US Elections 2020

"A democratic Ritual against the underlying reality of an incompatibility between capitalism and democracy"

In an interview conducted by David Bond and John Hultgren, Margaret Somers talks about the US election, the relationship between the neoliberalism and the hypernationalism of the American Right and to which extent the liberal embrace of a “free-market” logic has contributed to the predicament in which the US currently finds itself.

3rd November, 2020

Note: The Interview was coonducted on October 28.

David Bond & John Hultgren: Maybe we could start with this: So, we’re a week out from this election. Biden is climbing in the polls and is potentially bringing new states into play. At the same time, the Supreme Court is issuing really frightening rulings about their jurisdiction over contested elections. One week out, are you pessimistic or optimistic?

 Margaret Somers: I’m especially struck by the wide gap between the surface of the election drama— the polls, the policy positions, race relations–and the election’s structural underpinnings, or background conditions. While they may not completely determine the outcomes, they certainly delimit the spectrum of possibility, yet they are of course never discussed openly. The most important of these background conditions comes to us from Polanyi: We’re performing a democratic ritual against the underlying reality of a basic incompatibility between capitalism and democracy. And at some point—under certain conditions, but not inevitably—that incompatibility may well be resolved by a capitalist accommodation with fascism. That possibility is heightened by the fact that we’re performing this post-democratic ritual in the context of the most hypercapitalist oligarchic regime in recent American history, which has already moved far along the continuum to an autocracy. We’re not there yet, but we’re on the spectrum.

            But my day-to-day focus is on the polls. I have doubts about how optimistic Democrats are about Biden being ahead in the polls by a wider margin than Hillary was in 2016. For while good polling constructs models and algorithms that include contingencies and assumptions, their assumptions are based on historical experience. So for example, they have decades of data that show what difference it makes if it’s raining on election day, or the effect of the so-called “shy Trump voter,” or the peculiarities of the electoral college, or the impact of the current level of unemployment, etc.


“We’re performing a democratic ritual against the underlying reality of a basic incompatibility between capitalism and democracy. And at some point—under certain conditions, but not inevitably—that incompatibility may well be resolved by a capitalist accommodation with fascism.”

          What I’m worried about is that this year the degree of voter suppression is not continuous with history, because it is unprecedented in the post-Jim Crow era. So statisticians do not know how to factor in the difference between voters (especially African American and young people) who report to pollsters that they *intend* to vote for Joe Biden, but then they are prevented from *actually* voting for Biden—either through having their ballots thrown out, or discovering their name has been purged from the voting register, or being told they’re at the wrong voting place, and the multiple other ways that Democratic votes will not be counted based on Republican methods of supressing the vote. Moreover, it’s the first election in over 30 years in which so-called “poll watching” is no longer prohibited, which is code for the presence of armed white intimidation of Black voters. In almost every state in the U.S., it’s legal to bring firearms into the voting booth; we don’t know what the effect of this will be but it cannot be good. Finally, we’ve never had a President who is so clearly committed to inciting extra-paramilitary violence as well as legal violence (calling out the Insurrection Act on protestors).

             Nate Silver [the premier American polling analyst and statistician] has written that the mainstream media was understating the potential effect of voter suppression. He acknowledged that while throughout American history there has always been voter suppression and voter disenfranchisement, the voter suppression strategies this year are so new that they aren’t able to use their historical assumptions to build them into the model: “[T]here are some possibilities that our model doesn’t account for, and they have become more pertinent after Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and declined to commit to respecting the election results… The model also does not account for the possibility of extraconstitutional shenanigans by Trump or by anyone else, such as trying to prevent mail ballots from being counted….”

Finally, we have to add that we’ve not ever held an election in the middle of a pandemic that is escalating daily.


David Bond & John Hultgren: It’s beyond the typical forms of voter suppression, we also have the hijacking of the post office and…

Margaret Somers: Exactly… we just found out last night that Detroit—a city comprised almost entirely of Black voters—has been subjected to the most delayed mail in the country—in other words, their mailed absentee ballots are unlikely to arrive in time to be counted. In fact, almost every large Democratic city in every swing state has had their mail delayed by this Trump crony Postmaster. 

            …I can’t help but be very pessimistic. But I also can’t quite accept what I think is likely to happen. For example, many of us have been trying to figure out the puzzle of Trump’s campaign. All the pundits keep saying, “it’s almost like Trump’s trying to lose…all he does is feed red meat to the base. Why would he do that? Why wouldn’t he try to expand his electoral base?” But Timothy Snyder has an answer. He writes that in the “authoritarian playbook” it’s more important to incite the affective angry emotional level of your base supporters than it is to getting a thinner, wider but less fanatic base. And as we know, Trump has already acknowledged that he’s not going to win the election by getting the most votes, *but* he has announced that he’s not going to lose. How to resolve this contradiction?

            The reason he hasn’t been trying to extend his voting base is because he believes that more important than the number of votes he gets is the degree of rage and the commitment he has from his base supporters to have him win the presidency. He is treating the election like a planned coup, so his priority is to fortify the emotional valence of those who will be willing to do anything to keep him in power. Above all, that is going to entail massive violence.  


