Preconditions for an Actually Democratic Society

As the Fourth of July is celebrated across the US – in the glow of unprecedented economic polarization, a ballooning prison population, and a barrage of dire climatological studies, among other pieces of evidence leading ever more people to consider whether our collective way of life is in need of a fundamental transformation – an examination of the ostensible objects of our celebration (independence and democracy) seems in order.

Aside from the concept of independence (and the question it implies: independence from what?) democracy, it should be remarked, is an especially vague and ambiguous concept. Indeed, because democracy can refer to egalitarian, emancipatory politics, as well as to the political-economic systems of the slavery-based societies of the southern US or ancient Athens – an initial distinction should be drawn between egalitarian forms of democracy (which tend to be organized more or less horizontally, with social resources distributed more or less evenly) and what, in practical terms, are really plutocratic societies – or what, perhaps, can be termed market-based democracies (which tend to be more or less hierarchical and representational). And it’s the market-based or plutocratic society that, with only minor egalitarian democratic interruptions and adjustments, exists today and characterizes what democracy has meant since the bourgeois democratic revolutions of the late 18th century.

This observation shouldn’t be controversial. Beyond the fact that democracy was limited in the US, France, and other places by design to property owning men, it is well known that today the rich, as a class, or as various power blocs, control the major media, among other resources, and act as gatekeepers to the public realm – limiting what is able to be considered reality or realistic, and determining which issues are legitimate or acceptable enough to be affirmed or legitimized by a vote. So it’s a kratein of the ploutos – a plutocracy. Or, at best, it’s a very narrowly circumscribed type of democracy – an arrangement which is a far cry from an actually democratic society.

Beyond describing what democracy is not, however, we should elaborate just what it is that we mean when we speak of democracy. Democracy, of course, means the rule of the people – the Kratein, the rule or power, of the Demos, the people. And, these days at least, we are told that this does not mean merely some people (such as white, property-owning men) but all of the people – men, women, black, white, old, young – but not too young. No minors. No incarcerated people (depending on the jurisdiction). No non-citizens. But, more or less, aside from those excluded categories, all of the people.

What should be added is that this notion of people refers beyond the universal notion of people to the particular notion of people as an underclass, an excluded class, the poor. As Giorgio Agamben put it: “Every interpretation of the political meaning of the term ‘people’ must begin with the singular fact that in modern European languages, ‘people’ also always indicates the poor, disinherited, and the excluded. One term thus names both the constitutive political subject and the class that is, de facto if not de jure, excluded from politics.” So, the people were not, and are not, the masters or the owners of a given society. And perhaps this is why Aristotle in Book III of his Politics defines democracy as that political system in which the poor have power.

And because the poor (historically at least) comprise the majority of a population, the idea of majority rule arises alongside this. This majoritarian power, majority rule, however, is really indistinct from the rule of force (or might makes right). As John Stuart Mill’s conservative rival James Fitzjames Stephen put it, “we agree to try strength by counting heads, not breaking heads.” And because this rule of force is thought to be incongruent with the demands of fairness and justice – which democracy, according to its adherents, is supposed to realize – certain protections are put into place.

Beyond the form of democracy (majority rule, voting – which is always ever only really acclamation – and other formalistic, procedural qualities) democracy, then, may be said to possess or require a content as well. And this content – what we just referred to as justice and fairness – takes, among other things, its legal form as rights. The right to due process of law, or free speech, for instance.

A majority, even a supermajority, the 99%, for example, cannot deprive a minority of their rights without due process of law. In practice, of course, this doesn’t play out. But, in theory, it’s supposed to be there. People are supposed to enjoy – to possess – rights. And, crucially, beyond their particular contents (free speech, right to a jury trial, etc.) these rights, in general, are said to be inalienable. What does this mean? Well, those who know anything about property law know that something that is said to be alienable is able to be sold. If something is inalienable, then, it cannot be sold. It’s a legal impossibility. And this distinction operates vis-a-vis rights as well. Of course, people have been sold into slavery, and today people are still enslaved throughout the world. But this is all considered contrary to justice. And it’s against the law as well – or, it’s against some laws.

The point, however, is that, in general, rights (whether they actually exist or not) are said to be inalienable and this ultimately sets up a fundamental conflict between the regime of rights (democracy) and, among other things, capitalism. Because, just as democracy can be said to be the regime of the inalienable, capitalism may be said to be the regime of the alienable. Within capitalism, everything’s alienable: land, water, labor, everything. Even time is said to be money. And, of course, people are alienable under capitalism, too (in whole, as is the case with slavery, and in part, by the hour, in the wage system).

So, capitalism can be said to be the regime of the alienable; democracy, to some degree, can be said to be the regime of the inalienable – the form of society in which some things should not be alienable, for sale, at all. The ability to own property, for instance, should be subordinated to the demands of the actually democratic society. And if a conflict between alienability and inalienability should arise (between, say, the right to own a slave and the right to not be a slave), the democratic society ought to prioritize the inalienable (while the capitalistic society prioritizes the alienable). Perhaps surprisingly, an important example of this can be found in the thought of someone who is recognized as being one of the seminal thinkers of the modern democratic tradition – Thomas Jefferson.

