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Birth of Democracy and the Death Knell of Capitalism

Aabid Firdausi M S ( is currently pursuing his MPhil in Development Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Siddik R ( is an assistant professor at the Department of Economics, University of Kerala.

A response to “Death of Democracy: An Inevitable Possibility under Capitalism’’ by Rajan Gurukkal (EPW, 25 August 2018) seeks to foreground the inherent contradiction between genuine democracy and capitalism. Realising the possibility of system-transcendence therefore demands an organised challenge to the exploitative capital–labour relation.

The tensions between capitalism and democracy have reached new heights in the past decade, most recently manifested in the victory of Jair Bolsonaro in the presidential elections of Brazil, the latest in the string of right-wing politicians elected to power. Proclamations that liberal capitalist democracy represented the most ideal system of governance in the world and hence marked the “end of history” (Fukuyama 1992) have been rubbished as being premature and ideologically motivated. Fukuyama (2018) no longer identifies as a neoconservative, and has instead argued that the struggle for recognition or identity politics has become a threat to the existing liberal political system. Thus, what we witness is a democratic recession (Diamond 2015) or a democratic deconsolidation (Foa and Mounk 2016) due to the loss of popular support for democracy as a system, rise of anti-system parties, and a general indifference towards the rules of the game.

Mounk (2018) conceptualised two variants of liberal democracy, namely undemocratic liberalism and illiberal democracy, as being aberrations of a system that had ensured stability for decades. This harks back to the age-old question of the compatibility of capitalism and democracy, and what it means for development as an ideal. Rajan Gurukkal’s (2018) paper Published in EPW is therefore, timely and an exhaustive intellectual exercise, making it an important contribution to this area. He argues that global capitalism masked its expansionist tendencies in the rhetoric of “development” that has furthered new kinds of imperialism, marginalisation of the subaltern, encouraged over-exploitation of natural resources, and fostered a new kind of cronyism abetted by centralised decision-making that has replaced democratic systems with corporatocracies. This cronyism, most explicitly manifested in the special economic zones (SEZs) has led to functional autocracy, where the real agenda of the state is no longer public. All this has reaffirmed the inevitable possibility of the “death of democracy” under capitalism.

Critique—The Dialectical View

While we broadly agree with Gurukkal’s incisive observations on contemporary capitalism and its lived realities, we have some fundamental differences with it. First, the author takes a non-dialectical view of capitalism and development which amounts to a selective reading of history that constrains the analysis from arriving at a holistic picture of the subject. A dialectical view would take into account the unity of opposites that make up the systemic totality and the inherent contradictions that arise due to its consistent interaction. This coexistence of the contradictory aspects of any social system occurs in a field of continuous tension and hence, society is not static, it is constantly in a state of flux, subject to perpetual transformation. Any critique of capitalism, therefore, should take into account both sides of the picture—that not only emphasises the dispossession caused due to capital accumulation, but also the potential of enormous productive forces that have been unleashed by production for production’s sake.

While mapping the negative consequences, we must not lose sight of the dynamism of capitalist production and how the improvement of living standards fundamentally remains the political question of distribution. This means that capitalism with all its destructive features, also creates. Likewise, it sows the seeds of system transcendence within itself. This argument is also applicable to the discourse around development. While we agree with the parasitic coexistence of development with underdevelopment in global capitalism, it seems an overreach to reject development per se. Development as an objective process implies change and progress. Capitalist development belies these claims due to its inegalitarian consequences as well as over-exploitation of resources. But, this does not warrant an outright rejection of the merits of urbanisation, agricultural transformation, health, education, etc, merely as being “appendages” to an integration with capitalism; investment in human development is a relatively new phenomenon that was struggled for within the system. While the objective may certainly be social reproduction of the workforce, it can also be seen as a juncture from which struggles for more demands can be waged.

