Building a Predistributive Democracy on the Ruins of Market Justice

Five years ago I wrote: “A spectre is haunting the US, parts of Europe and the world — the spectre of Fascism and Authoritarian Neoliberalism, veiled as “defensive democracy” and “common-sense patriotism”, disguised as social protectionism, perceived by laymen as innocuous populism.” Therefore, I have been thinking, in the coming years we are expected to face a major collision of polities and ideologies: Authoritarian Neoliberal Regime (or tendencies) versus Democratic Social State (or spirit).
In this context, while democracy is constantly challenged as a political as well as a normative term, and as a form of governance, it is urgent and crucial to discuss and reflect on the preconditions for and state of democracy in the 21st Century. The Condition of Democracy: Neoliberal Politics and Sociological Perspectives tackles this important topic. This volume, edited by Jürgen Mackert, Hannah Wolf, and Bryan Turner, brings together a series of eye-opeing essays that provide theoretical and empirical enquiries into the meaning and practice of liberal democracy, the erosion of democratic institutions by neoliberal ideas and policies, and the consequences for civil and egalitarian principles.
An insightful chapter by Margaret R. SomersToward a Predistributive Democracy: Diagnosing Oligarchy, Dedemocratization, and the Deceits of Market Justice” is one of the key contributions to this project. Using conceptual tools derived from a Polanyian perspective, Somers — an eminent scholar of Karl Polanyi’s thought, market fundamentalism and citizenship — elaborates on the logic of “free / natural / autonomous markets” where the notion of freedom typically means loosening of state role and democratic mechanisms in protecting citizens from social and economic disparities, poverty, and exclusion:
“The political economy of capitalism is that of market naturalism – the claim that the economy operates according to natural internal laws and regularities, symmetrical to the laws of nature, which tend toward maximum efficiency when left autonomous from government and politics. Market naturalism bestows moral privilege on market outcomes on the grounds of its alleged neutrality, voluntarism, and freedom from power and human bias. In fact, it rests on a market economy that is anything but natural and nonpolitical, but one constituted by a phalanx of predistributive mechanisms of political and legal engineering. Claims that the market economy is free from government power are thus utterly fictitious. Freedom from the power of democracy, however, has been a structural constant of capitalism from its inception.” (Somers 2021: 57).
After scrutinizing the ideas of ‘market naturalism’, ‘market justice’, and the concept of ‘inequality regime’, in this thought-provoking chapter, Somers compellingly advocates for “a predistributive democratic citizenship as an alternative political and moral economy and a mandate for structural and ideational change, which diagnoses inequality not simply as a problem of income distribution but as one of the maldistribution of power and the acceleration of dedemocratization. The goal is to organize a system of countervailing predistributive powers, to substitute equality and democratic rights for market justice’s inequality regime; to call for a decommodification of the workforce and democratization of the workplace; and ultimately to aim for what Polanyi aspired to in the name of his version of democratic socialism: ‘[To] transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society’ (Polanyi 2001: 242).” (Somers 2021: 57).

Open-access: Somers, Margaret R. 2021. “Toward a Predistributive Democracy: Diagnosing Oligarchy, Dedemocratization, and the Deceits of Market Justice.” Pp. 56-87 in The Condition of Democracy: Neoliberal Politics and Sociological Perspectives, edited by Jürgen Mackert, Hannah Wolf, and Bryan S. Turner. Routledge.

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2 comments

  1. Neoliberal capitalism is a particularly savage, cruel, and exploitative regime of oppression in which not only are the social contract, civil liberties and the commons under siege, but also the very notion of the political, if not the planet itself.

    The neoliberal subject is produced and market-driven ideologies are normalized. Capitalism has made a virtue out of self-interest and the pursuit of material wealth and in doing so has created a culture of shattered dreams and a landscape filled with “Broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid and the uninsured: all suggest a collective failure of will. These shortcomings are so endemic that we no longer know how to talk about what is wrong, much less set about repairing it”

  2. In the U.S. we suffer from what I call “Toxic Theo-Mythology” which is a belief structure that couples exceptionalism (one kind of myth) with uber-patriotism and quasi-libertariansim (the philosophy of a spoiled 4 year old or “you can’t tell me what to!). This has manifested itself in various ways such as “We defeated the Nazis!” when the USSR did the bleeding and “We defeated Communism” when there actually hasn’t been a true communist state and the left authoritarian regime in the USSR collapsed due more to internal issues. It further manifests itself in chest-thumping combined with a deep paranoia with an unhealthy dash of cognitive dissonance. As regards the issues of basic societal problems gaining any consensus is virtually impossible. I don’t expect the U.S. to last in its current iteration more than 20 years.

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