The universalization of ‘liberal democracy’

The following article, written by Danny Haiphong and Carlos Martinez, has been accepted for publication in the journal International Critical Thought, where it will appear in early 2022. We have permission to publish the draft on this website, since the subject matter is particularly pertinent to current debates on the question of democracy.

The word democracy is connected to a large and diverse body of meaning. In the broadest sense, it simply refers to the exercise of power – directly or indirectly – by the people. However, in the leading capitalist countries, its meaning is much more specific: it has become synonymous with the system of ‘liberal democracy’, characterized by a multi-party parliament, universal suffrage, the separation of powers, and a strong emphasis on the protection of private property.

This narrow definition is widely considered in the West as a universal and absolute truth. Indeed, in the dominant Western narrative, adherence to the principles of liberal democracy constitutes the fundamental dividing line in global politics. On one side there is a group of ‘democracies’ (including the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, most of Europe, Japan, India and South Korea) and on the other side a group of ‘non-democracies’ or ‘authoritarian regimes’ (including the People’s Republic of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, and most of the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America).

The obvious weakness of this definition is that it makes no reference to social class. It presents democracy as a purely procedural phenomenon and masks the underlying political and economic structure. In contrast, Mao Zedong considered that the particulars of governance in any given society reflect nothing more than “the form in which one social class or another chooses to arrange its apparatus of political power to oppose its enemies and protect itself” (Mao 1940). The important question therefore, wholly obscured in Western discourse, is which social class dominates political power? Which class is the ruling class?

There is a conspicuous intersection of liberal democracies and developed capitalist countries. That is to say, those states that conform to the precepts of liberal democracy also operate an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange; a society whose basic contradiction is “between the social character of production and the private character of ownership” (Mao 1937); a society where the accumulation of vast wealth by a small group of capitalists has as its parallel the “accumulation of misery, the torment of labor, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation” (Marx 1867, 799) among the lowest layers of society.

Clearly the correlation between liberal democracy and capitalism cannot be coincidental; indeed it reflects a truth described by Vladimir Lenin over a century ago, that “a democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism” (Lenin 1917). The purpose of any state – democratic or otherwise – is to uphold an economic status quo; a particular form of class rule. Liberal democracy should therefore be considered as a euphemism for capitalist democracy, the democratic limits of which are strictly defined by the need to reinforce capitalist production relations.

The economic core of capitalism is a division of society into, on the one hand, those that own and deploy capital and, on the other, those that must earn a living by selling their labor power. The essential role of the capitalist state is to preserve this relationship: the exploitation of the majority by the minority. In ordinary times, this takes place quite naturally as a result of tradition, culture, routine; but in case of less ordinary times, a capitalist state always has recourse to a police force, secret services and an army – “special bodies of armed men”, to use Frederick Engels’ expression.

Liberal democracy allows people to vote for one or other capitalist party, but it does not allow for substantive changes to the economic system. In the face of a conflict of interests between the ruling class and the working classes, the capitalist state invariably comes down on the side of the ruling class. As such, it is incapable of meeting the basic needs of the majority. Ending poverty, ending unemployment, divesting from the military-industrial complex, ending wars of aggression, suppressing COVID-19, providing good quality housing,  taking meaningful steps to decarbonize the economy: all these should be possible in an advanced modern society, and all reflect the needs and demands of ordinary people; yet capitalist states consistently fail to deliver them.

Engels made a profound observation on the limits of capitalist democracy, discussing the issue of homelessness. He pointed out that, since “there are already enough buildings for dwellings in the big towns to relieve immediately the real housing shortage through a rational utilization of these buildings”, a government representing the public interest would simply expropriate the empty buildings and transfer them “to homeless workers or to workers presently living in excessively overcrowded apartments” (cit. Lenin 1917). Indeed in 2017, in the wake of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in London, progressive politician Jeremy Corbyn (then leader of the Labour Party) proposed exactly that: that the government seize empty property and transfer it to those rendered homeless by the fire.

Corbyn’s suggestion was not, needless to say, taken up. Engels made his observations on the housing question in 1872, but even today in 2021, capitalist states are unable to solve this problem, because expropriating unoccupied buildings runs counter to the interests of the capitalist class. The US, Britain and Australia are wealthy countries, but New York, London and Sydney are suffering an epidemic of homelessness. Meanwhile in China, the housing problem has basically been solved. The reason China can place such a strong emphasis on poverty alleviation, or pandemic suppression, or ecological conservation, is that it is a socialist democracy, responsive to the needs of the vast majority of the population.

