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  • Devaluing Democracy
  • Claude Ake (bio)

For the sake of clarity and convenience, our subject may be divided into two basic questions, the first of which is relatively simple, while the second is markedly difficult, though perhaps unnecessarily so.

First, the easier question: Is socialism or capitalism the more productive economic system? The answer would appear to be capitalism, judging from the phenomenal prosperity of the West and the recent demise of the Soviet empire, which collapsed less because of pressures for democratization (though they surely played a role) than because of economic crisis. Yet we should also take into account the extraordinary rise of the Soviet Union from a backward feudal country to superpower status, as well as the "capitalist encirclement" in the face of which the Soviet Union, standing alone against the alliance of all the advanced Western countries, was forced to dissipate its energies in wasteful competition. Would the Soviet Union have suffered economic collapse in a less hostile international environment and with better economic management? We will never know.

In any case, the present reality is that the West continues to prosper; it is the Soviet Union and its allies that have collapsed economically. More significantly, they have not seen their collapse as a temporary setback that is still reversible under socialism. Rather, they appear to be convinced that they cannot repair their economic decline without [End Page 32] embracing the market. So, for this historical juncture, and on this subjective level, we can say that the evidence is in—capitalism has emerged as the more successful economic system.

Since it is now the fashion to conclude that socialist theory was wrong about everything, it is well to note that this theory never had any doubts about the vitality and productivity of capitalism. Over and over again, Marx underlined its dynamism, its inevitable march to globalization, and its prodigious productivity; indeed, he was so impressed by capitalism's achievements that he represented it as the guarantor of the material base of modem civilization. That is why capitalism was necessary even in Europe's colonies, where its savagery was given free rein. What socialist theory questioned was not the productivity of capitalism but its sustainability in the face of the contradictions that it engendered. The theory predicted that in the long run, these contradictions would overwhelm it. But if the present health of capitalism is any guide, the "long run" will be very long indeed.

Popular Power versus Liberal Democracy

Now for the difficult question: Is capitalism or socialism the better system politically, in the sense of being more conducive to democracy? The answer to this question, so often asked, continues to elude us. More often than not, attempts to answer it only compound our confusion. This is not unconnected to tendencies, regrettably discernible in the essays of Peter Berger and Kyung-won Kim, to appropriate democratic legitimacy to historical "democratic" practice, and to conflate democracy as such with liberal democracy. Once this conflation is made, the correlation between capitalism and democracy is easily established, but only on the basis of an assumption that devalues democracy to the point of jeopardizing its status as an emancipatory project.

The issue here is not simply one of differing definitions of democracy. For in this case, the definitions are stakes in a bitter political contest. Actually, the meaning of democracy is perfectly clear. For a political concept, it is uncharacteristically precise. Democracy means popular power, rule by the demos. That is how the Greeks, who invented both the word and the practice, understood it. Popular power also lay at the heart of the democratic theory of the French Revolution, which launched the modem polity. It remains the classic definition of democracy, restated with poignant simplicity by a famous American as "government of the people, by the people, for the people."

Popular power was threatening to some interests, and it was these interests who started redefining democracy in order to deradicalize it. It was they who complexified its meaning. Opposition to democracy was taken up by the rising European bourgeoisie, horrified by the radical democratic egalitarianism that the French Revolution had so vividly [End Page 33] displayed. In the end, the bourgeoisie...


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