Disclaimer: Articles on this website are written from the perspectives of various Localists, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Local Matters. Our contributors come from a wide array of varying political backgrounds, and we believe that cooperation across the political spectrum is essential.

Throughout this short essay, I will consider what the term capitalist democracy means in praxis, as well as the implications of this mechanism within both the United Kingdom and much of the western world. Firstly, it must be clarified what is meant by ‘capitalist democracy’ and it must be understood that it is intrinsically and irremovably liberal. The present capitalist democracies are the natural culmination of liberalism’s ideals and values when followed to their ‘end point’. This connection to liberalism must first be understood, as it is easy to forget when living within western nations that we do live under the ideological system of liberalism as opposed to some sort of vague unconsidered ‘default’ state of humanity, politics, economics and statehood as those who champion our system often suggest. Where most can easily view the ‘other’ in all its flaws, such as existing strongly formed views in the radical differences between our contemporary society and the tyrannical Communist and Fascist states of the twentieth century, it is often much harder for us to analyse what the makeup of our present liberal system is in reality.

The phrase ‘capitalist democracy’ is supposed to refer to two separate elements of the present ideology of our contemporary society, however, they more accurately refer to one – as they coexist in a symbiosis of each other. That is because our system of governance, this so-called democracy, is simultaneously propped up, propagating and fuelled by capital. The influence of wealth in the running of our democracy is both undeniable and understated, with not only a direct correlation between a party’s economic backing and their vote count (Bekkouche, Cage. 2019) but additionally how our politicians sit on the periphery of private businesses and underneath their interests, as well as various signs of financial corruption within our political system with government members offering favourable contracts to friendly parties and individuals (Bachelor. 2021). From the surface level of the impact of party donors, there is a degree of acknowledgement of the influence of money in politics and on our democracy, however, this is only the tip of the iceberg. With our subconscious understanding that the state is itself subservient to corporate power (Finn. 2013) and where massive international corporations are fighting, paying off and avoiding government regulations (Turner. 2020) – liberal democracies trend towards a world where capital is king. These visible and harmful links between our capitalist and democratic systems are present in some form within all liberal systems, as they are natural weaknesses of a system that prioritises not just the economy, but economic growth over all else the ideology itself follows a hypertrophy system of growth, as opposed to hyperplasia in which cells remain approximately the same size. Much as Voltaire had said “Where some states possess an army, the Prussian Army possesses a state”, the British State is equally as possessed by global capital.

When we discuss capitalist, or liberal, democracy it must be considered as a presentation of democracy as opposed to democracy itself. Certainly, the modern liberal state is likely in many ways far from democratic in any way the ancient Greeks, or our Anglo-Saxon forebears, would have understood. Liberal states are almost always top-heavy and lathered in impenetrable layers of bureaucracy which separates the governors from the governed. This liberal understanding of democracy is fundamental to not only the nature of the United Kingdom and the broader liberal international order but also key to many of its problems. The innate conflict between modern liberal principles is a desire to protect and enshrine egalitarian ideas of equality and individual rights, and its continued inability to do this due to the issue of scale. The vast majority of modern liberal democracies, including the United Kingdom, exist in an unmanageable state wherein they hope to propagate a system of hyper-individualism – another key feature of liberal societies which prevents the state itself from forming its metanarrative – and internal pluralism, a system which would propose that not only can those with massively differing values and principles cooperate in a supposedly free democracy but that this division is somehow a strengthening of our democracy. In reality, this division of a state simultaneously too diverse and too unitary has led to a breakdown of democracy which has reduced the relationship between citizens and their state, similarly to how Marx (1888) defined capitalism’s effect on the family, as reducing its value to a “mere money relation”. This disconnected state can hardly function as democratic at all, with such strong divisions that the hyper-economic focus of a state being exemplified as broader societal metanarratives such as total environmental consciousness, economic equality or anything else deemed desirable, cannot be reached without a broader sense of communal unity between citizen and state and a breakdown of this top-heavy state power. Authoritarian states such as China do not need to concern themselves over these same issues, as their collectivised as opposed to individualising structures and their undemocratic governance allows the state to take decisive direction without being slowed down by the democratic processes of debate, election and parliamentary voting. This lack of democracy however is equally as undesirable if not more so than the inefficiencies and divisions of our states, but these are not the only two existing options – nor do they exist on opposite ends of an arbitrary two-dimensional spectrum.

