Is Democracy Doomed?

Research shows that the organized working class, and industrial workers in particular, have been the driving force for democracy around the world. The question is whether the erosion of the industrial working class will weaken our prospects for democratic politics.

Protesters march on a street during a rally against the extradition law proposal on June 9, 2019 in Hong Kong. Anthony Kwan / Getty

2019 is shaping up to be a banner year for protest activity around the world. September’s global climate strike brought millions of people into the streets worldwide, with an estimated 2,500 actions taking place in over 160 countries. This was a historic event, but only one of many mass actions that have swept the world this year. The list of countries rocked by significant protest movements is long: Algeria, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Hong Kong, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Puerto Rico, Russia, Serbia, South Africa, and Sudan, among others. They’ve recently been joined by Lebanon and Chile, where protesters outraged by inequality, the erosion of public services, and the failure of political representation have plunged their countries into turmoil. A long summer has spilled over into a hot autumn, and this wave of protest may well continue to roll on into the next year.

Have these protests been effective in achieving their goals? So far, the picture is mixed. Outside of Sudan, where mass demonstrations and strikes deposed Omar al-Bashir and initiated a political revolution, the protests have not yet produced much in the way of fundamental changes in the constitutional order. It may be too early to gauge their impact, but it seems likely that many will meet the same result as most protest movements: some combination of repression and concessions, while the incumbent political regime remains intact.

In country after country, the people want the fall of the regime, as the Arab Spring’s main slogan put it. If deposing governments were a matter of will, this would be relatively easy. But whether the people have the capacity to do so and, just as importantly, whether they have an interest in establishing a more democratic political system is a matter of social structure and class composition. Above all, it is a question of whether the working class is organized, strategically located, and capable of effectively wielding power.

This is the main conclusion of a recent study of the relationship between democratization and working-class mobilization by a group of Norwegian researchers, summarized recently at the Washington Post. It is the latest piece of evidence in support of the well-established argument that the organized working class has been the most consistently pro-democratic social force around the world.

In the 1960s, Barrington Moore, Jr published his classic work Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, where he made the famous claim “no bourgeois, no democracy.” Since then, a number of scholars have effectively demolished the notion that political democracy is an organic byproduct of capitalist development or the handiwork of the bourgeoisie. In a groundbreaking essay in New Left Review, Goran Therborn argued that “none of the great bourgeois revolutions actually established bourgeois democracy.” Democratic rights and freedoms did not result from the gradual and peaceful spread of wealth, literacy, and urbanization, but rather social upheavals resulting from war and class conflict.

For Therborn, it was the emergence of the working class and the labor movement which opened the path to democratization, not the rise to power of the capitalist class. To the extent that they exist, basic democratic rights and freedoms are the fruit of hard-fought victories won from and defended against the bourgeoisie.

Therborn’s argument has been confirmed by subsequent historical and sociological studies of the democratization process. One of the most important works in this vein is Capitalist Development and Democracy by Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens, and John D. Stephens. In their view, Moore’s account of the origins of democracy was marred by his inattention to the development of the working class and the labor movement. His focus on the role of the bourgeoisie prevented him from appreciating the decisive structural contributions of capitalist development to democracy: the growth and strengthening of the modern working class.

By increasing the size of the urban and industrial working classes and shrinking the ranks of the peasantry and agricultural laborers, capitalist development moved the bulk of the subordinate classes into a structural location that was more conducive to effective collective action. Their extensive cross-national study found that in case after case, the organized working class played the primary (if not exclusive) role in the establishment of political democracy. These findings confirmed their argument that “the relative size and the density of organization of the working class — of employed manual labor outside of agriculture — are of critical importance for the advance of democracy.”

More recent work builds on the basic conclusions that Rueschemeyer, Stephens, and Stephens reached in their landmark study. In his analysis of the history of suffrage extensions, Adam Przeworski finds that the lower classes had to fight their way into political systems by presenting elites with a credible revolutionary threat. As Przeworski vividly puts it, “systems of representative government were born under a mortal fear that participation by the broad masses of the population, a large part of whom were poor or illiterate, would threaten property. Suffrage was a dangerous weapon.”

His conclusions were recently reinforced by Adaner Usmani, who has brought a wealth of new evidence to bear in support of the arguments advanced by Rueschemeyer, Stephens, and Stephens three decades ago. His research shows it is not simply the emergence and growth of the working class per se, but the development of circumstances in which it can effectively wield power against elites, that is the key factor in making political democracy more or less substantial.

According to Usmani, these capacities are powerfully shaped by the employment structures of a country’s economy, particularly the level of working-class employment in what he calls “high-capacity” sectors: manufacturing, mining, construction, and transport. The more a particular country’s working class is concentrated in these sectors, he argues, the more capable it will be in fighting for and defending democratic political gains.

Both Usmani and the Norwegian researchers reach an important finding: the organized industrial working class in particular has been the most consistent and effective social force for democratic politics. They are certainly not the first to recognize the potential political power of industrial workers. As Marx and Engels argued in 1848, “with the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more.”

Their power didn’t just stem from their strategic location in the heart of the production process. Historical patterns of industrialization also tended to concentrate workers from the same or similar workplaces together in urban neighborhoods, thereby enhancing their capacity to form trade unions, political parties, and other forms of organization.

In short, industrial workers have historically been able to combine disruptive potential with organizational capacity in ways that other sections of the working class have typically not been able to. That unique combination powered many of the victories that working people in core capitalist countries were able to win in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The big political question this kind of research points to is whether countries that have experienced a deep and irreversible decline in industrial employment still have a class structure that’s conducive to a robust democratic politics. There are still a good deal of industrial workers left in the United States, and as the strike against General Motors demonstrated, they are still capable of making a significant economic impact when they stop production.

But manufacturing establishments in this country have, to a significant extent, moved out of urban centers and are largely scattered across exurbs and rural areas along interstate highways — a geographical distribution that seems to make it much more difficult to build broadly based class and political solidarity. What’s more, sections of what remains of the industrial working classes in the capitalist core have turned toward national-populist figures like Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen to protect them and their employers from the pressures of global competition and the supposed threat of immigrant labor.

Outside the traditional capitalist core, many countries are skipping from agriculture to services without a significant period of industrial development, a process the economist Dani Rodrik calls “premature deindustrialization.” According to Rodrik, this will have negative consequences for their economic development because manufacturing has historically been the most dynamic sector in terms of growth and technological innovation. But it has major political implications as well. As Rodrik argues,

Mass political parties have traditionally been a by-product of industrialization. Politics looks very different when urban production is organized largely around informality, a diffuse set of small enterprises and petty services. Common interests among the non-elite are harder to define, political organization faces greater obstacles, and personalistic or ethnic identities dominate over class solidarity.

This description of politics in developing countries could, with some modifications, be quite easily applied to the political situation in the capitalist core. And it is probably not an accident that this political convergence is happening as the overall share of manufacturing employment converges to the same level in both regions.

Can organized service workers exercise a sufficient level of social power to challenge capital and democratize political systems? Or does the erosion of the industrial working class and its geographic dispersion doom us all to a greater or lesser degree of oligarchic domination? It’s still too early to give a definitive answer to these questions. The only certainty is that the traditional social underpinnings of democratic politics have come undone, and that they will have to be refashioned for the new and very difficult period ahead.