Skip to main content

Violent Capital: The Broken Promise of Liberal Democracy

Despite the egalitarian rhetoric of democratic idealism, enfranchisement is not manifest as a universal law, but must always be granted from within a pre-existing authority, so far as it has the ability to subject the individual to its will. The power of the authority in determining the parameters of inclusion often derives from concepts of territory or nationality; hence it is common to find restricted voting rights for those with immigrant status, especially where an individual’s residency is considered illegal. Any number of factors might constitute a denial of suffrage, however, since the criteria for participation are dependent on arbitrary groupings of legitimacy as determined by pre-existing collective judgement. Historically, enfranchisement has a correlative relationship with social organisation – in early European and American democratic models, sufferage was generally restricted to white propertied men – since equal participation of subordinates could threaten to destabilise the legal apportionment of rights by which the social superiority of the orthodox ruling class is protected. Therefore, while intervention in the public sphere on the part of disenfranchised groups can work to influence orthodox opinion regarding acceptable forms of exclusion, democracy in general is a political model in which freedom must always be granted, and never claimed. This applies even amongst individuals who are able to participate in democratic elections, since they must submit to legally defined restrictions on behaviour as determined by the democratic authority, or else risk forfeiting their most basic freedoms to state control. This limit can be seen in the restrictions placed on Abu Hishma, and the psychology of segregation, which morally separated insurgent from citizen, seems to be repeated in the liberal democratic penal system, which rationalizes criminality as an inherent trait that must be controlled, rather than as a response to contingent social and economic pressures. However, if prisoners are denied the right to vote, then incarceration must be seen as the systematic removal of democratic rights under threat of violence, and we must acknowledge the truth of Žižek’s argument:

For the oppressed, violence is always legitimate – since their very status is the result of violence – but never necessary: it is always a matter of strategic consideration whether to use force against the enemy or not (89).

The extent to which individuals can be dehumanised under such logic was recently demonstrated in the suppression, in the state of Georgia, of the largest prison protest in US history, in which “thousands of prisoners participated by refusing to work and remaining in their cells.” Despite the peaceful nature of the protests, the demands of the inmates were largely dismissed, as prison officials resorted to violent measures; in Augusta State Prison, “at least six inmates were forcibly removed from their cells by guards and beaten.” At Macon State, prisoners were placed in solitary confinement and heat and hot water supply were shut off despite freezing temperatures (Naomi Spenser 1). If we accept protest as a basic right, such use of force against inmates can only be justified if we perceive the incarcerated as morally degraded criminals in comparison to those who participate properly in democratic society. That the protests were not characterised by force on the prisoners’ part, not only undermines stereotypical expectations of criminal behaviour, but could also be considered as the strategic implementation of non-violence in a situation where violence might be legitimately used. Foremost amongst the prisoners’ demands was that the work that they perform, as overseen by the State Department of Corrections, should be paid. The use of inmates as a source of free labour amounts to little more than state ownership of workers, a hegemonised slavery, supplied by a steep incarceration rate amongst the poorest communities:

Over the last two decades, the number of prisoners has nearly tripled in Georgia, ranking the state fifth in the nation for the number people it incarcerates, according to the Sentencing Project. African Americans make up 63 percent of the prison population while comprising 30 percent of state residents (2).

If the state can be seen to have a financial interest in the criminalization of its citizens, then it stands to reason that it will have little to gain from resolving the socio-political causes of crime. It could be argued that the use of violence for financial gain can be seen to extend far beyond the exploitation of criminalized individuals, to encompass a social relationship embedded in all democratic economic strategy.

