February 4th, 2021

Democracy or the Market

Third wayism and the problem of representation

The problem of democratic representation has always turned on the question of the “have-nots”—that is, not only those without wealth and property, but also those marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, origin, religion and education. Even in a world of full-fledged democratic rights, the democratic game tends to break in favor of the “haves.” They enjoy an easy affinity with political elites who are not so different from them, and they experience democratic politics as a hospitable and responsive place. When in doubt, they can back-channel, mobilize proxies and networks, and exchange cultural influence and economic power for political voice, cloaked in the comfort that what’s in their interest is in everyone’s interest. None of this means the powerful always get their way. But it means they operate on the assumption that their way is likely to prevail.

Before democratization, which in both Europe and the United States did not reach its full expression until the turn of the twentieth century, those without power were politically excluded by fiat. Even when some “have-nots” overcame formal exclusion, they had to further overcome efforts, both brazen and subtle, to impede the exercise of their political rights; if they managed to bridge the distance between rights-in-name and rights-in-fact, they still had to muster meaningful representation in a game that was not built for them. The achievement of both rights and representation for the powerless is difficult, rare and fragile—not least because formal rights, once achieved, can be used as a pretense for rendering representation practically meaningless. In this case, democracy becomes form without substance.

Three kinds of institutions were crucial drivers of the fitful, contested, imperfect construction of democratic rights and representation of the powerless between the 1850s and the 1920s: socialist and social democratic culture, mass political parties, and labor movements. Where the three converged, the result was a unique historical organization—the labor-allied mass party of the socialist and social democratic left.

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