Within a capitalist democracy, it is possible for the working classes to win certain concessions and improve their situation. The immovable red line, however, is the position of the capitalist class as ruling class. Lenin wrote:

“Freedom is always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in reality, a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich. Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics: freedom for the slaveowners. Owing to the conditions of capitalist exploitation the modern wage slaves are so crushed by want and poverty that ‘they cannot be bothered with democracy’, ‘they cannot be bothered with politics’; in the ordinary peaceful course of events the majority of the population is debarred from participation in public and political life.” (Lenin 1917)

Occasionally there is some disruption to this ‘ordinary peaceful course of events’ and the true nature of the capitalist state is exposed. The treatment of the US communist movement and the radical organizations of oppressed minorities in the late 1960s and early 1970s provides an instructive example. When groups such as the Black Panther Party started to organize and educate significant numbers of people from working class and oppressed communities; when they openly and effectively questioned the superiority of capitalism; when they roundly denounced US imperialism and promoted solidarity with the people of China, Vietnam, Korea, Cuba, Algeria and Palestine; their experience of democracy become demonstrably less ‘liberal’. Their leaders were assassinated or kidnapped; their offices were destroyed; the FBI conducted an elaborate campaign of infiltration, disinformation and destabilization; the judiciary arranged numerous frame-ups. A plethora of measures – overt and covert, legal and illegal – was used by the ‘liberal democratic’ state to put an end to their project.

Such examples lay bare the truth that the state under capitalism is always an instrument of capitalist class rule. Bourgeois democracy is certainly far preferable to fascism, which is capitalist class rule enforced through naked violence; but it is capitalist class rule nonetheless.

In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln famously called for “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (Lincoln 1863). A hundred and fifty years later, economist Joseph Stiglitz described the US democratic system as being “of one percent, by one percent, for one percent” (Stiglitz 2011). This captures the fundamentally plutocratic nature of the prevailing system in the capitalist democracies. In spite of this, the West’s dominance in the realms of media and academia has been leveraged to universalize capitalist democracy, “to conceal from the people the bourgeois character of modern democracy; to portray it as democracy in general or ‘pure democracy’” (Lenin 1918).

It is crucial that progressive humanity challenges this universalization. As the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara once remarked, “we should not allow the word ‘democracy’ to be utilized to represent the dictatorship of the exploiting classes” (Guevara 1963).

The people’s democratic dictatorship and China’s emerging socialist democracy

Having put an end to foreign occupation, defeated the reactionary nationalist forces in the Civil War and established the People’s Republic, New China had to develop a model of governance appropriate to its conditions. This model could hardly follow the Western model, installing the capitalist class as ruling class. With a relatively small and weak bourgeoisie, such a system would inevitably give way to neocolonial domination by the advanced capitalist countries – as was the fate of the 1911 Revolution which had finally overthrown dynastic rule but which failed to unite the country, expel the occupying forces, dismantle feudalism, or meaningfully improve the living conditions of most Chinese people.

Mao Zedong wrote in 1949, just three months before the proclamation of the PRC: “There are bourgeois republics in foreign lands, but China cannot have a bourgeois republic because she is a country suffering under imperialist oppression. The only way is through a people’s republic led by the working class.” Such a republic would need to “unite the working class, the peasantry, the urban petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie” in the formation of a domestic united front under the leadership of the working class. This would pave the way for a “people’s democratic dictatorship based on the alliance of workers and peasants” (Mao 1949).

To those raised on a diet of Western democratic theory, the idea of a “democratic dictatorship” sounds absurd. Mao however, a rigorous Marxist-Leninist, well understood the relationship between democracy and dictatorship; that the two always coexist within a society based on class division. Whereas a capitalist democracy is a manifestation of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, socialist democracy means the dictatorship of the working class.

This much was commonly understood among Marxists at the time. Mao’s great theoretical innovation on the question of the socialist state was to clarify and expand the scope of its democracy to include non-proletarian forces – the peasantry above all, the urban petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie. All these classes had an interest in the modernization of China, its unity, its sovereignty, its emergence; moreover, all could accept and appreciate the need for the leadership of the Communist Party and the support of the socialist camp. As such, in the people’s democratic dictatorship, the vast masses of the people were to enjoy democratic rights and representation.

What about dictatorship? This was to be imposed on the landlord class and that section of the capitalist class that were ready to do the bidding of US-led imperialism (essentially, the remnants of the defeated Guomindang). These classes were to be deprived of the right to political participation and representation.

