EDITOR’S NOTE: Mainstream Western ideology is characterized by abstract concepts and abstract reasoning based on binary thinking and atomistic-individualistic perspective, as is apparent in liberalist political economy. Therefore, to reform the existing institutions and correct the injustices rampant today, it is absolutely necessary to change the prevalent deceptive way of thinking at the same time.
III. Falsely Labeled “Private” Economy vs. “Public” Politics
The economic basis and political superstructure of a society are inseparably related, with the former determining the latter’s essential nature and the latter at the service of the former. The formally democratic political process on the macro-social level that is rooted in an economic basis with labor and the means of production unilaterally controlled and undemocratically managed by capital is consequentially manipulated by capital power to serve the interests of big capital only (see Sherwin Lu: "Ugly consequences of unchecked expansion of unjust capital").
To cover up the interdependent relationship between capitalist politics and economy, liberalist theories label the two realms differently, i.e., politics as “public” while economy “private” and then allege that it is not an issue of democracy but one of freedom that is relevant in the economic realm.
Can this argument hold water? No. Because it is based on an atomistic view of society, which only recognizes either the whole society (public) or separate individuals (private) and deliberately disregard intermediate social groups, such as business enterprises, when discussing issues regarding political economy. According to the dictionary, “public” means a body of people sharing some common interest. Therefore, a business enterprise, just as a family, while being “private” as relative to the larger “public” of the macro-society, is definitely “a body of people sharing some common interest” and hence is “public” in nature as relative to each of its members, including all workers in business firms. On the other hand, any operation of a “private” business involves hidden values that in principle should belong to the larger “public” of all humanity and, besides the livelihood and spiritual wellbeing of all its members, also affects the economic life, the living environment and moral-cultural atmosphere of a region, a nation and even the whole world, positively or negatively. Especially, those monopolistic corporations are exerting exceptional influences, mostly negative, on the economic, political and moral-cultural lives of the whole global “public”.
In a word, “private” and ”public”, or economy and politics, should not be a mechanic either-or dichotomy but are two mutually determining and penetrating aspects of any human groups with some common interest. By deliberately dichotomizing the two, “the most powerful form of collective organization in contemporary capitalism – the modern business corporation – is stripped of its communal status in liberal theory… treated as a quasi individual in law… [thus] exempt[ing] such basic social spheres as the economy and the family from scrutiny according to democratic norms.” (Bowles and Gintis, 1986. PP. 16-17.) Enough of such ideological falsities and tricks!
IV. Utopian “Freedom” vs. “Jungle Democracy”
Objection to corporate democracy is mainly heard from economic liberalists, who argue that it destroys economic freedom and rights to private property (the latter of which has been rebutted above), whereas the principal justification for it lies in the fact that the kind of economic freedom without corporate democracy has caused glaring inequalities in the distribution of social-economic and political resources and thus cancelled out the effectiveness of the nation’s democratic institutions.
Democracy depends on political equality and the latter in turn on equal rights to social-economic resources because without the economic support of material resources there could be no political power to speak of. Robert Dahl first listed three universal causes for political inequalities: they are “differences in resources and opportunities for employing violent coercion; in economic positions, resources and opportunities; and in knowledge, information, and cognitive skills.” (Dahl, 1989, P. 323-4.), As “employing violent coercion” is one essential content of politics, “differences in resources and opportunities for employing violent coercion” is actually the main manifestation of political inequality – that is to say, it is a kind of tautology or useless repetition, not real explanation. And, on the macro-social level, “differences in knowledge, information, and cognitive skills” are in a large degree direct consequences of “differences in economic positions, resources and opportunities”. Therefore, finally speaking, economic inequality is the root cause of political inequality.
From the debate above it seems that democracy and freedom conflict with one another. Which is more fundamental, then? According to Dahl, the respective advocates of either one of the two have been debating about this question for long with no conclusion in theory but a final compromise in practice -- both sides have agreed upon a kind of redistribution of income through progressive taxation and social welfare programs to narrow the gap in the final distribution of economic and political resources while maintaining the economic liberty of business owners (Dahl, 1985, P.65-9). But historical experiences have proved such a compromise has not essentially changed the status of all laboring people as being dominated by capital economically and politically, has not prevented ever-going on polarization between the rich and the poor, and has not reduced in any way big money’s control of state political power, academic and popular culture and mass media, thus making democracy a political farce. This is the unavoidable consequence in practice of theoretically dichotomizing economy and politics, freedom and democracy.
Actually the word “freedom” is itself a product of binary thinking as typical of Western tradition. As the opposite of “slavery” in social class relations, or a catchword for opposing unfavorable political coercion, or the absence of “necessity” in metaphysical discourse, “freedom” means the absence of restraint of any sort, whether it is justifiable or practicable. But total absence of restraint of any sort is only a utopian ideal – it has never been and will never be a reality. It is because human beings can never live alone, never totally by themselves as individuals, that is to say, some kind of restraint is always a “necessity” and 100% freedom can never work. In other words, freedom can be justified only in a relative sense. What is more essential for human survival and happiness is harmony-oriented interaction based on mutual respect or self-restraint, not individual-oriented self-seeking “freedom”. Harmony-oriented interaction is the supreme way of nature, called “Tao” in traditional Chinese thought, and should also be the highest principle for human society. And a genuinely democratic political system should be meant for achieving the balance of interests between individuals, different social groupings and the whole human community as the basis for social harmony, i.e., a reciprocity-oriented one, not such “democracy” as advocated and practiced in the West and Westernized world, that is, an individual-oriented one, in which each individual or group votes or strives for his/its own interest only, instead of a balance of diverse interests. This atomistic, individual-oriented way of thinking and acting in social philosophy and practice is the very cause for the lack of consistency and harmony between “free” economy and “democratic” politics.
Just as the British social and political theorist Sir Isaiah Berlin has distinguished between “freedom to ” and “freedom from”, perhaps we can also distinguish between two concepts of “democracy” – “jungle (uncivilized) democracy”, the kind that has been advocated and pracitced in the West, and “humane/civilized democracy”, the kind that is mutual interest-oriented as should be developed through practice.To sum up, there has been no real inconsistency between the kind of “economic freedom” and the kind of “political democracy” as practiced in the Western world so far. The inconsistency only exists in the liberalist discourse which serves to deceive the public and cover up the injustice in the domination of labor by capital, especially by big monopoly capital. To hell with such “freedom” and “democracy”! We must fight for real freedom and democracy based on labor-capital equality and social justice!
Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis, 1986, Democracy and capitalism: Property, community, and the contradictions of modern social thought, Basic Books, New York.
Dahl, Robert, 1985，A preface to economic democracy, UC Berkeley Press.
Dahl, Robert, 1989, Democracy and its critics, Yale University Press.