With that being said, there are several benefits to our existing model of liberal governance under capitalist democracies, the main one being an avoidance of other more authoritarian forms of governance offering at least a semblance of power over the state. As Churchill said, “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” – and while we have established that our present democracy is far from perfect, it certainly is still preferable to a lack thereof. The nature of capitalism leads to eventual massification as markets seek to create uniformity within society to expand their demographic, this has been both a blessing and a curse for our democracy – as whilst it has reduced some of the differences between individuals it also has worked to increase the franchise of various groups, especially the African American population in the United States (Friedman, 1962) – though likely only out of a desire to expand markets, just as the unprofitability of slavery lead to its end (BBC, Reasons for the success of the abolitionist campaign in 1807) . This capitalist system of massification has thus in turn expanded the franchise of democracy throughout society in many western societies, as well as attaching themselves to broader political and social movements which has greatly increased the impact of these movements on our democracy (albeit often in desire for increasing their brand value (Bolton. 2018)) – though this has arguably forced many of the issues being discussed to be the ones which are more surface level, as much of the propagation of these movements are left to clickable and marketable slogans and ideals rather than more complex ideas of reform. Regardless, it is truly undeniable that capitalism has an incredibly broad impact on our democracy and the direction it has taken.

Further expanding on this idea of massification, capitalist democracies generally trend towards a greater aforementioned sense of individualism within society due to their liberal capitalist nature (Fernandez. 2008). This can be seen in liberalism’s enshrined individual rights and freedoms, separating the individual from broader society, which is further fuelled by capitalisms rationalisation which strips individuals of their broader senses of identity and breaks them into a singular isolated unit. The nature of these liberal capitalist democracies is thus a trend towards individualism, which in turn break down the ability for these democracies to function and additionally shape how said democracy is viewed by its constituents. The Greeks understood the highest form of liberty as ‘the freedom to participate’ and be a part of a greater whole of their collective community or state. These individualistic societies have led to a trend towards the viewing of communities and ones’ surroundings to be an extension of the broader state, which is of far too great a scale and scope to be able to feel sufficient agency within, as opposed to an organic entity which they are a part of (Shaw, Carragher, Bridge, Littleboy, Murphy. 2021). This is the cause of many difficulties faced by modern democracy, particularly the rise in feelings of political dissatisfaction within many nations such as the United Kingdom. This is with the exception of the Brexit referendum which saw a 72.2% voter turnout, as the usual bureaucracy of British politics was bypassed, and a direct voice was returned to the people in this shared narrative of being able to change the course of the nation – which led to massive numbers of long-time non-voters and first-time voters of all ages (What UK Thinks, New research shows Leave were better at getting their vote out in the EU Referendum).