Shortly after the American intervention in Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority, under the direction of Paul Bremer, introduced laws to open up all areas of Iraqi economy, with the exception of oil, to almost unrestricted foreign ownership on the global market. The move was accompanied by a total dismantlement of the public sector, which became fully privatized, while labour markets were tightly regulated, with heavy restrictions placed on the right to unionize or strike (David Harvey 6). The measures, which seemed intent on purging all remnants of socialism from the country, could be understood to be the real-life reply to Condoleezza Rice’s question, “How do you capitalize on such opportunities?” which she is reported to have asked in reference to 9/11 (Weinberger 8)[i]. What is particularly distasteful about such a question is not so much that she refers to the disaster as an opportunity, but that she seems to be asking how disproportionate reactions to the event might best be encouraged in order to feed political advantage. To describe 9/11 as an act of terror against the rightful liberty of all Americans, as was popular rhetoric in the aftermath of the event, is to ignore the symbolic implications of the attack at the point where this freedom intersects with the powerful apparatus of inequality that is the neoliberal financial-political complex. The normalization of a tiered distribution of wealth as post-political is perpetuated by the common perception of the economic systems as residing in an apolitical sphere, with which, since the economy is subject to the “imperatives of a neutral financial logic” (Žižek 85), governments have a largely passive relationship, in which intervention is limited to localised reactive or pre-emptive measures. In reality, however, the movement of the financial markets can be said to enact a controllable agenda, which is not only determined by political decisions but can be actively connected to democratic systems at the level of idealised core values. As David Harvey points out, “The founding figures of neoliberal thought took political ideals of human dignity and individual freedom as fundamental, as ‘the central values of civilization’” (5). The implementation of neoliberal techniques in Iraq, the establishment of what Harvey calls a “neoliberal state” (7), can be understood either as the apolitical accompaniment to democracy, in order to add prosperity to the liberation bestowed upon Iraq, or else as the true purpose of a government anxious to ‘capitalize’ on an embedded ideology of emergency as perpetuated by the war on terror, regardless of its detriment to other nations. By the following account, it would appear to be the latter:

On 11 September 2001, six hours after the attacks, I heard that Donald Rumsfeld said that it might be an opportunity to ‘hit’ Iraq. I heard that he said: ‘Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not’ (Weinberger 7-8).

It is clear that the challenge that 9/11 posed to people’s expectations of safety could create a culture of fear surrounding issues of national security. This might easily be exploited to legitimize war in Iraq as a defensive rather than a neoliberal imperialist action, by presenting Saddam Hussein’s regime as a threat to individual freedom at the level of lived violence, which in actuality means to create a perceived challenge to the superiority of liberal democratic values.

It would however, be pre-emptive to reject the possibility that neoliberal democracy might also be beneficial to Iraq, simply on the basis of the authoritarian nature by which it was established, without first questioning whether the end justifies the means. Neoliberal thinking dictates that the freedoms of the market are the basis of freedoms for the individual, meaning that the wider the reach of the market, the less restricted the possibilities of investment and the greater the number of individuals who can benefit from increased economic growth, through improved access to education, healthcare, legal representation, and other measures of quality of life. If Iraq could prosper as a neoliberal state to the point that its stability might be taken for granted, and that it might be considered a developed nation, then the establishment of a democratic government by force, in order to introduce a neoliberal social model, might be considered to be justified. However, while it is easy to see how lack of regulation in the Iraqi economy would create an attractive investment opportunity, it is less clear how this deregulated environment would ensure beneficial repercussions for the average citizen. While legislation allows for private ownership of Iraqi assets from within the country, those most likely to benefit are those with the greatest resources to invest, and will therefore predominantly be both foreign and corporate. From the perspective of the investor, the value of the Iraqi economy lies primarily in the Iraqi people themselves as a labour market, supported by the export of natural resources, which are predominantly mined and thus require cheap labour for their extraction. The resulting society could then be understood as the financialization of an entire nation, in which the people themselves become the commodity out of which value is established, but are prevented from benefiting from the profit that they generate since they have no ownership rights to the fruits of their labour. This account supports Harvey’s assertion that “the main substantive achievement of neoliberalism … has been to redistribute rather than to generate wealth and income.” (159) The dismantlement of the public sector in Iraq is a particularly harsh example of “accumulation by dispossession”, which curtails the ability of the people to control their own welfare, but nevertheless promotes the tenets of freedom according to ‘pure’ neoliberalism, since it makes difficult either state intervention in the labour market or collective forms of property ownership. The distribution of welfare then becomes dependent either on the value to investors of the wellbeing of the labour force, as a source of income, or on independent philanthropic reinvestment in the community as an extension of the post-political charitable model that normalizes the systematic power imbalance between giver and receiver and confirms the superior status of the former.

