Democracy Is Incompatible with Capitalism

Riad Kherdeen
Dec 17, 2020 · 8 min read
Image courtesy of Fred Moon on Unsplash

The world has never before seen true democracy in action. Countries that claim to be democratic today, and that were supposedly established with democracy as their foundation many years ago, are not, in fact, democracies at all. For all of these countries are not ruled by the people but rather are ruled by capital. They nearly all claim to be democracies, but democracy as a political system is mutually opposed to capitalism as an economic system. Wherever we find capitalist economic systems, what we really have is a totalitarian political system, regardless of how it may be dressed up. That is why you can have capitalism in places that do not claim to be democracies, such as in China, where, arguably, capitalism works even better than in the places it originally emerged (although it must be pointed out that China falsely claims to be communist when it is really capitalist). There is no rule that says that democracy must be tied to capitalism; there is also no requirement that autocracy go hand in hand with socialism. Democracy can only by fully achieved with socialism.

To be fair, as with democracy, we have also never before seen true socialism in action. We have come close before, such as in the short lived Paris Commune (which existed from March 18 to May 28, 1871, before being violently suppressed by the French Army), or the war communism implemented by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War (1918–1921, which was replaced by the New Economic Policy after the war). In places that are ostensibly socialist, what we always find is a number of conflicting factors that prevent socialism from actually being implemented and advanced; these contradictions are utterly incompatible with socialism and include the consolidation of power by one single person (autocracy) or a small group of people (oligarchy), corruption (plutocracy), and the embrace of mixed privatization and economic liberalism.

In addition, all of these places that may have embraced socialism were not well positioned to do so, as they were not yet industrialized and developed economically. Socialism only has the best chance of prevailing when it comes after capitalism and all of the necessary industrialization and high-levels of production that come with it. Instead, all of the places that claim to be socialist skipped the necessary historical step of capitalism and industrialization, which is necessary to ramp up levels of production to be able to sustain the population of an entire society.

Furthermore, many countries that attempted to embrace socialism after 1945 in order to break from the exploitation and oppression of capitalism and colonialism — the two historically have been mutually interdependent — were thwarted in their efforts do to so by the United States, which did everything it could to prevent a socialist revolution from succeeding and flourishing during the Cold War period. The US perceived socialism as a direct threat to its capitalist principles, for if socialism truly succeeded anywhere in the world, it would finally show that there is a better option out there. The US, thus, used its unparalleled political, economic, and military power after World War II to crush the bold, brave, and audacious new initiatives that nascent nations-states sought to undertake, along with the more powerful and established Soviet Union.

Cuba may have come the closest to being a socialist state, but there are two main reasons why Cuba was not able to fully succeed: Fidel Castro made himself ruler of Cuba instead of stepping aside and handing power over to the people, and the US used its might to ensure that Cuba would not get far in its socialist ambitions. Vietnam also came close, under the visionary leadership of Ho Chi Minh who fought for and won independence from French colonial rule, but the US was so afraid of Ho Chi Minh that it ended up launching a long and deadly war (that it ultimately lost) to stop him. By ensuring the failure of all attempts at socialism around the world, the US has been able to bolster its position and hegemony in the world, and coerce its people and those in other countries to go along with its political-economic system.

The Frankfurt School critical theorist Herbert Marcuse has argued that the capitalist societies that claim to be democratic and free are actually totalitarian and unfree. “For ‘totalitarian,’” writes Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man, “is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests.” These vested interests represent the people who gain the most wealth and power from the current political-economic system, and they maintain their hegemonic positions in society by creating and manipulating the needs of the classes below them.

Marcuse differentiates between true and false needs. As he writes:

“‘False’ are those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice. Their satisfaction might be most gratifying to the individual, but this happiness is not a condition which has to be maintained and protected if it serves to arrest the development of the ability (his own and others) to recognize the disease of the whole and grasp the chances of curing the disease. The result then is euphoria in unhappiness. Most of the prevailing needs to relax, to have fun, to behave and consume in accordance with the advertisements, to love and hate what others love and hate, belong to this category of false needs.”

The interests that superimpose these false needs upon individuals are not put in place through democratic means. Not many people would vote to perpetuate a system in which misery, injustice, toil, and precarity are needed. And few people would elect to have our needs dictated to us by advertisements, the ruling class, our employers, or anyone else.