Capitalism and Democracy

Second, the assumption that there is an impending “death of democracy” due to unbridled capitalist development leads us to question the very premise that presupposes the coexistence of the two systems at its respective mature stages. The author himself suggests the incompatibility of the two systems at various instances: that bourgeois democracy with its constitutional reforms is not “real democracy” but only an oligarchy, that imperialism undermines democracy in the global South, and that even the much lauded administrative decentralisation is only a “localisation of class governance.” If this is the case, why is there an impending death of democracy, when there is a visible absence of real democracy? Here again, by taking a dialectical view, we can concur that constitutional rights has empowered the hitherto marginalised from the public sphere: women, ethnic minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer communities, etc. At the same time, it is also possible to see how there is a perpetuation of immiseration that arises as a consequence of class relations in capitalism.

It is imperative that we examine the incompatibility of capitalism and real democracy in some detail; the impossibility of the coexistence of mature capitalism and mature democracy. This is clear in the fundamentally contradictory logic of the two systems; democracy, to a great extent, epitomises the ideal of equality. Capitalism rests on exploitation where the capitalist appropriates the surplus value that is produced by the worker. This was famously captured by Karl Marx when he proclaimed that the real inequalities of capitalism lie in the “hidden abode of production” where capital is produced. The birth of economic democracy and other social movements that challenge this classism has always been repressed by capitalists, often in collusion with the regulatory apparatuses of global capitalism. One only needs to look into the experience of Latin America to see how alternatives to global capitalism have been forcibly overthrown. Likewise, the rollback of the welfare state, rampant privatisation, and other neo-liberal reforms in advanced capitalist countries were a result of an organic development within the system, as labour-oriented reforms and increased competition from emerging economies caused a crisis of profitability (Glyn and Sutcliffe 1972; Brenner 1998). This means that demands or trends that cannot be assimilated within the system do not have a place within capitalism. Capitalism need not lead to the death of democracy, but the birth of real democracy always sounds the death knell of capitalism. The question is therefore about envisioning a post-capitalist politics, a vision that leads us to the following conclusion.

The Alternative

We beg to differ from the political implications that the author’s hypothesis seems to suggest. Gurukkal argues that capitalism degenerates into corporatocracy, autocracy, and fascism, all due to the political economy of the system. This view forecloses the possibility of an alternative by constraining the agency of actors within capitalism. The historical specificity of capitalism as a social system leads us to take the view that transcendence is a real possibility. Thus, we strongly disagree with the conclusion that there is no alternative to the present. For one, we can see the construction of non-capitalist islands within the sea of capitalist logic, most visibly in the form of cooperatives. However, these do not pose a systemic challenge as they merely remain islands of resistance to the trend of rampant exploitation. The possibility of system transcendence always arises by challenging the exploitative capital–labour relation, that is, the subjugation of labour to capital that is at the root of profit-making.

Such a structural challenge that aims at system transcendence arises out of mobilising the working class, peasantry, and other marginalised communities. This is a practical question as it involves grass roots movements with an ultimate aim to challenge the system with an agenda of redistribution and building an alternative economy. A significant challenge before this movement would be how to unite different sections of the marginalised amidst fragmentation of working class identity due to deterritorialisation and globalisation of production. This requires communication of the significance of class, the historical contingency of capitalism as a social system, and the real possibility of transcending the contemporary. Capitalism’s productive capacity lays the groundwork for this possibility, the task is to envision an alternative based on the politics of redistribution. Such trends signify a radical departure from pessimistic prognoses like “death of democracy” by lending weight to the possibilities for the birth of real democracy that inevitably sounds the death knell of capitalism.


Brenner, Robert (1998): “The Economics of Global Turbulence: A Special Report on the World Economy, 1950–98,” Special Issue, New Left Review, No 229, May/June, pp 262.

Diamond, Larry (2015): “Facing Up to the Democratic Recession,” Journal of Democracy, Vol 26, No 1, pp 141–55.

Foa, Roberto and Yascha Mounk (2016): “The Democratic Disconnect,” Journal of Democracy, Vol 27, No 3, pp 5–17.

Fukuyama, Francis (1992): The End of History and the Last Man, New York: The Free Press.

— (2018): Identity: The demand for dignity and the Politics of Resentment, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Glyn, Andrew and Robert Sutcliffe (1972): Capitalism in Crisis, New York: Pantheon Books.

Gurukkal, Rajan (2018): “Death of Democracy: An Inevitable Possibility under Capitalism,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol LIII, No 34, pp 104–11.

Mounk, Yascha (2018): The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, Harvard University Press.


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