Mao and his comrades assessed that, given the readiness of external forces led by the US to intervene on the side of counter-revolutionary elements within China, the political suppression of the pro-feudal and pro-imperialist forces was indispensable in order to protect the revolution. Without that suppression, a coalition of domestic and foreign reactionary forces would overthrow people’s democracy, “and disaster will befall the revolutionary people” (Mao, ibid).

US intellectual Michael Parenti gives a brief summary of the need for the ‘dictatorship’ component of socialist democracy: “For a people’s revolution to survive, it must seize state power and use it to (a) break the stranglehold exercised by the owning class over the society’s institutions and resources, and (b) withstand the reactionary counterattack that is sure to come” (Parenti 1997, 52). The great Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro put it even more succinctly: “Within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing” (Castro 1961).

Thus the system of governance established from 1949 was a people’s democratic dictatorship. This continues to be enshrined in China’s constitution, and is the basis for the numerous mechanisms of government that operate in China today. While Chinese socialism has continued to evolve, each generation of the CPC leadership has been clear about upholding the basic structure of socialist democracy. Indeed, “adherence to the people’s democratic dictatorship” was one of the Four Cardinal Principles defined by Deng Xiaoping at the beginning of the Reform and Opening Up period as being prerequisites for China’s successful socialist modernization (Deng 1979).

Recently, in order to expand the discussion both inside and outside China about the nature of China’s democratic system, the CPC leadership has theorized whole-process people’s democracy. Addressing a central conference on work related to people’s congresses, Xi Jinping made a powerful observation about the limitations of liberal democracy:

If the people are awakened only at voting time and dormant afterward; if the people hear big slogans during elections but have no say after; if the people are favored during canvassing but are left out after elections, this is not true democracy. (Xi 2021)

This echoes Marx’s comment that, in a capitalist democracy, “the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament” (cit. Lenin 1917).

In China’s whole-process people’s democracy, by contrast, democratic rights are available at all levels of society and at all times. Ongoing participation in governance is strongly encouraged. The legislative system is based on electoral representation and operates at the national level (the National People’s Congress, NPC, the highest organ of state power) as well as at provincial, city, county and village levels. Parallel to the congress system is an elaborate system of consultative democracy, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conferences.

Roland Boer describes the process by which legislation can be passed at the NPC: “By the time a piece of legislation comes up for a vote, it has undergone an extremely long and arduous process of deliberation and consultation. Multiple meetings take place, feedback is sought, and differences in opinion are aired without holding back. Indeed, contrary arguments are encouraged and expected, with debate, revision, and further debate until a consensus is reached. Only then can the legislation arrive at the NPC for a vote” (Boer 2021).

Near-term economic and social objectives are consolidated into five-year national development plans. These plans are not simply the work of the politburo; they represent “the crystallization of tens of thousands of rounds of discussions and consultations at all levels of the Chinese state and society,” a “real democratic decision-making process” (Zhang 2012).

China’s system of socialist democracy is very much a work in progress; it continues to evolve and improve. However, its content is already far more meaningfully democratic than its Western counterpart in terms of the engagement of ordinary people in running society.

How the working class in the West experiences democracy

Democracy in the West is an expression of class interests and not merely an idea worthy of achievement. The experience of Western democracy for the working class is therefore characterized by a stark gap between rhetoric and reality. Workers are taught from a very young age that if they elect the correct representative into government, then their needs and interests will be met. Civic engagement in the form of voting is heralded as the highest expression of “civilization.”

This rhetoric renders Western democracy “exceptional” and conceals the fundamental contradictions of the capitalist mode of development. These contradictions give Western democracy its particular form. Western societies are governed by capitalist states which have relied upon centuries of colonialism to enrich a particular class, the capitalist class. The formation of the United States’ democracy, for example, has its roots in the profitable enslavement and conquest of African and Indigenous peoples (Horne 2014). Slavery and colonialism required political and social exclusion to reproduce this peculiar form of class exploitation.

To this day, the U.S. political system is mired in a number of problems related to race and class inequality. Voter suppression laws prevent the working class, especially African American workers, from participating in the process of democracy. The United States still uses the Electoral College to determine the presidency despite the fact that the process is rooted in the historic struggle of slave owners to exert disproportionate influence and deny African slaves the right to vote (Amar 2016). However, even when participation is possible, the working class is without a mechanism for addressing their material problems.

The United States provides the starkest example of how the structure of the capitalist state serves the interests of the wealthy. Democracy in the United States is defined by a choice between two political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, that compete for what Karl Marx described as the right to repress the interests of the working class (Lenin 1917). The choice, however, is a narrow one. Each political party appeals to different voting blocs. The Democratic Party’s most active support base among the population resides in the urban, northern, and coastal areas of the United States while the Republican Party derives much of its support from the Southern and rural regions of the country.

