar Evgeny Pashukanis’ ground breaking analysis on the origins and form of law in his 1929 study Law and Marxism, a General Theory.

Pashukanis makes two important assertions in this study, first that the form of law is inextricable tied to forms generated by commodity production and that the legal subject is, at his core, conceived as the owner of commodities. Secondly, Pashukanis asserts that law itself- not merely its content but its form-- is founded upon capitalist social relations and therefore there can be no intermediary stage of “proletarian” law between capitalism and communism. The legal subject will disappear when labor is no longer posited as an abstract equivalent. As long as social relations are founded on the legal subject, bourgeois social relations will continue to dominate. Pashukanis explains:

"Just as in the commodity, the multiplicity of use-values natural to a product appears simply as the shell of value, and the concrete types of human labor are dissolved into abstract human labor as the creator of value, so also the concrete multiplicity of relations between man and objects manifests itself, as the abstract will of the owner. All concrete peculiarities, which distinguish one representative of the genus homo sapiens from another dissolve into the abstraction of man in general, man as a legal subject."

If objects dominate man economically because, as commodities, they embody a social relation which is not subordinate to man, then man rules over things legally, because, in his capacity as possessor and proprietor, he is simply the personification of the abstract, impersonal, legal subject, the pure product of social relations; in Marx’ words:

"In order that these object may enter into relations with each other as commodities, their guardians must place themselves in relation to one another as persons whose will resides in those objects, and must behave in such a way that each does not appropriate the commodity of the other, and alienate his own except through an act to which both parties consent. The guardians must therefore recognize each other as owners of private property." (Capital I 178)

For Pashukanis, “The legal subject is the abstract owner of commodities raised to the heavens.” The legal subject, -- as one who possesses universal equal rights and is the guardian of commodities--is the essential embodiment of the economic categories that enable the continual transformation and metamorphosis of value from one form to another. All existence must be subsumed beneath a universally equivalent form, both as a value and as a right. But, as Marx pointed out in the “Critique of the Goethe Program”

"Equal right… is a right of inequality in its content like every right. Right by its nature can only consist in the application of an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only… To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal."

In other words, right, like value, succeeds in obliterating all sensuous reality and subordinating the subject to quantifiable equivalent relations. Real individuals in liberated social relationships, no longer subordinate to the law of value, cannot be made quantifiably commensurable through the dictates of value or political right.

At this point the reader may well concede that democracy practiced in the context of private property relations, of class divisions, wage labor and money/commodity exchange, is in fact an expression of the value form, i.e. capitalist domination; moreover that it is not a stepping stone towards a “true” and universal democracy. But what of “workers’ democracy?” Can there not be a democratic form that explicitly rejects all capitalist social relations to express the will of all? In order to answer this question (and we will attempt to answer it in the negative) we will need to look at “real” historical examples of workers’ democracy, the general social conditions that animate the democratic form and the relationship between the democratic practice and the minimal objectives of human emancipation.

There is a tendency to gloss over the meaning of democracy as somehow inclusive of any and all collective social activity or decision-making processes. Such glossing is misleading as it fails to make clear the distinction between communitarian processes that have historically been found everywhere in an infinite variety of forms, from those processes that are purely modes of deploying power. All democracies—really existing democracies—do have qualities in common. In essence, all democracies are conceived as a specific mode of distributing power within a community. All democracies are designed as systems of self-governing, structured by group identities of inclusion/exclusion. All democracies require a mode of enforcement (usually with relative autonomy) of the majority over the minority and must be based on the equality of sovereign subjects---each member with a single vote. The critical points in this minimum character of a democracy are the abilities to use coercion to enforce the compliance of the minority or of single individuals to the decisions of a quantified majority and the right to determine the inclusion and exclusion of group subjects in the process. Without the right of coercion and without the right to determine inclusion/exclusion we are no longer talking about democracy. Coercion requires a coercive apparatus that wields a degree of independence from the majority of decision makers; otherwise the democratic process would be harbinger of continual civil war. Moreover, such coercive autonomy would require a state apparatus to give legitimacy to the use of violence, a state apparatus legitimized and derived, as per Marx, from an abstract universal. That is, democracy as a political form presupposes the state.

