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Without Workers, We Wouldn’t Have Democracy

Evelyne Huber

All around the world, it wasn't capitalist elites who gave us democracy. It was organized workers.

A crowd of people marching to support the election of Salvador Allende for president in Santiago, Chile, March 5, 1964. Wikimedia Commons

Interview by
Shawn Gude

Discussions about the state of democracy are suddenly all the rage. And it’s not hard to see why: Bolsonaro in Brazil, Trump in the US, Erdoğan in Turkey, Orbán in Hungary — all point to a resurgent authoritarianism and a diminution of democratic forms. But we can’t understand the current retrenchment without understanding how mass democracy came about in the first place.

In Capitalist Development and Democracy, first published in 1992, a trio of scholars (Evelyne Huber, John Stephens, and Dietrich Rueschemeyer) provide a sweeping examination of democracy’s rise in the twentieth century across three regions: Europe, North America, and Latin America and the Caribbean. Breaking from the conventional story, they argue that capitalism has been crucial to democracy’s ascension not because of its natural symbiosis with popular government, but because it breaks up traditional power structures and generates a larger, more organizable working class. “Capitalism,” they write, “creates democratic pressures in spite of capitalists, not because of them.”

Huber and her coauthors pay special attention to how distributions of power, both domestically and internationally, have opened up or closed off democratic struggles. If a country was on the periphery of the global political order, for instance, domestic reform movements might be undermined by the actions of powerful outside actors (like the United States). If a country had a small working class due to lack of development, it ended up having limited forms of democratic rule at best. In other words, those countries with weak democracies didn’t (and don’t) suffer from some sort of cultural deficiency, but instead “constellations of power” that dampened the ability of “subordinate groups” (like workers and racial minorities) to press for their inclusion in the political process.

The book is a powerful rejoinder to misconceptions about democracy’s history and meaning. And it contains a vital insight: “The working class,” the three scholars write, “was the most consistently pro-democratic force.”

Huber, a distinguished professor of political science at University of North Carolina, recently spoke with Jacobin associate editor Shawn Gude about the book and what it tells us about the past, present, and future of democracy.


SG

The word “democracy” gets thrown around a lot, but it means different things to different people. You and your co-authors write in the intro of Capitalist Development and Democracy: “Our most basic premise is that democracy is above all a matter of power.” Can you explain what you meant there, and how it influences the way you approach the study of democracy?

EH

Democracy, compared to autocracy, means a greater dispersion of political power, a move towards less political inequality, and towards a one-person-one-vote situation where the outcome is not certain.

Autocratic elites do not voluntarily relinquish their political power — they only do so if pushed by those who are excluded from political power. Therefore, we have to understand “power constellations” if we want to understand the chances for the installation and survival of democracy. The power constellations we look at are power relations in civil society, between civil society and the state, and in the international economy and system of states.

The power balance within civil society depends on the organizational power of subordinate groups (for example, workers). The power in the international system, both the international economy and politics, shapes the class structures and thus class alliances domestically, and it shapes external pressures.

Take the example of Latin America. Latin America’s position in the international economy as a raw material exporter limited the degree of industrialization and thus the size and strength of the working class.

In addition, the influence of the United States throughout the twentieth century systematically worked against democracy in Latin America. Any kind of serious socioeconomic reform was branded as “communist,” and opponents of these reformist governments were supported by the United States.

It started with the coup against Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala in 1954. Árbenz was the second democratic president that Guatemala ever had, and he was implementing a land reform that upset the United Fruit Company. They claimed in the United States that he was a Communist, which had no basis in fact. However, the CIA organized and funded an armed invasion force led by Castillo Armas, who became the first of many dictators.

This was the first of many such actions: the intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965, the coup in Chile in 1973, and the Contra War in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Throughout the whole Cold War, the United States totally, systematically intervened to undermine — or in the worst cases, overthrow — progressive, reformist governments even if they were democratically elected.

SG

These days, it’s common to see workers portrayed as a threat to democracy and the more educated and affluent as the guardians of democratic norms. But this narrative is quite at odds with the historical record. Can you take us through that history? What social groups have been democracy’s most ardent partisans?

EH

The key actors in the breakthrough to mass democracies in Europe and North America were organized workers, in alliance with small farmers or sectors of the middle classes, depending on the country. In Latin America, the leading role was played by the middle classes, but again full democracy was achieved only where there was a strong working-class presence.