The establishment of neoliberal democracy as a model of humanitarian equality is doomed to failure, since the disproportionate redistribution of wealth is responsible for reinforcing the existing structural privilege of an increasingly influential economic elite. Under neoliberal logic, freedom is threatened by “all forms of state intervention that substitute collective judgements for those of individuals free to choose.” (5) Since the authority of democratic government is drawn from its people, the implementation of neoliberal philosophy within a democratic framework must always be made above the heads of the citizens, in order to prevent the collective nature of the majority judgement from polluting the purity of neoliberal systems of liberty. If the freedom of the individual is proportionate to capital, then the function of the vote is reduced to a symbolic trust in the chosen party to make decisions in order to best serve its citizens, rather than an active influence on the implementation of governmental authority. The effect of capitalism on democracy is that it leads to disenfranchisement whilst maintaining the pretence of equal participation amongst the privileged middle class who straddle the power gap between extremities of wealth and poverty:

The idea of freedom ‘thus degenerates into a mere advocacy of free enterprise’, which means ‘the fullness of freedom for those whose income, leisure and security need no enhancing, and a mere pittance of liberty for the people, who may in vain attempt to make use of their democratic rights to gain shelter from the power of the owners of property’ (Polyani, qtd. in Harvey, 37).

It is impossible then to act simultaneously in the interests of democracy and of neoliberalism without the values of one negating those of the other, meaning that the authority of democratic states can be only be maintained alongside neoliberal economic models which require the state “to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to [neoliberal] practices” of freedom, if they are able to maintain a monopoly over the use of violence (Harvey 2). If we agree that “actual freedom resides … in the ‘apolitical’ network of social relations” – in the lived experience of possibility and limitation – “where the change needed for effective improvement is not political reform, but a transformation in the social relations of production” (Žižek 88), then freedom as defined by democratic rights amounts to no more than the illusion of agency within a limited framework of social interaction, which does nothing to induce change in the social relations through which inequality is perpetuated. This is to say, simply, that the current democratic model offered by our governments is at best inadequate.

While democratic control of violence is essential to the stability of capitalistic operations, the authority of the state over economic function ends once the sanctity of private property is secured through the imposition of protective law. The political reach of democratic governments could then be seen as limited by the very means with which they extend their influence. The more they establish an independent world market, the less dependent on territory social relations become. Governments must remain financially competitive or else become ever more vulnerable to the interventions of an increasingly powerful economic elite. “It is the acceptance of ‘democratic mechanisms’ as the ultimate frame that prevents a radical transformation of capitalist relations,” as Žižek puts it (88). At best our current models of liberal democracy are unable to control the capitalist models that naturalize its legal and military control of freedom; at worst they are an ideological sham, designed to support a plutocratic elite whilst pacifying the poor with the violent imposition of an illusion of free and equal participation.

In attempting to transform social relations it is not enough for the democratic Left to simply reject the platitudes of quasi-democratic government. It is imperative that in perceiving inequality, the Left examines the ingrained assumptions of its own hegemonic post-political view, and takes responsibility for its part in social internalisations of inequality. The first thing that must be realised is that despite the detachment of social relations from physical location as an apparently recent phenomenon, the reaction to the destabilizing effect of this detachment cannot be to protect internalized understandings of inequality under a two-tier system of cultural categorization, one that seeks to maintain the privileged status of the individual, even as it rejects the notion of inequality. As Žižek argues, “The reply to every crisis should be more internationalist and universalist than the universality of global capital” (86). If the impact of 9/11, in striking at the heart of a perceived right to stability and safety, was to be seen as an ‘opportunity’ to change the nature of American power as exerted over its subordinates, then would this not have better been expressed as newfound humanistic compassion, in the form of accepting violent death? Such an outcome might then be seen not as the result of cultural ‘immaturity,’ but rather as a reality that should be considered possible for all in equal measure, regardless of location, cultural identity or the global proportioning of wealth.

Works Cited

Filkins, Dexter. The Forever War: Dispatches from the War on Terror. New York and London: Vintage, 2008.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.

Shawn, Wallace. ‘The Quest For Superiority.’ Essays. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009: 19–27.

Weinberger, Eliot. What I Heard About Iraq. London: Verso, 2005.

Spencer, Naomi. ‘Georgia prison inmates strike.’ (13 Dec. 2010). Accessed 03/01/11.

United Nations Statistics Division, Standard Country and Area Codes Classifications (M49). ‘Composition of macro geographical (continental) regions, geographical sub-regions, and selected economic and other groupings.’, United Nations Publications Board, 2010. Accessed 02/01/11.

Žižek, Slavoj. ‘A Permanent Economic Emergency.’ New Left Review 64 (July/August 2010): 85-95.

1 . 2

[i] Weinberger’s What I Heard About Iraq comprises a juxtaposed selection of statements on the Iraq War, which are not credited, in order to comment on both the dissemination of information and the cycles of amnesia in contemporary media history. Rice’s statement was originally made in an interview with Nicholas Lemann, which appeared in the New Yorker on April 1, 2002.