A few thoughts on the limits of our democracy

My apologies that no posts have appeared for a while. I’ve been a bit busy with other things and I made a promise to myself that this time keeping a blog will not be a burden, but I will write for pleasure and not out of necessity.

Here in Finland, we are approaching the parliamentary elections. Therefore, I would like to address a few basic questions about democracy. Perhaps to shake up some of the naïve views we are so keen to associate with it. For this task, I thought I would use Vivek Chibber’s book Confronting Capitalism – How the world works and how to change it (2022). It will probably be worth discussing the book in its entirety later. It is a very good introduction to a critical examination of capitalism.

The second chapter of the book deals with the relationship between the state and capitalism. Chibber ends up criticising the idea of pluralism, which in this context refers to a conception of democracy in which a race for votes ends up neutralising the dominance of a particular group. Chibber points out, however, that while this view is indeed perhaps comforting, it is also completely wrong. Studies in the United States have concluded that the state does indeed favour the wealthy. The special interests of a small group of people are therefore listened to much more carefully than the wishes of the masses. These studies have also forced academics to abandon the pluralist view and to face the ugly truth: the state is not neutral (Chibber 2022, 53-57).

Someone could certainly say that Finland is not the United States. And in some respects he would be quite right to say so. But we must take into account the fact that the Western countries are following each other in a surprisingly similar way. And I doubt that anyone would have the guts to argue that Finland does not have a similar pattern of favouring the wealthy in political decisions. One reason for this is surely the kind of strike that the capitalists can go on if they are not listened to.

Let’s continue. We see, then, that the same domination which capital has over labour in production also continues in certain respects in state decision-making. Of course, things are not quite one to one, but let’s look at this more closely. Chibber lists three main channels by which capital takes the upper hand from the state. First, the wealthy are more likely to be elected to office, the wealthy wield more power over others in office, and most importantly, the state is dependent on capital, which is why it ends up favouring capitalists even if the first two points do not materialise (Chibber 2022, 58.) Much has been written about this same phenomenon in left-wing circles, which have pondered, for example, the potential for social democracy to deliver real change if the captured state power is dependent on the capitalist sector. Extending democracy from a mere technical achievement to a real way of life would require that no single group holds the vital resources of the system ”hostage”.

With all the main forces of production outside the democratic grip, the result can really only be that the powers outside parliament largely control how society organises itself. Perhaps one amusing observation is that, for example, when trade unions go on strike, there is a terrible howl about them using means outside democracy. But is this really the case? In these situations, is not labour simply responding to the same techniques that capital uses outside of democratic decision making? For one reason or another, this tends to be forgotten by the media and many others. 


Chibber Vivek 2022. Confronting Capitalism – How the world works and how to change it. Verso. Ebook.