True Democracy Is Incompatible With Capitalism

In the past two decades, a succession of crises has led to the rise of authoritarian states, acutely showing how capitalism and democracy were never compatible to begin with.

A squad of police stand on guard during a demonstration against the new pension reform law in Paris, France, June 6, 2023. (Telmo Pinto / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

It’s increasingly hard to ignore the fact that democracy around the world is in retreat.

On the one hand, many of the world’s most powerful states — from China to Saudi Arabia — are governed by authoritarian administrations that seem only to be growing in strength. On the other hand, the respect for liberal democratic norms — like the right to protest and the independence of the judiciary — is on the decline in established governments. And many states that seemed to be on the road to democracy — like Hungary and Turkey — are stuck in a kind of “illiberal democratic” purgatory.

In total, around 72 percent of the world’s population lives under some form of authoritarian rule, according to some experts. Researchers at Freedom House claim that around 38 percent of the world’s population live in countries that can be characterized as “not free.” Liberal academic Larry Diamond has termed the retreat of democracy around the world a “democratic recession.”

The erosion of democracy has been particularly hard for liberals to conceptualize. After all, things were not supposed to be this way.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was meant to finally put an end to any outstanding questions about the compatibility of democracy and capitalism. The latter was inevitably going to expand, bringing with it the rights and freedoms that many in the rich world had come to take for granted. The rest of the world was destined to converge on the model pioneered by the West.

Liberal theorists and policymakers have come up with a number of arguments to explain the apparent contradiction between the spread of capitalism and the retreat of democracy.

Those on the right of the political spectrum locate the problem with foreign “enemies of democracy.” For these pioneers of the new Cold War, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin — though curiously not Mohammed bin Salman or Viktor Orbán — are to blame for brainwashing the democracy-loving peoples of the West with authoritarian propaganda.

Centrists tend to claim the real issue is “extremists on both sides,” arguing that democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who have never even come close to achieving state power, share just as much of the blame for the democratic retreat as former world leaders on the populist right like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.

Every evaluation of the problem is, of course, entirely individualistic. Many liberals genuinely believe that the greatest challenge to democracy today is a few “bad guys” corrupting an otherwise well-functioning system.

These arguments are, of course, utterly absurd. Support for democracy is not in decline because voters are being brainwashed by enemy propaganda on TikTok. Support for democracy is declining because democracy is simply not working the way we were told it would.

Firstly, the combination of capitalism and democracy was supposed to bring prosperity and progress to all nations that adopted them. For a brief time after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when globalization went into overdrive, this seemed a believable story.

The financial crisis brought this collective delusion to an end in the Global North. Members of the generation that came of age during the crisis of 2008 have had to adjust to the reality that they are unlikely to be better off than their parents.

But even before the financial crisis, the Asian crisis of the late 1990s showed many in the developing world that opening up one’s markets to international capital could be a recipe for disaster. Some combination of authoritarianism and market controls seemed like the natural response.

Secondly, the progress brought by democracy and capitalism was supposed to give rise to yet more democracy. Checks and balances would put an end to corruption. An educated population would choose the “right” leaders. And rather than campaigning based on outdated ideologies, those leaders would compete for votes by appealing to the “median voter,” bringing moderation to previously divided societies.

Instead, corruption is on the rise, ideology is back, and people keep picking the “wrong” leaders. Perhaps the creation of societies so stratified that the ruling class can barely comprehend the concerns of ordinary voters was not such a foolproof recipe for democracy after all.

Some slightly more thoughtful commentators accept that this astonishingly simplistic reading might not capture the whole story. In a new podcast series for the Financial Times, Martin Wolf seems genuinely concerned about the future of democracy — and accepts a small part of the blame for himself and his colleagues.

The problem, Wolf seems to believe, is that neoliberals, in all their zeal for the end of history, spread free markets too far and too fast. The shock therapy of the 1990s was not coupled with measures to alleviate the social and economic tensions that came with it.

The argument is reminiscent of that put forward by progressive political theorist Karl Polanyi, who believed that capitalist free markets spread too quickly for societies to adapt. Those whose lives and ideals were threatened by the emergence of this brave new world would push back against the encroachment of the “market society” — often supporting authoritarian strongmen to do so.

Progressive liberals like Wolf tend to believe that the solution to the problem will come in some form of regulated capitalism. Often, these commentators are Keynesians who advocate a return to the social democratic consensus of the postwar period.

But this kind of nostalgia is no healthier than that evinced by Trump fans longing for a return to a world before the spread of “gender ideology.” There is, after all, a reason why the Keynesian consensus broke down.

As soon as economic growth slowed, the latent battle between workers and bosses that had been bubbling away below the surface suddenly exploded into the political mainstream. Without excess profits extracted from the rest of the world to keep this conflict under wraps, there was only one choice for the ruling class: all-out war on workers.

For this reason, despite the fact that it is blindingly obvious that capitalist democracies require some measures to reduce inequality while tackling climate breakdown, the progressive capitalist vision for the future stands no chance of being implemented.

There’s only one conclusion left to draw — that capitalism and democracy were never really all that compatible to begin with.