Is this true only of “bourgeois” democracy, or is “workers” democracy of a different form?

Form, Ideology and Identity

With the founding of the European social democratic parties, the proletariat attempted to gain progressive reforms (fighting over the share of relative surplus value) with the aim of gradually taking over the state as the final step towards the triumph of socialism. Their principle tactic was the ballot, believing that the continual growth of the proletariat would ensure an eventual capture of the majority to which the capitalist interests would be compelled to submit. Wilhelm Liebknecht, leader of the German Social Democratic Party, hailed the destruction of the German peasantry stating, “every new smokestack hastens the victory of socialism.” The success of the SPD was inseparable from the growth and success of capitalism itself. Its development and integration into the German state was to become the model for all subsequent mass parties in the industrialized countries, including the Fascist and Nazi parties. These parties could claim ideological hegemony over their membership, could mobilize public demonstrations of the masses when necessary, had a party organization and machinery capable of enrolling members, collecting dues, ensuring ideological homogeneity and of course developing a cadre of leaders and specialists who swam like fish in the waters of democratic politics coordinating parliamentary and municipal representatives across the whole of Germany. By the time of the Stuttgart Conference in 1907 the SPD had over 1,000,000 members and more than 4000 paid workers. A French delegate attacked the SPD in this way: “you have now become an electoral accounting machine, a party of cash registers and parliamentary seats. You want to conquer the world with ballots … the whole of German Social Democracy has become bourgeois! Another observer at the same conference noted, “It was shown not that Social Democracy was conquering city and state, but on the contrary, that the state is conquering Social Democracy.” The SPD had become dependent on the credit worthiness of the state as it entered into the management of value production through the control of labor discipline. The wealth produced within the parameters of the German state was understood as the veritable source of all continual reforms. Therefore, to protect the German state was to protect social democracy itself. The catastrophe of August 1914 definitively demonstrated the critics of the SPD correct as social democracy mobilized the working class to “defend the fatherland in its hour of need.” Indeed, the slogan “one man, one vote, one gun” was direct link between the democratic form and imperialist war as patriotism replaced internationalism to become an ideology of mutual slaughter in the preservation of capitalism.

Volumes of ink have been spilled trying to explain how pre-war social democracy was able to guide the proletariat to act against its own self-interests, indeed, towards self-destruction. We won’t review all of the variations in explanation that range from reassessing the trajectory of capitalism, underestimating the role of a conscious vanguard, as well as the not grasping the dangers of reformism, opportunism, nationalism, imperialism, tactical mistakes etc, etc, etc. Rather we will look at the role the democratic form—within the condition of the real subsumption of labor to capital—plays in the subjectivation of the working classes to bourgeois forms of individuation, or how the gilded cage of democracy encloses revolutionary aspirations to the impotence of a songbird.

Late 19th century capitalism entered a phase of both extensive and intensive expansion that spread the reach of capital across the globe at the same time that it mobilized productive forces via science, technology, and greater concentrations of population, new forms of labor organization and the general homogenization of the social imaginary. Capitalism was not only producing an endless stream of commodities but was for the first time beginning to produce subjectivities, that is ideologies. Of course all societies produce subjectivities and ideologies, as all societies produce use-values, but what was new was that capitalism was now producing ideologies in the much the same way as steel was produced, ideologies that increasingly resembled the abstraction of exchange value. As capitalist social relations penetrated deeper and deeper into the social body it was a natural evolution that the social imaginary aligned itself with social praxis, a praxis that was enforced by the needs of capital.