Despite significant rhetorical differences, efforts to achieve bipartisanship are viewed as essential to the upkeep of democracy. Disagreement or what U.S. experts call “gridlock” is denounced as an impediment to political progress. Such a characterization of the U.S.’s version of Western democracy obfuscates the fact that the Democratic and Republican Party both subscribe to a policy agenda that serves the same class interests. Democratic and Republican representatives in Congress overwhelmingly support increasing a military budget that is already larger than the next eleven countries combined at $750 billion (Siddique 2021). Furthermore, representatives of both parties have supported the reduction of social welfare programs, the expansion of police and prison budgets, tax reductions, bailout measures, and a host of other policies which have caused a decline in living standards for workers and a worsening of race relations (Sirvent and Haiphong 2019).

That the U.S.’s two main political parties share a common policy agenda is unsurprising when the donors for each party are taken into consideration. Fortune 500 companies provide enormous sums to U.S. political candidates to ensure their interests are met (Cain 2018). Wall Street banks and private military contractors tend to donate to Democrats and Republicans on a non-partisan basis but have scaled up their support for Democratic Party presidential candidates such as Joe Biden (Schwartz 2020). Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told the U.S. media that the world’s second-largest military contractor in the world did not need to make a definitive choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump because both signaled strong support for the defense industry (Josephs and Wilkie 2020). Joe Biden would go on to nominate former Raytheon board member Llyod Austin as his Secretary of Defense shortly after his victory in the 2020 presidential selection.

The gap between the rhetoric and reality of “democracy” in the West has produced devastating consequences over the course of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Both political parties politicized COVID-19 instead of coming together to implement a policy agenda that protected human life. Then-President Donald Trump blamed China for the pandemic while the Democratic Party blamed Republicans for non-compliance with COVID-19 protocols. Neither political party was willing to support consistent public health measures necessary to curb viral transmission. Nearly 800,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19 as a result, a disproportionate number of whom come from the poorest sections of the working class in the African American and Hispanic communities (Johnson, Rodrigues, and Kastanis 2021).

The U.S.’s disastrous response to COVID-19 reflects the inherent contradictions of so-called Western democracy. Western democracy speaks of being by, for, and of the people in theory but not in practice. As Albert Szymanski notes,

the capitalist state must act to maximize and guarantee profits and ensure the process of capitalist accumulation, regardless of whether representatives of the capitalist class or a proletarian party are occupying governmental positions. To act otherwise would result in a general economic collapse because of withdrawal of cooperation by the capitalist class.

Historically, any democratic reforms implemented within the capitalist state have come as a result of popular organization against the underpinnings of that state. African-Americans chartered a course of democratic reconstruction after more than a century of resistance against chattel bondage. The decades-long fight against Jim Crow segregation and racial violence led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other protections against race-based discrimination. Labor organization was also key in opening space for democratic rights. In 1934 alone, 1.5 million workers went on strike and won legal recognition for the right to form a union.

Still, in each case of successful reform, the state maintained its overall character as an instrument of oppression of the working class by the capitalist class. Western democracy and its particular variant in the United States can thus be better described as a dictatorship of the capitalist class. In the current period, neither the Democratic Party nor its Republican opposition support a living wage, student debt relief, or substantial investments in public infrastructure or climate policy. Workers cannot vote themselves out of poverty because no such choice exists within the two-party system. Furthermore, the working class cannot vote against policies such as high military budgets which only serve to enrich corporate executives and divert resources away from the needs of ordinary people. The working class is therefore denied the agency to transform its material conditions within a political process that is dictated by the exploiter class.

‘Liberal democracy’ as an instrument of hegemony

Because capital accumulation and hegemony are key features of Western imperialism, the rise of socialist democracy has been historically treated by the West as a threat to the so-called virtues of “liberal democracy.” The Cold War, for example, was supported by the most powerful business interests in the West. During the Cold War, the United States and its Western allies adopted a hostile policy toward socialist and anti-colonial movements around the world. Korea, China, the Soviet Union, Cuba and dozens of other nations were subject to countless acts of aggression, including direct military intervention.

The effort to keep socialism at bay also extended into the domestic political sphere. Former Senator Joseph McCarthy represented the face of an anti-communist crusade that led to the imprisonment, exile, and harassment of activists, journalists, and prominent members of society who were accused of working with “the Reds” (Wolfe-Rocca 2021). The fall of the Soviet Union shifted the focus of the West onto another perceived threat: terrorism. Following the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Western governments argued that outside forces were plotting to undermine “liberal democracy”. Former U.S. President George W. Bush articulated this sentiment clearly in his declaration of the War on Terror:

Americans are asking ‘Why do they [terrorists] hate us?’ They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other (Landler 2021).