“He is treating the election like a planned coup, so his priority is to fortify the emotional valence of those who will be willing to do anything to keep him in power”

             Perhaps even more frightening is that this tells us something about the deeply fragile nature of the popular commitment to democracy–that so many of his supporters will vote for him in the context described above where he has outlined his planned coup indicates that they are participating knowingly in a scenario that will potentially end democracy as we know it. Thus Timothy Snyder… “It’s a vote for a future in which voting does not matter…a vote for Trump is to traduce the meaning of voting, which is a normal part of the transition to authoritarianism…”


John Hultgren: So stepping back from the election for a moment to think about how we got to this point… Your recent work has focused on explaining and critiquing the idea of market justice. Does market justice persist within an American Right increasingly defined by the ideological oddity that is Trumpism? To put it differently, how do you make sense of the relationship between the neoliberalism and the hypernationalism of the American Right?

Margaret Somers: Market justice, just like meritocracy, maintains its credibility by its claim to being nonpolitical, free of power, reflecting the pure neutralism of market rewards equaling the exact amount that was inputted in contributions—i.e. unequal wages simply reflect unequal work effort and lesser market value. That’s the theory of marginal productivity. The hatred for democracy stems from it being seen as a political force that disrupts and violates the neutrality of the supposedly nonpolitical unbiased processes of market justice. It “politicizes” the market in the interest of “special interests,” and so threatens market justice. (This is also the logic of hatred for affirmative action and for the conservative racism of “color-blindness”—it pretends to neutrality while it exercises the power of exclusion.)

            Market justice tells us that what the market spits out is by definition completely fair: The value that goes into the market is exactly what you get in return. The instrument that translates the theory of naturalized market justice into a social practice is the ascribing of “moral unworthiness” to those who lose out on market outcomes. There is a precise parallel between market justice and the dominating coercions of the alt-right. For the most energized enforcers of what I call the “tribunal of moral worth” are white supremacists…they define nonwhite people as “undeserving” and “unworthy” in equally naturalistic and biologized terms as that of market justice.

            If you look at my Guardian piece on how Malthus uses market naturalism to justify cruelty and exclusion, you can easily transpose what he applied to the “poor” onto race. In Malthusian terms, “Nature” decides who is economically worthy and not worthy. For white supremacists, Nature is translated into race in biological terms. So, it parallels exactly marginal productivity theory which says  – the famous quote – that “the distribution of income in society is controlled by a natural law, and this law if it works without friction would give to every agent of production the amount of wealth that that agent creates.” This readily converts into a tribunal of racial worth and unworth, in which social value is determined by ascribed—natural—racial identities .

            But the alt-right takes it one step further: It’s not merely that non-white people don’t contribute enough to be worthy of inclusion; they are also supposedly stealing from the worthy (white) people. They (unworthy and undeserving non-whites) are undeserving social parasites who are taking away white males’ naturally privileged place in the social hierarchy. The alt-right’s hatred toward liberals is driven by their belief that liberals are facilitating this theft by the unworthy, which in turn generates a culture of enraged aggrievement of the entitled convinced they have been wronged. This is why they love Trump for his casual cruelty…Trump is saying for them what they felt they weren’t allowed to say for too long. They thrill at his sadistic transgressions of “political correctness,” especially against women and people of color.

            For plutocrats, the currency of worth and unworthiness is defined by marginal productivity; for white supremacists, the currency is race. It’s very convenient that these two systems of evaluation converge on the same people: Immigrants, women, and people of color.


David Bond: From Clinton’s welfare reform to Obamacare and “cap and trade,” the Democratic Party has long toyed with its own versions of market justice (and, to a lesser extent, social naturalism). To what extent has the liberal embrace of a “free-market” logic contributed to the predicament in which we currently find ourselves? Do you see signs that Biden/Harris are willing to shift to something resembling a social democratic taming of the market? 

Margaret Somers: Let’s start with the most damning evidence that confirms how the Democrats participate in the policing of market justice and accept the social naturalism on which it’s based. Consider that the most dramatic rollback of the social state in 40 years of neoliberalism took place under Bill Clinton, the so-called 1996 Welfare Reform Bill, which was orchestrated entirely through Malthusian discourse of both social naturalism and the perversity thesis: Namely, that relief of poverty to the poor has the perverse consequence of disincentivizing them to work. Why? Because of the foundational biologization of working people, which reduces them to their bodily instincts of “thinking through the body”—Work when hungry; hibernate when full. In this biologized naturalistic world, removing scarcity by providing social provisioning to the needy is what causes poverty in the first place; it frees workers from taking personal responsibility by removing the scourge of hunger.

            In Piketty’s new book, Capital and Ideology, he documents extensively the degree to which the social democratic embrace of neoliberalism, especially their embrace of austerity, in Europe and the U.S. contributed enormously to the extreme increase in inequality. Their unwavering commitment to globalization led to today’s alliance of what he calls hypercapitalism with ethnonativism—a term that captures those who were left behind by neoliberal policies who have now turned to right-wing populism.