As was pointed out above, the modern abstractions of political ideology could find little fertile ground among those working class communities that were still embedded in pre-capitalist economic structures, or even those whose memories were structured by pre-capitalist formations, that is to say that the nature of work, of community life and the social imaginary were intertwined in the concrete singularities of being. What was new in the capitalist social formation was the dis-embedding of all these organic links that had now become autonomous abstractions, as Marx expressed it, with capitalism” all that is solid melts into air.” Man’s active life could now only be mobilized by first alienating his potential power as wage labor and thus homogenized as abstract social labor. His self-perception was no longer linked and dependent on the concrete labor of his real life activity, but rather on the real abstraction of wage labor mediated by money. In essence this means that the new mode of subjectivation occurred through the separation of theōria (contemplation) from poïesis (making) while subordinating praxis (doing) to the former.

In the political arena, to activate ones own power individually requires the subsumtion of the concrete conditions of life to the abstract generalities of political ideology. An abstract alienated ideology is the very coin of democracy and is produced through a division of labor by specialists who have no necessary links to real conditions of life as experienced by the working classes. The mass production of political ideology comes to be reassembled as a mode of consumption, a mode of identity and the only mode through which political praxis is mobilized. The very fact of its autonomy means that the social imaginary is less and less the outgrowth of the savoir vivre and the savoir fair of the working classes, whose loss over the power of poïesis is the very essence of proletarianization, and more than ever comes to be formed by the manufactured ideas that embracing ever more extreme metaphysical/teleological forms.

Orthodox Marxism itself was not immune to the bourgeois forms of expression. The anarchist Erich Mühsam, who understood that the form of ideological production on the part of the SPD was a replication of the formation of German capitalism itself, coined he term Bismarxism to describe a productivist/statist Marxism whose function was the integration of the proletariat as a loyal opposition rather than a revolutionary challenge to capitalism. What gave these ideologies the power to mobilize the masses, to swing them wildly left and right, to pacify them or to incite them to take up arms, was the democratic form, a form that privileged the abstract universal over concrete singular, the ideological over the of poïetic. In modern capitalism, life activity itself is born of an abstraction via wage labor and democracy reinforced the abstraction by channeling resistance along the axis of the democratic form. In essence this move compelled the working classes to abdicate its actual power in favor of a class of intellectual specialists whose currency and eventual monopoly was the command over ideology.

The abstractions of democracy are in full conformity with the abstractions of capitalist forms of production. It is for this reason that we assert that the democratic form is the very substrate of totalitarian modes of power, indeed of fascism itself. The privileging of abstract identities within a framework of social alienation and the disengagement of ideology from the socially poïetic activity of the working classes, is the ground from which grows democratic mass politics, advertizing, hyper-consumerism and totalitarian forms of control. Whether these totalitarian modes of control take the form of a “great” leader, a party or technocratic control may be determined by historically specific conditions but the social “logic” that enables the continual metamorphous of power is hidden in the capitalist value-form itself. This simple and infinitely reproducible social formation that reduces each individual subject to the bearer of an “economic character mask” is the irreducible and immanent social logic that is not subject to modification for the simple reason that for value to posit itself in the present it must posit its identical offspring--its own growth--in the future. The hunger of capital (value) has already devoured the unborn. The democratic form as a reflection of the value form impresses its stamp on anything it touches.

The objections will of course arise that this all may be true for Greek democracy, for the democratic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, it may be true for the expansion of the franchise to include the working classes in the 19th and 20th centuries and it may be true for the SPD and all the working class parties of the Second International who were victims of a bad teleology, but surely democracy is the natural form for the revolutionary working class in the act of struggle against capitalism.

Examples of “proletarian” democracy are few and far between, existing as flashes in the heat of struggle only to be crushed, dissolved, exhausted or eventually recuperated into safe channels of opposition. The singular example of proletarian democracy that not only led a struggle but also was a sustained attempt at self-governance was the Russian Revolution and the establishment of the worker’s Soviets. Of course the Paris Commune and the Barcelona Insurrection in 1936 also give important experiences of worker’s democracy but both existed entirely under a state of siege limiting the lessons to be derived from these experiences. But it is the Soviet experience that reveals the problems of worker’s democracy.

