Radical Democracy as a Solution to Liberal Democratic Failures

Pinellas DSA
12 min readAug 3, 2023

Member Bryce Springfield

The 2011–2015 Indignados Movement in Spain demanded radical democracy — “real democracy” — in response to the Spanish financial crisis and democratic deficits in their political system. Image: Wikimedia.

Radical democracy is not a term that many of us are used to hearing in our political science courses. You might hear it in one of the few classes that cover social movements and extra-parliamentary politics, but in general students are exclusively exposed to a rather limited understanding of democracy that not only fails to acknowledge the possibility of democracy beyond government, but that also has a fundamental distrust in the capacity of the “bewildered herd” — as Walter Lippmann once called the public — to make its own decisions about the institutions that affect our everyday lives.

This system is one wherein constituents, under a particular constitutional arrangement, “freely and fairly” elect representatives who suggest and vote on government policies on the public’s behalf. In addition, it features a market-based economic system with non-democratic firm-level relations between private owners on the one hand, and non-owner workers and consumers on the other. Many would call this capitalist, representative system a “liberal democracy.”

From direct democracy to liberal democracy

Many prehistoric societies throughout a large span of the human experience saw direct or semi-direct democracy as a natural system of self-management in both politics and economics. Yet in recent history, some have treated liberal democracy as the form of social organization most compatible with human nature.

From what we know about early democracies, several early agricultural societies, such as those of Phoenicia and Mesopotamia, are thought to have adopted democratic institutions long before the Greek city-states did. Going even further back, a wide range of prehistoric societies tended to “make all important collective decisions by consensus, and many of them [did] not even have chiefs,” with larger bands often breaking into smaller units to allow easier consensus-making, according to a 1993 paper.

Some have argued that the democratic aspect of many early societies may have contributed to a largely “peaceful order.” Contrary to what many 19th-century Western thinkers theorized about prehistoric violence and war, available data suggests that only around 2% of human fossils from 2 million to 14,000 years ago show evidence of a “traumatic violent injury,” while that percentage dramatically increased following the development of centralized state societies after the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions.

In Ancient Athens, from roughly the 6th century BCE to the 4th century BCE (with interruptions), “democracy” referred to a system of active popular participation (limited to adult male citizens) in the formulation of legislation and the exercise of executive functions. The selection of the citizens who performed these functions was accomplished via sortition, in that members of the public were chosen at random to participate in decision-making assemblies, similar to modern juries. Though limited in terms of inclusion, Athens exercised a much more direct form of democracy than that of today’s Western democracies. The Roman Republic (509 BCE — 27 BCE), on the other hand, is the most influential early case of a representative democracy, with popularly elected officials performing political duties instead of the people themselves, inspiring future democratic republics.

Fast forward to the 18th century, and one observes the “liberal democratic” model developing as an alternative to the radically authoritarian and feudal regimes that dominated Europe at the time. With the support of a range of Western intellectuals, often viewed as an extremist and unreasonable fringe by their contemporaries, the idea of a representative democratic government featuring constitutional rights and a capitalist economy posed a deep challenge to existing institutions. Over time, liberal democratic ideals gained significant traction among European publics, enabling revolutions first in the American colonies and then France, and later in other European countries and, eventually, their colonies as well.

I mention these details to put liberal democracy, particularly its representative democratic and capitalist elements, in perspective; they are but a blip in human history, and thus are clearly not the products of human nature until recent centuries.

Today’s crisis of liberal democracy

I agree with the premise that the formation and expansion of liberal democracy over the last three centuries marks a positive change in human development away from authoritarian and feudal systems of political and economic domination. This revolutionary process has normalized democracy as a universal ideal, and standardized legal equality as well as freedom of thought, speech, association, religion, and the press. Liberal democracies have often failed to live up to these same ideals, particularly when it comes to domestic social equality and colonial domination, but in many cases they have successfully challenged and overturned systems of oppression around the world.

In today’s age, however, there are a few respects in which liberal democracy is failing to meet the rising standards expected by working-class people who make up the global majority.

Capitalist economy

Recent polls reveal that a staggering 60% of an international sample of workers are emotionally detached at work, while only 33% feel engaged with their labor. In the US, the standard-bearer of global capitalism, 50% of workers report frequent stress at work, with their most frequently reported cause of workplace dissatisfaction being unfair treatment.

Though even Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels openly acknowledged the incredible power of capitalism as a force for global industrialization, capitalism is a fundamentally undemocratic system wherein the owners of the means of production (i.e., capitalists) hold outsized power over those who operate the means of production (i.e., workers). Similar criticisms have been made about many state socialist solutions, like those of the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and various other experiments where production was controlled by an undemocratic bureaucratic apparatus holding outsized power over the workers they claimed to represent — an arrangement often justified by asserting that the Communist Party aristocracy was the workers, or even that the masses were too stupid to direct their own workplaces. Yet mainstream political commentators rarely extend this criticism to capitalism, even though a nearly identical logic applies.