            Lest anyone think I’m exaggerating when I say that the Democrats (and Labour) believe in market justice and social naturalism, consider Clinton’s view of globalization: “[It is] the economic equivalent of a force of nature, like wind or water.” As Tony Blair declared defending his policies in the globalization debate: “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.”

            Now, to be fair, let’s stand back a minute and take a Polanyian look at the situation and we see that these were not merely perverse choices of wannabe Conservatives—these were/are social democrats trying to navigate the shoals of the basic incompatibility of capitalism and democracy, and face resistance to the “intrusion” of the democratic populace into the supposedly private sphere of the economy. Polanyi reminds us that when faced with a choice between supporting democratic socio-economic reform on the one side, and authoritarian protection of capital on the other, economic elites and global capital have almost always chosen the latter. As he reflected on the collapse of civilization in the 1930s: “[T]he victory of fascism was made practically unavoidable by the [market utopians’] obstruction of any reform involving planning, regulation, or control” (Polanyi 2001, 265). It couldn’t be more clear: Protecting capital against democracy is the historical norm.

            Polanyi’s analysis helps explain why the American Republican Party, as the primary carrier of neoliberalism, so determinedly protects, enables, and advances Trump’s authoritarianism. The more that Democrats move in a progressive direction with social democratic goals at the top of their platform, the more we witness the Republicans’ embrace of Trump’s strong state, weak democracy project—authoritarianism, in short.

            As for Biden and Harris…how far they can go in the direction of socioeconomic reform will depend on how far capital will let them go before threatening to pick up their marbles and go elsewhere in capital flight. They will also be impeded by the rage that Trump (even if no longer in office) will continue to foment among his supporters with his faux populist discourse. Above all, they will have to contend with the American institutional structure of de-democratization –the severely undemocratic Senate, the multiple veto points to suppress the “mobocracy,” the antidemocratic Electoral College, and the reigning juristocracy, which at this point is the most dangerous of all. In America, it is the judiciary that has the last word on how successful the plutocracy will continue to be, and lest we forget, the judiciary has been seized by the extreme right for generations to come.


John Hultgren: You end with a warning, echoing both Polanyi and Luxemburg, that the future will be one of either democratic socialism or fascism. Which path do you think we’re heading down? From a Polanyian perspective, do you see cause for optimism?

Margaret Somers: At the macroeconomic level we are faced with the same conflict between capitalism and democracy. Polanyi explained 1930s Europe as both the apogee of their incompatibility and the nadir of the consequences: Capital’s commitment to the global Gold Standard crushed national democratic efforts to enact social reforms to protect against the extreme privations of market inequality and mass unemployment from the Depression. To ensure the forces of democracy were thoroughly tamed, global economic liberals turned to authoritarianism and fascism to achieve their ends. As Steve Klein (2019) has recently reminded us, Polanyi understood that the initial “antidemocratic virus” (Polanyi’s words) made it all too easy for capital to find succor with a movement committed to “a structure of society which would eliminate the very possibility of its reversion to Democracy.” That should haunt us today.

            At the same time, Polanyi made clear that fascism was a contingency, not an inevitability. He lays out what is necessary for democratic forces to subordinate the deceits of market justice to an egalitarian and just society built on individual and social rights and freedoms. These are the necessary steps to achieve democratic socialism, which Polanyi defines as “transcend[ing] the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society.” They include first and foremost, the decommodification of humans, of nature, and of money, which entails taking out of the market the fictitious commodity of “labor.” Some of this can be facilitated by fighting for newly constitutionalized socio-economic rights, and some even by redistributive policies of the social state. But above all it requires tearing open the hidden world of predistributive market power. (Incidentally, in the context of the American failure to contain Covid19, it would require, as Fred [Block] and I recently wrote on Polanyi and Covid19, decommodifying the necessities of the democratic public good of public health.) Following Polanyi again, much of this is going to depend on the strength of the progressive left, and on the willingness of Democrats to make alliances with the left. That will demand that Democrats be willing to fight for power and democracy as a substantive goal.

            In closing, as I wrote at end of my article on the “Moral Economy of the Capitalist Crowd”:

“Because Polanyi’s was as much a normative project for a just moral economy as it was historical analysis, his alerting us to the seductive dangers of [market] utopianism is as relevant today as it was in the 1930s…[It] is a precondition to fashioning a democratic rather than an authoritarian response to the cruelties of market utopianism.”


Margaret Somers

Professor Emerita of Sociology and History, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Political Economy, Social Theory, Comparative Historical Sociology

David Bond

Associate Director of CAPA (Center for the Advancement of Public Action) in Bennington College, Vermont, USA

John Hultgren

Faculty of Society, Culture & Thought and Faculty of Environmental Studies, Bennington College Vermont, USA

More on the US: 

Online-Discussion with Fred Block, Margaret R. Somers, and Robert Kuttner. Organized by the Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy (Montreal).
Gareth Dale on Degrowth and the US-Elections, interviewed by John Hultgren and David Bond. October, 2020.
David Bond and John Hultgren on the importance of Polanyi’s work in the US. 30th of June.