The Soviets or worker’s councils have been hailed as the natural form of worker’s self-rule, and the purest form of direct democracy that has ever existed. Yet this pure democracy succumbed to a totalitarian form of one party rule in quick order, not from external forces, but from within its own activity. Maurice Brinton documents very well the ascendance of Bolshevik power within the Soviets and subsequent loss of workers control.

The Bolshevik vision of democracy and socialism was revealingly articulated by Lenin in his article of 1917 “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?”

“When we say workers’ control, always associating that slogan with the dictatorship of the proletariat, and always putting it after the latter, we thereby make plain what state we have in mind… if it is a proletarian state we are referring to (i.e. that dictatorship of the proletariat) then workers’ control can become a national, all-embracing, omnipresent, extremely precise and extremely scrupulous accounting of the production and distribution of goods.”

"Without big banks socialism would be impossible of realization. The big banks are a ‘stable apparatus’ we need for the realization of socialism and which we shall take from capitalism ready made. Our problem here is only to lop away that which capitalistically disfigures this otherwise excellent apparatus and to make it still bigger, still more democratic, still more comprehensive… A single huge state bank, with branches in every rural district and in every factory – that will already be nine-tenths of a socialist apparatus” (emphasis added)

Not only does Lenin directly link the growth of democracy to the “excellent apparatus” of a vast banking system but perhaps more importantly he establishes in this text a barrier to worker’s control itself via the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is, worker’s control can only be mediated—on the Bolshevik model-- via the proletarian state by way of ideology, an ideology over which the Bolsheviks quickly attained a monopoly. The Bolshevik and the soviet idea of worker’s control, articulated perfectly by Lenin as a vast “omnipresent” accounting system of production and distribution of goods, is in keeping with Lenin’s well known definition of socialism as “electrification plus soviets.” But wresting control of the means of production (the technology) from the bourgeoisie cannot be a step towards real liberation or control on the part of the working class if the mode of production (social relations) is not radically altered. Capitalism is not a function of the greedy capitalist or the dogmatic commissar, but rather the social relations shaped by the law of value. It is these social relations that must be exploded and this is not a function of ideology but rather returning the primacy of savior faire to the working classes. The democratic form, the omnipresent political structure of the Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat, guarantees that it is the abstraction of ideology that rules supreme. And it is the rule of the abstract over the sensuous that is the essence of both the capitalist mode of production and democracy itself.

Lukács positively developed this perspective with his concept of “totality” as the principle category of the Marxist critique of capitalism. For Lukács, capitalism was a totality that could only be opposed by another totality that was embodied in the consciousness of the proletariat, not in its direct activity but as expressed in it non-reified form of the party. One form of consciousness articulated by an intellectual class as representatives of capital, according to Lukács, confronts another form of consciousness articulated by another intellectual class who represent the historical interest of the proletariat. When the principle conflict occurred in the realm of ideology then praxis is fully subordinate to theōria with poïesis simply subsumed as a form of praxis. In spite of Lukács’ brilliant critique of alienation he nevertheless ends by subordinating the sensual, the concrete and the singular side of human knowledge to the abstractions of ideology.

Helmut Reichelt appropriately refers to this phenomenon as the “persistence of the general” in relation to the value form:

"What is thus constituted is an inverted world in which sensuousness in the widest sense — as use-value, labor, exchange with nature — is demoted to a means of the self perpetuation of an abstract process that underlies the whole objective world of constant change. […] The whole sensuous world of human beings who reproduce themselves through the satisfaction of needs and labor is step-by-step sucked into this process, in which all activities are “in themselves inverted”. They are all, in their vanishing appearance, immediately their own opposite: the persistence of the general."

Just as use value and concrete labor are helpless before the power of abstractions of value, so to does savior vivre and savior faire fall before the omnipresence and generalities of democratic ideologies.