The War on Terror was thus framed as a war to defend democracy. What the War on Terror actually provided was a convenient narrative that united the U.S. and its Western allies around common military ventures such as the occupation of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq. Western governments also invested enormous resources in the construction of a surveillance apparatus that infringed on the privacy of all citizens. Far from the expansion of so-called “democracy,” the War on Terror fueled political instability in the West and destroyed entire societies at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Major corporations in the defense and oil industries have been the true winners of the War on Terror. U.S. defense contractors accumulated more than half of the $14 trillion spent on the two-decade invasion of Afghanistan alone (Cagnassola 2021). Oil and fossil fuel corporations have also enjoyed massive profits in their bid to supply military operations with fuel. Former U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan expressed sadness “that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil” (Allen 2007). The intimate relationship between oil profits and the War on Terror has rapidly made the U.S. military one of the largest polluters on the planet (Crawford 2019).

In both the Cold War and the War on Terror, Western “liberal democracy” represents an ideological expression of hegemony. The concepts of freedom and democracy are reduced in reality to the “freedom” of Western corporations and governments to “democratically” dominate world affairs. This pattern has taken on a new form in the current period. The threat of terrorism has been supplanted by what the United States calls “strategic competition” with Russia and China (Overfield 2021). China and its model of socialist democracy has been under particular assault from the U.S. and its allies.

Experts and activists have referred to the escalating assault on China as a “New Cold War” or a “hybrid war”. Policies of the New Cold War include sanctions on China’s tech sector, an increase in U.S. and Western military presence in the South China Sea, and political interference in China’s internal affairs regarding Hong Kong and Taiwan (Martinez 2020). Ideology is an equally important feature of the New Cold War. The United States and its Western allies routinely portray China as an “authoritarian” regime and an egregious violator of human rights in an effort to contrast China’s political system with the so-called democratic values of the “rules-based international order” (Chen 2021).

However, democracy is clearly not the primary concern of the New Cold War given the actual record of the West’s massive human rights violations around the world. Democracy is an instrument of hegemony in a period of decline in the West. Capitalist economies in the West have experienced several decades of economic contraction that has been complemented with harsh cyclical crises. The United States’ share of the global economy in GDP terms has decreased by fifty percent since 1960 (Patten 2016). Economists predict that China will become the largest economy in the world in GDP terms by 2028 while others have observed that China has already become the largest overall economy in the world in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms (Elegant 2021).

Anxieties over China’s economic rise were made clear in March 2021 when U.S. President Joe Biden explained his belief that China has “an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not gonna happen on my watch” (Haltiwanger 2021). However, Western anxiety is not purely economic in reasoning. The possibility of a socialist democracy such as China becoming the world’s foremost economy also signals the end of the unipolar global order led by the United States and the West.  

A major goal for China, as President Xi Jinping explains, is the development of a community with a shared future for humankind. Included in this goal is a commitment to multipolarity, world peace, and win-win cooperation around issues of economic development and climate change (Xi 2017). China’s foreign policy therefore aligns with its national commitment of improving living standards alongside robust participation of the people—a key component of socialist democracy. Socialist democracy thus runs counter to the West’s record of championing procedural democracy to obscure the hegemony and exploitation inherent in its governance system.

The West’ vision for democracy is monopolistic and incongruent with the current global situation. Development models possess a definite life course and the Western model liberal democracy is behaving as if it has reached the end of life. Instead of adjusting to the reality of a rising socialist democracy in China and the demand for a more egalitarian and multipolar world order, the West (led by the United States) is attempting to reassert its historic claim of holding monopoly over democracy and the trajectory of global politics. This article demonstrates that Western democracy is neither universally applicable across the world nor experienced the same way across social classes. An analysis of the class character of democracy is crucial for understanding the differences between its various forms and how these differences shape the aggressive posture of the U.S.-led Western “democratic” order toward countries that chart an independent course of development.


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2 thoughts on “The universalization of ‘liberal democracy’”

  1. An important tradition underlying the governance of modern China is that of ‘seeking truth from facts’. The fact that the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has overcome centuries of adversity to now be consistently improving the livelihood of about 20% of the world population reveals a pertinent truth about ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’; namely that it works. Knowing how to make socialism work for a population of 1.4 billion> people over decades is no mean feat, knowing if it could work just as well indefinitely for 7 billion> people is therefor well worth considering.

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