If we truly had a democratic system, we would vote to replace this system with one that provides for our true, basic needs, including sustenance, housing, healthcare, education, and justice. “The spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual,” posits Marcuse, “does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the control.” The creation of false needs by those in power — by the “vested interests” — and the internalization and reproduction of those needs by the workings class is not democracy but rather totalitarianism; we can only fulfill our true needs through a real democracy.

Historically, democracy emerged in Western Europe and North America as a political structure on top of a capitalist base. Democracy was used as a way to get people to buy into or go along with with capitalism, but it was always a diversion. Following revolutions in England, France, and Germany that overthrew their respective monarchies, the landed classes and bourgeoise in these places took the power of the monarchs but had to develop an ideology that would appeal to the working classes so that they would not rise up and overthrow the the new ruling class.

They called it democracy, and the new ruling class promoted this political system as one that would ensure freedom and liberty for all, especially from the former tyranny of a monarch or despot. The masses ultimately had no choice but to cooperate with this new system imposed upon them by the new ruling class.

And not only were people told that they had a say in the government and rule of the country for the first time, but now that they were no longer bonded to a lord or king in a feudal system, they were on their own as free, autonomous, economic subjects to enjoy the supposedly inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This ideology of democracy, one that is distinctly bourgeois in character and origin, was developed as a way to legitimate this new system of liberalism and make capitalism seem more appealing than what came before it. It allowed an entire population to be dominated in a new way, with their supposed consent for the first time, for they at least democratically chose this new system and all of its inequities, precarity, suffering, and injustice. (For more on this history, see historian Ranajit Guha’s book Domination without Hegemony.)

As Herbert Marcuse appositely points out, “Under the rule of a repressive whole, liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual.” When we have elections, it is never entire bases, (super)structures, systems, and values that are on the ballot. No, instead we are deceptively offered a falseness of choice in which the people whom we elect will change very little, if anything at all, for fear of losing their own power and because many of these people have barely any power at all.

The solution, according to Marcuse, is in what he calls “the great refusal”:

“If the individual were no longer compelled to prove himself on the market, as a free economic subject, the disappearance of this kind of freedom would be one of the greatest achievements of civilization. The technological processes of mechanization and standardization might release individual energy into a yet uncharted realm of freedom beyond necessity. The very structure of human existence would be altered; the individual would be liberated from the work world’s imposing upon him alien needs and alien possibilities. The individual would be free to exert autonomy over a life that would be his own.”

If we can just raise the consciousness of people blinded by the ideology of bourgeois democracy and liberalism and how they are dominated and exploited by those who benefit from these systems used to defend capitalism, maybe we can move forward and finally get closer to achieving a freer, better, and more just world.

True democracy, and the freedom and liberty which we usually associate with it, cannot coexist in spaces where capitalism simultaneously operates. How free are we if we have to “earn a living,” if we have to do something that can be remunerated “for a living?” If you have an idea or dream you would like to pursue, are you free to do so if you don’t have the capital or money? Are you free if you work some meaningless job just for the pay, as high as it may be, simply in order to have shelter and food and to be able to buy commodities that we are told we need? Does having to separate work from life sound like freedom to you? Are these not signs of a miserable totalitarian system, or are they really “freedoms” bestowed upon us by democracy and capitalism.

With capitalism, what we always have is a totalitarian dictatorship by the bourgeoisie rather than a free democracy that directly benefits the people. Bourgeois democracy will never allow for fundamental change and true freedom. Longstanding issues, many of which were built into capitalism, like class, gender, and racial inequities — which keep a population intentionally divided — will never be resolved by bourgeois democracy. Instead, we need a real democracy, one by the people and for the people (socialism), rather than one by the people for the bourgeoisie (capitalism). Democracy can only be fully achieved when we do away with power altogether, when it is not held by any one persons or group of people, and it is only through a socialist rather than capitalist economic system that we can have a chance at realizing this ideal.

Riad Kherdeen

Written by

PhD Candidate at UC Berkeley. Your source for original, critical, thought-provoking content about art, history, culture, and politics.


We curate and disseminate outstanding articles from diverse domains and disciplines to create fusion and synergy.

Riad Kherdeen

Written by

PhD Candidate at UC Berkeley. Your source for original, critical, thought-provoking content about art, history, culture, and politics.


We curate and disseminate outstanding articles from diverse domains and disciplines to create fusion and synergy.

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