The suppression of the Kronstadt revolt in 1921 by the Bolshevik controlled soviets demonstrates with particular clarity the tyranny of ideology and deployment of theoretical identities. The principle justification for the suppression was based on an elaborate teleological construction of social identities. In Trotsky’s own words:

"Only an entirely superficial person can see in Makhno’s bands or in the Kronstadt revolt a struggle between the abstract principles of Anarchism and ‘state socialism.’ Actually these movements were convulsions of the peasant petit-bourgeoisie, which desired, of course, to liberate itself from capital but which at the same time did not consent to subordinate itself to the dictatorship of the proletariat. The petit-bourgeoisie does not know concretely what it wants, and by virtue of its position cannot know. " Trotsky. (Emphasis added)

For Trotsky it was a pre-ordained conclusion that the “peasant petit-bourgeoisie” was out of step with history; the democratic soviets needed nothing more than to understand the teleology of history and to redefine the Kronstadt rebels as petit-bourgeois” in order to justify sending the cavalry across the ice. Two of the criteria of the democratic form are in full view, the right to determine inclusion/exclusion and the power of coercion. If these rebels are no longer proletarians but now “peasant petit-bourgeoisie” then it is not only possible but also necessary to exclude them from the proletarian state, i.e. exclusion from the soviets.

The working classes formally had the right of instant recall of soviet delegates and the delegates were not paid more than the average worker at the time (two of the most important conditions claimed as the safeguard to protect real worker’s democracy within the councils) yet they were easily swayed to suppress Kronstadt. In fact the democratic form is not be understood merely by its formal organizational arrangements like pay scale or rights of recall, it is rather the relationship between the concrete individual and the individual as an abstract category. That is, the power of the individual can only be activated through the mediation of ideology (theōria) in a democratic structure by the very fact that participatory identity itself is structured abstractly in the same way that concrete labor is activated via the abstraction of value. Even revolutionary worker’s democracy will never be capable of breaking the hold of the abstract without simultaneously dismantling social relations structured by the value-form.

Provisional Conclusion

In this text we have tried to demonstrate the historically determinate nature of democracy as a form of governance among the ancients, as a form of state among the moderns and as a form of society today ; that is, we have tried to denaturalize democracy and once again subject it to a rigorous historical and analytical critique. The starting point was to demonstrate that democracy was born at a very precise historical conjuncture and was itself inextricably bound to specific forms of property ownership. Initially, the content of democracy was to guarantee the protection of private property by guaranteeing the sovereignty of autonomous productive units (farms). Democracy continued to develop however, within an expanding commercial economy that made widespread use of silver coin that universalized abstract forms of exchange. The experience of ancient Greece reveals the profound relationship between material reproduction and modes of social consciousness. In the Greek experience it was precisely the abstract nature of social praxis through value exchange that gave shape to Greek thought, its philosophy and it political forms. With the widespread use of silver coins, Greek trading practice converted the multiplicity of material species into the single form of value that was both universal in its reach and “without an atom of material substance.” This gave the appearance that the essence of all material substance was its abstract value. Since this particular abstraction originates in social praxis rather than thought, the relationship that emerges between the abstract and the concrete appears to be the ontological ground of being itself. Theōria becomes the privileged mode of activity through which existence is not only understood but actually resides and to which praxis therefore must follow. From Anaximander to Parmenides, from Plato to Aristotle, theōria, praxis and poïesis remain divided and continually forced into an uneasy hierarchy with theōria as the head. The democratic form likewise divided the Greek community into atomistic entities each with sovereign rights in order to unify all beneath the political abstraction formed by the democratic polis. It is difficult to imagine that the democratic form would have emerged without the particular convergence of private property and the universal mediation of silver as the form of value, a convergence that was found only in ancient Greece.

The Greek division between theōria, praxis and poïesis, with its subsequent degrading of poïesis, was a necessary condition of the democratic form. Poïesis, which includes the creative transformation of the material world, is by its very nature contrary to democratic governance. Poïesis and savoir-faire, require an intimate knowledge of the materials of the world, a knowledge best exemplified by the hand of the craftsman, the eye of the artist and the ear of the composer; that is to say, a form of knowledge that in its very practice resists abstraction and ideology.