Now, Jefferson may have been a slaveholder, among other things, but his thought is worth consideration – not because he was a great person, but because his thought is so central to the idea of democracy and rights, and to the relationship between alienability and inalienability. For Jefferson, we should recall, the inalienable extended beyond what we might call enumerated rights. A democratic society had certain preconditions. In order, for instance, to participate in a democratic society – to govern themselves – people needed to be somewhat autonomous. People couldn’t be dependent on another who might usurp a person’s political decision-making ability in some way. As such, people needed to have some degree of independence physically for there to be a democratic society, or democratic social relations, according to Thomas Jefferson.

As Michael Hardt points out in his essay Jefferson and Democracy, Jefferson felt that people could not govern themselves (could not self-govern) without having some degree of material self-sufficiency. This is why, in his version of the Virginia state constitution, 50 acres of land were to be given to all (white men) who did not already own 50 acres (an amount deemed sufficient to enable the one who possessed it to be free from the coercion of others). Of course, this land wasn’t to be divided in an egalitarian manner; it was to be appropriated from Native Americans. So, quite a few racist and sexist, anti-egalitarian ideas reside in Jefferson’s thought beside this other deeply egalitarian notion that all people should have some basic degree of autonomy, and must enjoy a basic, prerequisite material basis, for a democratic society to function.

Despite its anti-egalitarian shortcomings, and its promulgation of the adolescent ideology of the individual, Jefferson’s thought points to the notion that democracy requires a certain infrastructure – that beyond its form, and beyond the abstract content of certain rights, an actual democracy requires a concrete content. That is, in addition to the rule of law, courts, a free press, etc., political rights cannot be actualized – cannot manifest – absent a material basis of some sort.

Certain basic conditions need to be present for a democratic society to arise: security from hunger, security from lack of shelter, conditions that precede and support political rights must exist. And these conditions, or preconditions, this infrastructure of democracy – like the rights they’re actually inseparable from – must also be inalienable – as inalienable as those prerequisite 50 acres, unconditionally.

To some extent, the contemporary notion of a basic income law is comparable to this prerequisite. Championed by a growing number of people throughout the world, a basic income – or guaranteed livable income, as it is sometimes called – simply provides that all people receive an income (of varying amounts) – whether they work or not.

Yet, while a basic income could ameliorate many of the problems that result from an increasingly automated, advanced capitalist economy, one that simply – structurally – cannot extend decent-paying jobs (or any at all for that matter) to all who need one, and despite its semblance to Jefferson’s idea, the idea of a basic income law falls short.

Among other reasons, it falls short because just as people do not need jobs for their own sake (but need a job to further some particular end), people do not in reality need money either; rather, people need those things that one exchanges for money. And while the extension of a basic income would no doubt mitigate some of this society’s harms, a basic income would do little to ensure that people would be able to enjoy what we have been referring to as the infrastructure of actual democracy.

Indeed, rather than advancing actual, meaningful political-economic independence, or autonomy, a basic income is restricted – primarily – to enabling consumption. In spite of the fact that a basic income law would afford people with more time to participate politically, a basic income law does not address, among others, the political-economic issue of what should be produced, or not produced – or how whatever should be produced should be produced – in the first place. While a basic income could change conditions superficially, the present ecocidal, vastly unequal, militaristic, anti-democratic political-economy would not necessarily be altered at all by this. It could just keep plugging and fracking along, launching wars and other projects that benefit the few at the expense of the many.

Moreover, (in addition to a quasi-democratic politics), a basic income law is just as easily reconcilable with an aristocratic politics. And it’s funny, because there is this idea that really goes back to Aristotle, who did not really like democracy at all, that what was in the interest of the best (who were by definition the few) was, because they were the best, in the overall interest of the city (the polis) and everyone else as well. But what was in the interest of the many (who by definition could not be the best) was not in the interest of the city. And this idea, which is not a democratic idea but is really a rather aristocratic idea is not only prevalent today (the entire “trickle down” argument, for instance, is associated with this notion), it is prevalent among a considerable number of people who champion a basic income law. Among those who harbor genuinely egalitarian political goals – who have a genuine concern for social justice – there are people who to some degree claim to be working toward democracy but wind up conflating the rule and needs of the people with the needs and rule of the market.

Followers of the right-wing economist Milton Friedman, of the Chicago School of economics, for example, subscribe to this notion. As most are probably familiar, this school of thought champions austerity, among other hardly egalitarian economic policies and programs. And in their own way they also claim to champion democracy, or they at least appeal to the idea of democracy, and freedom, while pursuing policies that are more often than not nakedly plutocratic (favoring the wealthy, privatizing the public, etc.) as opposed to democratic in the sense of championing the interests of the people, the masses, the multitude, the little people, the proletariat, pick your term – for austerity means restricting the public realm, whereas democratization calls for its extension and expansion.

