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  • The Key Role of the Working Class
  • Jack A. Goldstone (bio)
Capitalist Development and Democracy. By Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens, and John D. Stephens. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. 398 pp.

This sweeping study tackles one of the biggest questions facing students of democracy today: does the demise of state socialism—and the resulting window of opportunity for liberal capitalism—necessarily mean that democratic development will follow? The authors grant that there is a significant and well-established correlation between capitalist development and democracy. In their studies of democratic development, however, they find numerous exceptions, and argue that this correlation often obscures more than it reveals. They offer as an alternative a more complex and contingent view of democratic development.

While political theorists from Karl Marx to Seymour Martin Lipset have assigned a key role to the bourgeoisie and professional classes in the building and consolidation of democracies, Rueschemeyer and his coauthors argue that these groups have played a more ambiguous role. While generally favoring private property, liberal freedoms, and their own political participation, the middle classes have opposed universal suffrage and political inclusion as often as they have promoted them. Adopting the protection of property and business prosperity as its top priority, the bourgeoisie has sometimes sought to expand, and at other times to curtail, the scope of democracy, depending on whether it most feared the depredations of a conservative, landlord-dominated state or the demands of radicalized workers and peasants.

This study distinguishes merely "liberal" states—which meet basic [End Page 150] standards regarding the rule of law, protection of private property, and certain political freedoms—from genuinely democratic states that feature universal suffrage and broad access to political institutions. A variety of states—from England's eighteenth-century oligarchy to the apartheid regime in South Africa—have built political institutions that appear liberal and democratic. Yet only small numbers of people in these nations enjoyed access to those institutions; true democracy was far from being attained. The authors argue that real democracy has developed only in cases where the working classes or small independent farmers have pushed for it in conjunction with liberal politicians and elements of the bourgeoisie.

This critical role of the working classes explains both the general correlation between capitalism and democracy and the uneven and oft-reversed pattern of democratization in so many countries. On the one hand, capitalism tends to foster democracy because its demand for free labor creates a powerful base of support for democratic movements, and because the growing complexity and autonomy of the state tend to reduce the sway of traditional elites. Gradually, as the direct power of conservative landowners over both labor and the state is reduced, the initial seeds of democracy can take root. On the other hand, capitalism also creates conflicts among elites and between classes that can render democracy unstable. Once democracy is more or less attained, increasingly radical economic demands from the working classes tend to push the bourgeoisie in a conservative direction, leading it to seek alliances with the military, church, or other conservative organizations to enforce social control. If sufficiently frightened, the middle classes may even support military intervention to "restore order." In short, it "was neither capitalists nor capitalism as such . . . that advanced the cause of political equality" (p. 302); rather, it is the "contradictions" of capitalism, involving the creation and exploitation of a large free laboring class, that explain both the increased incidence of efforts at democratization and their frequent reversal.

The authors realize that the historical paths of different countries and regions vary markedly. They are also aware that their account raises the question of how it is possible for any capitalist democracy to achieve stability. In response to these concerns, they provide case studies drawn from three regions: Western Europe and Britain's former colonies in North America, Australia, and New Zealand; South America and Mexico; and Central America and the Caribbean. These case studies all reveal that two things are crucial to the rise of democracy: the impact of international forces—including economic dependence, military intervention, and colonialism—and the rise of political parties.

In examining Western Europe, North America, and the English-speaking Antipodes...


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pp. 150-153
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