As the anti-authoritarian left has understood for generations, in either of these systems — no more in the authoritarian socialist case than in the capitalist case — the workplace where most workers spend the majority of their lives is dictatorially controlled by an unelected executive or board of executives, who may arbitrarily set wages and undemocratically select unit managers. Even in wealthy social democracies with strong welfare programs and powerful labor unions, workers are forced to remain employed to avoid a squalid lifestyle. Meanwhile, in the Global South, the consequences for those who choose not to degrade their bodies, minds, and time enough for capitalism can include starvation or death. In either case, it is a “free” choice between exhaustion or poverty.

Working conditions around the world are often very poor, woefully ill-compensatory for the economic value produced, and even unsafe due to workers’ lack of influence over workplace decision-making. On the other hand, if workers could exercise democracy in the workplace, it is highly likely that they would not make the same decisions as those of a disconnected capitalist on issues related to safety, benefits, wages, and employment. Not only that, workers would also have more direct incentives to reduce irresponsible risk because of profit sharing and increased sensitivity to the threat of losing their jobs. Reducing risk throughout the economy would then mitigate the possibility of bankruptcy and wider economic crises, and give innovators fewer negative incentives and more financial stability to do their valuable work.

Furthermore, workplace democracy would address the “local knowledge problem” that right-wing economists seem all too happy to attribute to centrally-planned economies. This theory refers to the argument that central planners, such as those of state socialist regimes, lack much of the information necessary for rational economic decision-making, as such information is distributed amongst individual actors.

Yet under capitalism as well, owners, executives, and high-level managers frequently do not have extensive direct experience in everyday work, limiting the information they have to make informed firm-level plans. By ensuring that all of those who work for the factories, the shops, and the gig services have an input in the direction of their respective firms, whether through representatives or direct decision-making, firms can be better equipped to improve efficiency, productivity, and stability.

These theoretical predictions are generally supported by major literature reviews of both worker-owned cooperatives and, to a lesser extent, union-represented workplaces. Worker cooperatives tend to be more productive and stable through recessions than other firms, and they also tend to have longer lifespans, greater employee satisfaction, lower employee turnover, and greater efficiency. Union-represented workplaces also see significantly higher pay than comparable workplaces, as well as better workplace safety and increased firm stability.

Representative democratic government

Although some countries express satisfaction with their representative systems, support for democracy in many countries has significantly declined, while in others pro-democracy sentiment has simply always been low. In a 34-country survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2019, the median country had 52% dissatisfaction with democracy in their country, compared to a mere 44% satisfaction. In Latin America, a very high portion of respondents — 70% — said they were dissatisfied with democracy in their respective countries, with countries like Ecuador and Peru in particular seeing around 10% satisfaction. This data reflects significant declines in democratic satisfaction from just two or three decades ago.

What is causing this? One possible reason could be that populations are feeling increasingly disconnected from their representatives, with 64% of citizens in the median country surveyed by the Pew Research Center agreeing that elected officials do not care about “what people like them think.” In many representative democracies, campaign donations and politicians’ own investments provide incentives to stray from the popular will in favor of special interests. In the US, we can see this tendency expressed in relation to a vast range of policies — from universal healthcare to free college, to marijuana legalization, to abortion rights, to a $15 minimum wage — each of which have strong public support, but none are currently close to promulgation at the national level. A variety of studies have demonstrated that United States representatives, though partly influenced by voter preferences, frequently give outsized preference to policies favored by the wealthy.

One factor that may explain this proposed relationship is the fact that elected representatives, on average, are not of comparable socio-economic status to that of the general public, typically being significantly wealthier. As a consequence, even those potentially sympathetic to the working class simply do not experience the everyday difficulties that workers regularly face, and can therefore suffer from, again, the local knowledge problem frequently cited by right-wing economists.

The 2023 V-Dem Democracy Report found that a plurality of the global population was living under an autocratizing regime as of March 2023. Image source: V-Dem Institute.

These developments are especially dangerous in light of the democratic backsliding that has recently occurred in Hungary, Poland, Nicaragua, Bolivia, India, Tunisia, Turkey, and other countries where executives and single parties have increasingly dominated over legislatures and courts, and have enforced laws that seriously limit media and associational freedoms. These trends likewise menace the United States, where several major politicians have denied election results and where state governments regularly limit voting rights. As confidence in democracy declines, more and more countries are at risk of autocratization — an alternative that I, along with liberal democrats, assert is worse than the liberal democratic arrangement.