The root of our capitalist democracy finds its ideals not only in the enlightenment ideals of liberalism but equally within the massive expansion of the Bourgeoisie class through entrepreneurship the industrial revolution in the 18th century. This foundation of capitalism has massive implications on our present society and in turn our democracy, and cannot be unstated, just as the fate of states who were victims of colonisation – the damage of industrial society in modernity cannot be unstated. It is this link between industry, capital and in turn capital’s link with democracy that is so damaging to a citizen’s role and identity within a democracy, as when you are in a society wherein wealth is directly attributed to power, and this wealth is gained through a system of wage labour and the environmental degradation of industrial societies to feed markets largely fuelled by encouraging consumerism, the natural inclination is towards an ideology of infinite unconsidered growth (Shaw, Carragher, Bridge, Littleboy, Murphy. 2021). This system of capitalist lead democracy, inseparable from industrialisation, has led to our state’s broader attitudes in terms of sharing in that ideal of infinite growth – where our parties and politicians are considered on their ability to grow the economy beyond finite means, and that the greatest failure of one’s political career could be to lead the country’s economy into recession. This fear of loss, and fetishized growth, is the driving force behind the nature of our governance and democracy – and its roots are in capital. This same idea of inconsiderate growth beyond reason is what ultimately crippled the Spanish Empire, once the words premier global superpower, where their thirst for the unfathomable gold of the Americas was ultimately their undoing due to the rampant impacts of this gorging of wealth had on Spanish society and much of Europe (Kimutai too. 2017). This is not to mention the unfathomable horrors of much of Spain’s colonial campaigns on the native populations of the Americas whose (among others’) colonial campaigns lead to an estimated 56 million deaths or 10% of the world’s population (Koch, Brierley, Maslin, Lewis. 2019), justified by their acquired wealth. While these horrors are not the same as our own, the parallels between contemporary capitalist democracies desire for economic growth and wealth above all else are undeniable and define the makeup of our democracy and governance just as the Spaniard’s thirst for gold defined theirs.

When considering colonialism, it is worth stating how systems of capitalist democracy can impact the nature of states such as the United States and the United Kingdom in terms of their foreign policy. Capitalism and its impact over the military-industrial complex of the United States is an evident link, though there are further implications beyond this or the questionable intentions of NATO within much of the middle east throughout much of the twenty-first century, those being rooted in trends of liberal capitalist democracies towards political and economic globalisation. This stems ultimately from the focus on global capitalism within these states, as expanding international networks and mechanisms means creating broader means of trade and economic growth for the associated nations. Global capitalism is undeniably more efficient in terms of generating private businesses as the markets are simply bigger, and thus the interests of corporations – whose money has aforementioned sway over politics – tend to influence political trajectories in this general direction (Blanga-Gubbay, Conconi, Parenti. 2020). This desire for globalisation and the strain it causes to capitalist democracies and their citizens are not only seen within the surface level issues of global connectivity, which the Coronavirus pandemic made evident (Fahrion, Gnirke, Hackenbroch, Hesse, Müller, Graça Peters, Sauga, Zand. 2020), but on the stability of states which are moving to quickly globalise facing pushback from their populations which are often the first victims of globalisation; be it through the outsourcing of labour to cheaper Asian markets (Hayes. 2020), the political dependencies and instability established between many of the worlds developing economies (van de Walle. 1998) or the destruction and monopolisation of traditional industries and small-scale businesses as seen recently in the Indian agricultural sector (BBC News. 2021). This pushback is one of the key factors behind the rise of populism, as demonstrated by Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra, and growing political radicalisation amongst young people within capitalist democracies including the United Kingdom (Frazer-Caroll. 2019). Despite this, the private interests of the market march unabashedly forward towards greater instability and irrespective of the broader implications and difficulties reflected on the liberal democracies which move towards it and the citizens which live under them.       

Ultimately, understanding the meaning behind the term capitalist democracy as used to refer to our system of government is key in forming a stronger understanding of our democracy, in that capitalism is intrinsically linked with both the stability and organisation of our state far more than we realise for better or – far more arguably – worse. This understanding of the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and our mode of democracy opens far broader doors into not only a critique of the nature and difficulties of our governance but additionally, allows for a broader understanding of what a non-capitalist democracy may look like and what improvements can be made to our own. Through this greater assessment of the nature of our democracy, and its symbiotic relationship with capitalism, our understanding of both the face of capitalist democracies and their future is a powerful tool in both future analysis and political upheavals. Liberalism is an ideology and one which – just as with socialism, communism, fascism or otherwise – deserves its due consideration as to its effectiveness and applicability as we move beyond modernity.