I spent yesterday afternoon at “a celebration and critical evaluation” of the work of political theorist and historian Mark Philp. My role was to talk about his involvement in a big, ongoing project being done here at Oxford—and around the world—called Re-imagining Democracy. That project has already produced one book, Re-imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions: America, France, Britain, Ireland 1750-1850 (OUP, 2013), with contributions on the early American republic by Seth Cotlar, Adam I. P. Smith, and Laura Edwards. It’s a book that may not yet be well known among American historians, but it should be, because the question it’s trying to answer is a very interesting and difficult one: how did “democracy” go from something feared and reviled even as late as the 1780s, to something very different by the mid-nineteenth century, and even to become the quintessential value of American politics that we know today?
A recording of the event is available here, but I thought for this post I’d share some snippets from my own talk. So:
In the chapters which focus on Britain, Philp and Innes give a somewhat counter-intuitive explanation for this change: “democracy” was primarily redefined not in the process of supporting democratic institutional reform, but in opposition to it. Hoping to leverage the word’s status as a bugbear, opponents used it to smear efforts like the Great Reform Act of 1832. As they put it, “By denouncing the Whigs’ plans as ‘democratic’ (not how the Whigs themselves presented them), the Tories… ensured that the implementation of Reform was widely seen as, for better or worse, a move towards democracy.” For supporters of Reform, especially the radical Chartists, the lesson was clear: if this is democracy, then democracy is something worth fighting for, and perhaps a label worth adopting. Later Chartists turned their attention increasingly to universal manhood suffrage, at least partly on the basis that “so long as political rights and power were unevenly distributed, those with privileged access to power would have the means of advantaging themselves. Without political justice, no social justice.”
The transformation of democracy and its triumph in the modern North Atlantic world have involved a particular kind of re-imagining of the political, and a new demarcation of its limits. As Laura Edwards puts it, for example, “The extension of democracy for some [in the United States] not only came at the expense of others, but also constrained the Revolutionary era’s most expansive notions of democracy.” In other words, it wasn’t only women and non-whites whose power was dramatically limited by the American notion of democracy in the nineteenth century. “Democratic principles,” she continues, “did not extend to governing institutions in an easy, direct way. In practice, state and national leaders’ vision of democracy did not include fundamental changes in the economic or social structure that would put all white men on an equal footing.”
This recognition, I think, puts some serious pressure on the formulation, “Without political justice, no social justice.” The truth is, it could just as well have been the other way around. We know full well, in our own time, that universal adult suffrage hasn’t broken down the enormous barriers to social justice, the structural inequalities, or the twisted social relations that continue to exist, and which, of course, affect voting patterns and politics in all sorts of complex ways. How, then, did democracy come to mean “political justice” and not “social justice,” universal manhood suffrage and not collective ownership of assets or egalitarian redistribution of wealth and power? The latter had certainly been possibilities within the eighteenth-century meaning of the word, passed down from ancient Greece and Rome. The story of modern democracy is one in which democracy lost its social and economic content at the very moment it gained political ascendancy.
What happened was the separation of the “economic” and the “political” into separate spheres. It was only under the conditions of this separation that a widely dispersed political power, through the universal suffrage, began to appear possible. Power relations, which had hitherto been fundamentally political issues, of lordship and so on—like who owed what to whom, and who could do what to whom, and who could make whom do what they wanted—were transformed into fundamentally economic issues, having to to do with ownership and contract. So if you want to know why democracy—defined basically as a diffusion of formal political power among the people—went from being bad to good, from being not only impossible but undesirable to not only desirable but possible, one way of answering the question is actually extremely straightforward: the real power wasn’t in politics any more; it was somewhere else, in the newly separate sphere of the economy.
If we wanted to chart this transition historically, we would need to look at not only the transformation in the use of the word democracy, as Innes and Philp have done, but also at how propertied classes in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries worked to put their property beyond the reach of politics, to create legal and discursive structures that insulated the real source of their power from any potential democratic threat. We’d have to look, for example, as Morton Horwitz has done in the American case, at the development of contract law and other aspects of private law which place the coercive power of the state at the disposal of private property. We’d have to look at how the U.S. Constitution neutered state governments, and how banks and corporations became private, not public institutions. In short, I don’t think we can consider the question of democracy separately from that of political economy. We can’t take for granted the idea that politics was where the power was, and that democracy really meant dispersing power to the people. The history of the United States simply won’t bear that out—and it may be worth remembering in our own time, too.