Some theorists of democratic backsliding, such as the authors of How Democracies Die — the book that apparently helped push Joe Biden to run for president in 2020 — have argued that merely “restor[ing] the basic norms” of liberal democracy and including a more diverse range of people within the liberal democratic mechanisms will be enough to save democracy. However, the true roots of democratic backsliding go much deeper than this, as has been shown in the above analysis.

Further than merely questioning the status quo — a civic duty in any healthy democracy — authoritarian populists threaten democracy by claiming to be the only ones who can truly represent the “real people.” But creating the institutions and providing the spare time for people to represent themselves could put a significant number of obstacles in the way of these despotic distortions of the public will. The capacity of authoritarian populists to skillfully abuse the top-down model of representative democracy in order to disseminate antidemocratic attitudes and reforms would be largely immobilized in such a scenario.

Given that authoritarian populists are the usual suspects in advancing democratic backsliding in the modern day, and that said authoritarian populists gain power through the personality-oriented politics of representative democracies, it would serve democrats well to push for an alternative that makes the path to autocratization much more challenging.

Radical democracy as an alternative

A few radical democratic projects have succeeded in reviving direct democratic as well as workplace democratic ideals in the last few decades, while simultaneously maintaining the benefits of constitutional rights prioritized by liberal regimes.

In 1994, for example, a large portion of the Mexican state of Chiapas established autonomy through the high-profile Zapatista Uprising, which was waged in protest against what the largely indigenous population saw as an authoritarian and undemocratic government. Since then, 360,000 Zapatistas have enjoyed participatory democracy in a decentralized system of government, alongside a democratic economy consisting of worker cooperatives and common ownership of land, and a democratic education system involving both students and parents.

A new communal assembly in autonomous Zapatista territory is formally founded in 2019 in Jacinto Kanek. Image source: Enlace Zapatista.

In 2012, during the Syrian Civil War, four million people suffering under the aggression of the Syrian and Turkish governments, as well as of ISIS, formed the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (also known as Rojava). They gained their autonomy through the establishment of a federalist system of participatory democracy, with significant sectors of the economy being managed democratically through worker cooperatives and workers’ councils.

A local women’s council meeting takes place near Qamislo in Rojava. Image source: Janet Biehl.

But what would such a system look like for Princeton students? I will end with a description of a hypothetical alternate universe in which Princeton students live in a radically democratic society.

Suppose that in this alternate universe, there is a major push among students for the University to divest from fossil fuels. If the level of support for this change was similar to that in our universe, divestment would be an overwhelmingly obvious policy to pursue, given that 82% of undergraduates favor it. Assuming that a majority of University employees and graduate students also agree with this change, which is a fair supposition given the high number of faculty endorsements behind it and the generally liberal or leftist political attitudes of students and working New Jersey residents, the matter of fossil fuel divestment could be resolved almost immediately, as opposed to only partially after many years.

Suppose that just like at the real Princeton, the alternate Math Department enjoys an atrocious reputation among undergraduate students for the poor organization of its courses and the mind-numbing teaching style of some of its professors. With student input actually counting for something, rather than simply being diverted into listening sessions, and then committee meetings, before finally being ignored, perhaps students could successfully influence the department into seeking out more dedicated lecturers rather than only researchers who may not be passionate about teaching their students.

Suppose that you work at the local Starbucks on Nassau Street, and you hate the grueling working conditions there, as plenty of baristas have expressed in our own universe. If the Starbucks were a worker cooperative, the employees who keep the store running would have significantly more power over their wage rates and working conditions, meaning they could raise wages to a level that encourages both higher productivity and more job applicants. Workers would ensure that profits are no longer aimed at supporting investors and executives, but rather at supporting all who contribute to the productive process.

Within the government of this alternate universe, perhaps marijuana would be quickly legalized, so students would not have to worry about state violence or University discipline against them for using the drug. Perhaps we would already have a public healthcare system that eliminates the frustrating and expensive reimbursement bureaucracy we face with the Student Health Plan, and we would not have to carefully search for in-network doctors nearby — instead, we would know that all doctors are covered.

And finally, with mechanisms of direct participation, perhaps we could reduce the level of atomization and loneliness in our society, and therefore develop a better sense of mutual understanding and respect for each other and the issues that matter to us. Maybe psychologists both on- and off-campus would be offered higher pay through their own workplace democracies, as well as through popular participation in public healthcare policy. This would encourage more psychologists to come and support young people, a particularly vulnerable demographic in terms of mental health issues, a key concern for many in the Princeton community given the alarming number of recent mental health-related tragedies.

Liberal democratic institutions are failing us at this stage of human development. Radical democracy, on the other hand, provides answers to many of the dissatisfactions that students, workers, and voters now face. Thus, radical democracy offers a new understanding of democracy appropriate for a new age.

This piece was originally published in The Princeton Progressive.

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Pinellas DSA

The Official Pinellas County FL chapter of Democratic Socialists of America