That we do not confuse critical historical materialism for a bourgeois teleology of history advancing inexorably towards individual freedom, we must reiterate that originary democracy was geographically localized and historically short-lived as it was based on a system of private ownership and exchange relations specific to the Greek experience. As a form of governance and form of state, democracy did not reemerge until capitalist social relations began to reorganize the mode of production itself. But, the sequence of events is crucial if we are not to mythologize the supposed “hunger” for democracy by the people. We must remember that capitalism began with the destruction of the common—most importantly via enclosures—removing the material basis for community cohesion; that is, capitalism forcibly, aggressively and violently destroyed traditional communities by destroying all vestiges of productive autonomy. Only when the worker is deprived of his savoir-faire and his savior-vivre can he safely become an autonomous democratic subject. He is become subordinate to an abstract mode of domination via wage labor cut off from any creative role in the evolution of poïesis or social production. Only then, when the worker is alienated from his autonomous and communitarian life, only then when the worker’s specific conditions of exploitation become the generalized form of social intercourse does democracy become a universal demand. But this universal demand, far from being the expression of the teleology of freedom or a non-reified class-consciousness, is the direct expression of total alienation—not its negation--and can only be adequately explained through an analysis of the value-form.

Objectively capitalism has created a vast system of highly socialized labor where each unit of labor depends on an interlocking division and specialization yet subjectively labor is perceived as autonomous and free and it is precisely this perception that holds the system together through which value is produced. Democracy is its mirror image insofar as the subjective perception of autonomy is the condition for the homogenization of political culture and the socialized deployment of power. As Werner Bonefeld succinctly states:

"Disunity in the form of unity entails coercion as the conditions of unity—a coerced and coercive unity. The bourgeois relations of abstract equality render differences commensurable in the form of abstract identity where everything is indifferent to its social content as mere variations of exchange relations. Abstract identity is indifferent to human distinctiveness; it is an identity of death."

It is the coercive “rendering differences commensurable” that is the basis of the system’s unity both politically and economically. Utilizing the concepts of theōria, praxis and poïesis we will see that from the materialist point of view they form a necessary unity in which poïesis is the point at which man enacts his essential metabolism with nature. It is in his productive activity that his sensual side is developed and in which his full humanity is realized. There is no substitute for this kind of knowledge, it is not conceptual but specific, concrete, singular and it is precisely at this point that capitalism has inverted man’s relationship with nature alienating his essential powers. Man will only affirm himself through the full gathering of these powers. Marx writes:

"On the one hand, therefore, it is only when the objective world becomes everywhere for man in society the world of man’s essential powers – human reality, and for that reason the reality of his own essential powers – that all objects become for him the objectification of himself, become objects which confirm and realize his individuality, become his objects: that is, man himself becomes the object. The manner in which they become his depends on the nature of the objects and on the nature of the essential power corresponding to it; for it is precisely the determinate nature of this relationship, which shapes the particular, real mode of affirmation. To the eye an object comes to be other than it is to the ear, and the object of the eye is another object than the object of the ear. The specific character of each essential power is precisely its specific essence, and therefore also the specific mode of its objectification, of its objectively actual, living being. Thus man is affirmed in the objective world not only in the act of thinking, but with all his senses." (1844)

Socially theōria, praxis and poïesis form a unity but capitalism has imposed a separation in which one can only appear as the negation of the other in a “vanishing unity.” This is the essence of the value-form in which “sensuous being exists within the concept of variable capital in the mode of being denied. ” As Helmut Reichlet put it:

"Capital is thus conceived as a constant change of forms, into which use-value is constantly both integrated and expelled. In this process, use-value too, assumes the form of an eternally vanishing object. But this constantly renewed disappearance of the object is the condition for the perpetuation of the value itself — it is through the always reproduced change of forms that the immediate unity between value and use-value is retained.”

