Jacobin - November 5, 2019

"Research shows that the organized working class, and industrial workers in particular, have been the driving force for democracy around the world. The question is whether the erosion of the industrial working class will weaken our prospects for democratic politics."

2019 is shaping up to be a banner year for protest activity around the world. September’s global climate strike brought millions of people into the streets worldwide, with an estimated 2,500 actions taking place in over 160 countries. This was a historic event, but only one of many mass actions that have swept the world this year. The list of countries rocked by significant protest movements is long: Algeria, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Hong Kong, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Puerto Rico, Russia, Serbia, South Africa, and Sudan, among others. They’ve recently been joined by Lebanon and Chile, where protesters outraged by inequality, the erosion of public services, and the failure of political representation have plunged their countries into turmoil. A long summer has spilled over into a hot autumn, and this wave of protest may well continue to roll on into the next year.

Have these protests been effective in achieving their goals? So far, the picture is mixed. Outside of Sudan, where mass demonstrations and strikes deposed Omar al-Bashir and initiated a political revolution, the protests have not yet produced much in the way of fundamental changes in the constitutional order. It may be too early to gauge their impact, but it seems likely that many will meet the same result as most protest movements: some combination of repression and concessions, while the incumbent political regime remains intact.

In country after country, the people want the fall of the regime, as the Arab Spring’s main slogan put it. If deposing governments were a matter of will, this would be relatively easy. But whether the people have the capacity to do so and, just as importantly, whether they have an interest in establishing a more democratic political system is a matter of social structure and class composition. Above all, it is a question of whether the working class is organized, strategically located, and capable of effectively wielding power.

This is the main conclusion of a recent study of the relationship between democratization and working-class mobilization by a group of Norwegian researchers, summarized recently at the Washington Post. It is the latest piece of evidence in support of the well-established argument that the organized working class has been the most consistently pro-democratic social force around the world.

In the 1960s, Barrington Moore, Jr published his classic work Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, where he made the famous claim “no bourgeois, no democracy.” Since then, a number of scholars have effectively demolished the notion that political democracy is an organic byproduct of capitalist development or the handiwork of the bourgeoisie. In a groundbreaking essay in New Left Review, Goran Therborn argued that “none of the great bourgeois revolutions actually established bourgeois democracy.” Democratic rights and freedoms did not result from the gradual and peaceful spread of wealth, literacy, and urbanization, but rather social upheavals resulting from war and class conflict.

For Therborn, it was the emergence of the working class and the labor movement which opened the path to democratization, not the rise to power of the capitalist class. To the extent that they exist, basic democratic rights and freedoms are the fruit of hard-fought victories won from and defended against the bourgeoisie. ...
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