While Milton Friedman and his followers (who are well-represented in government, mass media, the business community, etc.) claim to have the interests of democracy – or freedom – at heart they in fact spend their time and money and energy concretely undermining what we might refer to as genuinely egalitarian democratic tendencies in the US, and other places, as unambiguously as they did in Chile under Pinochet. In spite of this flagrantly anti-democratic, pro-aristocratic tendency, however, Milton Friedman championed a basic income law, and many of his supporters continue to support a basic income law today.

Though this may at first seem odd, it is entirely consistent with the libertarian political-economic goal of total privatization – total de-socialization – in which everything is for sale. Everything is alienable and hardly anything is inalienable. Rather than creating and expanding public spaces – which are the democratic spaces par excellence, in which public speech, and political debate, etc., take place, the “free market” answer is to privatize everything – schools, public utilities, public lands, streets, water (things that, to some degree, approximate what we have been referring to as the material preconditions for an actually democratic society) – and then people can purchase, as commodities, what the community had previously already for the most part enjoyed. The free market argument, of course, is that privatizing these is more efficient, and convenient. As we see again and again, with housing, food production, and health care, among other resources, however, this is not the case at all. A commodity economy actually gives rise to all sorts of avoidable problems. At any event, many maintain that these resources should all be privatized, and then people – with the aid of a basic income – could purchase that which in an actually democratic society would not be alienated from the public (and managed by a small group of profiteers) in the first place. In an actually democratic society use-value would trump exchange-value.

As one of the more extreme brands of market fundamentalism, the Milton Friedman/libertarian position may be said to subsume the more moderate versions of pro market-regulated economics. And this should be a concern. In championing the total privatization of the public realm, replacing community with a multiplicity of individuals bound solely by market relations, as opposed to human relations, it aims to replace community – and the inalienable – with commerce – the totally alienable – and the rule of the people with the rule of the market (which is always the rule of those people who have market power over those who do not). And this is not inconsistent with a basic income law. If it were, the aristocratic – as opposed to socialistic – libertarians would not argue for one, too.

Still, though, we need to elaborate the idea of an actually democratic society. What constitutes this? How much, for instance, should be inalienable? What conditions need to be created, and which need to be eliminated? Would an actually democratic society, for example, allow poverty to persist? Or, rather, would an actually democratic society work to eliminate poverty altogether? Martin Luther King, Jr., for his part, in his 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here, argued that a basic income law should be instituted in order to eradicate poverty. We should pause for a moment to ask, however: just what do we even mean by poverty? For poverty is not merely the lack of resources; poverty is characterized by the lack of socio-political power as well – which is always relative. So, this raises a significant question:

If, as Aristotle says, democracy is the form of politics in which the poor have power, what happens if the poor obtain power and employ that power to eliminate poverty? Because they would no longer be poor and, according to Aristotle at least, democracy is the rule of the poor, one must wonder: would the elimination of poverty be the elimination of democracy? And, if so, what type of political-economy would this engender?

(This gives rise to another important issue; though most in this post-9/11 world reject Francis Fukuyama’s Kojevian, quasi-Hegelian notion of the end of history, in many respects many people seem to have accepted and internalized an aspect of this notion of our having arrived at the end of history. One manifestation of this is that we don’t really discuss any politics beyond democracy. Is democracy the end of our political imaginary?)

In some respects, of course, the idea of going beyond democracy (not to mention the state) – going beyond limited, market-based democracies, eliminating poverty, for instance – can really be regarded as a type of perfection of the idea of democracy (or, as mentioned earlier, the realization of an actually democratic society – since, arguably, no actual democracy has ever existed).

But this actual democracy, as previously discussed, requires what we’ve been referring to as a genuinely democratic infrastructure (the concrete preconditions for actual democratic social relations) in order to manifest. Democracy, or actual democracy, does not merely require institutions that protect what is alienable (like fire departments, and courts of law); it requires that which supports and allows for the actualization of that which is inalienable as well. To state it somewhat problematically, “political animals” cannot meaningfully realize political rights without also possessing what in many respects amount to “animal rights” – political rights’ precondition. The coupling of these, perhaps, is what the notion of human rights means after all.

Insofar as this relates to the question of a basic income law, a basic income law could be a step toward an actually democratic society, but by itself a basic income law is insufficient – especially when one considers its libertarian and free-market associations, and the fact that mere economic power is a poor substitute for actual political-economic power. Indeed, rather than a basic income law, actual democratization can be said to require something like a basic infrastructure of an actually democratic society law, one in which the infrastructure of actual democracy – not just political rights as such but that which precede and support political rights (conditions such as housing, nutrition, a healthy environment, transportation, communications, education, leisure, the nullification of coercive power and its attendant institutions, not to mention what some, like Henri Lefebvre, have referred to as the right to the city, among other things)  – those conditions that are an actually democratic society’s preconditions, should not only be decommodified and inalienable, but should be recognized as that which an actually just, actually democratic society has an actual obligation to produce for itself; not in exchange for anything, or for profit, but for its own sake.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to He lives in New York City, and can be reached at, and on twitter @elliot_sperber


Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at and on twitter @elliot_sperber