In the great sell-out of concepts and practices, many on the extreme left and right are talking about doing away with democracy. Others, sometimes the same ones, are talking about putting an end to capitalism. None of this makes the slightest sense today. For different reasons:
I said here, in a recent column, that democracy was, and will be, the best system for distributing scarce public goods. And that’s if we know how to make it work, i.e. if we know how to use the best technologies and give everyone the same information, and an equal right to vote, including future generations. Of course, we’re a long way from achieving this: democracy is highly imperfect, and dictatorships everywhere take advantage of its weaknesses.
The same is true of capitalism, i.e., the allocation of scarce private goods by markets, regardless of who owns the companies, private or public. Nor is there any system that can compete with it: no system is better than the market at organizing the efficient production and exchange of private goods, sparking innovation and overcoming rents. It’s true that, like democracy, the market is far from perfect: it doesn’t prevent waste, the allocation of resources to harmful sectors, or the excessive concentration of wealth. In fact, all the world’s economies, with the exception of North Korea, are capitalist economies; and they are so even if a significant proportion of the capital belongs to the state, as in China, Russia, Vietnam and Venezuela.
What’s more, the market and democracy need each other to compensate for their weaknesses: the market needs the freedom to circulate, to innovate, to create, to change, and a stable rule of law, protecting private property in particular, and reducing inequalities, which only democracy can guarantee. And democracy needs the market to provide everyone with a certain number of freedoms that a planned economy can only call into question, and which constitute the foundations of democracy.
But the two systems are not equally powerful:
Democracy is, by nature, limited by two kinds of boundaries: those of its spheres of competence, which cannot easily change; and those of its field of application, which is limited to a geographical territory. It can be compared to an elephant: very powerful, but not very mobile.
The market, in other words, capitalism, respects no limits: no geographical frontier stands in the way of a merchant; no area of intervention is closed to him; no public good is safe from privatization or commodification for those not yet fully inscribed in the market sphere: the market’s vocation is to transform into objects all the services that human beings render to one another, to orient itself towards the most profitable sectors, which happen to be those of what I call the “economy of death”. In so doing, it concentrates wealth in the hands of those who own the means of production and their most direct employees, and destroys the nature and foundations of democracy, now and in the future. You could compare it to a lion.
Reading this, one understands the inanity of those who talk of putting an end to capitalism, as long as we don’t know any more efficient mechanism for distributing scarce goods, as long as we don’t arrive at a society of absolute abundance, where scarcity has disappeared (which was Marx’s project), and as long as we don’t know how to orient capitalism towards the “economy of life”. In other words, as long as we don’t give the elephant that is democracy powers equivalent to the lion that is the market.
Humanity’s survival does not depend on the disappearance of democracy or capitalism, but on the implementation of planetary and democratic rules capable of protecting nature, the living, the weak and time, from a market that is both necessary and suicidal.
Image: The lion and the elephant, Arthur Rackhman.