It is at this point we can begin to understand the fetish nature of the democratic form, which is found in the specific distortion between theōria, praxis and poïesis imposed by capital. The Marxist concept of fetishism appears as the ubiquitous relationship between people and things, where things take on a human-like quality and people take on a thing–like quality. Fetishism is not a form of false consciousness but rather a specific form of perception that is constituted by commodity exchange without which value-formation would be impossible. More specifically, it is the false perception (fetishism) that constitutes the truth of commodity exchange. We take as a presupposition that consciousness or theōria does not constitute an autonomous realm of human activity but is profoundly co-terminus with the physical side of human activity--praxis and poïesis. But in commodity production the active side of material transformation of the world—production of use values--can only be realized through the abstraction of value while simultaneously being expelled by the same process--a “vanishing appearance.” Poïesis take on an ephemeral existence while the abstraction of value accumulates. It is value that seems permanent and universal, not poïesis. Praxis, as the political action of men, becomes naturally subordinate to that which appears permanent, universal and autonomous, i.e. theōria in its fully fetishized form. Democracy is derived from a universal ideology that is eternal and renders all social subjects commensurable, it is a praxis that is derived from theōria with no regard for the material reproduction of the world, its poïesis.

Communism implies a new relationship to the social and material world, above all a new concept of work as the transformation and arrangement of production within the frame of immediate liberation efforts. Revolutionary transformation occurs when new forms of subjectivity are born of transformation in collective work experience. New modes of consciousness can only emerge as co-terminus with new modes of production and social intercourse through the repossession of the liberated meaning of work as the collective liberation of singularities. Such a transformation require an aesthetic engagement throughout collective experimentation precisely because it is in the aesthetic engagement that the singularities are rendered incommensurable, activating poïesis as the real point at which humanity become self consciously self-forming.

This text does not pretend to offer “practical” solutions to the collective organization necessary for self-liberation but rather to orient future discussion and experimentation in collective action. But, we will assert that democracy, even in its “pure” form, is not a step towards liberation but rather the principle mode through which capital keeps resistance contained within the political. When David Graeber, an unofficial spokesperson for the Wall Street Occupy movement, triumphantly declares, “nothing terrifies those running America more than the danger of true democracy breaking out,” we can only shrug. It is the destruction of the political, not its capture, that the path will be open to real liberation. To repeat Marx:

"…without a revolution, socialism cannot be enforced. It requires this political act so far as it has need of the process of destruction and dissolution. But where its organizing activity begins, where its proper aim, its soul, emerges, there socialism casts away the political hull."

B. York
Internationalist Perspectives
April 20, 2013


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Internationalist Perspectives #10

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  • 1 Slogan chanted in Zucotti Park and other locations of the Occupy Movement
  • 2 In the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859 Marx stresses the primacy of social being over consciousness proposing the famous dualistic ontology of base and superstructure where the English translation is “the economic foundation of society determines the superstructure..” etc. but the German verb bestimmen, does not entail a statement of mechanical causality, but rather connotes the words feststzen (fixing), Prägen (characterizing, shaping, molding) and beeinflussen (influenceing). Hansen 307-308
  • 3Camatte. “The Democratic Mystification” The Selected Works of Jacaues Camatte NY 2011
  • 4 Hanson
  • 5Hanson 96
  • 6Sismondi, in Marx, Grundrisse, 217
  • 7Marx “On The Jewish Question” in Fine
  • 8 Marx “On The Jewish Question” in Fine



10 years 9 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by 888 on August 22, 2013

I have no idea what an "aesthetic engagement" entails.

I don't understand the point of the article. "This text does not pretend to offer “practical” solutions to the collective organization necessary for self-liberation but rather to orient future discussion and experimentation in collective action." I don't see how it does the latter, and the former would actually be more useful.

Who aside from liberals argues for an inclusive cross-class democracy? And once you've specified that you are excluding bosses etc all 'democracy' is is a convenient way to make decisions collectively, it's fairly trivial and like many things isn't totally determined by the current mode of production.

