The U.S.A., a democracy, has gross economic inequality. Is this a failure of the U.S.A., or is it a problem inherent in democracy itself?
This essay will attempt to reconcile the concepts of “class” and “democracy”. To gauge the compatibility of the two concepts, this essay will do three things: first, define the two concepts, and, second and third, perform a two-part, semantic and pragmatic analysis of their content to isolate ways the two concepts contradict or are incompatible. The semantic analysis will contrast definitional meanings, and the pragmatic analysis will comprise two thought experiments: it will determine whether changes to class change the nature of democracy, and whether applying the same changes to another political system will make it more or less democratic.
“Democracy” is a contested term, though it is understood to be something good. But when defined by theorists, democracy is made amenable to illiberalism and totalitarianism. For example, if democracy entails political equality (Ferdinand, Garner and Lawson 2009, 71), the definitions of Lively (Ferdinand, Garner and Lawson 2009, 30) allow that equality can be nominal and that rulers can treat the ruled as equally irrelevant. Despite this, following Aristotle, this essay will define democracy as a timocratic system of rule where rulers are held accountable to the majority (Raphael 1970: 37).
“Class” is no less contestable a term than democracy, though it relates to individuals and the distribution of social inequality. In response to the question, “How do people, individually and collectively, locate themselves and others within a social structure of inequality?” E.O. Wright (2003) identifies seven basic answers, and calls these answers types of class. Intriguingly, the recent Great British Class Survey also identifies seven types of class (Savage et al. 2013). This essay will combine both analyses and define “class” as one’s social position as determined by economic, cultural and social capital.
A semantic comparison of the meaning of the two concepts does not reveal any obvious inconsistencies. If political equality means the right to vote and to have that vote be neither more nor less valuable than the vote of any other citizen, then it is compatible with unequal distribution of any form of capital; being rich or poor, educated or uneducated, appreciated or reviled, cannot change the fact that one has political equality under a democratic government as both concepts are here defined.
So much for the semantic analysis. If it is true that democracy is agnostic towards class inequality, it will synchronise with the pragmatic analysis, which, here, is bipartite. This section will hypothesise changes to the nature of class and observe any concomitant changes in the nature of democracy. The first change concerns the introduction of a basic income guarantee (BIG). A BIG is a social dividend of a set amount paid to an individual citizen, with citizenship as the sole requirement for eligibility. Its original formulation by Thomas Paine is analogous to the modern aged pension, and has the aim of providing “sufficient natural means of living to everybody to secure their existence” (Blaschke 2012, 2). However, a BIG would not eradicate economic inequality; it does not disallow people from accruing funds beyond the stipend, so class would persist in the form of people’s location in a continuum of unequal distribution of economic capital. Yet it still may limit the possible extend of inequality and thus change the nature of democracy to something similar to a socialist democracy (Miliband 1992).
A more profound challenge to democracy is automation. Structural unemployment caused by automation could significantly alter the nature of class (Abbott 2013). There is the potential for economic class distinctions to dichotomise between machine owners and the disinvested majority; that is, for democracy to become an oligarchy. A common Marxist critique of capitalism compares it to oligarchy, arguing that in capitalist democracies “the wealthy have tremendous social and economic advantages over the working class that undermine political equality, a presupposition for viable democracy” (McChesney 2000, 1). If power is located in economic hegemony, not in political roles, then political equality becomes redundant. The aforementioned BIG, as a way to minimize economic inequality, may go some way to preventing this scenario; though, as was also explained, it would result in a change of the nature of democracy from capitalist to socialist.
The second hypothetical involves the introduction of changes into non-democratic forms of government. This should make it evident that some changes are necessarily democratic and will demonstrate the degree to which class is a salient and required feature of democratic society. Under authoritarian regimes, “preference falsification” (Su 2013, 21) occurs when fear of punishment causes people to mask their true preferences. Masking may be prudent if, say, freedom of expression is criminalised, and heterodox opinion is punishable. Class variety, at least concerning social and cultural capital, is less numerous when the above right is denied due to there being fewer opportunities for individuation and for variegation of the class continuum. Counterfactually, if this bulwark was removed and a country liberalised, we would expect class differences to multiply.
Thus, in China, the monitoring and censorship of Internet web-pages by the nominal Communist government is an attempt to resist liberalisation and to resist and deny calls for democratisation (Su 2013, 23). Diversity and a conflict of interests is inescapable in any society where true political equality is granted, where leaders are not, as in China, largely beyond public reproach; that is, when leaders are accountable for their errors and seek the help of the public to avoid mistakes, opinions may be voiced, political equality is normalised, and class and democratic pluralism flourish together.
In conclusion, class is not only compatible with democracy but is essential to it. A semantic analysis of the two terms illumines no necessary inconsistencies: changes to class will change the nature of democracy, but will not destroy it. Though it is true that political equality can be given in degrees in a democratic society, true or total political equality can exist only when fundamental rights such as freedom of expression are given without condition, so that accountability cannot be curtailed or restricted by the government acting in its own interests. And when such is unconditionally given, the populace is allowed the freedom to diversify without fear of reproach, and class differences, be they good or bad, flourish.
Abbott, B. 2013. ‘Cautiously Toward Utopia: Automation and the Absurdity of Capitalism.’ Ethical Technology. URL: <http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/abbott20130404>. Consulted 7 April 2013.
Blaschke, R. 2012. From the Idea of a Basic Income to the Political Movement in Europe: Development and Questions. Berlin: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
Ferdinand, P., Garner, R & Lawson S. 2009. Introduction to Politics. New York: Oxford University Press Inc.
McChesney, R.W. 2000. ‘Journalism, Democracy . . . and Class Struggle.’ Monthly Review. 52 (6): 1-9.
Miliband, R. 1992. ‘Fukuyama and the Socialist Alternative.’ New Left Review. 193: 108-133.
Raphael, D.D. 1970. Problems of Political Philosophy. London: MacMillan
Su, Zhenhua et al. 2013. ‘China at the Tipping Point?’ Journal of Democracy. 24 (1): 1-7.
Savage et al. 2013. ‘A New Model of Social Class? Findings from the BBCs Great British Class Survey Experiment.’ Sociology. URL: <http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/0/21970879>. Consulted 11 April 2013.
Wright, E.O. 2003. Social Class. URL: <http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~wright/Social%20Class%20–%20Sage.pdf>. Consulted 10 April 2013.