One of today’s most urgent questions is how to combine an analysis of capitalism with an analysis of democracy. The rolling socio-economic crises of the last decade, highlighted by the global financial meltdown, have laid bare the extent to which American society is marked by fundamental and irreconcilable conflicts between those enjoying economic power and those subject to the vagaries of the market. At the same time, the constitutional system, plagued by legislative dysfunction and extreme counter-majoritarianism, is incapable of implementing popular policy—let alone resolving endemic collective problems. American capitalism generates profound social and material dispossession, yet American democracy either facilitates these developments or seems helpless to address them. Why is this the case? And to what extent is the existing constitutional order—its basic ideological and institutional terms—at least partly to blame?
Since the forging of Cold War liberalism in the mid-twentieth century, elites have offered the same, familiar account—in both electoral politics and in the study of constitutional law—of the relationship between the constitutional order and the economy. The prevailing theory is that the structures of legal-political decision-making do not favor particular social groups. Instead, through an intricate system of checks and balances—overseen by a Supreme Court enjoying powers of judicial review—the constitutional process produces essentially just outcomes while ensuring that no single political or social actor wields overwhelming authority. This structure of constraint substantively pushes decisions away from the extremes of fascism and communism and toward a moderate middle ground of ameliorative reform and steady collective improvement.
Although some may be suspicious of the Whiggish story of progress, a bedrock assumption underlying this account has been widely held—even among left-liberal circles. This is the idea that the constitutional structure and its discursive traditions remain essentially agnostic as to existing distributional battles. They can be used productively to pursue virtually any end—up to and including socialism. As the New Deal victories seemed to confirm, constitutional process and language carry no essential theory of political economy. To the extent that legal-political outcomes have remained in line with a vision of market capitalism and a limited welfare state, this is simply the product of popular will: the complex balance of views expressed across the constitutional system.
But this account ignores a fundamental critique of the constitutional order, one leveled by labor and black radicalism in the first four decades of the twentieth century before Cold War ideas took such an extreme hold. For those activists, the history of sustained racial, indigenous, gender, and class subordination made clear that the country was not then and had never truly been democratic. Rather, the constitutional order systematically operated to expand the strength of a racial and economic minority.