In the most recent wave, the third wave of democracy in Latin America, organized labor did not play the leading role, as unions had been severely weakened by repression and “structural adjustment” that led to deindustrialization and a shrinking of the public sector. Partly, the authoritarian regimes self-destructed (for example, in Argentina), and partly it was pressure from a variety of groups, including social movements of the poor and minorities, as well as middle-class groups.

In Asia, South Korea and Taiwan fit the model quite well. What you got there was economic development, unionization, and union protest (particularly in South Korea) that led to democratization. In South Korea you have a fairly strong civil society that is maintaining the democratic political system.

Looking at sub-Saharan Africa, the problem today is still a low level of development and therefore a comparatively low degree of organization of civil society. The other problem is that in many countries you have ethnically divided societies, and mobilization and parties based on ethnicity — that is just not a very favorable terrain for democratic politics.

SG

While workers were primed to support democratic struggles, it was never inevitable that they would do so en masse. What have been the role of unions, parties, and other organizations of “subordinate classes” in advancing democracy?

EH

The key here is the social construction of class interests. Just sharing the same position in the economic and social structure does not mean that people perceive common interests and will organize to defend these interests. What mattered historically were the actors that mobilized the bulk of the working classes.

Where these actors were social-democratic parties and unions linked to these parties, they struggled for democracy. So the ideology of the leaders mattered. Where the actors were anarchist union leaders, they did not join that struggle. Where these actors were populist leaders (for instance, Argentina’s Juan Perón), they were not necessarily democratic but interested in building a power base by improving the situation of workers and then maintaining power, even in non-democratic ways.

SG

You and your co-authors link the rise of democracy to the rise of capitalism. But again, the mainstream conception — which often equates free-market capitalism with democracy itself — gets it wrong, on an empirical level. What has been the connection between democracy and capitalism, historically?

EH

The connection was that capitalism brought industrialization and urbanization, which together facilitated the organization of subordinate groups. Organization is a source of power — in fact, it is the source of power for those without economic power.

Rural populations, particularly those in positions dependent on large landowners, are notoriously difficult to organize. People working together in factories, or mines, or railroads, are easier to reach and more receptive to messages that raise their awareness of their socioeconomic position and point out possible paths toward improving that position.

So another consequence of capitalism and industrialization was to transform rural labor relations and weaken large landowners economically, and therefore politically, in the longer run. Large landowners dependent on a large cheap labor force historically have been decisive enemies of democracy, for obvious reasons. Industrialization created alternatives for rural labor in the form of migration to the cities.

Urbanization also facilitated the organization of middle classes in professional and cultural associations. As I noted before, what mattered was who did the organizing and political mobilizing.

At the same time, the shift in the center of accumulation from agriculture to industry, commerce, and finance created new elite sectors competing for political power with large landowners. The development of elite competition and alliances of course was different in different countries. In many countries, new and old elites intermarried. Still, the point is that domination over a large cheap rural labor force became decreasingly necessary for maintaining wealth and status, and thus one key obstacle to democracy was reduced in importance.

SG

Let’s fast forward to today. The Right and far right are rising around the world, and democracy in many places is experiencing erosion. What accounts for this sea change?

EH

It is on the one hand the increasing divide between the “winners” and “losers” of globalization and the transition to the knowledge economy, and on the other hand the decline of solidaristic organizations among middle and working classes. This makes “losers” susceptible to right-wing populist appeals.

Unions, particularly if linked to social-democratic parties, have historically been the main promoters and supporters of democracy. Deindustrialization has brought a decline of union membership, and thus strength, in all post-industrial societies and in Latin America in the wake of the opening of their economies.

Therefore, unions are not able to serve as effective carriers of a solidaristic message for the bulk of the working class. Instead, unskilled workers in precarious labor market situations in the knowledge economy become available to be mobilized by right-wing populist leaders who create a sense of identity and (false) solidarity of “us against them” and who promise a return to a presumably better past.

SG

There are plenty of countries, particularly in the developing world, that still have weak forms of democracy at best, and there’s authoritarian backsliding elsewhere. Yet by some measures the working class is as big as it’s ever been. How hopeful should we be about the future of democracy?

EH

The working class is more atomized and differentiated in post-industrial societies. Even in developing societies, the informal economy has grown and thus created larger groups that are very difficult to organize. Unions have declined everywhere in membership as a percentage of people in the labor force. Traditional working-class parties have lost vote shares in post-industrial societies.

Other social movements may compensate to some extent for the decline of unions. So, the task is to strengthen civil society organizations and political parties with a commitment to democracy and equity, in order to keep the future of democracy looking bright.