Also, arguing for "more democracy" can be a convenient and lazy shorthand that's easily understood by lots of people... It resonates with everyone's basic sense of fairness and the notion that they shouldn't be ordered around all the time. But it has to be qualified or it becomes misleading.


10 years 9 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by kingzog on August 23, 2013

i was a little confused by the idea of repossesing (liberating?) the "liberated meaning of work as collective liberation of singularities"? Work as collective liberation? singularities? an elaboration in plain English would be appreciated. and the part about revolution occuring when "forms of subjectivity" (conciousness?) changes due to the "transformation of work experiences" (that would itself constitute revolution i think), that sounds like a tautology; revolution happens in revolution. This is all good and philosophical, but for those who are not necessarily educated in critical theory (is that where these terms come from?) it's nearly incomprehensible.

that said, i was also curious about the stuff on greek coins and value-form. it sounded like the author was saying that money = value and value existed in ancient greece! but it seems more likely that the class system , wage-labor, something highly undeveloped in ancient greece btw, is the category from which to develop value; and which to (to a great extant) develop the state and therefore, modern democracy. i dont see how the value-form is the basis of the democracy, and therefore the state, etc, when it seems obvious that the value form develops from the class system, more generally, and not the other way around.

Remember that Marx made fun of german idealists in the GI when he said Germans "have no premises." to start with the value-form and then develop all the "capitalist categories" as derving ( or that each category impels from the original) from it sounds a lot like how Hegel's science of logic develops its categories. but its very clear that Marx, in Capital at least, maybe not Grundrisse (and perhaps the issue is that this is a very Grndrissian essay) introduces many categories arbitrarily, by fiat, not from the value-form as some sort of necessity. It appears that this essay is very much trying to construct some sort of Hegelian logical unfolding of Democracy from the value-form. Maybe that's not so much a criticism, idk.

p..s I did agree with the critique of democracy itself if thats any consolation.


10 years 9 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Spikymike on August 27, 2013

Well I have to agree with kingzog that this text is certainly not an easy read for many of us unfamiliar with some of the terminology and kg's questions are worthy of some clarification from the author.

The lengthy comparison of the origins and underpinning of Athenian democracy with modern democratic forms is interesting and supportive of the main arguments against democratic ideology (if accurate) but perhaps not essential to it?

The rest of the case put forward appears to rest on the foundations of an analysis and theoretical approach consistent with that developed in particular by Bordiga, Camatte and others in the Italian Left Communist tradition (ie Bilan) and does have the advantage of applying this not just to a critique of mainstrean Social Democracy but also to the Bolshevik leadership. In this and it's more cautious objective it manages to avoid some of the potential misuses and abuses of such a theoretical approach (unlike some such as the GCI who argue a similar line) which is certainly welcome and is in company with some amongst the 'Communisers'.

Do I detect perhaps also some sympathy for elements of the earlier anarchist approach to anti-capitalist struggle not just in the critique of Social Democracy ( a favourable quote from Erich Muhsam) but also in relation to peasant rebellions and other struggles against the rise in the formal domination of capital?

The critique is prompted most recently it would appear by what the author perceives, with some justification, as democratic mystifications arising within and in response to the North American Occupy movement, as expressed for instance by some modern day anarchists such David Graeber. Whilst IP itself is hardly in the same camp it's initial enthusiastic responses to 'Occupy' was subject to some criticism for it's overemphasis on the aspect of 'democracy' by others in our milieu (including me). Still I was suprised that this text was not published with responses on the IP website which has generally promoted open discussion including amongst it's own membership.

A useful addition to other of the limited number of texts on this site discussing the communist critique of democratic forms and democratic ideology.

PS: the presentation could be improved by seperately highlighting the various quotations in the text.


8 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Spikymike on December 18, 2015

There was of course this rather thin and indirect criticism of their comrades text from IP:


2 years ago

Submitted by Spikymike on May 8, 2022

I Note that that B.York has returned to this critique of 'Democracy' in the safer space of a shared anarchist-communist and left communist critique of War in capitalism and the current Russia/Ukraine War here: